Why Can A Narcissistic Abuse Cycle Go Unnoticed?

Did you know that you can be in a narcissistic abuse cycle without even being aware of it?

So you can be in a relationship with someone – someone you love and trust – but they’re actually abusing you.

I only know this because I lived it myself.

The thing with narcissistic abuse cycles, is that they often operate in the shadows. They’re cleverly disguised beneath the surface of seemingly ‘normal’ interactions.

But they’re far from normal; they’re abusive. And they go unnoticed because we’re not aware of what to look out for.

So that’s exactly what Im going to share with you now. I’ll help you understand it so hopefully you can do something about it.

How the heck did I realise I was in a narcissistic abuse cycle?

Well, unlucky for me, I wasn’t aware of it until months after the relationship was over. Better late than never, eh!

It had all ended quite suddenly, by text and the day before our holiday to Bali. So it was quite a brutal end to accept. And for months after I was fucking lost and confused!

I kept running over and over the details and I just didn’t get any of it. And I didn’t understand why I couldn’t just move past it and get over him.

And for some reason, there was always this underlying hope within me. I hope he’d change his mind and that we’d get back together someday.

But that hope soon left me when my friend mentioned she thought my ex was a narcissist. That was when the penny dropped and everything changed for me.

You see narcissists are shit at conventional relationships. So they spice them up with control techniques instead. They want the relationship to work for them and they’re not bothered about you.

So when your relationship feels chaotic and like you’re never happy for long. Or you’re always apprehensive something bad’s going to happen – that’s the cycle at work.

But, until you learn about it, you probably won’t notice it. You’ll just assume your dynamic is fiery.

How can you be unaware you’re living in a narcissistic abuse cycle?

You’re unaware because the relationship isn’t always bad. It floats between bouts of happiness and extreme lows. But the lows seep in so subtly that you don’t pick up on the signs. And that’s how the narcissistic abuse cycle can go undetected for such a long time.

But when you know there’s a pattern to look out for, you see it. Like my relationship, when I was processing it all, I wrote out a timeline so I could see the cycles at play. And that’s how I recognised that all the bad times in my relationship, followed the good times.

So when I remembered the romantic gestures, I also saw the silent treatment that came before it. Having the language and the timeline basically gave me subtext to what had been going on.

And that gave me so much clarity. Because before it was a breakup with no closure. But now I was getting the answers and understanding that my relationship wasn’t all my fault. There was so much more to it. And the worst part is, I totally missed all the red flags that are so obvious to me now.

But hey, you live and you learn, right? And I’ve learned a lot from it and now you will too. So let’s get stuck in!

What’s emotional abuse?

Emotional abuse is either overt and obvious, or covert and subtle. It consists of various psychological tactics such as:

  • manipulation,
  • isolation,
  • control and
  • criticism.

They all help to brainwash you.

It’s a series of behaviours that aim to destroy your self-esteem. And ultimately make you feel unworthy of love and dependent on your abuser.

It’s fucked up, I know.

What’s narcissistic abuse?

Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is a diagnosis. Ironically, the people who have it, would never go to a therapist to get diagnosed. So, it’s easier to view it as a personality style (Mel Robbins & Dr Ramani – PT.1).

And like with all personalities, we are who we are. So you’ll only change if you want to. But narcissists in particular, are stuck in their ways and often unchangeable. They also struggle with analysing their behaviour. Like, they would never walk away from an argument and reflect on what they said.

Whereas people like you and me, we’ll go home and self-obsess over what we should or shouldn’t have said.

Again, the abuse can be subtle and often unnoticed, but it can also be clear and direct.

Narcissists have a high sense of self-importance and they lack empathy for others. Although they can pretend to have empathy when needed. Despite appearing arrogant, at their core they have a fragile ego. And it needs constant approval and attention.

They feed off your emotions to get the admiration they desire. But they’ll also gaslight and use other manipulative tactics to leech you of your self-esteem. And everything that they do helps make you vulnerable to their control.

