Narcissistic and psychopathic individuals seek power and control over others. This is a driving force behind their exploitative behavior, and research indicates that they can engage in unprovoked bullying and aggression, instrumental aggression to achieve a goal and reactive aggression toward others. Contrary to the myth that such manipulators are always operating from low self-esteem, grandiose narcissists and psychopaths tend to have high self-esteem, confidence and even fearlessness. Some even take a sadistic joy in deliberately provoking others. It is no wonder, then, that their romantic partners can experience symptoms of PTSD due to the effects of their callous, exploitative traits and underhanded manipulation tactics.
During the initial stages of dating, a narcissistic or psychopathic individual will usually be on their “best behavior” and put on their most charming false mask to impress you. They are masters of impression management and positive first impressions. They will excessively flatter and praise you (a manipulative tactic known as love bombing) with constant attention, contact and affection.
However, once their victims are hooked and sufficiently invested in the relationship, the false mask will start to dissipate, and the narcissist’s true self will emerge. This is when the period of abuse known as “devaluation” begins. During the devaluation phase of the relationship, the narcissist or psychopath will withhold the following three elements of the relationship to gaslight you into believing you are the problem:
1. Withholding of affection and attention. One of the first elements of a relationship with a narcissist which will undergo an abrupt shift is the attention and affection the narcissist or psychopath once showed you. This abrupt withdrawal can cause emotional whiplash and causes victims to doubt themselves and their worth. Narcissists will deliberately shower you with excessive attention, contact, praise, and affection during the love bombing phase – only to begin to withhold that attention and affection during the devaluation phase.
Such hot-and-cold tactics serve as a form of conditioning known as intermittent reinforcement in the abuse cycle, creating an addiction in the brain to the narcissist, since you experience a greater increase in dopamine when “rewards” are given on an unpredictable schedule rather than predictable schedule. This can compel victims to chase after the narcissist’s attention and double down on trying to make themselves more “loveable” or “worthy” to the narcissist so they can gain the dopamine-rich “reward” of the narcissist’s now unpredictable attention and affection. In the beginning, narcissists were the ones who had to work hard to capture your interest – during the abuse cycle, they train you to perceive them and their attention as valuable and scarce. Narcissists tend to target victims they deem “special and unique” and often have qualities “out of their league,” yet this sudden withholding of affection and attention can make their victims feel as if the narcissist is the one who is valuable and sought after, even if this is far from the reality. This “push-pull” and “hot and cold” method is also a notorious tactic among pick-up artists.
The other reason this withdrawal of attention and affection works so well is because it preys on the victim’s deepest insecurities, wounds, and fears – and instills new insecurities and fears that never even existed. It causes victims of narcissists to hyperfocus on their perceived flaws or insecurities that the narcissist manufactures and see themselves through a distorted lens. It causes victims to ask, “Why are they treating me this way?” and to engage in self-blame.
This is a way for them to maintain power and control over you so that you work harder to get their attention. Victims start to internalize the narcissist’s sudden devaluation of them as evidence that there is something wrong within them instead of identifying that the narcissist’s inconsistent behavior is what is problematic and a red flag of manipulation.
This form of withdrawal is especially powerful when the narcissist overwhelms you with an immense amount of sexual and romantic attention in the beginning, only to suddenly distance themselves to prevent you from having too much “power” in the relationship and over them. The narcissist does this to cause their victims falsely assume and feel that they are undesirable in some way, even though the narcissist ardently desired and pursued them in the beginning. This is a way to kick their victims off the pedestal and sit on the pedestal themselves as the victim scrambles to regain their affection.
This is also a potent tactic the narcissist tends to use on confident, attractive victims – victims who the narcissist knows have many options and victims who are already validated by others on their desirability and attractiveness. If you are someone who receives an immense amount of positive feedback from others and are “out of the league” of the narcissist, the narcissist will devalue you even more strongly and aggressively because they know they have to pull out all the stops to convince you that you are inferior or defective in some way – precisely because you have so much feedback and evidence to the contrary.
How to resist the sudden withdrawal: When a narcissist withholds affection and attention, especially after an intense period of love-bombing, it’s important not to chase them or increase your efforts. Do not reward “bad behavior” by treating them as more valuable or putting them on a pedestal. Instead, use this as a “cooling off” period of detachment where you take them off the pedestal, mentally devalue them by seeing their true, undesirable traits, minimize contact and recognize the true manipulation that is going on. Identify this inconsistency as a turn off and something that only a low-value partner would attempt in order to make you more interested in them. When any dating partner uses hot and cold tactics to win you over, go cold altogether.
Do not internalize the narcissist’s behavior as something that is wrong with you – if you do notice insecurities and fears arising in response to this devaluation and withholding, address them head-on by boosting inner confidence in that arena – whether by engaging in self-compassion and self-appreciation, reminding yourself of healthy feedback from others or working on that facet of your life to match what you desire for yourself and not for the narcissist.
