Some narcissistic and psychopathic individuals sadistically enjoy toying with and deliberately causing pain to others. This gives them a grandiose sense of power and control and a smug sense of satisfaction that they have “one-upped” you with their perpetual cat-and-mouse games. Researchers note that sadism is a key feature of malignant narcissism (narcissism with antisocial traits). Interestingly, other studies report that individuals high in narcissistic and psychopathic traits tend to experience positive emotions when they view sad faces. Neuroscience research also indicates that when psychopathic individuals imagine others enduring pain, there is increased activation in areas of the brain related to anticipation of reward and decreased activation in areas related to empathy. Psychologists have suggested that this may mean that psychopaths not only lack empathy for the pain of others, but that they also take sadistic pleasure in witnessing or even causing the pain and distress of others.
As a researcher who has corresponded with thousands of people who have been in relationships with psychopathic and narcissistic individuals, I have found that there are certain sadistic patterns of behavior common among narcissists and psychopaths who take pleasure in causing pain to their partners. Here are some red flag behaviors and cat-and-mouse games to watch out for:
1. They manufacture chaos by frequently pushing your trigger buttons to exhaust and disorient you so you’re less able to fight back.
Narcissists and psychopaths know exactly which trigger buttons to push – and that’s usually because they installed them in the first place. They know exactly what to mention and how to act in order to provoke your emotions and depict you as “crazy” when you do. During the abuse cycle, they implant insecurities in you and watch you unravel as you fixate on them. They will do this so chronically that you are constantly scrambling to defend, react, and overexplain yourself and become too exhausted to detach from the relationship. This is their equivalent of playing with their “food” or prey and injuring it immensely before devouring it.
By manufacturing chaos by provoking you, they take up your mental resources so you are only focused on them and the relationship and have less time for yourself, your goals, your healing, and your self-care. Such debilitating tactics are similar to the interrogation tactics used on prisoners of war. The victim has less time to recover from the abuse when it is ongoing, frequent or impactful, so they go to the source of pain itself in an attempt to survive the abuse. This is part of the powerful trauma bond you develop to your abuser as a survival mechanism. You seek comfort from your abuser due to their “hurt-and-rescue” methods – where they deliberately wound you, only to come to the rescue with their comfort and fake apologies and promises to never do it again, only to start the cycle once more. This uncertainty and devaluation keeps you perpetually off-kilter and dependent on their validation; much like a cat stalks its prey and swats at it while it runs around trying to avoid being eaten, you’re constantly walking on eggshells, negotiating your self-respect and basic needs with the predator to avoid being swallowed whole.
2. They retraumatize you using your previous traumas and wounds. As difficult as it may be to accept, some narcissists and psychopaths enjoy deliberately rubbing salt on your wounds just to observe your reactions and see how much they can taunt you. That is why they will weaponize the past traumas, insecurities, and fears you’ve disclosed to them against you. For example, if a narcissist or psychopath knows you have been sexually assaulted, they may start referencing victim-blaming beliefs just to taunt you. Or, they may make callous “jokes” about an insecurity you’ve told them about (such as a feature of your face or body), only to claim they were teasing or that you are too sensitive. Regardless of how “off-limits” a topic may be or how inhumane these tactics may seem, they will exploit any vulnerabilities they are aware of or suspect you have. That’s why it’s important to limit disclosure of past traumas and insecurities to partners – until they’ve proven their character long-term.
3. They bait and set you up with information to react to – just so they can rage and engage in crazymaking arguments. There are times narcissists and psychopaths will purposely give you provocative, triggering or contradictory information in order to make you question them, exhaust yourself attempting to understand what they mean or constantly ask for further clarification. They will also frame your calm questions as an “interrogation” so they have an excuse to gaslight and condition you to walk on eggshells around them. This is a set up for them to talk in circles, manufacture chaos and rage, just so they can depict you as crazy. Psychopathy expert Dr. Robert Hare calls this a form of “cold” manufactured rage – one that is not authentic but rather displayed in a shallow, short-lived way to control the victim and keep the victim in his or her “place.” In reality, they wanted you to ask more about the unsettling information they offered so they could provoke you and blame you for reacting. This stems from their sadistic need for power and control, and thirst for manufacturing chaos.
