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How Narcissists Withhold Love to Control Their Partners

Understanding the narcissist's behavior in a relationship.

Key points

  • Many narcissists begin their relationships by showering their partner with affection. Later, they shut down intimacy and become abusive.
  • The narcissist's pattern of intermittent reinforcement keeps their partner bonded to them.
  • Breaking out of this pattern is not easy for the partner unless they distance themselves from the narcissist.

One of the common mistakes about narcissism is that the narcissist is in full control of their behavior. The narcissist is often portrayed as someone who is so comfortable with their superiority that they deem other people as insignificant.

In reality, a narcissist is deeply insecure and cannot tolerate any type of criticism or rejection. They go on the attack, using verbal abuse, gaslighting, and other forms of manipulation to control others to avoid feeling out of control themselves.

However, narcissists do not begin a relationship in this fashion and with this behavior. Most narcissists are very charismatic and engaging, showering their partner with gifts, attention, and promises of a perfect future. This is sometimes known as love bombing. The narcissist overwhelms the partner in a whirlwind of affection and attention that is over the top.

The Cycle

This love bombing is only one part of the cycle. Once the relationship is secured or stabilized, the trauma and emotional abuse are quick to follow. Depending on the narcissist, this can include ignoring the person, refusing to engage in conversations, and then a sudden, unexplained and complete removal of intimacy and affection.

In some cases, the narcissist disappears in both the physical and emotional sense. This sudden withholding of intimacy, affection, and attention is painful, disturbing, and unsettling to the partner. They are left wondering what they have done, if the other person will come back, and how they can make it up to the narcissists. Other behaviors used by narcissists include:

  • Lying
  • Blaming
  • Shaming
  • Withdrawing financial support
  • Threatening to leave
  • Manipulation of your relationships with friends and family

The narcissist may not understand the psychological cause of the sudden attention of the partner when they do return, but they are happy to accept the attention and the feeling of superiority and control it provides. Often love bombing following love withholding, creating a cycle that never ends.

Intermittent Reinforcement

What the partner does not realize is the love bombing followed by sudden love withholding creates what is known as intermittent reinforcement. This type of reinforcement is the reason why people play the lottery or go to the casino. Sometimes the betting results in a loss, sometimes it results in a win, and every now and then, it results in a big win.

Narcissists use intermittent reinforcement to create a positive flood of emotion in the partner. The sense of positive emotion is a result of an increase in dopamine, a reward chemical in the brain. The partner does not understand why the narcissist has suddenly become loving, but they become more bonded to the individual with each cycle. This trauma bond is only possible if the withdrawal and the return of affection are intermittent.

Tips to Get Out of the Cycle

Breaking out of this cycle is not easy unless you are able to distance yourself from the narcissist. Some strategies for breaking the cycle include:

  • Setting boundaries — working with a therapist to set boundaries to protect yourself is critical for your mental health.
  • Reconnecting with support people — friends and family can provide support when the narcissist withholds.
  • Practice self-care — putting yourself first should be a priority.
  • Accept reality — working through the gaslighting, lying, and manipulation and seeing the relationship as it truly is will be essential.

Working with a therapist specializing in healing after narcissistic abuse is the best way to heal and move into positive relationships in the future. It also helps you to identify the games the narcissist is playing that cause emotional trauma in your life.

To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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