Dissecting the On-Again, Off-Again Relationship

Unstable relationships are a hallmark of Cluster B disorders, like borderline and narcissistic personality disorders. On-again, off-again relationships can be terribly damaging and often, they can be the result of a prolonged, repeated pattern of narcissistic abuse.

Narcissists tend to target very empathetic and conscientious people, because they can mistreat them longer, with less chance of them leaving. By sporadically giving them hope, they can string several people along at once. Of course, a large harem requires maintenance and can present scheduling problems.

I believe this is part of why narcissists are so unreliable. Aside from the fact that their impaired empathy prevents them from really caring about anyone else’s feelings, they need to make time, often in secret, for the various harem members they’ve been stringing along. This necessitates last-minute cancellations, changes of plans and occasional no-shows. Insidiously, this erratic behavior helps to cement the trauma bond between victim and narcissist.

I wasn’t aware of it, but I was part of Tina’s harem. She cleared her schedule for me in the beginning love-bombing stage and a lot of the time, I was her main source of supply, but periodically, I was rotated out. I can see now that this generally followed some kind of narcissistic injury. Unintentional slights or minor disagreements that would roll off the backs of most could be grievous blows to a narcissist. Criticism was intolerable. That kind of injury demanded retribution.

[Related reading: Five Reasons why Love Bombing is the most Dangerous Stage of Narcissistic Abuse]

Ghosting is one of the narcissist’s favorite weapons. It certainly was one of Tina’s. Disappearing without explanation for days or even weeks and sometimes months was a psychologically and emotionally torturous punishment and also allowed time to maintain relationships with the secondary sources in her harem.

Ghosting creates a wound that only the narcissist can soothe, because without the narcissist to explain why she left, there is no way to close the case on that mystery. The mind will spin itself into a frenzy trying to figure it out, but only the narcissist could solve the puzzle.

[Related reading: Why Ghosting Hurts so Much]

With one relationship on hold, twisting uncertainly in the wind, a secondary supply source would have been eager to prove their worth to the narcissist, would lend a sympathetic ear and commiserate over perceived, exaggerated injuries. The most important job of secondary supply was to reassure the narcissist of her own faultlessness.

Of course, eventually, everyone lets a narcissist down and they move from idealizing and love-bombing into devaluation when they realize their target is not perfect and then to discard, when they rotate to another (former or new) source of narcissistic supply. They lose some along the way, so a narcissist is constantly on the hunt for potential new sources. Everywhere I took Tina, she was shopping for my temporary or possibly permanent replacements. Sometimes she’d collect numbers or accept drinks from other men right in front of me. That was a power play called triangulation.

Put simply, triangulation is using a third person to belittle or create insecurity in a narcissist’s victim. This psychological manipulation tactic is used to secure control. A crafty narcissist could even be accuser and defender at once, like when Tina told me “all my friends are against us being together, but I told them that you’re the love of my life and no one has ever made me happier.”

[Related reading: How Narcissists use Triangulation]

Since I’d had almost no interaction with Tina’s friends, the only way they could have formed a negative opinion of me would have been based on what Tina told them. During the devaluation stage, narcissists smear their victims with friends, family and even mutual acquaintances, then get their support for inevitable discard. That didn’t occur to me at the time, though, because I was put on defensive and felt I had to redouble my efforts to prove my worthiness. The immediate threat took precedence over any deeper examination. Besides, Tina was telling me that she talked me up and “defended me” to her friends!

[Related reading: The Five Devaluation Triggers]

After a variable time apart, with me struggling in vain to figure out what had gone wrong, Tina always came back in what’s known in psychology circles as a “hoover.” She’d suck me back in. She’d heal the self-esteem wound she caused by vanishing without a word and commence with a new period of idealization and love-bombing.

Each time this cycle repeated, the trauma bond became stronger. Each discard was more devastating and painful than the last.

A trauma bond is, essentially, a powerful, chemical/physiological addiction to one’s abuser, not unlike the “Stockholm Syndrome,” observed after hostages developed a bond with their captors in a 1973 robbery of a Swedish bank.

When I questioned Tina’s behavior, she’d either ghost again (which I was always walking on eggshels to avoid because the withdrawals that ensued were increasingly unbearable agony) or engage in gaslighting to get my inquiring mind under control. She often made little suggestions to make me question my mental health. I’d ask about something that seemed out of place with her words or behavior and she’d in turn suggest that I could benefit from anti-depressants, for example. More often, though, she’d make me doubt the veracity of my own memory.

[Related reading: How Narcissists Gaslight]

For the first two years, we drank together, a lot. Somehow she always had crystal clear recollection of every incident and conversation on those drinking nights and she could get me to doubt my own memories, because I’d been drinking. It got to a point where I’d think I must have dreamed or imagined her bad behavior, because she’d so-often call my memory into question. I began thinking of it as my “half-heimers.” It even worked on me after I’d stopped drinking. The funny thing was, once free of Tina’s influence, my recall seemed to improve miraculously.

