The idealize-devalue-discard cycle is now very well known in the toxic relationship recovery literature. It is the very common pattern that characterizes relationships with the so called Cluster B personalities – psychopaths/sociopaths, narcissists, borderlines and histrionics.
Most especially though, it is associated with the psychopathic and narcissistic personalities. These are the most toxic of the personality disorders, since they view relationships and world in general with a cold, calculating detachment, devoid of any emotional engagement.
People are seen not as human beings, with feelings and boundaries that need respecting, but as objects to be manipulated and used for their own ends.
This is why relationships with these people follow a particular, rollercoaster, up-down pattern. They are manipulative and exploitative personality types who are following a well worn formula/script that they know works on normal people who do experience vulnerability and intimacy in a way they can’t.
Here is a brief overview of each stage of the idealize-devalue-discard-hoovering cycle:
- Idealize – Form a powerful bond by creating a manufactured soulmate (playing the perfect match)
- Devalue – Start to withdraw and become cold, aloof and distant. Triangulate with others.
- Discard – Drop the victim and move onto someone else, often waving the new person in your face.
- Hoovering – Attempt to win back your trust by feigning sincerity, remorse and a desire for change.
The important thing to realize here is that personality disordered people do not authentically emotionally engage in relationships the way normal people do. They treat the process as a robotic series of predictable steps they play out to gain the trust of someone, and then break it in as painful and distressing a way as possible.
Psychopaths and narcissists inhabit a toxic, barren, irritable internal world – their inner world is a mess, hence the term personality disorder. Instead of managing this state internally within themselves, they seek to reach out externally and improve their own state by provoking and hurting others.
The idealize-devalue-discard cycle (with hoovering sometimes added on) is a way of conceptualizing how they do this in the longer term attachments they form with victims.
Let’s look in more detail at how this cycle plays out, going through each step in detail.
The Idealize Phase
The idealize phase is when the psychopath/narcissist is trying to reel you in. They want to create a powerful, addictive bond between you and them, by creating the image of a perfect relationship and a perfect partner, a “soulmate” to use the cliche.
Common patterns in the idealize phase:
- Intense mirroring (copying of body language, traits, speech patterns and personality). A sense that the person is walking and talking in rhythm with you.
- “Love bombing” – showering you with constant charm, warmth, entertainment, gifts, attention and adoration.
- Constant, regular contact in person or by phone at first. Giving constant attention and often demanding it in return, especially with the narcissist.
- Bombarding your inbox/phone/social media with constant sillyness, humor, memes, inside jokes, stories, poems etc. (They’ll latch onto whatever you like and bombard you with it).
- Promises of some bright future plan they have concocted, of some brilliant, easy, wealthy, abundant life together. No downsides or reality checks.
- Intense and/or frequent sexual intimacy. The intent is to make it as addictive as possible.
- The sense that you have known each other your whole life, despite perhaps only knowing each other for days or weeks.
- A sense that they are the perfect match or “soulmate”. This is entirely synthetic and manufactured from the psychopath/narcissist.
- They may talk about their “crazy ex”, but compare you favorably to them, saying how much better you are, how you understand them like no one else (put a bookmark in this one, because it flips in the devalue/discard stages).
- Also displaying apparent pity about your past stories of abuse/neglect etc. Seemingly very attentive and caring.
- Overall, a “flying high” sense of perfection, that you have found the perfect person and the perfect relationship. Nothing else can top it. Once victims recover from the insanity of these relationships, they see how unrealistic this was.
The crucial thing to realize here is that the toxic person is not truly, authentically engaged with this idealize process, no matter how romantic and charming it may seem to you, the unsuspecting victim. They are viewing the entire process with a cool, amused detachment.
They are robotically going through the motions of creating the manufactured soulmate, because they have seen time and again how the process works. They treat it like a “press x for y” algorithm.
Over time, psychopaths and narcissists learn how to more effectively read and manipulate others. The more calculating ones have it down to an art form.
Over time, this flying high sense of perfection creates a powerful, addictive bond with the person, sometimes called the psychopathic bond. This is created by the psychopath/narc being seemingly able to give you what you get from normal relationships, but also that little bit extra.
