10 Stages of a Narcissistic Relationship & How to Cope

What are the red flags of a narcissist?

Some of the most common habits of a narcissist are: grandiose self-importance, amplified need for attention and admiration, entitlement, unrealistic expectations, controlling behaviors, manipulation tactics, and lack of empathy.

Tianna Faye Soto, M.A., is a Puerto Rican, Jamaican-Chinese writer, editor, and wellness speaker based in New York City. She has a master’s degree in Clinical Psychology in Education from Columbia University, where she received specialized training at the Spirituality Mind Body Institute. She is also certified in yoga, meditation, and Reiki levels I & II.
ASSECT-certified sex therapist
Chamin Ajjan, LCSW, A-CBT, CST, is a licensed clinical social worker, psychotherapist, and AASECT-certified sex therapist based in Brooklyn, NY.
If you’ve ever dealt with a narcissist before—whether at home, work, in a romantic relationship, or otherwise—you know how overwhelming it can be. The person doesn’t seem to care about anyone else’s needs but their own. Maybe they have a huge ego that you can’t stand, or maybe one day, they’re super sweet and charming, but another day, they’re putting you down. Sound familiar?

No matter what their specific behaviors look like, being in a relationship with a narcissist can be harmful and hurtful—and, in the extreme, a narcissistic relationship pattern can have intense emotional, psychological, and physical effects.

Here’s how to recognize a narcissistic relationship pattern, tips for dealing with a narcissist, and how to move toward healing, according to therapists.

What is the narcissistic relationship pattern? 

Narcissism describes a specific pattern of behavior marked by inflated self-worth, an excessive need for admiration, and a lack of empathy, says clinical psychologist Annia Raja, Ph.D. According to the American Psychological Association, people with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) tend to feel a sense of entitlement and often take advantage of others, which can make it tough to maintain relationships.

Narcissists often have unreasonable expectations of others, center their own experience above everyone else’s, and exhibit controlling behaviors in relationships. “Narcissists may use subtle manipulation tactics to influence people and situations to their advantage—this can include things like passive-aggressive behavior, playing the victim, or subtly undermining others to maintain control or bolster their self-esteem,” Raja tells mbg. They may also expect others to cater to them on a whim, refuse to take accountability for their actions, and get jealous or competitive with others.

Although all relationships look different, narcissistic relationship patterns tend to be unhealthy and unbalanced. “Narcissists tend to be exploitative, often forming relationships based on what they can gain from them, rather than genuine emotional connection,” Raja explains. “They might strategically choose romantic partners, friends, or colleagues who can provide them with status, wealth, or connections. And once someone no longer serves a purpose to them, they will often denigrate or discard them.”

Narcissists can also be highly charismatic, which can make it easy to fall for them—both romantically and platonically. “However, this charm is usually short-lived, and once they think they’ve secured someone’s admiration or loyalty, their true colors start to emerge,” Raja says. This dynamic can cause a variety of challenges and even narcissistic abuse

Here are the most common stages of what’s known as the narcissistic abuse cycle:

  • Idealization Stage: In the idealization stage, the narcissist quickly connects with you, makes you feel unique, and may even put you on a pedestal. This stage is characterized by appreciation and love-bombing and may feel sudden and intense.
  • Devaluation Stage: In this stage, the narcissist slowly starts making you feel insecure and devalued through criticism, passive-aggressiveness, backhanded compliments, stonewalling, comparison to others, mind games, and more.
  • Repetition Stage: In this stage, the cycle of idealization and devaluation will repeat again—the person may be super nice to you and shower you with compliments before starting to devalue you.
  • Discard Stage: In this stage, a narcissist may reject you or suddenly decide they no longer have use for the relationship, and abruptly end it. They may also gaslight you, express anger that doesn’t make sense, or use other harmful tactics (like hoovering) to maintain control over you.

This harmful, exploitative cycle stems from the fact that narcissists can get bored easily with romantic partners. A 2017 study1 published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that although people with NPD are successful with short-term relationships, they struggle with long-term commitments due to their tendency to belittle others in an effort to protect their own sense of self.

Summary

Narcissists often exhibit controlling behavior in relationships to satisfy their need for validation. The most common narcissistic relationship pattern involves the person with narcissistic traits first idealizing their partner to lure them in, then devaluing them, and then repeating the cycle over again before discarding them.

10 signs of a narcissistic relationship pattern

1.

They have trouble empathizing with you.

One of the defining characteristics of narcissism is the inability to have genuine empathy for people. “[Narcissists] often struggle to recognize or care about the feelings and needs of others,” Raja tells mbg. “At most, some narcissists may be capable of exhibiting intellectual empathy, which is the ability to understand or recognize someone else’s emotions at a cerebral level. However, true empathy is almost always lacking—the emotional ability to genuinely connect and share in someone else’s emotional experience.”

2.

They are hyper-sensitive to criticism (and react poorly to it).

According to Raja, narcissists are often defensive in relationships in an effort to maintain their self-image and protect their ego. “Narcissists are highly sensitive to criticism, and they tend to react with intense anger or defensiveness when they feel attacked or threatened,” Raja says. “They may even engage in personal attacks to deflect away the criticism.” Other narcissists may victimize themselves to elicit sympathy and validation, she adds.

