top of page

Why is It So Hard to Hit Escape on Narcissistic Abuse?

The primary reason that it’s so hard to leave a relationship with a narcissist is that the toxic abuser is very adept at creating a state of constant confusion and disbelief for the abused partner. These relationships often go on for years and they’re defined by so many ups and downs that it feels like you’re on a terrifying roller coaster with no exit platform to get off the ride. By the time that the emotionally abused partner realizes just what they’ve gotten themselves into, they’re often so disempowered that they’re unable to leave. Let’s look at how the narcissist creates this kind of chaos over time and the stages of development in these relationships.

Idealizing Phase:

This is the beginning of the relationship. Consider this the point at which you enter the amusement park, with a general idea of what your time there will look like, but you’re so enamored with your new romance that you’re not paying attention to the warnings on the rides. The reason for this is that your narcissist is on his/her very best behavior, and they’re acting like they’ve memorized a script from a Hallmark movie. There’s a reason that this phase is often referred to as the “love bombing” stage. Your narcissist is saying all the right things – telling you how terrific you are, how smart and fun and gorgeous you are, how you’re their soul mate and how they feel so lucky to have found you. The words are often paired with grand gestures and spontaneous gifts and experiences. The feelings are intense and the chemistry between you feels like nothing that you’ve had before. You feel like you’re being swept off your feet. Your narcissist likes this stage as well because they’re getting their needs for adoration, hero-worship, and loyalty met completely. You’re in love, and all those good hormones are propelling you forward. You open up to your narcissist during this stage, sharing all your vulnerabilities, along with your deepest hopes and dreams for the future. Beware as this will come back to haunt you.

Diminishing Phase:

This new stage develops over time – usually within 6 months there are signs that something is different. The love bombing happens less frequently, the texting/calling becomes less constant, and you start to wonder about this person’s reliability. They might begin to complain – in generalities – that people are letting them down at work, or they’re super busy with a project that requires all their focus. Your interest is piqued, and you want to be a supportive and loving partner, so you make yourself even more available and willing to help in any way, offering lots of words of affirmation. But, your narcissist isn’t interested. They’re busy. Soon after, they start to find flaws in you as well. Your well-meaning intentions, kind words, and good qualities are re-framed by your narcissist as needy, or bossy, or stupid. It’s a disruptive time. You reach out to family and friends for guidance and you’re encourage to end the relationship. You’re seriously thinking of leaving the relationship when the narcissist drops some love bombs on you, with expensive gifts, or wild experiences, and more words of affirmation. This leads you to believe that all is well again. This is a slow, gradual process of back and forth between idealizing and diminishing behaviors. It’s confusing, and it feels a little like you’ve entered the funhouse at the amusement park. You’re not quite sure what’s around the next corner or if what you’re seeing and experiencing is real.

You exit the funhouse directly onto the platform for a ride terror, and your narcissist holds your hand while he/she buckles you into the roller coaster. You’re now in for the ride of your life. Over the next few months (or years) the idealizing phase becomes less and less frequent and shorter in length, while the devaluing phase become greater in length and crueler in words and actions. By now, your narcissist is informing you of all the many ways that you’ve disappointed him/her. The message is loud and clear that “You’re not enough” and “You’re lucky that they’re still in your life because without them, you’d have/be nothing.” You start to wonder if maybe that might be true. There’s lots of lying and gaslighting happening in this phase, all the while you’re trying to figure out how to recapture the first phase of your relationship, so you work even harder to please your narcissist, and you ignore all the red flags and boundary violations.  

Discarding Phase:

As it starts to become obvious to you that there is no getting back to where you two were at the beginning, your narcissist starts to stonewall and disappear. You become worried and desperate. Where could they be? Why aren’t they taking any of your calls or responding to your texts? Your narcissist might inform you that “Your pathetic and desperate” and then retaliate by amping up the gaslighting telling you “You’re the crazy one”.  Their withdrawal and lying coverups signal that they’re seeking validation and “supply” elsewhere. This is the phase where the narcissist will act-out with more bad behavior, and even step out of the relationship by having an emotional or physical affair. Often the narcissist will even frame this betrayal as your fault because “You don’t understand them”, or “You can’t give them what they need”, or “You’ve let yourself go”.    


Unfortunately, the diminishing phase and the discarding phase tend to go on for a long time. It’s typical that the abused partner’s support network diminishes during these months (or years). Over time, you may have become isolated from friends and family members because your abuser insisted that these people weren’t worthy of you. Or they’ve grown weary of hearing about the abuse, and they’ve become dismayed with your inability to help yourself by leaving the narcissist. Either way, you’re alone, and deeply afraid that what your abuser has been telling you is true, that without him/her, you are/have nothing. You fantasize about leaving and starting over but worry that you’re ill-equipped to do so. 

The Destroying Phase:

Depending upon what’s happening in the narcissist’s life outside of your relationship, they may initiate the cycle again with love bombing and devaluing, or they may decide that they’re ready to move on with their affair partner. Narcissists are cunning. If you’ve been doing this dance with them for years, it’s likely that the abuser has manipulated your finances or hidden assets and kept you in the dark about resources. You may feel that you have nowhere to go if you leave, and if you don’t have access to financial resources, you may have very limited options for leaving. If you haven’t done so already, consulting an attorney, and a therapist, would be helpful at this point. But proceed with caution because if the abuser finds out about this, they’ll feel betrayed by this “narcissistic injury” and they may attempt to do whatever is in their power to destroy you.

The Hovering Phase:

Narcissists typically don’t fully exit a relationship that they’ve been in for a long time, but if they do exit, it will be a sudden “ghosting” and it will be because they’ve found a replacement victim. More typical however, is for the narcissist to take some undisclosed time away from the relationship, leaving you feeling abandoned. During this time away, they’ll keep you engaged just enough so that you know that you’re being kept as the back-up plan to their new relationship. When or if their new love fails, they’ll return to you and begin the cycle again. Why does the abused partner continue to engage with their narcissist? It’s complicated, but after months (or years) of “grooming” there’s a strong desire to seek the initial love bombing stage, and to long for the attention and approval that was offered then. Hovering can happen repeatedly, just like the previous stages, but each time the abused partner reunites with their narcissist, the damage to self-worth and self-esteem is greater. Each betrayal further erodes any remaining self-confidence and deepens the loneliness experienced.    


Get Help

If the relationship gets to this point, you’ve got to get help. There’s just no way that you’re thinking clearly at this stage. With help, you can extract yourself from this dynamic and reclaim your life. It’s a journey, but it’s not the roller coaster you were on with the narcissist. You can recover and find your way back to yourself again.

Katey Villalon, LMFT, IRT

Call: 512-537-6339  Email: 



bottom of page