This is something victims of narcissistic abuse often want to know especially when feeling the pain after the discard in a toxic relationship – why? Why do narcissists even do this? Why do they take people on this cycle first of adulation, supposed “love” and idealization, but then all the toxic stuff afterwards in the devalue-discard phases? Are they doing it for their own fun? For “supply”? What’s going on? What motivates them to behave like this in relationships?
For the longest time, the best explanation that could be found was using the narcissistic supply model – that narcissists have this addictive relationship with “supply” or reinforcement of their grandiose false self image, and the idealize phase happens when they’re filling themselves up with this supply and the devalue discard comes when they’re not getting this supply off you anymore, or they found someone else who was a better source of supply.
This might explain part of what’s happening some of the time, but it’s not a complete explanation. You’ll find accounts from victims of narcissists who didn’t withdraw any supply, yet they still just suddenly jumped into the devalue-discard, with no outer reason at all. Also, narcissists don’t always immediately monkey-branch to another source of supply or have someone else lined up. They often do, but not always. Sometimes they just discard people.
In other words, something else is going on besides narcissistic supply, that explains why narcissists take their victims through this idealize-devalue-discard cycle. In this article, we’re going to bring together up to date explanations (primarily given by Sam Vaknin and Richard Grannon) based on strong psychoanalytical theory, that provides a deeper, more comprehensive explanation of what is motivating a narcissist to go through this cycle in relationships they have with others.
Put simply, it has more to do with the narcissist’s dysfunctional attempts at separation-individuation than with narcissistic supply, but let’s give a summary explanation, before drilling down deeper into each component of the cycle – idealize, devalue, discard.
Cutting Edge Theory To Explain Idealize-Devalue-Discard (Summary)
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.
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.
Now we’ll go over some of the key points here in more detail.
Narcissists As Developmentally Arrested Individuals
This is pretty common knowledge in the psychological literature on narcissism and narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). They are known to be emotionally and developmentally arrested, with their growth usually having stopped around the age of 4 in terms of mental/emotional maturity and individuation.
The primary reason for this is that they were never allowed to properly separate and individuate from their parents, and especially their mother.
There can be a number of contributing factors to this:
- One or both of the parents themselves are also heavily narcissistic and hence heavily controlling and/or abusive, and boundary invading and boundary dis-respecting.
- This often involves a “smothering” effect, especially from narcissistic mothers, where they never allow the child to complete the separation-individuation steps need to form a healthy identity and develop autonomy and self-efficacy. This can include excessive controlling behavior, micro-managing the child’s life and not allowing the freedom required to develop their own sense of self
- Objectification can also be involved, where the parents place the child “out front and center” because of some gift or talent they have, so they themselves can draw supply from it by proxy. The child is being valued for what they can do/deliver and not for who they are, which crushes their real self.
- Physical, emotional or sexual abuse from the parents can also contribute to trauma and also aid in the formation of a thick “narcissistic shell”, where the real self is lost and a grandiose self created in it’s place.
- The bottom line on all this is that the narcissist ends their childhood as a deeply traumatized, shame bound person who has lost any sense of their real self, and also hasn’t completed the necessary separation-individuation steps needed to move out into the world as a healthy adult. They are not a real person.
- Instead, they have a false, narcissistic self which requires constant “supply” or reassurance to keep itself afloat.
- However, in spite of this, the narcissist remains aware on some level that they have not properly individuated, and therefore is still desperate to do so on an unconscious level.
That last point is the most important for what follows – now we can see more clearly whey they behave the way they do in the I-D-D cycle. Let’s cover the stages below.
Why Do Narcissists Idealize? (Fusion)
Therefore, in order to attempt to complete the individuation steps not completed in childhood, the narcissist first seeks to FUSE psychologically and emotionally with their target.
Now do you see where all the things in the idealize phase come from? It’s basically just an attempt to fuse the two of you together as completely as possible.
Hopefully all these things now make sense:
- The relentless mirroring, copying and mimicking
- The sense of walking and talking in rhythm with you
- The sense of them being the “perfect partner” (manufactured soulmate)
- The relentless love-bombing and idealization.
- All the attention they give you (and that you give them).
- All the other intense things associated with the idealize phase, where the narcissist is usually making themselves the sole/central focus of your life and attention.
It’s all just the narcissist trying to get you “joined at the hip” in all sense – psychologically, emotionally, mentally, even physically, to set up the next stage.
And while it all seems romantic at the time, it’s actually very dangerous, because it’s playing with very deep attachment patterns you formed in childhood, essentially trying to recreate or re-awaken them.
This is also why the damage caused by these relationships can be so severe, because the narcissist is effectively abusing attachments that are very deep and foundational to our identity.
It’s the attachments that you formed with your mother at that age, that’s what’s being hacked (Sam Vaknin Dual Mothership thesis). He becomes your mother, you become his mother. Wow, we’re playing with some really deep stuff here”
Richard Grannon – see here
Why Do Narcissists Devalue-Discard? (Separation)
Once narcissists have fully merged and fused with their victims psychologically, this now explains why they can suddenly and abruptly devalue and discard them. Now they have symbolically fused with you, they need to push you away to (in their minds) complete the separation-individuation steps never completed in childhood.
