What is narcissistic abuse in relationships?

Narcissistic abuse in relationships is a serious issue as the consequences of such abuse are extremely damaging to your mental and/or physical health. It’s very…


Narcissistic abuse in relationships is a serious issue as the consequences of such abuse are extremely damaging to your mental and/or physical health. It’s very important to learn precisely what the cycle of narcissistic abuse in relationships is to protect yourself.

Learning the narcissistic abuse cycle will help as it is often highly confusing to be dating, or married, to a narcissist. Sometimes, it may seem like you are going “crazy” or are “trapped” as some of my clients have said.

It’s not your fault if you’re confused

If you ever find yourself questioning if your relationship is abusive or just needs work, please know this makes sense. By their very nature, a narcissist is highly skilled at confusing their partner.

A narcissist is often charming. They may frequently say the perfect, magical words when they upset you. A narcissist will promise you everything you have always wanted. They may even seem like they are changing for the better for a while but sooner or later, they go right back to their old hurtful habits.

Or the narcissist will gaslight you by blaming you for all the problems. Often at different times they will both charm you and demean you through gaslighting and direct verbal abuse.

The narcissist’s charm and gaslighting can make it difficult to determine whether he is truly unredeemable.

Wendy T. Behary, Disarming the Narcissist

Questioning who your partner is

A good sign that you are in a relationship with a narcissist is if you often find yourself wondering who the “real” version of them is. This becomes almost like a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde situation.

When you find yourself constantly questioning if the kind version of him or the cruel version is the “real” person, you will likely find yourself stuck. This is not an accident. It’s a byproduct of how a relationship with a narcissist frequently begins.

How narcissistic abuse begins in a relationship

The narcissistic abuse cycle begins with a lot of intensity and love bombing is a common feature of this new relationship. Love bombing is when a person in the early stages of dating showers you with attention, compliments, and gifts.

This is a strategy employed by emotionally abusive partners to ultimately control the other person. The love bombing ensures that when they begin to abuse you may it be emotionally, verbally, physically, and/or sexually, you feel loyal and committed to them.

Love bombing is a gaslighting tactic. Gaslighting, as you may know, is when a person manipulates another person’s reality to leave them feeling confused and lacking in self-trust.

Related: What is love bombing in dating?

Confusing you into staying with an abusive partner

When a person has showered you with so much “love” and attention but then is later abusive, the victim of the abuse believes that the “real person” was the loving one they met. They believe they must stay committed to this person until they return to their “true” loving self.

Often, the partner of the narcissist also falsely believes that if they are “good” enough, their partner will magically become kind and loving again.

The narcissist’s charm is an enticing lure. It’s also an effective tool for keeping you from examining the potential costs of the relationship until you’re hooked.

Wendy T. Behary, LCSW, Disarming the Narcissist

The narcissist will prey on an empathic person with low self-esteem

A codependent person is an especially attractive potential partner to the narcissist. This is because the symptoms of codependency make it more likely that the narcissist will be able to secure a place in the codependent’s life through love bombing.

Related: The meaning of codependency and how to find healing

Some of these codependent symptoms which make them an attractive partner to a narcissist include the need to people please, a lack of self-awareness and self-worth as well as issues with reality. People with codependency often highly empathize with their partners as well.

Related: 5 Ways Low Self-Esteem Impacts Your Dating Life

Narcissistic abuse and codependency

The codependent person’s issues with reality, low self-esteem, and tendency to empathize for others more than themselves allow the narcissist to more effectively gaslight the codependent partner. Their poor boundaries make them more attractive to the narcissist as well.

When love bombing, the narcissist is trying to become the most important person in the other person’s life. A person with healthy boundaries may be able to balance this attention without prematurely prioritizing this other person. A person with codependency cannot do this though.

Related: How to set healthy boundaries in a relationship

Getting trapped in an abusive relationship with a narcissist

In the beginning, the narcissist is charming and attentive. These qualities fade over time but their partners find themselves “stuck” with a person who is non-committal, psychologically controlling, and uses games. The codependent partner will then focus on trying to get the narcissist to change back to the “real” person they met.

When the narcissist in your life is critical or withholding, you work tirelessly to be the perfect friend, spouse, coworker or sibling.

Wendy T. Behary, Disarming the Narcissist

In codependency, a person often prioritizes an idealized version of their partner over reality. This fantasy creates a thought process for the codependent person that if they just work harder, or find the “perfect” thing to say, the narcissistic person will be happy again and turn back to the kind person they met.

Related: Tips for codependency recovery

Staying out of duty

Complicating the choice to stay in this abusive relationship is how people with codependency are often attracted to people with “problematic psychological issues” (Bacon et. al, 2018).

They also feel imprisoned by these relationships not only by the abuse tactics of the narcissist but out of a sense of duty to their partner. One participant in the study by Bacon et. al, reported he would stay in his unhealthy relationship “no matter what, like a marine, umm…It’s my duty, God gave me this!”

Codependent partners often report a sense they can handle the distress while their partner couldn’t manage without them.

False responsibility and no accountability

While a codependent person may take on a false sense of responsibility. The narcissist will often refuse any responsibility. When the narcissist is abusive, they will not take accountability and often have excuses for their behavior.