Gaslighting is a way of concealing the truth by causing the victim to question his own eyes, ears, recollection or sanity. It eventually warps one’s entire perception of reality and destroys self-confidence. This is where conscientiousness plays a role in victim selection. A more conscientious person is more willing to entertain suggestions of their own shortcomings in memory and mental health. Conscientious and empathetic people expect that those close to them have sincere and well-meaning intentions, give the benefit of the doubt and consider how they might, themselves be wrong.

[Related reading: Gaslighting, Signs, Situations and tips for Pushing Back]

Tina’s ability to successfully gaslight me had another force at play in my mind. It’s a revelation that only came after being years-separated from the manipulation. On an almost subconscious level, it was preferable to accept the gaslighting, no matter how ludicrous it became, than to face a reality that would necessitate separating. The stronger the trauma bond became, the more I feared the horrific agony I’d suffer from the inevitable withdrawals if we broke up.

There can be other reasons for on-again, off-again relationships. Relationships between addicts and co-dependents can often result in a lifetime of separations and reunions. That dynamic also happened to apply to Tina and I, but the on-again, off-again dynamic perfectly matches the narcissistic abuse pattern of idealize, devalue, discard, hoover.

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5 comments

  • Savagemom

    These are sick and twisted individuals who only care about themselves. I married into a family of narcs, and I have no one except my son to raise, in the midst of this psychological abuse, while the jerk dad comes across like superman, so phoney 😝👺😈

  • Kimbra

    I’m in need of a divorce lawyer who specializes in narcissism. My husband is a covert narcissist and I’ve been living a nightmare for years, pure hell.

    I’ve hired a lawyer but I am not, at all, confident he understands narcissism.

    I’ve been with my husband since I was 13 years old, married 45 years. It was only about 5 years ago I learned there was a name for his behavior. I’m exhausted & feel hopeless.

    We are separated but he continues to control & make my life as difficult as possible. And, he does his crazy under the radar & I have no support. He’s been smearing me for years without my knowledge. Since I started to get close to uncovering who is was when he began his cruel, vindictive behavior. My story is long with unbelievable stories of his abuse.

    I live in Prior Lake, MN. Can you help?

    Also, he’s into my computer & my phone. I’ve changed the router, changed my phone, added extra protection for privacy , but nothing I do works. I have no privacy.

  • Alex

    I find your stories interesting. I’m in a relationship with a narcissistic woman. I do not think I am co-dependent but perhaps I am a bit. If anything I have narc tendencies myself. My point is that these woman can be exciting and I enjoy this relationship — but only under certain conditions. The key is that the balance of power stay somewhat stable. In particular, you can never let them maneuver you in a position of vulnerability. An example of this would be having a child together. Another would be moving in together. There must always be a dialectical tension maintained — a yin/yang type balance where she is allowed to be her narc self but you don’t ever get too pulled in.

    Educating yourself on narcissism is important. This opens to way to using their own tricks against. But the key strategic goal it is not to “win” in any sort of sense, and above all it is not to “normalize” them. Understanding narcissism and using its techniques elevates your staying power and avoids catastrophic collapses into victimhood. Because once the codependent collapses, he is useless to the narc. The dialectical tension evaporates and the relationship along with it.

    You seem to have good powers of empathy, including towards yourself. What would be interesting is for you to write blogs from Tina’s point of view. Where she judges you as a partner. This means as a codependent. This is who you are and you should embrace this role. But the first condition of playing this role is maintaining enough power in the relationship to not collapse. And one way to achieve this power is to mirror her narcissism in order to shore up your defensive lines.

    What actions of yours did Tina enjoy? A narc does not want total victory. She surely would have enjoyed your displays of strength. Did you ever triangulate against her? Writing from her point of view would force you to see yourself as an object and to judge the actions of this object from Tina’s subjective point of view.

    Yes you have a trauma bond towards her but she has a supply bond towards you. This is the dialectical tensions that keeps things both moving apart and staying together. The more you move away from her, the more she will follow in order to pull you back into her orbit. It seems to me that any efforts to normalize her and the relationship are wasted energy and unproductive. The energy would be better spent both protecting yourself by minimizing any structural vulnerability you have towards her. This means compartmentalizing her. The trauma bond means that breaking apart is too painful but keeping her in a box is perfectly achievable.

    Some people say they love drinking too much to ever become an alcoholic. A relationship with a narc-ish woman is similar, it does bring great pleasure but it must be managed. For the man, the false comforts of victimhood must always be avoided. And the best tools to avoid this are awareness and appropriating narc-like tools to keep her in a box. She is a feral animal, she is dependent on you but you must never treat her as if she is domesticated. Always keep her at arm’s length or she will crap on your carpet every time.

  • Dan

    “What would be interesting is for you to write blogs from Tina’s point of view. Where she judges you as a partner.”

    It’s not easy to go there, because a narcissist’s thoughts are so alien to me, but I was an excellent source of admiration, validation and support. As an appliance, I usually did my job exceptionally and the benefits of keeping me around were numerous. Until she broke her favorite toy. When one’s toaster starts talking back and challenging you, it’s easy enough to get a new toaster. Do you miss the old one? Of course not. You just wanted the toast.

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