Knowing they can rule your way of thinking thrills their toxic personalities. It gains them more superiority over you. Their goal is to have you meet their every need whilst being wholly reliant on them. Yikes!

What’s a cycle of emotional abuse?

Emotional abuse essentially follows a cycle known as an emotional abuse cycle. It’s a pattern of abuse that behaves in a recurrent nature. It can happen many times within a relationship, spanning days to weeks, months, and even years.

The cycle divides up into 4 phases:

  • tension builds up,
  • the abusive incident occurs, followed by
  • an act of reconciliation, and finally
  • the calming period (before the storm repeats again). 

The manipulative system designs to uphold a vision of a hopeful future. It helps explain why it can be such a struggle for you to leave the relationship. And why many suffer for so long. You’re desperate and optimistic things could improve if you hang on for just a bit longer…

What’s a narcissistic abuse cycle?

Similarly to emotional abuse cycles, a narcissistic abuse cycle rotates through four stages:

  • idealisation (honeymoon and love bombing period),
  • devalue (tension builds and you’re ‘punished’),
  • discard stage (you’re either disposed of or leave the relationship), and the
  • hoovering stage (they try to get you back).

Narcissists use hoovering as a means to charm you back in againIf they suck you back into the cycle, inevitably, it restarts and anticipates another incident to follow. 

And what it does, is it soothes you into believing that things have returned to “normal”. So, the abuser subtly reels you back in for another round by showering you in love and promising you a future together. But it’s only a deceptive facade to help reignite your hope that things have changed. It’s to get you to give them another chance by believing it’ll be better this time.

But as always, after the hoovering, devaluing behaviour resumes again. And what’s fresh in your memory at that point, is the loving behaviour you’ve just experienced. So it gets easier to rationalise their unexpected change of mood. You sort of think, “yeah they’re cold with me but they did just take me out on a romantic date”.

And the more times you experience this cycle of good and bad, the more you reinforce your attachment to them. 

Believing they’ll change, keeps you trapped in the narcissistic abuse cycle

The belief the abuser will change is what also keeps you trapped in the cycle. You yearn for their love and will do anything to get it back, and so you try harder to win back their affection.

Love bombing also helps to camouflage the narcissist’s devaluing behaviour. Because it impacts your decision making and induces rationalisation, making it increasingly harder for you to leave them.

You become accustomed to rationalising their behaviour. Thinking self-gaslighting thoughts like:

“I was probably overreacting and being too sensitive,”

“Things are mostly good between us; this was just a bad patch”.

And until you take radical action, the narcissistic abuse cycle will repeat again and again.

But understanding the cycle helps you identify the early signs of abuse. And could prevent it from happening to you.

What do the stages in a narcissistic abuse cycle look like?

Narcissistic abuse cycle: idealise, devalue, discard.
The above image, authored by Tanya Gaum, M.ED., M.A. & Barbara Herring, M.A., LMFT (March 2020), really helps to showcase the critical experiences involved in each stage of the narcissistic abuse cycle. It was vital to my overall understanding of emotional abuse cycles. https://www.tanyagaum.com/cycleofnarcissisticabuse

Ahh, the sweet phase of adoration; the first stage in the cycle

Love-bombing helps build an initial connection by inducing a foundation of love and trust in the relationship. It creates a memorable and passionate start to the relationship. And sets the benchmark for how incredible it can be — as long as you abide by their rules and don’t upset them.

The idealisation or the honeymoon phase

The seductive tactics of the abuser make them appear like the most loving and considerate person you’ve ever met. Like you’ve finally found your soulmate. The excitement of this person mesmerises you. You can’t believe how lucky you are to have found someone that’s so invested in your life. This gains your commitment to them and paints a picture of a prosperous future together.

I felt like the man of my dreams had whisked off my feet. I honestly thought I’d found the one. He confirmed it too, by declaring his love for me within weeks of meeting me. I loved how available he was; he wined and dined me and told me everything I wanted to hear. Then, after dating for a few months, we moved in together.