Example: Let’s say narcissistic Bryan wants to set up his girlfriend, Rebecca, for rage and gaslighting. He mentions “casually” that a new coworker and him have begun talking. This is an attempt at jealousy induction for the purpose of power and control, which research shows is associated with both narcissistic and psychopathic traits. Rebecca remarks how wonderful that is and asks him calmly, “What did you guys talk about?” only to have Bryan suddenly manufacture a display of rage and claim that Rebecca is “insecure, jealous, crazy” and “interrogating” him. When Rebecca reminds him gently that he is the one who mentioned the coworker and she was only asking politely, he continues to gaslight and stonewall her, claiming, “I can’t do this with you anymore! You’re so controlling and paranoid! You always want to know everything!” as he rushes out of the room and flees. To an outsider, the scene looks bizarre: Rebecca is calm, gentle, and is expressing polite interest. Bryan, on the other hand, is having a temper tantrum that seems to come out of nowhere.
What just happened here? This is a scenario of a narcissist manufacturing chaos on purpose and setting up the victim to react by laying out “bait” and seeing if the victim takes the bait. When the victim does react, the narcissist punishes the victim for doing exactly what he wanted her to do. Bryan isn’t really enraged – he’s putting on a manufactured display of cold rage to depict Rebecca in a certain light. He knows very well the information he disclosed would cause her to ask a simple question he will later frame as an “interrogation.” This also conditions Rebecca to walk on eggshells and make her hesitant to approach them with questions or express her emotions in the future. Bryan has effectively killed two birds with one stone: he’s gained power and control over Rebecca to make her feel and look insecure, and he’s also gained the leverage to engage in shady behavior in the future by instilling fear in Rebecca about holding him accountable. She now knows the “consequences” of confronting him about his behavior and knows she will be punished for it.
4. They coerce you into self-harm, reckless activity or substance use. According to Dr. Robert Hare’s Psychopathy Checklist, psychopathic individuals tend to get bored easily and require constant stimulation. They engage in high-risk activities themselves to gain that stimulation and have no problem encouraging others to do so for their own pleasure and entertainment. This means that testing how far they can “push” you into doing harmful activities is just another cat-and-mouse game for them, especially when you are most vulnerable. They want to know how far the pupeeteer can take the puppet, so to speak. This coercion can happen in a number of different ways. They may encourage you to self-sabotage just when you are making progress on a goal (e.g. encourage you to party before a big exam or interview). They could subtly push you toward self-harm for their own pleasure or show callous indifference during crises when you are already feeling over the edge – in extreme cases, pushing you to self-mutilate or even more sadistically, encourage suicide. They could “suggest” reckless pursuits that could harm yourself or others (e.g. speeding while driving for “fun” or vandalizing property).
The cycle of domestic violence with a narcissist or psychopath can also include a tactic known as “substance abuse coercion.” This is when narcissists and psychopaths encourage the use of drugs or drinking – not just to keep you under the influence, but also keep you under their influence and compliant to more of their abuse – whether it is verbal, psychological, physical or even sexual abuse. They may also deliberately undermine your treatment and recovery efforts, or use the substance use they encouraged against you to restrict your ability to gain employment, take control of your finances, challenge custody of your children or depict you as the abuser to law enforcement. This is a very insidious, dangerous tactic that can allow them to isolate, gaslight and discredit you more easily when you do identify the abuse, because they can claim that you cannot trust your own memory or perception of the abuse since you were “impaired” during abusive incidents.
5. They use hot-and-cold, push-pull methods to get you addicted to their attention, as they withhold affection after intense periods of love bombing. The hot-and-cold intermittent reinforcement of the abuse cycle creates a powerful trauma bond and addiction to the narcissist. This is why narcissists and psychopaths love to lure you in with their false charming mask and plenty of attention and praise, only to sweep the rug up from under you with callous indifference and devaluation that makes you doubt yourself. They may shower you with affection one day, only to give you the silent treatment the next. It gives them a sense of sadistic pleasure to know they have so much control your emotions and will work that much harder to regain their attention. Much like the never-ending chase of cat-and-mouse games, this cycle only continues as the relationship goes on. If you are experiencing the hot and cold tactics of the narcissist, it’s important to go cold altogether.
6. They abandon you during crises, losses, emergencies, and even during your success. Many stories abound of narcissistic and psychopathic individuals abandoning their loved ones in times of great need – whether during a health crisis, in the beginning of a pregnancy, during a loss, a miscarriage, in the middle of nowhere on vacation or a life-threatening illness. They may even abandon your when you are about to celebrate a life-changing achievement or milestone (such as an important anniversary or a graduation). This level of callousness and inhumanity traumatizes many survivors. Some narcissists and psychopaths take a special glee in abandoning you when you most need them, as these are times when they feel they are no longer the center of attention or can no longer milk you for resources and labor.
