Many have been ensnared by the initial charms of a narcissist, yet few have benefited from a long-term relationship with one. The idealization phase with a narcissist includes love bombing, sweeping a victim off his or her feet, and empty, flowery promises which never come to fruition. This form of love bombing can take place across many different contexts. Imagine the narcissistic boss who promises his employees the dream job of a lifetime, only to later exploit them. Or, the narcissistic mother who dangles the carrot of temporary affection simply to get her children to obey her. Perhaps the narcissistic girlfriend who showers her partner with excessive flattery and visions for the future she knows will never come to life, or the narcissistic husband who overwhelms his wife with constant attention before suddenly going cold.
As an author who specializes in writing about toxic relationships, I have been told countless horror stories from victims regarding a narcissist’s sudden “switch” in personality after the “honeymoon” phase. Narcissistic partners who appeared to be loving, doting partners until the victim was sufficiently invested in them — and then became chronically cruel, callous, indifferent, and abusive. Some even waited until the literal honeymoon after the wedding to unmask themselves. By that time, the victims had already built a seemingly unbreakable connection with their narcissistic partners which they felt was difficult to extricate themselves from.
In these scenarios, manipulation and fraud, rather than genuine connection, is at the center of the dynamic. The narcissist maintains control over the victim not through the idealization alone, but rather the hot-and-cold and withholding behavior which accompanies it. This causes the victim of a narcissist to try to regain the abuser’s approval – to “reset” the relationship back to its sweet beginnings.
WITHHOLDING, INTERMITTENT REINFORCEMENT, AND ABUSE
Some of the most popular ways narcissists use withholding include stonewalling (the shutting down of conversations before they’ve even begun), the silent treatment, a sudden withdrawal of affection and physical intimacy without reason, and unexplained disappearances where they refuse to contact you or engage with you at all, even while they interact with others with enthusiasm as a way to rub salt on the wound.
According to researchers, some of these forms of withholding can actually activate the same parts of the brain as those that register physical pain (Williams, 2007). In other words, being callously ignored by a narcissist who then dotes on others in front of you can be akin to being sucker-punched in the face. This demand-withdraw pattern in relationships can cause victims to exert their efforts in trying to make their partner behave differently, only leading to fruitless efforts and further frustration (Schrodt, 2014).
What many don’t realize is that narcissists deliberately withhold attention and affection sporadically throughout the relationship to maintain the victim’s addiction to them. We know that intermittent reinforcement of positive behaviors throughout the abuse cycle is a tactic that allows dopamine to flow more readily in the brain, creating reward circuits in the brain associated with the abuser, and ultimately strengthening the addictive “trauma bond” between abuser and victim (Carnell, 2012; Fisher, 2016). This is a bond created in a relationship with a power imbalance, periods of arousal and intensity, and good/bad treatment (Carnes, 2010).
Withdrawal of affection and attention causes victims to attempt to please the narcissist in order to regain the initial attention and affection they experienced in the beginning of the relationship. In the victim’s trauma-bonded mind, even the harshest of lows are worth the potential of regaining the highs.
However, a narcissist’s withholding period is actually a time of great potential power for the survivor. Here are three ways to reclaim your power when you are experiencing the devastating withholding behaviors of a narcissist:
1. Plan a safe exit.
The period when a narcissist is withholding and withdrawing from you is actually an ideal time for you to plan your safe exit from the relationship. The narcissist will likely be “busy” grooming other victims and believes that you are busy pining for them. Little do they know, you will be spending that precious time finding a way to escape them. Since you are not under the narcissist’s watchful eye or under the shroud of their love bombing, it’s prime time for you to reconnect with the feelings of outrage you feel at having this person ignore, neglect and belittle you like this – and to stealthily explore your options.
Give no notice to the narcissist you are doing this; any and everything you do to empower yourself should be kept from the narcissist until you are at a safe distance. If you are currently married to a narcissist, get your finances together, find the services of a lawyer experienced in high-conflict personalities, consult a therapist and domestic violence advocate to create a safety plan, and document the abuse for any legal proceedings. If you are entrenched in a toxic workplace, look for other job opportunities, explore your passions on the side (especially any lucrative side hustles which might become full-time ventures), and rework your resume in the meantime. Planning such a safe exit ensures that the narcissist will not suspect anything is amiss until you’ve already left. He or she will not be able to ensnare you back in the abuse cycle by attempting to manipulate you or threaten you. By that time, you will be well on your way to freedom.
2. Use any withholding periods as times for radical self-care and productivity.
In addition to planning your exit, use these periods where the narcissist is subjecting you to stonewalling or the silent treatment as periods of self-care and productivity. Channel your emotions into self-care activities such as yoga, meditation, writing (to help anchor you back into the reality of the abuse), reading (preferably about manipulation tactics), and exercise. These will all serve as constructive outlets to reset your body and mind from the biochemical addiction to the narcissist.
Stay productive when you notice the narcissist is intentionally being distant; distracting yourself with the pursuit of activities related to your career, passions, and a greater mission can help to refocus on rebuilding your own life apart from the narcissist. Build social networks related to recovery from abuse and emotional manipulation; this is a great time to find a trauma-informed counselor who understands narcissistic personalities (if you don’t have one already), to join an online forum for survivors of abuse, or a real-life support group. These new networks and habits will all enable you to have a safer place to land once you’ve exited the relationship for good.
3. Resolve to integrate the painful lesson of withholding into your future experiences.
Being with a narcissist gives you immeasurable social and emotional capital in the form of knowledge. You now hold the insight to navigate interactions with emotional predators that much more skilfully and with discernment. You no longer need to waste your precious time and energy on people who neglect you, ignore you, or treat you inconsistently. When you recognize someone ignoring you the first time, you will now know how to withdraw your own energy from them before it is too late. You will see neglect of any kind as an automatic deal-breaker and a red flag warning you against any further investment. Don’t let the pain you experienced go to waste; use it as a powerful reminder and as fuel to help you walk away from narcissists – before they’re able to ensnare you in the first place.
Carnes, P., & Phillips, B. (2010). The betrayal bond: Breaking free of exploitive relationships. Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications.
Carnell, S. (2012, May 14). Bad Boys, Bad Brains. Retrieved April 01, 2019, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/bad-appetite/201205/bad-boys-bad-brains
Fisher, H. (2016, February 04). Love Is Like Cocaine – Issue 33: Attraction. Retrieved April 01, 2019, from http://nautil.us/issue/33/attraction/love-is-like-cocaine
Schrodt, Paul, et al. (2014). “A Meta-Analytical Review of the Demand/Withdraw Pattern of Interaction and Its Associations with Individual, Relational, and Communicative Outcomes.” Communication Monographs, vol. 81, no. 1, 2013, pp. 28–58., doi:10.1080/03637751.2013.813632.
Williams, K. D. (2007). Ostracism. Annual Review of Psychology,58(1), 425-452. doi:10.1146/annurev.psych.58.110405.085641