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Narcissistic Abuse in Relationships: What Is It?


by Kristen Milstead

Narcissistic abuse in relationships is notoriously difficult to define.

Narcissists are cruel. Narcissists can belittle, name-call, and shame. They fluctuate between “honeymoon periods” and “abusive periods.” They are often controlling and possessive, live double lives, and engage in serial cheating. Many may even engage in physical, sexual, and financial abuse within their relationships.

Yet a unique systematic pattern is what sets their overall abusive behavior apart from other forms of abuse. This is what is known as “narcissistic abuse.”

What is it about narcissistic abuse that sets it apart from the other forms of abuse? Why bother to carve out a separate definition for narcissistic abuse at all?

The answer seems obvious in that the victims of narcissists are harmed in special ways. Yet both the harms and the effects are difficult to sum up neatly and explain. Why not just call it psychological abuse? Does it matter that it was perpetrated by someone in particular–that is, a narcissist?

I have been seeking out the answers to these questions for years now because I think it does matter.

Why Does the Definition for Narcissistic Abuse Matter?

Narcissistic abuse is a serious form of abuse that is estimated to affect somewhere between 60 and 158 million people in the U.S. alone (Bonchay, 2017). Despite its prevalence, however, almost no public knowledge exists about this type of abuse.

Most types of abuse, such as physical abuse and psychological abuse, have generally agreed-upon definitions.

Yet often the definitions supplied for narcissistic abuse written for survivors are vague.

I don’t intend this to be a criticism. The information that does exist served other purposes as I was trying to understand my relationship.

Yet there remains a lack of cohesion in the definition. A clear and consistent definition can lead to a greater mainstream awareness of this type of abuse.  This can make it more difficult for narcissists to abuse in general. It can also mean more support for survivors.

More importantly, though, when survivors are able to define the core of narcissistic abuse for ourselves, it can forever rob the abuse of some of its lingering power over our lives.

So What is Narcissistic Abuse?

When defining narcissistic abuse, sources often use descriptions of certain aspects of it. For example, some sources define it as a combination of tactics that are used by the perpetrator to abuse a partner (i.e., Lancer, 2017, et al.). The tactics include love-bombing, devaluating, discarding, smearing, hoovering, and others.

Other sources define narcissistic abuse by describing the symptoms in a survivor that he or she has been abused by a narcissist (i.e., Arabi, 2017, “11 Signs You’re the Victim of Narcissistic Abuse,” et al.).  These include things such as struggling with health issues and walking on eggshells.

These types of descriptions have been extremely beneficial to millions of survivors around the world. Explanations such as these are crucial for those of us who struggled to survive relationships with conscienceless people who hijacked our desires and engaged in unspeakable acts.

If you are currently in or have come out of a relationship with a narcissist and are traumatized, these descriptions provide validation of experiences of a phenomenon that can feel otherwise irrational.

What the descriptions don’t do, however, is explain the essence of narcissistic abuse that holds together all of those abusive tactics. They also don’t explain why the abuse has the effects on us that it does.

In other words, the descriptions are too broad, touching on anything and everything that might occur within a relationship with a narcissist, and yet not all-encompassing enough to be actual definitions of narcissistic abuse.

Why These Definitions of Narcissistic Abuse in Relationships are Problematic

Imagine trying to explain to someone else who hasn’t been through it what narcissistic abuse is and rambling on about tactics and their effects. Perhaps you don’t have to imagine because you’ve done it.  I don’t, because I have tried doing it myself.

Because these descriptions are really only focusing on an aspect of the abuse (e.g., a tactic or a particular effect) and not the underpinning, they lack precision that can leave many things about the nature of the abuse unanswered.

For example, I can try describing some of the psychologically abusive tactics my ex-boyfriend used, such as putdowns, gaslighting, or the silent treatment. It then it raises questions about how the abuse is distinct from other psychologically abusive relationships. Why call it narcissistic abuse?

Or let’s say I bring up cheating as part of what occurred in the relationship. That may make him look like a jerk, but not necessarily an abuser–even when it occurred multiple times. What was the specific quality of the cheating that made it different in this particular relationship?

And how should we understand, much less explain to someone else why anyone would go to so much trouble to lovebomb them only to rip the entire relationship to shreds months down the road? It doesn’t sound rational.