In the beginning, when they’re busy sweeping you off your feet, they’re getting to know you. They’re using this time to research you. They want to find out what makes you tick and what you’re good at.

They want to make you feel comfortable around them, praising your proudest attributes. Which determines later – in the devaluing stage – how to use those qualities against you. It enables them to spark doubt in your self-worth, competence or decision making. They learn all that stuff, so they can use it to their advantage.

The ‘high’ from the initial love bombing is a signifier for how good the relationship will be. But, your hope and belief it can return to blissful harmony are what keep you trapped in the cycle for so long. They use it to win you over and then control you.

What love-bombing looks like at a glance:

  • Gift giving 
  • Intense adoration
  • Mirroring your hopes and dreams
  • Progressing your relationship quickly
  • The feeling of meeting your soulmate
  • Constant praise
  • Put on a pedestal
  • Made to feel special and unique
  • Sexually seduced — the best sex you’ve ever had
  • Memorable dates
  • Connecting on a deep level — they want to know everything about you
  • Talking about a future together
  • Feeling attached and a strong sense of loyalty to them

Not long after, the devalue stage starts creeping into the relationship

After their big displays of love, you’ll gradually notice a change in their character. So when you’re finally comfortable in your relationship and devoted to them. That’s when you enter the devalue stage of the narcissistic abuse cycle.

You’ll notice increased tension as soon as you set boundaries with a narcissist. Or shatter their idealised image of you. This leads to their sabotaging behaviour, displaying a medley of abusive techniques like:

  • insults,
  • blaming,
  • gaslighting,
  • triangulation,
  • accusation and
  • silent treatment.

Narcissists dislike being made accountable. To divert the focus away from them, they’ll gaslight you. They’re incapable of apologising and accepting blame for any wrongdoings. This is why their guilt or victim playing is often just a performance. It’s a distracting technique used to draw out your empathetic nature and lure you into feeling sorry for them. Meanwhile, you’re bowing to their every need, sidetracked from the severity of the situation, and dismissing the bigger picture. 

Watch out for multiple abusive tactics in this phase

During the devalue phase, frequent gaslighting makes you more prone to abuse. Because you’re losing sight of reality and your sense of self-worth. 

Other manipulative tools, like, projection and accusation, keep you in line by self-regulating your behaviour. They’re used as a subtle way to control you. To make you constantly prove yourself, or look the other way, e.g. while they cheat on you. 

Accusing you of cheating is claiming you’re not trustworthy. So, you want to prove them wrong, show them how good you are. They preoccupy you with your own thoughts, thus removing them from the spotlight.

This also references them using what they learned about you in the love bombing phase. So, for example, you consider yourself trustworthy. But later, they weaponise it against you in the devalue phase.

Silent treatment is also dished out a lot in the devalue stage; it helps the abuser regain control over you. You can’t force someone to talk to you. And waiting for communication is a killer (especially when you don’t know how long the silence will last). 

Being ignored always made me anxious and paranoid about my behaviour. Like it gave me the sense I’d done something wrong. So, it fuelled me to work harder on the relationship. I’d try anything to recuperate his affection again.

The constant fear of scrutiny keeps you on edge. You’re behaving unnaturally to maintain the peace between you. Avoiding all possible conflicts and normalising any hard feelings you have. When you’re manipulated enough, you mistrust your reality versus the credibility of the abuser. The narcissist preys on your confusion to strengthen their conviction. And in turn, you further doubt your truth.

