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The Cycle of Narcissistic Abuse

The Cycle of Narcissistic Abuse: What it is, Stages, Signs and Recovery

The cycle of narcissistic abuse is a pattern of harmful behaviors used by one person to manipulate and exploit another. It usually consists of a four-stage pattern: idealization, devaluation, discard, and hoover. Psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Dr. Thomas Franklin, MD shares his expertise on this topic. He is a member of the Group for the Advancement of Psychiatry, the American College of Psychiatrists, and the faculty of the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

This article discusses:

What is the Cycle of Narcissistic Abuse?

The cycle of narcissistic abuse commences with the idealization phase, then progresses to devaluation, which is subsequently succeeded by the discard phase. Afterward, the cycle resumes with the hoover stage. It is a repetitive pattern used by the perpetrator to manipulate, exploit, and subjugate the victim for personal gain. Moreover, while specific motives may differ among perpetrators, common objectives involve asserting power, exercising control, and fulfilling narcissistic desires. Ultimately, the overarching aim of narcissistic abuse is to entrap the victim within the intricate web of manipulation.

“The narcissistic abuse cycle often involves idealization and devaluation, which becomes chronic. Ultimately it leads to discarding the person that has been wrung out and is no longer the new shiny object that made the narcissist feel special in the first place. Often these chaotic, aggressive relationships involve other character pathology, including borderline and sociopathy.”

Dr. Thomas Franklin

By traversing through the various phases, the perpetrator sustains a profound sense of power and control over the victim’s emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. This cyclical pattern serves as a mechanism through which the perpetrator fosters a persistent state of dependency within the victim which they use to establish dominance and act out expressions of abusive power and control.


Idealization is the initial stage of the narcissistic abuse cycle. It sees the perpetrator meticulously weaves a deceitful web to ensnare their unsuspecting prey. The victim is lavished with attention, charm, and performative devotion. They are beguiled by a symphony of compliments and promises. The perpetrator uses a tactic called future faking to paint an idyllic picture of a secure and ideal union. The victim is seduced and placed on a high pedestal where they are touted as the center of the perpetrator’s universe. The victim feels seen, heard, and treasured. Their dreams are seemingly fulfilled.

The more narcissistic someone is, the more they are prone to see people as objects. Consequently, during the love bombing stage, perpetrators of narcissistic abuse view and treat their victims as a positive object and hold them in high regard.

“People want to think people are at the core their best selves, so when things start going south, someone who has been love-bombed by a narcissistic character presumes that things will get back to that when this isn’t at all the case.”

Dr. Thomas Franklin

The perpetrator’s underlying message during the idealization phase is You remind me of me. You reflect the qualities I associate with my idealized self-image. The perpetrator engages with the victim as the delightful Dr. Jekyll persona they use to mask the odious Mr. Hyde at their core.

Common Manipulation Tactics During Idealization

Hence, the idealization phase is the proverbial Trojan horse perpetrators of narcissistic abuse use to traverse the victim’s defenses and infiltrate their inner world.


The devaluation phase of narcissistic abuse plunges the victim into a distressing abyss of emotional turmoil. Once the perpetrator’s idealized facade crumbles, a stark transformation occurs, revealing a cruel and calculating nature. In this phase, the abuser systematically erodes the victim’s self-esteem, belittling their achievements, criticizing their every move, and inflicting psychological wounds. Insults, gaslighting, and constant put-downs become weapons used to undermine the victim’s sense of self-worth. The devaluation phase seeks to diminish the victim’s confidence, leaving them bewildered, shattered, and questioning their own sanity. It is a calculated assault on their identity, leaving them vulnerable and primed for further manipulation.

This is the phase when intermittent reinforcement is used to condition the victim to accept abuse and foster trauma bonds. The perpetrator is hot and cold with the victim. They withdraw the validation, approval, and rapport that characterized the idealization phase. Instead, there is criticism, invalidation, put downs, and anxiety. The victim becomes increasingly anxious and distressed. They find themselves walking on eggshells, ever frightened of triggering the perpetrator and desperate to appease them.

“Some of the behaviors present in the devaluation stage include cutting off people from their friends and loved ones, deeply personal attacks, grandiose apologies, and sometimes accelerating substance abuse with the person.”

Dr. Thomas Franklin

Generally, the perpetrator’s underlying message during the devaluation phase is Why can’t you be more like me? You’re failing to reflect the qualities I associate with my idealized self image!

The perpetrator oscillates with increasing frequency between Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, giving the victim harrowing glimpses of the sinister stranger behind the soul mate mask.

Common Manipulation Tactics During Devaluation


The discard phase of narcissistic abuse occurs when the manipulator abruptly withdraws their emotional investment and callously ends the relationship. During this phase, the perpetrator views the victims a devalued, negative object that must be ejected from their grandiose presence. The more narcissistic the perpetrator is, the more they coldly and cruelly they will treat the victim during the discard. There is no longer any need to hide their true nature so the false persona they used to infiltrate the victim’s life is dropped, leaving the horrified victim to find themselves dealing with the con artist behind the mask.

Gone is the soul mate. In their place is a mercenary stranger who treats the victim like a worthless inconvenience. Every moment of kindness and devotion is forgotten, leaving the victim shocked, hurt, and emotionally devastated. The perpetrator may display a complete lack of empathy or remorse. Flabbergasted and in deep emotional pain, the victim often discovers that the perpetrator has carefully planned the discard long before it happened.