That’s the point– it’s not.

Now we’re getting warmer because that’s the point. Let’s keep going.

What of the effects on us? How do we explain that we excused and hid the behavior, but now we have all of the horrible stories to tell?

There is a thread in all of this, and yet it’s important to pull out what it is. Without it, we are still borrowing the narcissist’s crazymaking narrative to try to piece together what happened rather than flicking on the light and seeing how the magic trick was done.

Understanding Narcissistic Abuse Means Understanding Narcissism

We know and understand already how the magic trick was done. We just haven’t yet framed narcissistic abuse in a way that makes the “trick” the centerpiece of the abuse.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline website defines domestic violence as “a pattern of behaviors used by one partner to maintain power and control over another partner in an intimate relationship” (“What is Domestic Violence?” n.d.). Linking narcissistic abuse in relationships back to the perpetrators and what characterizes them is the key to defining it. This is because it ultimately leads to identifying the specific action by which these abusers in particular gain control.

Although they may never be diagnosed, the perpetrators of narcissistic abuse are typically those whose behavior meets the criteria for one of two Cluster B Personality Disorders — Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) or Anti-Social Personality Disorder (ASPD) (Arabi, 2017, “Why Survivors of Malignant Narcissists Don’t Get the Justice They Deserve”).

Individuals with these disorders have a strong propensity to exploit others. This is because they have low levels of emotional empathy. They also have an inability to feel remorse and the pathological ability to deceive and manipulate.

Although the typical cycle of abusive relationships includes “honeymoon periods,” (Walker, 1979), the cycle of narcissistic abuse in relationships is different. Narcissistic relationships instead have an idealization period. During this period, narcissists intentionally manufacture a “soulmate” persona at the beginning of the relationship that is not who they genuinely are. They do this to encourage targeted partners to become vulnerable to them quickly and fall in love.

Once the narcissist has gained the trust and confidence of the partner, the “true self” of the narcissist eventually shows itself. The abuser turns on the partner and behaves in cruel ways. These can include verbal abuse, withholding the love and attention that was previously freely given, intentionally manufacturing emotions such as jealousy and insecurity, and engaging in various forms of betrayal.

The “trick” is in the false self behind which the narcissist either hides or excuses his or her bad deeds.

The Key to Defining Narcissistic Abuse

It is only through the deception of the “false self” that any of the abuse can occur, and the deception is unique to narcissistic abuse. It is a particularly damaging feature, as it leads to cognitive dissonance and grieving over the person who does not exist by the victim.

Sandra L. Brown (2009) says in her book Women Who Love Psychopaths that intrusive thoughts and cognitive dissonance were the two most disruptive symptoms in the women she counseled who came out of relationships with psychopaths. “This is why the mid-relationship dynamics are marked by grieving. What [the survivor] becomes acutely aware of is that her grieving is caused by a unique feature of the psychopath. This unique feature is the unbelievable contradictions, opposites, and dichotomies that mark this man as the disordered person he is.”

Narcissistic abuse at every stage is about deceit, a “false self.” I propose that the definition of narcissistic abuse should have at its core the idea of intentional deception for the purposes of exploitation. This can include misleading, lying, or creating misinformation about personal background, present actions, the self (i.e., tangible qualities such as occupation or intangible qualities such as likes and dislikes, etc.), or about future intentions. All of these create a perception in the mind of the victim of a person that isn’t real. As a method of control, it meets the definition of abuse established by the National Domestic Violence Hotline website.

The mechanism of control is to break down someone’s psychological barriers. It is to subvert their warning systems and create vulnerability and trust.  They then can control the other person and get that person to willingly provide whatever he or she wants.

