Sam saw a disturbing pattern in her marriage between herself and her partner. After her narcissistic husband would explode combining verbal assaults with mental and emotional abuse, he would enter a calmer phase of interaction for several weeks – almost allowing her to believe the abusive behavior had completely ceased. Then, as if there was a timer set on his frustration tolerance, a one-minute conversation could spark the abusive rage again. The rages were awful. He would call her names, twist the truth, throw things at her, exaggerate her intentions, guilt-trip her into believing this rage was her fault, and even physically block her so she couldn’t leave the room.
Unlike other non-narcissistic abusive people, her husband would not take any responsibility for his actions. He refused to apologize and instead made a game out of getting her to apologize for his poor behavior. Sam accepted the guilt just to keep the peace and it would work for about six weeks. During this time, he was charming, pleasant, and would give her material gifts almost as if this was the only way he could say sorry. But then the pattern would repeat. Over and over again.
Honeymoon abuser phase. The period of calm after an abusive event is called the honeymoon phase. For the narcissist, the release of emotional energy during a rant is therapeutic. Sometimes they are even completely unaware of what they have said or done. They have the ability to work themselves into a type of angry dissociative state in which they discharge their negativity. More often than not, the things said are about themselves and not the person they project onto. Worse yet, because they dissociate, they don’t remember what was said.
Once the narcissist has removed this toxic energy, they feel great. They might act as if they are floating on cloud nine and everything is awesome again. It is a type of manic euphoria where life is perfect, and they are the stars of the show. The last thing the narcissist wants in this moment is to be confronted with their previously poor and abusive behavior. Any bursting of their mania bubble can incite an even more intensely abusive reaction.
Honeymoon victim phase. By contrast, the person on the receiving end of narcissistic rage, the victim, is traumatized. Their “I’m afraid for my life,” survival instincts kick into overdrive and cause them to become more aware of their surroundings and the words that are being said. This hypervigilance in the middle of an abusive event is designed to help the victim know when they need to freeze, fight, and/or flee. Within seconds of entering this survival mode, the victim’s body is flooded with adrenaline and other hormones designed to take the necessary next steps. The executive functioning of the brain is diminished so the body can take action. This is why most people have a hard time verbally responding during an attack.
The problem is that it takes 36 to 72 hours after the last survival hormonal release for the body to fully reset. Many victims feel like everything is foggy as they are still in a state of shock. When the narcissist’s manic phase is combined with the victim’s obscure phase, there is great confusion. The narcissist, having no empathy for the victim, doesn’t understand why the victim is acting so sour. The victim, having too many mental replays of the event, doesn’t understand why the narcissist is acting like nothing significant happened.
After the victim’s hormonal balance has been restored to normal levels, things settle down. During this calm before the storm, the victim deludes themselves into thinking that the abusive behavior won’t return. This is often reinforced by the narcissist’s gift-giving, their elated mood, and their minimization of the intensity of the abuse. The honeymoon phase lures the victim into a place of acceptance and tolerance for the narcissist’s behavior. They think, “It really wasn’t that bad,” “I can do this,” or “they didn’t mean what they said.” And so, they stay in the relationship.
Stop the honeymoon cycle. Sam realized that her husband’s behavior was causing her psychological damage. She began to believe some of the lies he said about her. She devalued her worth becoming a shell of her former self. During his last abusive episode, her survival instincts did not kick in and as a result, she silently and numbly absorbed the abuse and gave in to his demands. She hated who she became. Somewhere buried deep inside of Sam a spark of light reminded her that the only way out of this dark place was to get out. So, she used the last ounce of strength she had and left.
But leaving brought its own insecurities. Thoughts like “He really isn’t that bad,” or “Maybe I am just a weak person,” began to surface in her mind. At the encouragement of her counselor, Sam made a list of the terrible things her husband said and all of his abusive acts. The list was far longer than she realized. When she felt weak and was tempted to return to her abusive narcissist, she would review the list as a reminder of how he treated her. This helped to ground her.
Sam also used the list to work through forgiving him, at her own pace, so his behavior would no longer control her future reactions. Through time and significant effort, Sam’s sense of identity returned, and she no longer accepted the lies of her narcissistic husband. She began to realize that no one deserves to be treated so poorly and she no longer tolerated his rages.
Because the honeymoon phase can be so enjoyable, many victims sadly remain in a destructive relationship. While on paper the hour rage in comparison to a couple of weeks of peace may seem like a reasonable trade-off, the emotional toll is far greater. Remember, it is never too late to get out.