What devaluing looks like at a glance:

  • The feeling that something has changed
  • You see another side to them — they seem “off” with you
  • They disobey your boundaries 
  • Compliant behaviour to help win them over
  • Doubting yourself
  • A sense of walking on eggshells around them
  • You avoid conflict as much as possible. Because chaos unfolds when you don’t align with their expectations of you
  • Gaslighting
  • Ignored — given the silent treatment
  • Intermittent spells of love-bombing
  • They may criticise you and verbally abuse you
  • You feel isolated and disconnected from your support network
  • Withhold sex from you
  • Less communicative with you
  • You make excuses for them and begin to rationalise and normalise destructive behaviours 

The crushing discard stage: not necessarily the last you’ll see of them

The discard stage is the most obvious phase in the cycle. As the name suggests, you’re literally discarded from their life. Tossed aside like you meant nothing to them. When they feel bored or discontent with themselves, they may temporarily or permanently discard you. It can also happen unexpectedly and take you by surprise. Like my break-up — ditched over text, the day before our holiday, quite the surprise!

The devalue stage evolves into discarding, once the narcissist feels like they’re no longer getting what they need out of you. I.E., you’re no longer pandering to their every need. So, they resort to drastic measures. They find an emotional supply elsewhere and discard you in the process.

If you refuse to let a narcissist dominate you, they’ll lash out to defend their precious ego. Chaos unfolds as they try to assert their control. They’ll blame you for everything that led to the downfall in the relationship. And make you feel terrible in the process.

The dramatic climax of the cycle will fork off in the road and leave you with two deciding factors: 

  1. You’ve had enough and decide to leave the relationship or,
  2. You grovel and succumb to their every need to avoid them discarding you.

But, the discard stage is not always permanent. Because even if you decide to leave, you might find they’ll crawl back to you instead. Thus, repeating the cycle if you succumb to the narcissist’s hoovering tactics to get you back.

What discarding looks like at a glance:

  • Their cruel behaviour becomes more obvious/frequent.
  • Punished when you re-assert your independence from them.
  • Weaponises your strengths against you.
  • Unable to cope with separation —creates a sense of longing for them.
  • Inability to reason with them — they never see your side, and it’s impossible to discuss issues with them.
  • Lacking empathy when you’re upset with them.
  • They may play the victim when challenged.
  • Accusations — they may act like they don’t trust you, i.e. accuse you of cheating on them.
  • You constantly feel stressed and anxious.
  • They may disappear or break contact with you — silent treatment. 
  • Invalidate your feelings, make you feel crazy. 
  • Feel responsible for all the problems in your relationship. 
  • They can (unexpectedly) discard you, either temporarily or permanently.
  • Betrays you, either overtly or covertly.
  • You feel trapped – like you can’t live without them.

Hoovering – the methods they use to reel you back in

Hoovering typically leads on from the discard stage. It happens when the narcissist needs a refill of emotional supply. They’ll suck you back in with an array of manipulative tactics, like:

Positive reinforcement – feigning love to influence affection from you.

Or negative hoovering – preying on your guilt and vulnerable qualities.

Both aspects crossover different stages of the cycle. Positive hoovering will have more idealising tendencies (to entice you back in again). In contrast, negative hoovering will have more devaluing qualities. They’ll try keep you stuck in that stage for longer, i.e. guilting you to feel sorry for them and stick around longer.

Addiction continues the narcissistic abuse cycle

Their motive is to re-connect with you. Particularly if their alternative supply wasn’t in line with their expectations. Or if they are discontent with themselves.

Like an addict, they depend on you to replenish their self-esteem. They do this through asserting dominance over your behaviour. This helps them reap back power, admiration and validation – they’ll do anything to get their fix again.

But you’re equally addicted to them too. Even when they dump you and cause all sorts of havoc, the separation only makes you crave them more. The cycle acclimatises you to going back to them every time you feel bad. You’ve unconsciously learnt to see them as a fix for your suffering. So you’re addicted to the relationship pattern: the lows leading to highs.

When you’re addicted to something, your brain longs for the benefit of the substance, i.e. the love you once had from them. So when you keep “using,” i.e. keep going back to them. Your brain develops a reliance on getting them back to make you feel better again.

And like drugs, prolonged use of them will only make you feel worse in the long run. So the longer you’re exposed to your abuser, the more trauma you’ll endure and the harder it will become to leave.

