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  • Writer's pictureErin Tahvonen, LMHC

“Seriously, what just happened?” Beginning to understand narcissistic abuse

Many of my clients are women recovering from narcissistic abuse who tell me their narcissistic ex has completely turned their lives upside down. Most of the women are professionals who are successful in their careers, almost all are conflict averse. They have a high degree of empathy and EQ, the emotional counterpart to IQ, and they have solid friendships and familial relationships. Many have an experience in childhood that affected their self-esteem (absent parent, religious trauma, a specific insecurity). All of them are completely baffled at their narcissistic partner, themselves in the context of that relationship, and how the heck to move on from the relationship and avoid EVER dating that personality type again. Some do date narcissists again. Some don’t. And some are so terrified at the prospect they think they’ll just stay single… like, forever.

So, what exactly is a narcissistic partner?

Narcissism is characterized by a grandiose sense of self, the narcissist views himself as important (and before I get letters, yes, I’ll be using male pronouns as this occurs not exclusively but predominantly in men), deserving of admiration, fixated on power/success/beauty. He has a sense of entitlement and expects automatic compliance with those expectations. The narcissistic partner lacks empathy and uses others to achieve his own ends. He is often envious and believes others are envious of him. He’s arrogant. (DMS-V, 2013).

Some people argue there are different types of narcissists, some overt/grandiose types and some with a more insecure basis, a result of compensating for a low self-esteem; some are clinically diagnosed/diagnosable and some exhibit more subclinical, trait forms. Here’s the truth: “The one theme underlying all the different nuances of any narcissist beyond being selfish, is that they’re inherently focused purely on themselves at the expense of others (Levin, 2021).”

o In a relationship, narcissistic partners tend to be controlling, self-absorbed, intolerant of other’s views, oblivious to their partner’s needs, and blame their partners because they are unable/unwilling to accept personal responsibility.

o They take a game-playing and exploitative approach to romantic relationships (Campbell, et al, 2002).

o They exhibit maladaptive jealousy (Chin, Atkinson, Raheb, Harris & Vernon, 2017).

o They engage with hostility when conflict arises (Moeller, Crocker & Bushman, 2009) and react with revenge-seeking behaviors when confronted (Brown, 2004).

o They have low commitment relationships and frequently cheat on their partners (Campbell, Foster & Finkel, 2002).

o They have an accepting attitude toward domestic violence (Blinkhorn, et al, 2016) and show direct links to increased risk of being physically and sexually abusive (Blinkhorn, Lyons & Almend, 2015), psychologically abusive (Gormley & Lopez, 2010), and verbally abusive (Caiozzo, Houston & Grych, 2016). In fact, narcissistic entitlement and low levels of empathy are the biggest predictor of domestic violence (Hepper, et al, 2014).

I know what you’re thinking: “Who would ever date that guy!?” But to understand this pattern, you should know that narcissists present well… at first. Narcissistic personalities can take you a long way in the business world and narcissists often attain positions of professional leadership (Rosenthal, 2006). They present well and are addicted to creating the perfect social media presence to gain validation (Casale & Fioravanti, 2018). They are completely consumed with themselves and their image so they will show you exactly who they want you to see.

The narcissistic relationship cycle looks something like this:

A taker (the narcissist) meets a giver (their unwitting partner). The taker often chooses a giver who is successful and attractive because they have high standards for their partners. The narcissistic partner begins a process of “love-bombing” in which they shower their potential partner with compliments, “love”, attention, affection. However, they do not view their partners as equals, instead they consider their partners objects to be used to maximize control and to regulate their self-esteem (Campbell, 2002). The “relationship” exists solely to bolster their sense of self. Well, as anyone who has been in a relationship longer than, oh, five minutes will tell you, your partner is not designed to sit around and stroke your ego. So, as will naturally happen, at some point the partner, by not living up to his unrealistic standard, threatens the narcissist’s ego. And, BAM! The ego threat causes the narcissist to experience intense anger, hostility, and focus on getting revenge. Their ego tells the narcissist they are at risk of losing their narcissistic supply (yes, they feed themselves on their partner) and threatens losing their external validation (Green & Charles, 2019). So, they begin a process of devaluation in which they chip away at their partner’s self-esteem. They may become jealous or controlling, they may embarrass or humiliate, they may engage in infidelity (often thinly veiled, if at all). They convince their partner they are worthless. Then, the intermittent love-bomb resumes. The pattern of intermittent reinforcement is the most addictive of all reinforcement schedules, meaning when you can’t predict when someone will reward you, you will try incredibly hard to exhibit behaviors worthy of praise. You get addicted to it. The narcissist’s pattern of shifting blame to their partners and bombing them with love randomly, leads their partner to question their own reality and accept blame. As their self-esteem becomes damaged, they no longer trust their valuation of themselves and seek outside perspectives to ground their self-concept. Except the narcissist has isolated them in the abusive cycle and reinforces the belief they are crazy.

Beginning the recovery process

Women come to therapy shaken, confused, in various stages of trauma recovery. They have likely kept many of these behaviors secret, often out of a sense of shame that they cannot believe they are still hooked on this relationship and sometimes out of fear that their partner’s abuse is difficult to prove. Participants asked about effects of narcissistic abuse report feeling worthless, confused, experience anxiety, PTSD, and suicidal ideation due to the tormenting behaviors and confusing blame-shifting (Green & Charles, 2019).

The therapeutic process can be long, but thankfully the recovery from these relationships is possible. Clinical work should focus on:

· Rebuilding sense of self-worth

· Identifying and expressing your own needs

· Establishing and defending boundaries

· Refusing to absorb responsibility for others, set down the idea that you are here to “fix broken people”

· Look for and address any traits of co-dependency and challenge thoughts related to this pattern

· Explore fear of abandonment in yourself

· Identify and challenge your own need for approval

· Acknowledge that narcissistic abuse is a form of domestic violence

If you are in crisis, reach out for help 24/7 at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline @ 1 (800) 273-TALK (8255) or text HOME to 741741.

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