Why Is It So Hard to Leave the Narcissist in Your Life?

How is it possible that this can happen to a normally sane and functional person like you?

The answer to this question lies in understanding the underlying dynamics of how humans react to a combination of dependency and abuse coupled with “intermittent reinforcement.”

Intermittent Reinforcement

Many research studies have focused on how to get healthy laboratory rats to keep pressing a bar in the hope that they would continue to get food pellets.

The researchers’ goal was to keep the rats working for rewards long after they had stopped giving them any. They chose lab rats because they react very similarly to humans in these types of situations.


The researchers experimented with different patterns of rewards and found the following:

Pattern 1 — Reward them every time they press

This was the least effective reward schedule. The rats expected to be rewarded after every bar press. When the rewards stopped, they might press one or two more times just to see whether any new food appeared. But even the dumbest rats quickly wandered away and stopped paying attention to the bar.


Pattern 2 — Reward for every 10th press

Here the researchers got the rats used to pressing the food bar 10 times before the food came out. This means that the rats could not learn that no more food would come until after they had already done the work of pressing at least 10 times.

Most tried at least one more time and did another set of 10. Eventually, all the rats realized there were no more food rewards for bar pressing and they stopped working and wandered off to look elsewhere for food.


Pattern 3 — Reward every 10 minutes

Here the rats learned that they would only get food on a set time schedule. Once they figured out that they would get rewarded 10 minutes after a press, they would eventually get very economical with their presses.

They would press once or twice towards the end of the 10-minute period, then stop and wait for their reward. After the rewards stopped, it only took a few non-rewarded 10-minute periods for the rats to stop pressing the bar.

Result: The researchers learned that having any predictable pattern of rewards for pressing the bar resulted in fewer bar presses after the rewards stopped for good.


Pattern 4 — Intermittent Reinforcement

The researchers finally outwitted the rats by doing away with any predictable pattern of reward. They varied the times between rewards and how many bar presses would be required to get food in exchange for work.

Result: The rats kept pressing the bar, even though they were never rewarded again.


In the terminology of “Learning Psychology,” the response of bar pressing was never extinguished on a schedule of “intermittent reinforcement.” In human language, the rats continued to work in the hope that someday they would once again be rewarded.


Stockholm Syndrome

Stockholm Syndrome is the term for a situation in which adults who are mistreated by their captors develop positive feelings towards the people who are mistreating them.

As the situation progresses, the captives start to become more childlike and dependent. They become grateful for any small signs of approval and affection. Eventually, they may bond with their captors and even come to love them.

The name comes from a 1973 bank robbery in Stockholm, Sweden in which the robbers took hostages. Much to the world’s surprise, by the time the captives were freed, they had developed positive feelings towards their captors, instead of hating them.


How does all of this apply to being in a relationship with an abusive Narcissist?

Stage 1 — Continuous Reward with Nothing Required in Return

In the beginning, when the Narcissistic individual is focused on “getting” you, they give you lots of emotional food pellets in the form of attention, praise, and sweet gestures. They tell you how wonderful you are, bring you thoughtful gifts, and focus on making you feel good.

Almost everyone responds well to getting continuously stroked and praised by someone that they find attractive. This is the Narcissistic courtship pattern that has come to be known as “Love Bombing.”

All that they ask for in return is that you continue to give them a chance to prove their love to you. This is the human equivalent of teaching the lab rat where to look for food pellets.


Stage 2 — Performance Rewards

Once Narcissistic individuals feel more secure with you, they stop continuously rewarding you. Now you only get positive attention when you do things that make the Narcissist feel good.

Enough positive attention is still flowing your way that you do not really notice that now you only get rewarded when you “press the bar.”  In human terms, you are being groomed to want to please the Narcissist in your life.


Stage 3 — Devaluation Starts, Rewards Decrease

In this stage, your Narcissistic mate starts to occasionally mistreat you. They may become critical of you, become controlling, or publically put you down.

You still get occasional emotional “treats,” but now they are unpredictable. The bad moments start to outweigh the good. You are now on the equivalent of an “intermittent reinforcement schedule.”


Stage 4 — “Gaslighting”

If this is your first experience with an abusive Narcissist, you are likely to be extremely puzzled as to why this is happening. Your Narcissistic mate supplies the answer.

They insist that you are the problem. If only you would do more of a, b, or c, and stop doing x, y, and z, everything would go back to being perfect. The term “Gaslighting” comes from a movie in which a man deliberately tries to drive his wife crazy by making her doubt her own perceptions of reality.


Stage 5 — Control Is Established

If you give in and start to believe what your Narcissistic mate says and give them even more control over you, BINGO!! You are now in a mini Stockholm Syndrome situation.

The person who is mistreating you is now in charge of doling out everything. You have allowed yourself to become dependent and infantilized.


Stage 6 — Resignation and Loss of Self

You are now their helpless prisoner hoping that if you do exactly what they say and show them enough love, they will love you back and be kind to you again.


Stage 7 — Addiction, Leaving, and “Hoovering”

Addiction: At this point, you are addicted to their approval. You are no longer thinking rationally. Instead of hating them for abusing you and wanting to be rid of them, you are afraid of losing them to someone else.

You are totally trauma bonded to them. This means that you refuse to see the obvious: This person never loved you, cannot love anyone, and they are too Narcissistic to care how you feel or how much damage they do to your life.

Leaving: If you happen to summon up the inner strength to leave, your Narcissistic mate will suddenly change their tactics. They now start trying to suck you back into the relationship. This is informally called “Hoovering,” after the vacuum cleaner by that name.

Hoovering: They may start by doing something minor, like suddenly starting to “like” your social media posts. Then they may send you a casual text asking how work is going. If that does not get you to respond, they up the ante. They go back to the “Love Bombing” tactics that got you interested in them in the first place. If you continue to resist, they try even harder.

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Dr. Elinor Greenberg PhD, CGPhttp://www.elinorgreenberg.com/
Elinor Greenberg, Ph.D., CGP, is an internationally renowned Gestalt therapy trainer who specializes in teaching the diagnosis and treatment of Borderline, Narcissistic, and Schizoid adaptations in a lively and practical way. She has trained psychotherapists in her approach in the US, Norway, Sweden, Wales, England, Russia, and Mexico.
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