Again, this explains better than the “supply” model, the nasty/toxic behavior of narcissists during the devalue/discard:
- Once fused/merged, the narcissist then unconsciously seeks to devalue you, to see themselves as above and superior to you, to reject you as the “bad other”, as the symbolic mother that wouldn’t let them individuate in their own childhood.
- Hence the toxic behavior in the devalue stage – abuse, insults, silent treatment, triangulation, cheating, gas-lighting, projection, etc. They’re unconsciously pushing you away to complete this process.
- This completes the process in their minds, as symbolically the separation is completed in the way it wasn’t in childhood.
- Once you’re fused, they then need to leave to “individuate” symbolically.
- However, this process actually NEVER works in allowing the narcissist to truly individuate, hence why they repeat the same process over and over again with different people. It may make them feel better in a very fleeting way, but never solves the problem of their arrested development and failure to develop a healthy sense of self.
Why Do Narcissists Also Sometimes Hoover?
This process by the narcissist is mostly unconscious, and anyone who’s dealt with these people knows they have little or no capacity for self reflection or self awareness. So they’re almost never doing this consciously – it’s coming from an unconscious desperation to individuate.
Hence, this is why they repeat this process time and again with new partners, only to fail then as well, as well as coming sniffing back round to old partners, trying to rekindle the relationship (sometimes called “hoovering” in the recovery space).
Again, we can use the supply model to explain this – they’re seeking to reconnect with old sources of supply, to keep their fragile sense of self afloat. This still makes sense.
However, the separation-individuation model also provides a new perspective on this as well. Because the narcissist’s flawed attempts to individuate are largely unconscious, they’re not aware of it, and will therefore sometimes try to “hoover” ex partners in to rekindle, to try and repeat the same process all over again.
Needless to say, it won’t work again, which is why narcissist ex partners need to be rejected any time they try this. But at least now you have another explanation for why they’re doing this.
The Dual Mothership Thesis
The Dual Mothership thesis put forward by Sam Vaknin is one cornerstone of this process – where symbolically, the narcissist seeks to become your mother, and make you their mother symbolically. Whether you or them are male or female is irrelevant; this dynamic is still going on.
This is achieved by the intense co-idealization of the idealize phase, where you’re both starting to talk/think/move as one, feeding each other a kind of narcissistic supply (yes, this process is two way, which is why these relationships can also inflame the victim’s narcissistic tendencies as well. You start to think and act more like them, in other words, more narcissistically, even if you don’t become a full blown narcissist).
This fusing and merging idealize process feels very intense to the person, and they experience this as “true love” or “passion”, but it actually feels so intense because it has the same intensity as an infant bonding and fusing with it’s mother (because symbolically, that’s what the narcissist is seeking to do).
The key thing to realize for people caught up in this process is that it’s never about you; it’s always only ever about the narcissist and their desperate attempts to individuate and grow up. You’re simply being used as a prop or instrument to this end, as painful as this sounds and as “real” as the intensity of the idealize phase may feel to you. Unfortunately, it purely a simulated process by the narcissist, and it’s largely unconscious even to them as well.
The video covers some other important things that come about because of this dual mothership fusing or merging, that needs first of all awareness, and then a lot of work on the back end, to properly fix:
- Colonization – Because the narcissist often makes this fusing so intense and all encompassing, you’ll find your mind is colonized by the narcissist during, but also even after, the relationship. You act and think as them, even after they’re gone. Requires specialized work in therapy to undo.
- Guilt – The “you becoming their mother” side of the equation also leads to feelings of guilt after the toxic relationship, which can confusing, since they were the ones abusing you (why do we feel the guilt?). The reason for this is precisely because you’ve symbolically become their mother – after the breakup, you feel the same guilt as a mother would abandoning their child.
- Anxiety – The “them becoming your mother” side of the equation will also lead to a more obvious separation anxiety on your side after the relationship ends, and you feel symbolically as though you’ve been abandoned by your own mother.
These all need working through with a skilled therapist who understands these modalities, and/or through Grannon’s latest course which specifically incorporates all these elements for more effective healing from relationships with narcissists.
The Shared Fantasy Thesis
This is another aspect of a relationship with a narcissist that is formed during the idealize phase and can “stay stuck” inside you long after the relationship with them has ended, and can be difficult to remove until you become aware of it.
All prolonged relationships with narcissists usually involve some kind of shared fantasy, where you both share some kind of image or fantasy of them that isn’t true. Of course, the fact the narcissist has grandiose fantasies of themself isn’t groundbreaking, but the people who get caught up in relationships with them also get co-opted into sharing this fantasy about them as well.
It’s important to fully de-construct this shared fantasy you have about the narcissist after the relationship, or it remains another aspect of them that remains inside you even long after they’re gone, and can contaminate future relationships if left unaddressed.
Here are some useful resources on the shared fantasy concept:
- See here for the original paper from 1989 by Sander, where the shared fantasy thesis was first discussed.
- See here for a paper from Sam Vaknin specifically applying the shared fantasy thesis to abusive relationships.
- See here and here for videos from Sam Vaknin covering the topic.
- See here and here for longer interviews with Vaknin and Richard Grannon covered this topic in more detail.
- Richard Grannon’s latest course on Unplugging From The Matrix Of Narcissistic Abuse specifically incorporates all these aspects, with special focus on identifying and de-constructing the shared fantasy, so you can fully detach from the narcissist and move on.