Do you think you could be dealing with a narcissist? If yes, it is important to recognize what that means for you and that person, as it can be a difficult situation to be in and get out of. One way of recognizing if you are actually in one is by being aware of the 21 stages of a narcissistic relationship. You don’t necessarily have to be experiencing them all at once, but knowing the stages will help to identify where you are at with your significant other.

But before looking at the stages, let’s first understand what being a narcissist truly means. 

Mayo clinic defined narcissistic personality disorder as, “a mental health condition in which people have an unreasonably high sense of their own importance.” The disorder presents in different ways for everyone affected, but it usually entails a person seeking out attention and admiration in excessive amounts, often with a lack of regard for others. Though the disorder is characterized by grandiose thoughts of the self, those with narcissistic personality disorder may still be unhappy with themselves and sensitive to any criticism. Mayo Clinic reported that this disorder is more often seen in those who are male than those who are female. Additionally, it usually presents in teen years or early adulthood. 

Having a mental health disorder is not chosen and therefore not the fault of the person that has it. However, we are still always responsible for our own actions. If you have narcissistic personality disorder, you may not be able to help it, but it is your responsibility to recognize when the results of your disorder hurt others and seek help.

Narcissistic relationships can be highly complex and damaging. While there isn’t a universally accepted list of “21 stages” specifically for narcissistic relationships, it is possible to outline common patterns and stages that often occur in such relationships. These stages can vary in duration and intensity from one relationship to another. Here is a general overview of stages in a narcissistic relationship:

The First Two of the 21 Stages of a Narcissistic Relationship

The first couple of stages in this kind of relationship are seemingly nice and perfect, almost like any honeymoon stage. This is a manipulation tactic that is highly effective as it is usually not obvious to the victim. It is important to be patient and empathetic with a person (or yourself) dealing with this kind of relationship as it is easy to be blindsided by what appears as love and affection.

  1. Idealization: At the beginning of the relationship, the narcissist idealizes their partner, putting them on a pedestal and making them feel special and loved.
  1. Love-bombing: The narcissist showers their partner with excessive attention, affection and gifts to gain their trust and admiration.

The Next Three Stages 

Once a narcissistic person has gained the affection they desire from their partner, they will begin messing with their mind. This is so their victim has trust in only them and is easier to control. Again, being patient with someone during these three stages of the 21 stages in a narcissistic relationship is important as it is hard to unlearn these things.

  1. Devaluation: Over time, the narcissist starts to devalue their partner, criticizing, belittling and degrading them.
  1. Gaslighting: The narcissist manipulates their partner’s perception of reality, making them doubt their own feelings and experiences.
  1. Isolation: The narcissist often isolates their partner from friends and family, making them more dependent on the narcissist.

When the Manipulation and Emotional Abuse Gets Worse

These are the stages within the 21 stages of a narcissistic relationship where the narcissist has successfully subdued their victim under their manipulation, they will seek out what they truly want from that person. It is usually control over everything that they want. And it is all fueled by their narcissistic perception of themselves.

  1. Control: The narcissist seeks to gain control over every aspect of their partner’s life, including finances, social life and decision-making.
  1. Emotional abuse: Emotional manipulation and abuse become more frequent, leading to emotional turmoil for the victim.
  1. Silent treatment: The narcissist may use the silent treatment as a form of punishment and control.

When You Think You Can Get Out, They Pull You Back In

All the manipulation and emotional abuse that occurred in the first few stages of the relationship was where to ensure that narcissist can stop their victim from leaving. Even once the victim can recognize the toxicity of stages three through eight, those first two of the 21 stages of a narcissistic relationship are what pulls the victim back. The consequence of this can be long lasting and self-destructive. 

  1. Hoovering: After a period of devaluation and distance, the narcissist may attempt to “hoover” their partner back into the relationship with promises of change and love.
  1. Smear campaigns: If the victim tries to leave or speak out, the narcissist may engage in smear campaigns to damage their reputation.
  1. Discarding: The narcissist may eventually discard their partner when they no longer serve their needs or when they find a new source of admiration.
  1. Trauma bonding: Victims often develop a strong bond with their narcissistic partners, making it difficult to leave the relationship.
  1. Cycles of abuse: The relationship often goes through cycles of idealization, devaluation and discard, keeping the victim trapped.
  1. Cognitive dissonance: Victims may experience conflicting emotions, struggling to reconcile the narcissist’s initial charm with their abusive behavior.
  1. Loss of self-esteem: Victims often experience a significant decline in self-esteem and self-worth due to the constant criticism and abuse.
  1. Depression and anxiety: The ongoing emotional abuse and manipulation can lead to mental health issues in the victim.
  1. Financial exploitation: The narcissist may exploit their partner financially, leaving them financially dependent or in debt.
  1. Legal battles: In some cases, the relationship may result in legal disputes, such as custody battles or restraining orders.

The Stages on the Other Side

Silvi Saxena wrote for Choosing Therapy that once a narcissist is no longer getting the attention and satisfaction from their victim, they will leave them and move on to another. They will have little to no regard for their victim, but the victim is usually left with the negative feelings they experience throughout the toxic relationship. If you find yourself or a loved one up to stage 18 of the 21 stages of a narcissistic relationship, remember it is not over until the last three stages. They are crucial for healing and moving forward.

  1. Healing and recovery: If the victim manages to break free from the narcissistic relationship, they often face a long and challenging process of healing and rebuilding their life.
  1. No contact: Establishing and maintaining no contact with the narcissist is crucial for the victim’s recovery.
  1. Therapy and support: Many survivors of narcissistic relationships seek therapy and support groups to help them heal and regain their self-esteem and independence.

It’s important to note that not all narcissistic relationships follow these stages exactly, and the intensity and duration of each stage can vary widely. If you or someone you know is in a narcissistic relationship, it is important to seek help and support from mental health professionals. A support network can also help you to break free from the cycle of abuse and begin the healing process.

You can also never be completely sure about an individual’s diagnosis until you consult a professional in psychology or psychotherapy. However, your potentially narcissistic partner may not be willing to be accessed. With this being said, though you can not properly diagnose someone, this list of the 21 stages of a narcissistic relationship can help you determine if you had a relationship with a current or former partner that is characteristic of one driven by narcissism.