What hoovering looks like at a glance:

  • Spells of love-bombing to get you to re-engage with them, i.e. extravagant gift-giving
  • Begging you back
  • Guilt-tripping you
  • Playing the victim to make you feel sorry for them
  • Faux-pologies
  • Crying
  • Random messages to spark conversation from you
  • Disregarding your request for space
  • Future-faking
  • Declaration of love, expressing they can’t live without you
  • Convincing you that they have changed
  • Reminding you of how great you were together
  • Making excuses to contact you, like your birthday
  • Not acknowledging the relationship ending, pretending everything is fine
Narcissistic abuse cycle: love-bombing, devaluing, discarding and hoovering.

Trauma bonding: a consequence of narcissistic abuse cycles

Have you ever noticed how tough it is to walk away from a relationship with a narcissist – even when it’s toxic? That’s because trauma bonds, form as a result of the cycle of narcissistic abuse. These bonds keep you hooked on the narcissist’s unpredictable mood swings. The love and rejection is like a never-ending cycle of reward and punishment. And that’s tough to break free from.

You learn to seek solace from the exact origin that caused you the misery in the first place. Bonded to the abuser and feeling stuck. But also fearing you can’t leave the relationship. You’ve become reliant on the perpetrator to make you feel better again.

I trauma bonded to my ex

I bonded to my abuser with promises of a fake future he depicted. It fuelled my endless hope that things would eventually improve. It wasn’t that difficult for me to establish a bond with someone who wasn’t always awful. Especially when he would become the source of my comfort after instilling the pain. Further fermenting the trauma bond I had with him.

I was oblivious to the abuse at the time because my ex would love bomb me after mistreating me. So it always distracted me from the real problem.

It’s embarrassing to admit, but plenty of people told me to ‘just leave him’. Of course, it’s never that simple or easy. I knew our relationship was very up and down, but I couldn’t see it’s toxicity, nor did I notice the cycle I kept repeating.

One of my lowest points was having a friend witness me crying on their sofa, in the foetal position. I was distraught after another incident, yet I couldn’t fathom explaining the undoing to them. Even worse, they never understood how he pulled me back in again. As a result, I spent most of my time confused, on edge, contradicting my beliefs and ignoring my gut.

The cycle you’re living in is “slowly brainwashing” you. And the more times it repeats, the stronger the trauma bond between you and them gets. 

The blurred lines of love and abuse disguise the mechanics of their manipulation. And so the pattern your relationship follows goes unnoticed. Instead, you become accustomed to the tumultuous nature.

The strong trauma bond you share with your abuser is confused with love, tying you to them for longer. The only way to break it is to be aware of the cycle you may be living in.

Final thoughts

I was never aware that my relationship had been a string of repetitive cycles. I knew it had been chaotic, but I didn’t understand the bigger picture.

Abusive techniques like gaslighting confuse your version of events. It makes you preoccupied with your own thoughts of doubting yourself. So you never register that you’re being manipulated. 

I recognised the narcissistic abuse when I found out what the gaslighting signified. When I pieced back all the incidents together bit by bit. I realised that the intricate events in my relationship were a constant decoy for my ex’s betrayal. He’d been cheating on me throughout the 2 and a half years we had been together.

The realisation was earth-shattering. It showed the illusions he’d created versus the reality of who he actually was.

I was shocked when I finally discovered the truth. I felt many things: shame, anger, deceived and violated — to name a few. But the worst feeling was like I had wasted my precious years on a man who only ever pretended to be honest. I couldn’t shake the thought that the last 2 and a half years of my life were just make-belief. So you’re not alone, I know how that betrayal feels.

“I felt like I had been in a relationship with a phoney”

It’s slightly impressive how long narcissists can fool you and keep up appearances. I would’ve bet money on my ex never cheating on me. But instead, he’d convinced me that he was loyal and that cheating was an unthinkable thing that he wouldn’t do.