A Working Definition for Narcissistic Abuse

A working definition might look something like this:

Narcissistic abuse is the intentional false construction of someone else’s reality by an abuser for the purposes of controlling them. It has the following features:

  • They construct a false reality through elaborate, covert deception and psychological manipulation over a long period of time. This false reality is the presentation of a false self. 
  • The narcissist creates the false self using background information, concocted thoughts and feelings, and lies about history, actions, and intent. 
  • All of the false information coheres into a persona of someone who has the survivor’s best interests at heart. This lulls the partner into a false sense of security. 
  • The goal is to allow the narcissist to extract whatever he or she perceives is of value from the partner. This can include attention, admiration, status, love, sex, money, basic needs such as a place to stay, or other resources.
  • The abuser takes advantage of societal norms that assume everyone participates in social relationships with a basic level of empathy. This makes it easy for narcissists to convince their partners that they are the people that they present as. 
  • Because the abuse is “hidden” using deception, survivors have a difficult time recognizing it. 
  • Even after they do recognize it, the false self/true self dichotomy creates a powerful trauma bond that simulates Stockholm Syndrome for victims, who suffer from severe cognitive dissonance over the abuser’s split actions. The abusive nature of falsely constructing another reality 

Traditional abusers control through more traditional means. These include the infliction of bodily harm; lowering someone’s self-esteem through verbal abuse; and controlling resources to keep someone dependent on them.

It’s important to recognize that narcissistic abusers may also do these things as well, however, they may not.

Let’s Look at Some Examples

In the plots of several memoirs written by survivors of narcissistic abuse, a theme emerges.

A Beautiful Terrible Thing

The Bigamist

Divorcing a Narcissist

The Secret Life of Captain X

Web of Lies

What is the Common Denominator in the Stories?

In each of these stories, the partners of the narcissist were lured into the relationships by the narcissist’s desirable persona. The person was so real that they were drawn into that reality and they established a life with that person. Years later, that foundation was shattered when the partners discovered shocking, secret behavior.

The details of the secrets and the behavior may have varied, but the systematic pattern is the same. The common denominator is the deception.

The dual personas provide a framework for understanding the variety of tactics used by narcissists, such as love-bombing and devaluation.

They can explain concepts such as trauma bonding, identity erosion, and cognitive dissonance that demonstrate what happens to the partner over time and why he or she doesn’t leave.

The false selves also explain the seemingly contradictory and irrational behavior of the narcissist. They demonstrate that he or she is operating on a completely different moral system.

Focusing on “deception” as the key to understanding narcissistic abuse brings the very thing that makes the abuse possible out into the light.

Why “Deception” is the Key to Understanding Narcissistic Abuse in Relationships

It may be easy to say, “So what? We know that we were abused.  It doesn’t matter if we have the right words to name what happened.”

Yet without words, we can’t call it out.  Partners are often blamed for the abuse. They are re-victimized by the court system when divorcing or attempting to retain custody of children. They may even be re-victimized by therapists when the narcissist is able to use deception to fool other people. The lack of understanding that deception is how narcissists abuse their partners is a part of the problem.

Although narcissistic abusers may also abuse in other ways, they rely on deception. The deception helps them to execute their dominance and control, to maintain it, and to avoid being detected as abusers.

This is itself abusive and should be recognized as such. By making it the heart of the definition of narcissistic abuse, it renders the darkness that cloaks their actions a little bit lighter.


Arabi, S. (2017). Why Survivors of Malignant Narcissists Don’t Get the Justice They Deserve. The Huffington Post. Retrieved on June 28, 2018, from https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/why-survivors-of-malignant-narcissists-dont-get-the_us_59691504e4b06a2c8edb462e

Arabi, S. (2017). 11 Signs You’re the Victim of Narcissistic Abuse. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 27, 2018, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/recovering-narcissist/2017/08/11-signs-youre-the-victim-of-narcissistic-abuse/

Bonchay, B. (2017). Narcissistic Abuse Affects Over 158 Million People in the U.S. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 18, 2018, from https://psychcentral.com/lib/narcissistic-abuse-affects-over-158-million-people-in-the-u-s/

Brown, S. (2009) Women Who Love Psychopaths. Minneapolis, MN: Book Printing Revolution.

Lancer, D. (2017). How to Spot Narcissistic Abuse. Psychology Today. Retrieved on June 18, 2018, fromhttps://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/toxic-relationships/201709/how-spot-narcissistic-abuse

Walker, L. (1979) The Battered Woman. New York: Harper and Row.

“What is Domestic Violence?” (n.d.The National Domestic Violence Hotline. Retrieved on June 25, 2018, from http://www.thehotline.org/is-this-abuse/abuse-defined/

A version of this article appeared online at PsychCentral: Defining Narcissistic Abuse: The Case for Deception as Abuse

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