It’s this little bit extra that becomes the addictive hook that they reel you in with. You get the feeling that nothing else will top this “perfect” relationship they seem to have formed with you.
They are also training you to be more and more dependent on their favorable assessment of you, either in yourself or compared to others, for your own sense of self worth. They are placing you more and more under their control, psychologically, though you won’t be aware of it at the time. You’ll just think you have found the perfect match.
Metaphorically, they are bringing the rollercoaster of the relationship very high, usually for a long time, so they can then cause the maximum damage possible on the downside. With psychopaths, there is a compulsion to cause harm to others – the more damage they can do, the better in this twisted, disordered mindset.
The Psychopathic Bond – How They Get You Hooked
The Devalue Stage
Once they’ve got bored of this idealize phase, or have you sufficiently under their control, this is when they switch to the more nasty phases of the cycle, starting with the devalue stage.
This is characterized by the psychopath/narc withdrawing and pulling away all the positive things they had brought to the “relationship”, slowly (or quickly) starting to remove the things you have become used to and dependent on.
Common patterns in the devalue stage:
- Withdrawing all the warmth, charm and attention they have reeled you in with.
- Sometimes becoming openly abusive, with insults, blatant lies, belittling, mocking, criticizing, undermining, embassaing you in group scenarios, open threats, silent treatment.
- Becoming cold, icy, remote, distant and aloof. Drastically reducing their availability and contact.
- Covert abuse – mind games, double meanings, dismissive and insulting meta-communication (words behind the words). Designed to leave you confused and doubting yourself.
- Gaslighting – inverting reality and denying wrongdoing despite clear evidence to the contrary. Claiming things were done or said then they weren’t or vice versa.
- Projection – putting things onto you that are actually theirs to own. Eg. saying you’re crazy, selfish, lying, cheating etc when they are. Crosses over with gaslighting in that they are flipping the script and inverting reality.
- Seemingly moving on to new people who they seem to like better, and bombarding them with the same things they did to you in the idealize phase.
- Triangulation – a key one – Where they’ll play you off against others, by now claiming they are so cool, while you are now the “crazy” one. Flipping the script on what they did in the idealize phase.
A crucial part of the mind games behind this withdrawal is to open up self doubt and self questioning in the victim. They want your mind to be racing, coming up with possible explanations about things you did wrong to cause them to withdraw in this way.
It is crucial to realize that there is nothing you did; they planned this all along. It is a common and endlessly repeating cycle with disordered personalities, as they seek to fill the void in themselves by causing distress to others.
Remember, with the Cluster B personalities, it is all about power and control over others. If you are constantly thinking and ruminating about them, even in a negative way, then as far as they are concerned, they have power and control over you.
Sociopaths and narcissists will accept any kind of attention, positive or negative, because even if you hate them, you are still thinking about them, and this means they still have control over you.
This is why detachment and indifference become key skills in overcoming Cluster B abuse. If you don’t care about them anymore either way, they’ve lost control over you. See our guide on overcoming toxic relationships for more on this.
Psychopaths & narcs take their victims on a rollercoaster of emotions, from flying high positive to deep depair and worthlessness. They do this on purpose to maximize the damage caused
The Discard Stage
Once the psychopath or narcissist has ramped up the abuse and distress levels enough in their target, they’ll eventually get bored and drop the person completely, moving onto someone else.
This stage is often more characterized by the devastation that’s left over in the victim, as their mind endlessly wandered trying to find an explanation for what just happened. See out recovery resources guide that’s specifically designed for people at this confused starting point.
Here are some common patterns in the discard stage (psychopath’s behavior):
- The toxic person may simply break off all contact with the victim with no explanation or excuse. Designed to cause maximum pain by leaving victims without any answers and feeling the whole relationship was inconclusive and unfinished.
- May break off openly with a cruel, dismissive, cold message or conversation.
- May cheat openly without even trying to hide it, then blame you for them cheating to add to the insult.
- They will often wave new partners, friends and work associates in your face, either in person or on social media, trying to portray how much fun they are having with these new people now they ditched you, as they begin the cycle all over again with someone else. It’s all about mind games.
Here are some common things that will be going in inside the victim during/after the discard stage:
- In some cases, victims may start chasing the psychopath/narc, trying to recapture them and rekindle the relationship. Do not fall into this trap; this plays into their game.