3.

They tend to get angry easily or have extreme emotions.

“Narcissists usually have difficulties with emotional regulation [and] struggle with managing their emotions, particularly when their self-image is threatened,” Raja tells mbg. “This can lead to intense emotional reactions such as anger outbursts, mood swings, or even bouts of depression and anxiety.”

If your partner lashes out at you often or gets highly defensive, combative, or even withdrawn (think: “cold shoulder”) in the relationship, this may be a warning sign of a narcissistic relationship pattern.

4.

They constantly criticize you or become accusatory out of nowhere.

According to Raja, someone with narcissistic traits may project their insecurities onto you by using shame or guilt tactics. “Narcissists might accuse others of the very traits or behaviors that they themselves have as a way to deflect attention from their own flaws,” she explains. “For example, they might accuse someone of being selfish or inconsiderate when they themselves are acting that way.”

5.

They seem magnetic and charming, but are also manipulative.

Narcissists can appear attractive, magnetic, and charismatic to everyone they encounter—but usually, they have a darker side that others may or may not witness or experience right away. “They might engage in flattering conversation, maintain strong eye contact, or tell engaging stories,” Raja says.

If your partner has a positive, warm exterior but has a tendency to be controlling, subtly manipulative, or intense behind closed doors, this could be a dark sign of narcissistic tendencies.

6.

They violate your boundaries.

“In a narcissistic relationship, the narcissist may have difficulty respecting their partner’s boundaries, both emotional and physical,” Raja tells mbg. “They might make unreasonable demands, invade their partner’s privacy, or pressure them into uncomfortable situations.”

This can look like controlling your communications with others, pressuring you to make financial decisions for them, or even coercing you into sexual behaviors.

7.

They isolate you from your family, friends, and support systems.

If your partner tries to draw you away from loved ones, it’s a relationship red flag where narcissism may be at play. “A narcissist may subtly or overtly encourage their partner to distance themselves from friends and family, fostering a sense of dependence on the relationship,” Raja says. “This can make it harder for the partner to seek outside support or perspective when facing challenges within the relationship.”

8.

Conflict is heated and they aren’t open to compromise.

Healthy conflict management is key in relationships, but with narcissists, it can be a major challenge. “Narcissists often struggle to reach a compromise in disagreements, as they may view it as a sign of weakness or submission,” Raja explains. “This can lead to conflicts that escalate, rather than being resolved through healthy communication and negotiation.”

9.

They seem cold or emotionally unavailable.

Vulnerability in relationships isn’t always easy, but for narcissists, emotional availability can seem shaky or nonexistent altogether. “Narcissists often struggle to provide the emotional support and empathy their partners need. They may be dismissive of their partner’s feelings or needs, focusing primarily on their own well-being and satisfaction,” Raja tells mbg. “This lack of emotional reciprocity can leave the partner feeling lonely and unfulfilled in the relationship.”

10.

The relationship feels confusing, unstable, or untrustworthy.

No relationship is perfect, but if your partner makes you feel confused, insecure, or you’re constantly afraid to upset them, it could be a sign you’re dealing with a narcissist. “Narcissists may alternate between affectionate and dismissive behavior, creating a cycle of ‘push and pull’ in the relationship,” Raja says.

You may also experience gaslighting, a psychological manipulation tactic that makes you question or doubt your reality. “The partner may begin to doubt their own feelings or perceptions, leading to a diminished sense of self-worth and increased dependency on the narcissist for validation and support,” Raja explains.

The impact of being in a relationship with a narcissist

According to Jaime Zuckerman, Psy.D., a licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in helping clients identify and heal from narcissistic abuse, being with a narcissist can have long-term mental, emotional, and physical effects. “Narcissistic abuse has devastating consequences on one’s sense of self, confidence, and even sense of reality,” she tells mbg. “Narcissist abuse can take the form of not only emotional and mental abuse, but also physical, sexual, and financial.”

Dealing with a narcissist can also be downright draining. “Narcissists engage in what is called ‘breadcrumbing’—giving you glimmers of healthy, loving behaviors, just long enough to keep you holding onto hope for real change,” Zuckerman explains. However, the flip-flopping between love bombing and manipulation can be destabilizing. “This feeling of this person being a total stranger can be extremely unnerving,” she says. “It makes people question whether the entire relationship was a fraud.”

According to Zuckerman, the experience can leave “long-lasting psychological scars” that make it difficult to cope and move forward—even after you’ve ended the relationship. “Post-separation abuse can be equally, if not more, difficult to manage,” she says. “Many of my former patients will say they feel like a shell over their former selves. They feel as their identity has been slowly stripped over the years.”

How to break the narcissistic relationship pattern

If you’ve determined you’re in a relationship with a narcissist, you may want to take steps to heal the toxic relationship—or, you may opt to end it altogether, which can be intimidating. “On average, it takes approximately seven times to leave for good,” Zuckerman says. “It is a process…and a difficult one.”

