Personal accounts and narcissism research tend to describe certain characteristics and a similar pattern of behavior when it comes to narcissistic relationships.
It typically involves a “love bombing”, “devaluation”, and “discard” phase (described below), which occur in tandem with the narcissist’s current motivation.
When their goal is to win you over, they will be extraverted, charming, and self-confident, and will not show their negative side. When their goal is to maintain control and defend against challenges to their authority, they will act aggressively and abuse you.
A highly narcissistic person is motivated by an excessive need for attention and admiration, and to feel superior and special. They choose partners who will provide this ‘narcissistic supply’, which is like a bottomless pit: it does not matter how much you give, it will never be enough.
It is typical for a narcissist to engage in sexual infidelity in order to have as many sources of narcissistic supply as possible. Research has found that narcissists are less satisfied and therefore less committed in romantic relationships.
The authors suggest that this is because they are always looking for a ‘better deal’ and are highly attention- and excitement-seeking.
Generally, every new relationship they pursue and enter into will follow a similar pattern and include the following three stages.
In This Article
This is the first stage and refers to the narcissistic scam: a narcissist’s strategy to satisfy their needs through deceit and manipulation.
When they first meet you and you start a relationship, the narcissist will be disguised as your dream partner: they are kind, attentive, shower you with affection and gifts, and make you feel heard and safe.
They might tell you they love you or that they have “never met anyone like you” after just a few days or weeks of knowing you.
The relationship feels exciting and their affection and confidence seem genuine – but in reality, it is a form of grooming: a way to build a strong emotional bond and trust as a way to manipulate, exploit, and abuse their victim.
Even though it can be hard to tell whether it is real or a scam, there are subtle cues that can help you to uncover their true intentions, for example:
- If they derogate their ex-partner
- If you notice some things do not add up
- If they are secretive
- Tell you they love you after a few days or weeks
Here Are a Few Examples of Things They May Say to You:
“You are my soul mate”
“I have never met anyone like you”
“You are the perfect man/ woman for me”
“We are going to be together forever”
“You understand me more than anyone else”
“My ex was crazy – you are so much better than her/him”
Once you are in love and committed to the relationship, they have achieved their goal and you lose value in their eyes. They might start to look for new conquests but will hold onto you as a source of narcissistic supply.
If you start to show interest in something else (like your work or friends) or you challenge them in any way, you will experience their true colors.
Once you are fully absorbed in the relationship, the devaluation phase usually starts. Devaluation is part of “narcissistic abuse”: calculated manipulation, emotional torment, intentional destruction of your sense of self, and brainwashing.
It might start with belittling and insulting remarks (e.g. “those jeans make you look fat”) that seem hurtful, unwarranted, or over the top. You may brush it off at first but eventually, the abusive behavior will escalate and slowly chip away at your confidence and sense of self.
The behaviors are often covert; insults are wrapped up in a sweet tone of voice or they laugh it off and tell you they are “only joking”.
It’s easier to control someone when they are isolated from their support system and therefore they will attack your friends, families, and hobbies.
They suddenly dislike your friends and family and take issue with your hobbies or routine, asking you to stop. They might ignore you, humiliate you at home or in public, question your sanity, and/ or engage in overt aggression like threats, shouting, and physical violence.
You are left feeling confused because they have manipulated you into believing that it is your fault. You try harder to please them and to change things back to how they used to be, which gives them more control over you and satisfies their need for attention.
There might be moments when they are affectionate and caring but you feel constantly on high alert because their behavior and mood can switch quickly.
Remember that they feel entitled to your unconditional love and attention and to behave in the way they do. It is likely that during this stage, the narcissist is already looking for (or has found) a new partner.
Here are some examples of phrases they might use:
“You are so insecure” (when you question them)
“That is probably why people do not like you”
“You are crazy”
“I act like this because I am scared of losing you”
“Stop always being so busy with other things/ people”
“So your friends are more important than me?”
“Your dress is too short/ makes you look fat”
Despite their promises for the future, their declarations of love, and sworn loyalty, a narcissist is only concerned about getting attention, admiration, and having power and status.
Although they might already be seeing someone else, they will deny this because they might still be receiving their supply from you.
If you question them or have clear evidence of their infidelity, they will continue to deny and lie, which creates confusion in your mind and you doubt your own sanity and perception (known as gaslighting).
When you no longer fulfill their needs, they will discard you. During this stage, the insults and abusive behaviors escalate as they want to ensure they leave the relationship as the “winner”.
Victims of narcissistic abuse often only realize they have been in an abusive relationship during this stage as the strategies they use are initially covert and insidious and often only become clearly visible towards the end.
The pattern of manipulation, abuse, and eventual rejection, is repeated with a new partner. They often tell their new partners how badly they were treated by their previous partner and that they are “abusive” or “crazy”.
Who are narcissists most attracted to?
Narcissists are attracted to people who make them feel good about themselves, allow them to be in control, raise their status in some way, and provide an endless supply of admiration and attention.
They crave and feel entitled to the unconditional positive regard of others and therefore seek people who will provide this.