“The discard can be dramatic but more often there is indifference or neglect. They are looking for a new shiny object and keeping you in the wings while they set about this.”

Dr. Thomas Franklin

There is likely to be an active smear campaign, preemptively launched by the perpetrator which is designed to destroy the victim’s credibility and make it impossible for them to be believed should they disclose their experiences with the perpetrator behind closed doors. Moreover, the perpetrator may have already moved on with an affair partner, who has taken the victim’s place on the coveted pedestal. A common behavior during this phase is duping delight as the perpetrator experiences profound satisfaction over successfully fooling the victim, bystanders, members of their social circle, authorities, etc. Other behaviors present during the discard are contempt, hostility, and/or fury, which are used to strike terror in the victim and thus control them.

During the discard phase, the victim is dealing solely with Mr. Hyde, who rejects the object on to which he has projected all of his flaws. During this phase, the perpetrator repeatedly hammers the ultimate insult into the victim’s head: You’re nothing like me! You don’t reflect the qualities I associate with my illustrious self image.

Common Manipulation Tactics During Discard


One might think perpetrators of narcissistic abuse would leave the victim alone after actively trying to destroy them. However, people who indulge in the cycle of narcissistic abuse tend to have low empathy or no genuine remorse for pain they cause others. Moreover, the perpetrators are well aware of the emotional dependency they meticulously cultivated in the victim, and they understand that a part of the victim may still yearn to reclaim their position atop the pedestal. Excessively narcissistic people revel in their ability to control others, and they often see it is as a testament to their superiority when they are able to successfully re-engage with a victim.

The re-engagement stage of the narcissistic abuse cycle is called the hoover maneuver or hoovering in popular psychology. It used to describe the perpetrator’s efforts to “suck” the victims back into the relationship after the discard phase, like a vacuum cleaner.

The underlying message of this phase of the abuse cycle is Remember me? Remember how good it felt when you reflected the qualities I associate with my grandiose self image? It aims to activate the powerful trauma bonds cultivated in the victim to make quick work of drawing the them back into the narcissistic abuse cycle.

Common Manipulation Tactics During Re-Engagement

Nota Bene. Sometimes the perpetrator does not hoover the victim in what is known as a mortal discard. A mortal discard can happen for various reasons, i.e. the perpetrator understands that they went too far and the victim sees through them. In other cases, the perpetrator may tell themselves that the victim has nothing left to exploit.

Which Vulnerabilities Do Perpetrators Look For?

Perpetrators of narcissistic abuse usually prey on certain vulnerabilities, which they can exploit to establish dominance in their relationship with the victim. Those of a grandiose bent like a challenge and seek out so-called big game, while those of a more covert persuasion are more likely to set their sights on the so-called low hanging fruit. It’s important to keep in mind that vulnerabilities do not justify or excuse abuse.

“Most people that get drawn into this had a narcissistic parent such that this sort of behavior feels loving and normative. Others meet the narcissistic person when they are at a low point for some reason, and the initial idealization lifts their self-esteem at a vulnerable moment and is quite seductive.”

Dr. Thomas Franklin

Common Vulnerabilities Abusers Target

Health Impact

The health impact of narcissistic abuse can be profound and pervasive. It can lead to severe physical, emotional, and psychological consequences, i.e. chronic stress, anxiety, and depression, disrupted sleep patterns, weakened immune function, and increased vulnerability to illnesses.

Victims may also develop post-traumatic stress symptoms, such as hypervigilance, flashbacks, and difficulty trusting others. Post-traumatic stress and depression are linked to increased mortality in women.

“People who suffered at the hands of narcissistic parents may be re-traumatized and if they aren’t already in therapy it becomes a necessity now. People that are less familiar with this behavior are shocked by it and often feel profound shame and self-doubt in the wake of a relationship like this. They can sometimes reconstitute if they have a good support system but they often need therapy as well before being able to pursue new relationships successfully.”

Dr. Thomas Franklin

The cumulative toll of narcissistic abuse on both mental and physical well-being underscores the importance of seeking support and self-care during recovery.


Perpetrators of narcissistic abuse can fool the most discerning person because it is passive-aggressive and often very subtle. However the victim may experience specific emotions when they are in the cycle of narcissistic abuse.

None of these emotional states are synonymous with a healthy relationship. If you are feeling any of them, it’s time to get support immediately. Listen to your gut instinct and keep in mind that if it feels too good to be true it usually is.

“Judge people by their actions, not their words. Things are what they are. Excuses are just that, especially for behavior that is chronic or repeated. If he treats you badly over and over, he’s a bad guy and you misjudged him. It happens. Seeing and accepting this earlier leads to much less heartache.”

Dr. Thomas Franklin

Breaking The Cycle

Breaking free from the narcissistic abuse cycle is a painful and arduous journey, but it is worth it. Freedom begins by recognizing the signs of abuse, acknowledging the harmful dynamics, and understanding that it is not your fault.

“It’s very difficult to break free from the cycle of narcissistic abuse, especially for people who saw this kind of relationship as children. It just feels so normal to them. Gently getting people to see reality rather than the fantasy that was the early phase of the relationship is often helpful. Getting the person away on a trip can help give them some distance and perspective.”

Dr. Thomas Franklin

Taking the first step towards breaking free involves seeking support from trusted individuals, such as friends, family, or professionals, who can provide emotional guidance, practical assistance, and a safe space to share your experience.

With time, self-care, and healing, survivors can gradually rebuild their self-esteem, set boundaries, and create a new life free from the dysfunction of these harmful relationships.

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