If you decide to go this route, she recommends having a safety plan in place beforehand. “Get your affairs in order to develop an exit strategy,” she says. This may include organizing your finances, finding supportive friends, figuring out a place to stay, and consulting a therapist or attorney, if needed

If there are children involved in your relationship and you have to stay in touch, Zuckerman suggests documenting communications in writing and using concise, factual language—because, unfortunately, a narcissistic partner will likely make the breakup a long, emotionally-charged experience.

The decision to leave or stay with a narcissistic partner is challenging and personal, and only you know what works best for you. No matter what you decide, here’s how to start the recovery process and rebuild your self-esteem:

Recognize that you are not to blame.

Because narcissists are skilled at making others feel small, you may struggle with guilt, shame, or confusion about the relationship. However, you are not to blame, and this person’s behavior is not a sign of your worth. “None of this is your fault!” Zuckerman emphasizes. Take a deep breath and know that there is a way forward.

Take some time to reflect and re-establish self-trust.

“Rebuilding trust in your own intuition and judgment is essential after experiencing gaslighting or manipulation,” Raja says. “Take time to reflect on past experiences, recognizing instances where your intuition was accurate, and affirming your ability to make sound decisions.” This can give you a sense of self-confidence and remind you that you’re capable of healing.

“After experiencing boundary violations in a narcissistic relationship, it’s crucial to reestablish and enforce your personal boundaries,” Raja says. “This might include setting limits on communication with the narcissist, protecting your privacy, and asserting your needs and preferences in other relationships.” Getting comfortable asserting boundaries after a narcissistic relationship can take a while, so be patient with yourself.

Build up your support system.

When healing from a narcissistic relationship pattern, it’s important to find trustworthy people who can help. “Isolation from friends and family can be a lasting impact of a narcissistic relationship,” Raja tells mbg. “Forging new connections can help counteract feelings of loneliness and provide a sense of belonging and emotional support.”

When you start to doubt yourself, Raja says to engage in “reality testing”—aka consulting trusted family and friends to “test out” and validate your perceptions. “This can help counteract the lingering effects of gaslighting and rebuild trust in your judgment,” she says.

Start practicing healthy communication skills.

Over time, you may have conditioned yourself to speak up less to keep your partner happy and stable. But to effectively move forward, self-expression is crucial. “Develop your assertiveness skills to communicate your needs and boundaries more effectively,” Raja recommends. “This can help foster more balanced and respectful relationships and reduce the likelihood of falling into unhealthy dynamics [in the future].”

Whether you want to work things out with your partner or initiate a breakup, dealing with a narcissistic person can feel isolating and sometimes dangerous. Having the support of a therapist can help.

Working with a therapist who has experience in helping people recover from narcissistic relationships can provide valuable guidance, support, and insight throughout the healing process,” Raja says. “Therapy can help you process your experiences, identify and change unhelpful patterns, and develop the necessary skills to build healthier relationships in the future.”

Be patient with the process.

“Recovery from narcissistic abuse can be a complex and lengthy journey,” Raja says. “Give yourself time and space to heal, be patient with yourself, and don’t pressure yourself to ‘bounce back’ quickly or meet specific milestones in your recovery. Remember that healing is an individual and nonlinear process.”

What to expect when breaking up with a narcissist

A narcissistic partner might dump you out of nowhere after they realize they no longer have a need for you—and in other cases, dating them may feel like an unsettling back-and-forth journey that makes you want to end the relationship.

When breaking up with a narcissist, remember that they are adept at manipulation tactics—so it’s even more important to hold your ground. “They may promise to change and pretend to do so long enough to convince you of that, but it will be short-lived,” Zuckerman says. During the breakup, they may insult, belittle, tease, or try to activate your emotions in a way that makes it difficult to have a healthy conversation. “Do NOT attempt to defend their character assassination of you. This is what they want,” Zuckerman says.

Although it’s often easier said than done, Zuckerman recommends staying as calm as you can when communicating with the narcissistic partner to avoid escalation. “Despite how angry you may feel inside, you want your behaviors and tone of voice to be as neutral and indifferent as possible,” she says. If you’re breaking up in person, you may also want to consider meeting in a public place where others are present. Your safety is paramount.

The takeaway

Being in a relationship with a narcissist can be an exhausting, unnerving experience that constantly leaves you doubting yourself and questioning your reality. However, getting out of an abusive cycle is a big process, and recognizing that narcissism is impacting your relationship is a monumental first step.

“Breaking the abuse cycle involves identifying the very predictable blueprint of their behaviors,” Zuckerman says. This process alone, she says, can be empowering and remind you that you’re in control of your future. To start unpacking the relationship and finding a path to healing—whatever that means for you—Zuckerman suggests finding a qualified therapist who understands the nuance of narcissistic relationships and abuse.

If you’re feeling discouraged about the future, Raja says there is hope. “Reflecting on your experiences in a narcissistic relationship can provide valuable insights for future relationships,” Raja says. “Identify patterns, recognize red flags, and consider how you might approach similar situations differently to foster healthier, more fulfilling connections.”

Whatever you decide, know that you are not alone and there’s a path forward—even if it feels far away right now. You deserve to feel safe, cared for, and loved.