Research has found that narcissistic people have a higher need for power and status and often fantasize about having power. That means they are attracted to people who are rich, have power or know powerful people, are famous, and/or highly attractive.
These “trophy partners” elevate the narcissist’s status and validate their self-image of being superior and highly desirable.
The more socially desirable an individual is the more attractive they become to narcissists. Firstly, they perceive it as a challenge, which provides them with the excitement they crave.
Secondly, the more difficult it is to attain a certain partner, the more it will confirm their grandiosity when they manage to win that person over. Narcissists view relationships and life as a game that they always have to win.
Another type of person a narcissist is particularly attracted to is someone with high levels of empathy (called an “empath”).
An empath is a highly emotional and sensitive person with a strong craving to nurture and care for others. They provide the narcissist with attention, admiration, love, and understanding – exactly what a narcissist craves.
People who are lonely, yearn for love, and have weak boundaries are easy targets for narcissists because they are more susceptible to believing their lies and empty promises.
Weak boundaries allow the narcissist to take control over your thoughts, feelings, and actions without much resistance.
How to deal with a narcissist
When dealing with a narcissist it is important to remember what their core trait is: entitlement. They feel entitled to behave as they do and will not question or reflect on how their actions may have hurt someone.
Entitlement comes with having a victim mentality and shifting the blame onto others. That is why when you are dealing with a narcissist there is no use in arguing or reasoning with them or defending yourself.
It is important that you accept the way they are and that they are not motivated to change. Your attention should rather be on your own well-being and protecting yourself from narcissistic abuse.
Therefore, setting boundaries and sticking to them is one of the most important components of dealing with a narcissist – whether that be in a romantic relationship, friendship, at work, or anywhere else. To stay physically, psychologically, and emotionally safe you need to become protective of yourself, your worth, and your confidence.
First, think about what behaviors you will not tolerate, for example, being shouted at or called certain names, their social media habits, etc.
Communicate clearly to the other person that you are setting this boundary and what will happen if the line is crossed, for example, you will leave. They are likely going to dismiss and test your new boundary, which means you must stick to your word and do what you said you would do.
However, be mindful of the fact that putting in place boundaries will likely make the narcissist feel they are losing control over you.
This may increase the abusive behaviors or result in love bombing, as a way to “hoover” you back in – keep in mind that it is not genuine affection but a manipulation strategy. As soon as you are back under their control, the abuse will resume.
Victims of domestic abuse reported that setting small, incremental boundaries provided the confidence they needed to set bigger boundaries, including removing themselves physically from their abuser.
It is difficult to accept but that is the reality: the best way to deal with a narcissist is not to engage with them and to remove them from your life.
Do Narcissists Repeat Love Patterns?
Although not all narcissists will follow exactly the same pattern with every relationship, there is a classic narcissistic love pattern that tends to be repeated: love bomb, devalue, and discard (read more details above).
The pattern stems from narcissistic people’s inflated self-image and their affection and love being conditional on you providing them with what they want. They use you for their own gains, such as sex, status, money, and power.
Once they have won you over, they break down your confidence and identity as a way to control you. To do this they use often subtle manipulation tactics such as gaslighting, warm-cold behavior, and isolating you from your support network.
What Are Narcissists Most Afraid Of?
A narcissistic person is unlikely to admit to being afraid but excessive attention-seeking, and a sense of grandiosity and superiority hint at an underlying lack of self-esteem.
Therefore, narcissists are likely afraid of people seeing behind the façade and realizing that they are not special but rather normal. Narcissists see the world as having two categories: predators and prey or winners and loser.
If they are not the best or special, they are on the losing team, which would be very frightening to someone who views themselves as superior to everyone else. Narcissists have a tendency to become enraged when someone challenges their superiority or authority.
Anger is the result of being afraid – it is a way to make yourself appear stronger and more intimidating when you feel threatened.
What Does a Narcissist Crave?
Narcissists crave attention and admiration above all else. Their motivation is to attain status and power as a way to confirm their belief of being superior and special.
They feel entitled to have their needs met at whatever cost to others because of the belief that they are somehow more valuable and important than others.
It does not matter how their behavior might affect others, as long as they have their needs met.
Can a Narcissist Truly Love Someone?
The Greek myth of Narcissus, who fell in love with his own reflection, is a true picture of narcissists: they can only love the image they have created of themselves. They use others for their personal gain and lack the necessary empathy to build deep emotional connections.
Most literature on narcissism suggests that narcissists are not capable of loving other people.
Many argue that they do not even love themselves but because of their unloving and invalidating childhoods, they built a fantasy world in which they are loved and idealized by all.
This fantasy leads to an expectation to be admired and adored by others but they cannot reciprocate true love and intimacy – when they do, it serves as a way to achieve a goal.
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Howard V. (2019). Recognising Narcissistic Abuse and the Implications for Mental Health Nursing Practice. Issues in Mental Health Nursing, 40(8), 644-654.
Vrabel, J. K., Zeigler-Hill, V., Lehtman, M., & Hernandez, K. (2020). Narcissism and perceived power in romantic relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 37(1), 124–142.