A narcissistic partner will gaslight their partner into believing that they are responsible for the narcissist’s abusive behavior or the partner’s concern. For example, if the partner is concerned about the narcissistic partner’s porn addiction, they may say their partner is just a “prude” who needs help.

Broken promises will be made by the narcissist

Alternately, when confronted about abuse, a narcissistic partner may be very charming. They may promise to never hurt their partner again and to completely change.

The narcissist’s charm and wit can be very hypnotizing, encouraging forgiveness even if he’s out of line. You’re drawn to this person because he is attractive in many ways.

Wendy T. Behary, Disarming the Narcissist

Codependent partners often report being confused by this pattern as the change never lasts for long as the partner says exactly the right words. Complicating this, people with codependency often have a pattern of prioritizing words over actions.

The narcissist will keep hurting you

This pattern of abuse by the narcissist being forgiven may repeat indefinitely.

A person with codependency will often feel powerless and confused on what to do. You may believe you have spoken up for yourself, but you may have done so without expressing clear needs or limits. Or, if you do set boundaries, you may not have yet followed up on the consequences for violating these boundaries.

Codependent partners also tend to overly empathize with their narcissistic partners perceived pain when they are hurtful, abusive, or withdrawn. They may move into the role of wanting to be their partner’s therapist to help heal them. They may feel they are betraying their partner if they want to leave.

Lack of intimacy with a narcissist

The person with codependency will have a pattern of stuffing, ignoring or denying their needs. This lack of emotional intimacy may be done to not upset the narcissist. When a narcissistic partner is upset, they may be directly rageful. Alternately, they may become cold, withdrawn, or absent.

Ultimately, stuffing their needs leads the codependent person to feel resentment. They will wonder “What about me?” when it comes to getting their needs met.

In addition to this lack of emotional intimacy, sexual intimacy may be absent as well as many narcissists view sex as a tool for self-soothing, distraction or validation rather than for authentic connection.

Leaving the narcissist is incredibly hard

A codependent partner is highly loyal. In addition to this, a narcissistic abusive partner may make the partner “prove” their loyalty and attention. They may gaslight and reinforce that their partner is “bad” if they want or need to set boundaries.

The codependent will internalize this message due to poor boundaries around reality and continue to feel responsible to the other person.

The gaslighting leaves the partner feeling intimidated, confused, full of self-doubt, and resigned/powerless. At the same time, the codependent partner may also crave the intensity of the narcissist’s attention on them when they are being controlling or conflictual.

It’s your choice to make

Making the choice to leave an abusive relationship with a narcissist is agonizing. It’s often incredibly confusing as well to figure out if your relationship can be saved or if it’s beyond repair.

If you find yourself confused, please try to be compassionate with yourself. The most important thing is you are here gathering more information.

It’s important to ask yourself: Does my relationship with my partner sound like the narcissistic abuse cycle described in this article?

If not, while your relationship may have some problems, you may be able to heal your relationship with your partner.

You are capable of healing

If your relationship does seem to fit the cycle of narcissistic abuse, please know, it’s not your fault that you are here. While you may, or may not, have codependency, there is a reason you have been attracted to this narcissist. I know you have a kind and loving heart. However, you may be pouring all this beautiful love into a person who may not appreciate it.

At the same time, you may not be ready to leave and that’s ok. The answers will come in time for you but to support your healing process I highly encourage you to read the article: Healing from Narcissistic Abuse: The Top 3 Ways to Heal from a Relationship Therapist next.

Whether it feels like it or not, just by reading this article (and maybe the next) you are already beginning your healing journey.


Behary, Wendy T. Disarming the Narcissist: Surviving and Thriving with the Self-Absorbed

Day, N.J.S., Townsend, M.L. & Grenyer, B.F.S. Living with pathological narcissism: a qualitative study. Borderline Personality Disorder and Emotion Dysregulation 7, 19 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1186/s40479-020-00132-8

Strutzenberg, C., Wiersma-Mosley, J., Jozkowski, K.N., Becnel, J. N. (2017.) Love-bombing: A Narcissistic Approach to Relationship Formation. Discovery, The Student Journal of Dale Bumpers College of Agricultural, Food and Life Sciences. 18(1) 81-89 Retrived from https://scholarworks.uark.edu/discoverymag/vol18/iss1/14

About The Author, Krystal

Krystal Mazzola Wood, LMFT is a practicing relationship therapist with over a decade of experience. She has focused her entire career to empowering people to heal from unhealthy relationship processes. She teaches the skills and tools necessary to have a life filled with healthy and loving relationships.

This passion led her to write her best-selling books and create courses. Her books, The Codependency Recovery Plan: A 5-Step Guide to Understand, Accept, and Break Free from the Codependent Cycle and The Codependency Workbook: Simple Practices for Developing and Maintaining Your Independence have helped many people heal.

Her third book, Self-Love Made Possible: The 5-Step Guide to Stop Being Your Own Worst Enemy and Become Your Own Best Friend will be released late 2022. To be notified of its release, please join the waitlist here.

Her course, Confidently Authentic: Stop People Pleasing and Start Being True to Yourself, provides the skills necessary to have a healthy relationship. This course features over a year of relationship skills you would learn in therapy. Students share this course has been “life changing.”

Each week, she answers your relationship questions from a place of expertise and compassion. To submit your relationship questions, please DM us @confidentlyauthentic.com or you may send an email at krystal@confidentlyauthentic.com to submit your question.