Uncovering and Intervening in the Narcissistic Abuse Cycle By Christine Hammond, LMHC on 1/3/19 - 2:15 PM

“You’re an #@^ liar! I can’t believe I married such an insecure person! I deserve better,” my client, Jared, stood up screaming at his spouse Margret after she confronted him. Then, Jared stormed out of session only to return a few minutes prior to the end of our time.

“Well, have you learned?” he sarcastically asked Margret. “Did she tell you how wrong you were and how you hurt my feelings?” Much to my surprise, Margret apologized to Jared. Then he sat down and gave me a look like the cat who ate the canary.

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They left much as they came in. Nothing that was discussed with Margret in Jared’s absence seemed to have sunk in. He still was dominating, manipulative and controlling. She was passive, voiceless and exhausted. Our hour seemed wasted. What did I witness? It felt all too familiar since narcissism was the crazy glue that held my own family tree together.

That moment was a turning point for me both personally and professionally. It changed how I dealt with my family and, more importantly, opened up a career opportunity. I now specialize in personality disorders with a heavy concentration on narcissistic, borderline and antisocial individuals and their partners. Jared and Margaret are my typical clients.

So, what did I observe?

The typical cycle of abuse is comprised of tension building, acting-out, reconciliation/honeymoon, followed by a period of calm before the cycle begins again. However, when the abuser is also a narcissist, this downward spiral looks different. True to their personality style, the narcissist is compelled to up the ante.

Narcissism changes the back end of the cycle because the narcissist, perpetually self-centered, is unwilling or perhaps incapable of admitting fault. Their need to be superior, correct and/or in charge limits the possibility of any genuine reconciliation. Instead, it is frequently the abused partner who desperately utilizes apology and appeasement while the narcissist switches into the role of victim. This switchback tactic emboldens the narcissist’s behavior even more, further convincing them of their faultlessness. Any threat to their authority repeats the cycle.

This describes what I have now witnessed hundreds of times. By teaching my non-narcissistic clients this cycle, they are better able to stop it and have greater control of the downward spiral.

Here are the stages in the narcissist’s cycle of abuse I have witnessed in my practice:

Feels Threatened. An upsetting event occurs in which the narcissist feels threatened. It could be the rejection of sex, disapproval at work, embarrassment in a social setting, jealousy of another’s success or feelings of abandonment, neglect, or disrespect. The abused partner, aware of the potential threat, becomes nervous. They know something is about to happen and begin to walk on eggshells around the narcissist. Most narcissists repeatedly get upset over the same underlying issue whether it is real or imagined. They also tend to obsess over any perceived threat.

Abuses Others. The narcissist engages in some sort of abusive behavior which can be physical, mental, verbal, sexual, financial, spiritual or emotional. The abuse is customized to intimidate the abused partner in an area of weakness, especially if that area is one of strength for the narcissist. The abuse can last for a few minutes or as long as several hours.

Becomes the Victim. This is when the switchback occurs. The narcissist uses the abused partner’s reactive behavior as further evidence that they themselves are the ones being abused. The narcissist believes their referential victimization by bringing up past defensive behaviors perpetrated by the abused partner—as if it were the cause of the conflict. Because the abused partner has feelings of remorse and guilt, they accept this warped perception and try to rescue the narcissist. This might include giving in to what the narcissist wants, accepting unnecessary responsibility, placating the narcissist to keep the peace and/or acting as if the narcissist’s lies are the truth.

Feels Empowered. Once the abused partner has given in or up, the narcissist once again feels empowered. This is all the justification the narcissist needs to prove that they were right in the first place. The abused has unknowingly stoked the narcissist’s already fiery ego. But every narcissist has an Achilles heel and the power they have temporarily re-claimed only lasts until the next threat.

Once the narcissistic cycle of abuse is understood by the abused partner, the therapist can intervene at any point. This may include developing strategies for future confrontations, understanding how much abuse the recipient is willing and able to tolerate in the relationship, or developing an escape plan. The next time Jared exploded, Margaret immediately defused the situation through the use of diversion which stopped the cycle—at least for that moment.

Recognizing and effectively intervening around the narcissistic elements of the cycle of abuse changed my practice. I transitioned from mismanaging conflict to de-escalating the tension while maintaining complete control. Couples embroiled in the cycle of narcissism benefitted in that some could remain together while others could not. Empowerment is as important for therapists as it is for the clients, particularly the ones caught up in this cycle. 

File under: The Art of Psychotherapy, Couples Therapy