It’s tough to identify emotional abuse early on. Because the genius of this system is that it makes itself invisible. So, that’s why it isn’t easy to “just leave” a toxic relationship.

There were many rock bottoms; I lost my dignity regularly just to be with him. Close friends hinted I should leave him. Others made me believe we were meant to be. I challenged him on many occasions and thought about breaking up with him, but I never actually did. He always manipulated me to stay and endure another cycle. 

But as soon as I had awareness of the abuse, I cut him out of my life for good. He dumped me one last time. But I never went back again. And I’ve had zero contact with him for over 5 years. Well done me!

Education is our best line of defence

The most concerning thing is the lack of awareness we have about narcissistic abuse. The nature of the relationships can even make you ill sometimes. But you become this pathetic junkie who survives on chasing intermittent doses of love. When things are good, they’re fucking amazing. But it’s always a temporary high. And before you know it, you’re back scrambling to keep the relationship together – desperate for the love you once had.

I try not to cringe when I look back at my textbook examples of narcissistic abuse. Instead, I try to view it as a lesson to help educate you. I want and need you to understand and ask questions about the cycle because education is our only line of defence. 

The more you begin to understand the fucked up system, the more you can understand its subtelty. I want people to put less onus on the victims in these relationships, realise that it’s not their fault. It can happen to anyone, it happened to me, it could happen to you, and it could happen to someone you know.

Speak out about what happened to you, don’t feel ashamed for what you went through. Turn your trauma into something positive. Teach and help others not make the same mistakes.

Education is power. Through sharing knowledge, you’ll spot these toxic predators early on and take preventative action.

Now you know about the narcissistic abuse cycle, I wonder if you recognised you’re living in one? Did you pull yourself out of it? Let me know in the comments below.

Read about how to break the cycle next.

4 thoughts on “Why Can A Narcissistic Abuse Cycle Go Unnoticed?”

  1. I have been in a narcissistic relationship for 7 years. I started to recognise the cycle of abuse about a year ago. I can tick all the boxes when it comes to my partner but I’m financially stuck as he controls everything to do with our finances. I even put him on the title of my property, which by law means he owns half my house.
    How many woman end up staying in these aweful, abusive situations because of lack of financial support. I always read about help for victims from NPD’s but when I have looked into it, there is no real help.
    Where to for me now, except back the way I came!

    1. I’m so sorry to hear about your situation, unfortunately, it’s all too common where women feel like they have no help or nowhere to go. You end up staying in these relationships, getting traumatised and feeling lost repeatedly. I know there are some great free places in the UK that offer legal advice to women in these situations. It takes strategic planning and forethought to get into a position where you feel like you can help yourself and if you want to talk about it or to vent, that’s what we’re here for. Always. You’re not alone in this by any means. Are you guys married?

  2. I’m a guy who’s been in a narcissistic marriage for quite some time now without even knowing it. My therapist spent a few sessions just listening to me describe my wife until she eventually told me that I was married to narcissist. The gaslighting and self-gaslighting is real. Even after they told me this I immediately started to blame myself. Nearly every word you’ve written describes my situation exactly. In a way it’s a relief to have an idea of what’s going on. But now I must start the process of figuring out what to do next. This is all so new to me…

    1. I’m so sorry to hear about your situation and thank you for sharing a bit about it. It’s a shock to take in and it’ll take some time to process it all. But you’re doing the right things to get there. It’s amazing to hear you’ve got the support of a therapist too, it massively helped me unpick it all and understand my situation. And even though you feel like it, I just want to highlight it again that abuse is never your fault. And you’ll see that eventually. I think it’s important to research it all, get a grasp of what happened. But you also don’t want to overwhelm yourself too much. So make sure you also take steps to look after yourself too. I don’t know if your a Reddit user, but this group is really helpful for research and support: https://www.reddit.com/r/NarcissisticAbuse/ I promise you’ll get through this, it just takes time and a lot of work, big hug x

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