It is important to reality check during an abuse cycle with a narcissist and recognize that your addiction to the narcissist has nothing to do with their merit and everything to do with the power of hot and cold intermittent reinforcement which acts like a drug to the brain. Rather than chasing the next “fix” of a reward that may not come, detox from the narcissist and reclaim your life.
2. Withdrawal of their time. In the beginning of the relationship, the narcissist used constant contact to ensure they were on your mind all day long – and to better isolate you so you didn’t spend your time on other options and realize you deserved better than them. Research indicates that narcissistic love bombing tendencies are associated with excessive text and media usage in relationships. During the devaluation phase, you may have noticed a significant reduction in their texts, phone calls and in-person meetings, or abrupt disappearances during times they would usually be present (for example, the absence of a good morning text they would send you every day and conditioned you to expect).
You may have also noticed them frequently stonewalling you and disappearing when you try to bring up any concerns about the relationship or subjecting you to the silent treatment. This is because they no longer need to use excessive contact to grab your interest once you’ve started to reciprocate that interest. Instead, they’ll begin “breadcrumbing” you with just enough attention to stay in the relationship, chasing you only when you seem to lose interest, when they fear they are losing you or when they believe you have other suitors that could serve as competition.
As a result, you begin putting in most of the effort to maintain contact and become increasingly frustrated as you attempt to regain the honeymoon phase of the relationship and the baseline of attentiveness the narcissist set up in the beginning. The narcissist may depict your attempts to reconnect with them as being “needy and insecure” even though they set up these expectations for constant contact in the beginning, or provide excuses as to why they’re no longer as available – excuses that have just enough plausible deniability to make you doubt yourself and their manipulative withholding.
How to respond to their withholding of time: Rather than giving even more of your time to the narcissist to convince them of your “worth,” reclaim your own time by giving less of yours to the narcissist. As you break the trauma bond and plan a safe exit from the relationship, spend your time wisely by prioritizing yourself, your healing, and your goals. Work on building your dream life outside of the narcissist and striving toward your ideal self. Consider the narcissist’s stonewalling or silent treatment as a secret blessing and gift: a space where you can brainstorm on how to leave the relationship, recover, succeed, and be reborn. Recondition yourself from expecting constant contact with the narcissist with instead using the extra space and time you now have to detach from the relationship and to pour better, more authentic sources of peace and joy onto yourself, your goals and onto empathic people who actually deserve your time, presence and energy. Think of your own presence and time as a privilege and honor, something the narcissist will no longer have unfettered and unlimited access to. They are now the ones who will have to fight to regain that access to your time, energy, and life – and you will not give it to them, no matter how hard they try. This will allow you to invest your time, effort, and energy in worthy aspirations that actually yield benefits, rather than investing in a toxic person with high costs and no positive return on your investment.
3. Withholding of compliments, healthy praise and emotional support. Narcissistic and psychopathic individuals will also withhold healthy praise and emotional support from you during the devaluation phase of the relationship. In the beginning, they may have excessively complimented you and showed support for your positive traits and accomplishments to get you addicted to their positive feedback. They may have helped you through your daily struggles or adverse circumstances, or given you encouragement on your goals.
In the devaluation phase, they begin to withhold compliments, emotional support and validation, and may even begin to actively detract from your positive qualities and achievements in an attempt to get you to “impress” them or gain their approval. They may even sadistically compliment others to provoke you and get you to compete, while withholding praise from you. They may also verbally abuse and emotionally invalidate you, only to comfort you later on, using “hurt and rescue” methods to get you trauma bonded to them. This is to position themselves as the dominant and powerful one in the relationship, the arbiter of your self-esteem and emotional experiences. As you begin to question the narcissist on why there is a sudden shift, they may pretend nothing has changed, gaslight you into believing you are expecting too much from them or act callous and indifferent in response to your concerns.
How to respond to withholding of healthy praise and support: Rather than seeking validation from the narcissist, seek validation from within and from empathic people who remind you of your positive qualities and can help you during trying times. Keep a list of positive feedback you’ve received to remind yourself what healthy praise looks like and what healthy support looks like. Validate your emotions and be gentle with yourself. Seek professional support to process your traumas, gain authentic comfort and safety from a validating source and to identify the “hurt and rescue” methods of the narcissist. Compliment yourself daily on both external and internal attributes and celebrate your achievements to build your self-esteem and to keep yourself grounded in what you do deserve to experience in a healthy relationship. Match the narcissist’s energy and stop complimenting and praising the narcissist: they do not deserve what they no longer give to you. This will also help you detach from them so you can exit the relationship, as they will no longer see you as an endless source of “ego stroking” and narcissistic supply for them. You are better off using that energy and effort on people who are truly worthy of your support.
If you are dating a narcissist and experience any forms of withholding or narcissistic diversion tactics to belittle you, it is better to detach sooner than later. Recognize that any form of withholding is a foreshadowing of more mistreatment and abuse to come. Don’t withhold the healthy love you do deserve from yourself by staying with the narcissist – instead, identify the red flags, cut your losses early and invest in yourself.