7. They chronically provoke jealousy on purpose, only to frame your subsequent boundaries or questions as an invasion of their privacy and depict you as “controlling.” Narcissists and psychopaths are adept at deceiving their loved ones. Many lead double lives that may remain hidden for months, years or even decades. One of their favorite cat-and-mouse games to play is provoking jealousy and creating love triangles – only to blame you for questioning them or setting boundaries in response to their shady behavior. As noted in the previous example of Bryan and Rebecca, these manipulators enjoy portraying their partners as “controlling,” “jealous,” and “paranoid,” even though they usually demonstrate these qualities moreso than their partner and deliberately manufacture jealousy on purpose to control you.
For example, if your narcissistic or psychopathic partner has a habit of texting late into the night, you may become suspicious of who they’re contacting, especially if they’ve engaged in deceptive behavior in the past. You may ask to see their phone due to your legitimate suspicions or ask them not to text so late at night as a boundary. In response, they will gaslight you into believing you’re being paranoid, controlling and distrusting. In reality, if a partner has given you sufficient reason to believe they are untrustworthy and has a pattern of deceptive behavior, you have every right to set a boundary, request for more information or ask questions. Remember: they are the ones putting your emotional and physical safety, as well as health at risk. It is not intrusive or “controlling” to set boundaries or hold someone accountable for deceptive behavior while in a committed relationship.
8. They go out of their way to spoil your joy during the holidays and hinder your enjoyment of achievements. Narcissists and psychopaths love toying with their victims during special occasions and holidays. That’s why they’ll suddenly begin rageful arguments leading up to Thanksgiving and become a depressed Grinch during Christmas, spreading negativity and spite to their loved ones. That is why they’ll diminish one of your big accomplishments or even compare you to someone else to ensure you associate your accomplishment with this degrading comparison rather than enjoying the fruits of your labor. Whether it’s making crazymaking accusations before a holiday party to disorient you, comparing you to others to diminish your sense of achievement or deliberately withholding affection and attention when you get a job promotion, these pathological personalities know exactly how to deflate your joy so the focus is on them once more.
9. They provoke fear and make covert threats using “dog whistling”. Narcissists and psychopaths provoke fear regarding their retaliation should you ever dare to leave the relationship. Such a cat-and-mouse game enables them to hold dominion over you and your future choices. You not only fear leaving them, you are also entrapped by the fears they instill in you about the idea that you are not “good enough” to succeed, obtain healthy relationships, or flourish without them. This is because they have trained you over time to feel trauma bonded and attached to the relationship – and to them as a source of validation and approval. They can also employ a covert tactic known as “dog whistling” to humiliate, provoke, degrade, or threaten you in front of others or in private with “coded,” insidious, subtle references that only you understand and appear innocent to outsiders. This allows them to abuse you in public and behind closed doors without being held accountable, making you feel even more isolated, alienated and without support. If you do try to hold them accountable, they will react with faux outrage and convince others around them that they are innocent and you are overreacting.
10. They distort your self-perception by instilling insecurities that never existed. Before you met the narcissist or psychopath, you were likely far more confident, self-assured, goal-oriented and emotionally balanced. Now, you find yourself reactive, walking on eggshells, and feeling chronically off-kilter due to their devaluation. You question and doubt yourself often and find yourself battling insecurities you previously never even thought about, and mentally comparing yourself to people you never would dream of comparing yourself to previously and never knew existed prior to the relationship. That is because these cat-and-mouse games narcissists and psychopaths play are designed to make you lose your sense of self and cater to their whims, impulses and desires. These manipulators feed you a distorted version of yourself and your reality by making outrageous comparisons and subjecting you to cruel and callous comments. You start to see yourself through this distorted lens rather than the reality of how amazing and worthy you truly are. You become conditioned over time to think about what the narcissist or psychopath thinks, wants, feels – and forget about your own desires, emotions, values and boundaries, all of which they’ve gaslit you into believing are pathological and defective. By ruining your self-confidence, narcissists and psychopaths are able to diminish victims who are out of their league in many ways into staying in the abusive relationship.
Escaping the cat-and-mouse games of narcissists and psychopaths requires that you stop thinking of yourself as prey and take on the role of the strategic survivor. You must learn – safely – how to escape the game and plan your exit in a way that protects you from further harm from them. At the end, it is not about whether the narcissist or psychopath “wins” any of these games – they cannot win if there is no one to play with. It is about identifying the red flags, prioritizing yourself and the future that awaits you, and up-leveling out of the game altogether. The only way to “win” in the long-term is being willing to lose the narcissist or psychopath so you don’t lose yourself. Checkmate.