Highly skilled manipulators know how to seduce their prey – even without ever touching them. They are skilled wordsmiths and psychological puppeteers, pulling the strings each step of the way. They learn your love language and they know how to appeal to what you want to hear. They open doors, they take you out on extravagant dates, they take their time with foreplay – both verbal and physical. Their initial chivalry masks their cruelty. Their tenderness is a very convincing façade for their chilly interior.
The idealization phase can only be described as pure, unadulterated ecstasy – both for the victim and the predator. Love-bombing – the excessive praise and flattery the predator showers on the prey – might as well be crack cocaine. It is a common manipulation used by cults to control their members – and in a relationship with a narcissist, you become a one-man cult. Your devotion to them becomes servile, disturbingly teetering on the edge of worship. And it’s usually because you’re following their lead.
The target is groomed to become addicted to the narcissist’s loving words and caring actions – not knowing they are hollow. We begin to invest in the predator as they seem to invest in us. They mirror our deepest needs and desires; they even mirror our interests, hobbies, and viewpoints. They tantalize us with the promise of a brighter future, a relationship where we are deeply validated and taken care of. We get used to the daily praise and laser-focused attention. Sex with the narcissist during the idealization phase is explosive – filled with just the right amount of tenderness and aggression – the narcissist knows exactly how to bring us to greater heights. It’s because they’ve studied what we like and have learned to mimic it. Little do we know, sex will later be used as ammunition.
During idealization and love-bombing, our place on the pedestal is secure and complete. We become the center of the narcissist’s world – or so we think. Really, they become the center of ours as we strive to measure up to the ideal image they have of us. They make us feel like God, only to cater to their own God complex.
Along the way, we deepen our investment because the bond feels so special and unique. We feel we’ve met our soulmate, our other half, our “twin flame.” What we’ve really met is someone who would burn us to ashes without a second glance if it meant getting what they wanted. This connection is heightened in a way that demands our attention on a physical, spiritual and even biochemical level – and before we know it, we begin to rely on this new person for survival. And that is when the danger begins.
Within even the most perfect period of idealization, there are tiny moments of recognition and fleeting red flags. Predators will always ‘test’ the boundaries of their victims early on – with provocative comments designed to make the victim doubt their perceptions. There will always be slippings of the mask where we get a terrifying view of the true self.
Yet these are so scarce during this phase that we are led to doubt whether we’ve seen anything at all. During love-bombing, the luckiest of survivors pick up on the cracks in the narcissist’s mask and see the empty shell beneath – and they do not attempt to rationalize or fix the fractured pieces. They are able to depart with their savings and sanity intact – they are able to leave, still whole. The rest move onto the devaluation phase, to be tattered and broken.
An adept emotional predator knows how to exploit a target’s strengths as well as his or her weaknesses. From the very beginning of the relationship, they’re taking an inventory of the qualities you possess that would enable them to exploit you. That means that they’re not only zooming in on your vulnerability, they’re also preying on your resilience and empathy – your ability to bounce back and your capacity to sympathize with their excuses for bad behavior.
When devaluation begins, it’s not always sudden. In fact, it can be like a gunshot in the dark or a quiet murmur in the corner. You just ‘feel’ that something has shifted, but you’re not sure why, how, where, or when. Your lover stops taking your calls. They withdraw without an explanation. You see them interacting with others in a playful, flirtatious way – in the same way they used to act with you. They praise others the way they used to praise you. The once coveted partnership you two used to share seems to have been displaced onto another replacement target (or multiple targets) – someone who is now on the receiving end of the flattery and attention you once cherished.
Meanwhile, you seem to be on the receiving end of their criticism, their harsh insults, their never-ending rage attacks. The number of disappearances, discrepancies and marked evidence of infidelity start to climb. When they pull away, they pull away with full force – and they enjoy seeing your humiliation when you pine for them. They enjoy actively provoking you to respond, making you out to be the crazy one. And they love bringing in others into the dynamic of the relationship – whether they be friend, foe, ex, or stranger.
Then there is the stone-cold silence after stonewalling you during arguments. The narcissist’s silent treatment is deafening – and it hurts, literally. You feel an invisible, solid wall placed between you two – it’s an inexplicable feeling of being trapped yet tethered. You ache for the person you had constructed in your mind – a person he or she was all too happy to portray for a short period of time.
But the man or woman you love does not exist. And this is a painful reality for anyone – let alone someone who has a high level of investment in the relationship – to swallow.
Targets who are devalued are torn to shreds by the verbal and emotional battery inflicted by their narcissistic partners. Their psyche is infiltrated with disempowering belief systems and messages about their worthiness. They live day-to-day in a perpetual battle – a power struggle that never seems to end. They try not to internalize the criticism and blame, but they feel ashamed about being treated so viciously. This is not a shame that is theirs to carry – it belongs to their perpetrators. Yet they feel it deep down to their bones. It burdens them on sleepless nights and through countless weary days. Throughout the vicious cycle, pain is periodically mixed with pleasure. Victims are overjoyed at receiving crumbs of attention from their abusers – only to be devastated by blow after blow.
Those who are able to survive the devaluation phase unfortunately move onto the final phase (although, to be fair, there is no such thing as a ‘final’ phase to a narcissist, who never seems to let his or her victims go).
Those who are able to escape and ‘discard’ the perpetrator first do not really escape, as they tend to be stalked and harassed even years later by the vindictive narcissist.
Those who are discarded suffer a horrific trauma as well – they are pummeled by the narcissist’s cruel and callous indifference as they are seemingly rejected and disposed of by someone who they thought loved them. After having their body, mind and soul violated, used, destroyed, they are then subjected to the ultimate betrayal. They are left in a way that leaves no closure. The discard is staged in a way that is excessively painful and humiliating for the victim. Perhaps it occurs in public, or happens shortly after the narcissist has galivanted off with their new victim. Maybe it is accompanied by a sickening twist of events, an unraveling of shocking truths about the extent of the narcissist’s betrayals or an especially violent rage attack. However it happens, it is merciless and calculated to destroy.
Victims of narcissistic abuse are often brought to their knees and left blindsided by the narcissist’s departure. They are depleted, drained, belittled, diminished. They are left with more questions than answers, more doubt than certainty. Many fall into depression, spells of anxiety, and suffer the symptoms of trauma. Some even commit suicide or get close to the precipice of death. If they are not familiar with or well-versed about the cycle of abuse, they have a tendency to blame themselves for being abused, not realizing that this malignant predator has just sucked them dry.
If the victim survives the discard, the only path left is the long road to healing. That is, unless they become entangled in the narcissist’s games once more and sucked back into the traumatic vortex of the relationship. If so, the cycle just begins again.