- Extreme distress as strong feeling of rejection and abandonment hit home. Will be worse if you have pre-existing wounds from childhood that the psychopath/narc has triggered.
- Extreme rumination and overthinking as your mind goes round at a million miles an hour trying to find an explanation and make sense of what just happened.
- The general trend here with rumination will be to pull you out of your body and feelings and more into your head. You may lose touch with reality and your joyfulness and ability to enjoy life and the world will lessen.
- The overactive mind may start to cause other mental health issues like anxiety, depression and addictions.
- See our mindfulness recovery guide that will reverse these trends and get you back in your body and feelings. The sooner you start this repair process the better, as rumination and overthinking will become addictive over time.
- Anger and rage will also start to surface as the injustice of what happened starts to hit home.
- Your other relationships may suffer as these negative emotions boil over. You start to become more controlling, irritable and less easygoing than you were before.
- For people at this point, realizing what happened to you is an important first step. See our resource guide specifically for people at this starting point.
Psychopaths and narcissists also know very well that victims in this situation will feel the need to compulsively check on social media to see what they are up to. They will plant things there that are covert messages and digs deliberately designed to wind you up.
This is why you need to go complete no contact and cut them off entirely, including on social media. Don’t leave any way for them to play these mind games on you. Drop them cold and move on.
“If you choose to go and check them out on their social media, and look at what they are doing, they know very well that you do that. These are not stupid people; these are propoganda masters. These are psychological operations masters.
Even if they are not very bright, even if they have a very low IQ, they know very well at an instinctual level how to promote a certain image, and how to manage that image”
Richard Grannon, Spartan Life Coach
What’s Really Going On With The I-D-D Cycle? (Cutting Edge Theory)
The narcissistic supply model is one decent enough framework that explains why the narcissist “latches onto” (idealizes), and then devalues and abandons, people in relationships, but a more accurate cutting edge model is provided by Sam Vaknin and Richard Grannon – the Dual Mothership and Shared Fantasy theses (see our full article where we cover this in more detail).
Check out the superb video below by Grannon which neatly summarizes the main parts of the theory (this will give you THE answer in terms of psychoanalytic theory, why the narcissist behaves like this).
Here are some key points from the video:
- The narcissist was never allowed to individuate in childhood – all the rest of the stuff follows from this.
- In an effort to get out of this trap, the narcissist seeks to fuse with a target psychologically. This is the idealize phase of the cycle, with all the intense love-bombing, flattery, mirroring etc.
- This is where the Dual Mothership thesis from Sam Vaknin comes in – they seek to become your mother, and to make you their mother symbolically.
- The reason they do this is they are desperately trying to individuate and fix their broken sense of self.
- To this end, after fusing with you, they must then reject and abandon you (push you away) to symbolically separate and individuate from you (now their symbolic mother). This is where the nasty stuff in the devalue/discard stages comes from – after the fusing, they’re pushing you away in a desperate attempt to complete the individuation steps never accomplished in childhood.
- In Grannon’s words, their approach is “you enter my reality, so I can leave“
- Naturally, this attempt to individuate NEVER WORKS, which is why they chew through relationship after relationship, repeating the same I-D-D cycle, to try and accomplish this process, causing damage to many people in the process. It’s a mal-adaptive and dysfunctional attempt to individuate.
- For the victim, the only way around this is to break the shared fantasy and re-individuate from scratch – difficult but not impossible. Breaking off with them and going no contact is only the very start of the process.
- I recommend watching the entire video from start to end several times, as there’s more great points in there.
Our full article on the motivation for I-D-D behavior covers this in more detail.
The Hoovering Phase
This phase doesn’t always happen, but it can sometimes. Psychopaths and narcissists will, after ditching a person, sometimes come back to them at some later point, trying to rekindle the relationship as it existed in the early days.
They are trying to draw you back in, too “hoover” you back in, hence the term. This may happen weeks, months or even years after the discard.
Here are some common patterns in the hoovering stage:
- They’ll contact you again out the blue on social media or by text, email or some other means. This is why no contact is important to stop them doing this.
- They’ll go back to the seemingly innocent, sweet, caring image if this is what they initially reeled you in with.
