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The 3 Stages of a Toxic Relationship

2. Devaluing.

Key points

  • Toxic relationships have three main stages: idealizing, devaluing, and discarding.
  • "Love-bombing" occurs during the idealizing phase.
  • During the devaluing phase, you are picked apart.
  • During the discarding phase, there may be an attempt to suck you back into the relationship.
Eric Ward/Unsplash
Source: Eric Ward/Unsplash

Toxic relationships generally follow three stages: idealizing, devaluing, and discarding. Learn about each of these stages and the impact it has on you.


Love-bombing is a clear sign of the idealizing phase. You are told you are the best thing to happen to your partner, and they push for commitment early in the relationship. They may also use "grand gestures" such as lavish gifts or "surprise" vacations. (You are not consulted about your schedule before these surprise trips.) Many clients describe love-bombing as "I was swept off my feet." Others describe being "placed on a pedestal." While it feels good to be told how wonderful you are, consider the purpose of this person's behavior. It is not to form an emotional connection with you; the goal is to get you ensnared so you are less likely to leave the relationship. Note that the idealizing phase is not without emotional abuse. You may be asked about your worst fears, or what you feel shame about. The toxic person isn't trying to develop emotional intimacy—they are collecting ammunition for later.


Once a toxic person has verified that you are committed to them (sometimes through incessantly questioning or pressuring you), they will start sprinkling in emotional abuse tactics. They will comment on your body, what you wear, or your life goals. The personal information you divulged to them during the idealization phase is now used against you. If you set boundaries or do something the toxic person doesn't like, they may dredge up one of your regrets in life. They may say, "Well, now I know why your sister doesn't talk to you—you're crazy."

They may also triangulate and tell you that a trusted friend or family member said something unkind about you. A toxic person might start this conversation with, "Your sister said something about you, and I didn't want to tell you, but you have a right to know." The information you are then given is usually a lie. The goal is to isolate you from others who may tell you that this relationship is unhealthy.

Your partner may tell you that only after you quit your job, stop talking to your sister, do more housework, etc., there won't be any issues in the relationship. Be aware that whatever you do to fulfill a toxic person's wishes, there will always be a new hoop to jump through. The demands are never-ending. You may blame yourself for this change in your partner's behavior. During the idealization phase, you could do no wrong—now, you can do no right. The issue is not with you; it is with your partner.


Regardless of who leaves whom, the toxic person will try to suck you back into the relationship. They will promise you things they denied you during the relationship and tell you the relationship will be better this time. However, they rarely apologize or take responsibility for their behavior. Be aware that if you return to the relationship, the things you were promised will vanish, and the relationship will be just as dysfunctional as before, if not more so.

You may find your partner cheated on you with multiple people throughout the relationship. Toxic people, particularly those with narcissistic tendencies, discover that it is easier to return to old narcissistic supply (their exes) rather than seek new supply for their ego. You may have noticed that your partner idealizes their exes or calls them derogatory names—the one thing they don't show towards their exes is emotional detachment. You may be compared unfavorably to your partner's exes. Sometimes there is a final discard, where the toxic person leaves for good. Sometimes they do this by disappearing and cutting off contact. They may tell you it is your fault. But usually, they have found a new narcissistic supply.

One of the best things you can do with a toxic person is to go no-contact or low-contact with them. Practice good self-care, including letting emotionally healthy people in your life and limiting contact with people who treat you poorly. Speak with a mental health professional about your experiences. You are not alone.

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

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