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Why Narcissistic Behavior Is Confused as Punishment

Punishment reduces the probability of a pattern recurring.

Key points

  • Relationships affected by one or both partners' pathological narcissism are based on cycles of intermittent positive and negative reinforcement.
  • Reinforcement strengthens behavior, including narcissistic adaptations.
  • Learning how these patterns unfold and are maintained is necessary in order to know when to walk away from an unhealthy relationship.
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A "punisher" is defined as an event that follows a given response and reduces the future rate of that behavior. For example, if a child has their video game taken away for not completing their homework and this reduces the future probability of that behavior, then removing their video game is seen as punishing to the child. Or, if a couple is arguing over infidelity and it causes a rupture in the relationship that cannot be repaired, then the relationship ending should operate as punishing to infidelity in future relationships.

If reinforcement of behavior has been removed, punishment should reduce the likelihood of that behavior recurring. Yet there are often misconceptions and misinformation surrounding pathological narcissism in our intimate relationships when it comes to punishment.

Interpersonal dysfunction within intimate relationships is frequently an aspect of pathological narcissism and may include: exploitation, manipulation, devaluation, and a lack of empathy. An interesting observation is that many narcissistic behaviors that should be seen as punishing to us often continue happening in our relationships where a cycle of negativity and damaging behavior continues.

For example, if infidelity is seen as punishing, both partners should in theory agree that the relationship is over after it occurs. However, in relationships affected by one or both partners' pathological narcissism, what we often see is not a healthy parting of ways, but a continuation of a cycle that reinforces more unhealthy patterns. We may see partners finding new ways of hurting each other. We may continue seeing infidelity. Or, we may see one partner discard the relationship while the other partner pursues them in hopes to win them back.

A common misconception is that narcissistic relationships are based on punishment. While these kinds of relationships often feel punishing to those in them because they can negatively affect self-esteem, it is not punishment that is operating to maintain a toxic relationship.

If Not Punishment, Then What?

In 1957, B.F. Skinner published a groundbreaking book on reinforcement. These schedules of reinforcement can be presented in specific ways, and under certain conditions, to either increase, decrease, maintain, or extinct behavior. From his work, we now have the concept of operant conditioning, which includes both reinforcement and punishment. For a behavior to reduce in intensity, duration, or frequency, reinforcement has to be removed, or a punisher presented.

Concerning pathological narcissism seen in relationships, behaviors are based on a combination of both positive and negative reinforcement which strengthens them over time. These are based on similar schedules of reinforcement as those we see in video games and gambling.

Idealization or "love bombing” is a pattern of behavior seen in pathological narcissism that begins with positive reinforcement and establishes the bond. The bond is often strengthened when negative reinforcement is introduced along with a gradual withholding of positive reinforcement.

For example, one partner may act indifferently to what the other is wearing, when the last time they wore the same outfit they were praised for it. By withholding positive reinforcement, such as praise or adoration, a cycle of negative reinforcement is strengthened where the partner may now seek more validation or find new ways to try and please their partner, ultimately strengthening a traumatic bond.

Another common behavior seen in narcissistic relationships is "the silent treatment." It’s common to hear that we may have been given the silent treatment as punishment. However, as long as we are seeking out a response from the other person, or vying for their attention or approval, their silent treatment is not punishing us but is negatively reinforcing our behavior. Any reaction we give may positively reinforce their behavior, whereas some may find pleasure in making their partner chase after them for validation or attention. This dynamic often becomes a power imbalance based on manipulation and control; the more one gives the silent treatment, the more the other seeks to end the silent treatment.

Pathological narcissism is damaging to our self-esteem, our sense of self-worth, and our trust in others because narcissistic behavior requires that we “submit” to these cycles of positive and negative reinforcement. These cycles are maintained and strengthened over time, making it that much more difficult to leave, and that much more damaging to our esteem. At the core of pathologically narcissistic behavior are patterns of building a person up through positive reinforcement, and then systematically implementing devaluation through negative reinforcement.

Not all relationships result in cycles based on repeated patterns of positive and negative reinforcement. However, they are commonly seen in pathological narcissism. Learning how these patterns unfold and are maintained is necessary if our goal is to educate ourselves in knowing when to walk away from an unhealthy situation.

A version of this post also appears on Quora.


Day, N. J. S., et al. (2022). Living with pathological narcissism: Core conflictual relational themes within intimate relationships. BMC Psychiatry, 30, 1 – 11.

Day, N. J. S., et al. (2021). Pathological narcissism: An analysis of interpersonal dysfunction within intimate relationships. Personality and Mental Health, 1, 1 – 13.

Skinner, B. F. (1965). Science & human behavior. Free Press.

Ferster, C. B., & Skinner, B. F. (1957). Schedules of reinforcement. Appleton-Century-Crofts.