- They may issue seemingly heartfelt apologies about how sorry they are about how they hurt you.
- There will be promises that the cheating, gas-lighting, projection, lying etc. won’t happen again.
- If you had been trying to get them to go to therapy because of their toxic behavior, they’ll promise to get help if you take them back.
- Any other changes that you wanted them to make first time but they never did, they’ll latch onto these and promise to do them now, or claim they are “growing/changing/evolving/self aware” now when they haven’t changed at all.
- The general message they’ll try to hoover you back in with is “I’ll be the person you always wanted me to be”.
- If you do take them back, they’ll keep up these apparent changes for a while, then drop them and go straight back to the old, abusive patterns.
A key vulnerability here is if the hoovering phase happens earlier on after the discard, when the victim is still emotionally “raw” and unrecovered.
The temptation to let them back in will be strong here. Psychopaths and narcissists can literally over time turn the people they get tangled up with into addicts, craving for the glib, superficial “highs” and breadcrumbs of approval they can give them.
This is why it is important to go “cold turkey” on the toxic person and the relationship, and cut off all avenues of contact. If hoovering does occur, it is important not to fall for it – it’s all more mind games and manipulation to draw the person back in for another round of the I-D-D cycle, or just for the fun of it for the psychopath/narc – they get pleasure out of duping someone one more time and getting away with it.
Any promises to change they give you are nonsense – the Cluster Bs never change, absent some huge, catastrophic life event that forces them to rebuild themselves from the ground up, and/or years of intensive psychotherapy – and once you develop more emotional literacy and stronger boundaries, you will start to see how fake and false their promises are.
A Perfect Example of Hoovering From the Psychopath/Narcissist
A Slight Variant: Tolerate-Devalue-Discard
An important point that is left out of some recovery literature on abusive relationships is that the idealize phase doesn’t always happen.
Some sociopaths/psychopaths get bored with this process, or else don’t even make any pretense to actually like the person, but simply tolerate them before moving to the really toxic stages of the cycle. This does contradict the section above on the individuation motive for I-D-D, but perhaps this applies more to narcissists than psychopaths/sociopaths.
This can happen more with friendships and business relationships that intimate ones, but it is a common enough variant to the process to be worth mentioning. The I-D-D cycle is most commonly associated with romantic relationships, but this definitely isn’t the only context in which the same general pattern of abuse can occur.
Remember, for the Cluster B disordered personalities, any and all communication/interaction is an opportunity for abuse. They’ll happily seize on any opportunity to create chaos and distress within another person, even if it is more in a business/friendship context than an intimate one.
I have experienced this myself in a relationship with a sociopathic manager. There was no idealize phase, since he never really liked me and could never really even muster up the motivation to pretend to like me. He was irritated by my kindness, sincerity and desire for cordiality and didn’t do much to hide it.
Here is how the tolerate-devalue-discard cycle can play out:
- Tolerate – They will simply tolerate you and not attack you so viciously to begin with. There won’t be the same intense mirroring and idealization as usual. Perhaps it isn’t a romantic relationship, so there’s less room for this “fusing” and merging to take place psychologically. They may throw “breadcrumbs” of humor or occasional compliments your way. Characterized by a lack of abuse rather than intense idealization.
- Devalue – Same as before. Will start being selectively aloof to you only, whilst being warm to others, excluding you from conversations and banter, smearing you to others, triangulating and so on. Often starts once you start challenging and confronting them on their character and behavior problems which start to become readily apparent.
- Discard – They drop you cold and move on as before. Sociopathic managers will use their influence to get you fired or moved out. Friendships will abruptly end with them ignoring you or creating a manufactured blow-up or argument which they blame on you. Will feign happiness with new colleagues and friends in an attempt to make you feel bad. This is all an act, since they are every bit as toxic and disordered internally as they ever were. It’s all mind games.
- Hoovering – Often no hoovering in these cases. For whatever reason, they’re not so interested in reeling you back in. Take this as a positive, since you can wash your hands of them more easily.
Again watch out for this version of the abusive cycle in non-romantic contexts, like work relationships or friendships. The psychopath/narc will sometimes play it slightly differently, because there may not be the same room for intense idealization as there is in romantic relationships.