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November 16, 2020

The 4 Phases of Leaving a Narcissist (& the Answer to “Why don’t you just Leave?”)


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*Author’s Note: This article contains descriptions of Intimate Partner Violence that might be triggering.


We have all heard the judgments of those around us.

The implied blaming and shaming in comments that are supposed to be supportive and understanding.

“Why don’t you just leave if you are so unhappy and if you say they treat you badly.”  

“What is it about you that keeps attracting these bad relationships.”

“If you learned to speak with more respect, he would treat you with more respect.”

“I wonder about your judgment. How could you not have seen that abuse coming.”

“You must be so insecure and desperate to allow him to take so much advantage of you and your finances.”

“If someone slapped me, I wouldn’t marry them. I’d punch them in the face and leave.”

“Relationships are hard work my dear, you made your bed now lie in it.”

So many celebrities have spoken out about their experience of domestic violence: Rihanna, Amber Heard, Reese Witherspoon, Alice Living, Charlize Theron, Christina Aguilera, Gwyneth Paltrow, Mariah Carey, Stacey Solomon, Halle Berry, and Tina Turner, to name a few.

Despite all the spotlight and speaking out that has been done, it is not unusual to hear the question asked of those victims and survivors of Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) or Domestic Violence (DV), “Why did you stay?” or “Why don’t you just leave?” or better yet, “How can you ever consider breaking up your family?” Such questioning is often accompanied by expressions and tones of harsh judgment.

This line of questioning stirs feelings of anger, shame, and blame. I do not think for a minute that people choose to just stay. There are many factors at play in the process of leaving a relationship of violence. I have learned that courage, bravery, and resilience are what we gain after leaving—internal resources that are gained long after the IPV relationship has ended. Many are waiting to feel this before leaving. We do not just leave. We survive, we ruminate, we grow, we wake up, we plan for safety, and then, and only then, do we leave.

The Centre for Disease Control and Prevention defines Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) or Domestic Violence (DV) as “physical violence, sexual violence, stalking, or psychological harm by a current or former spouse or partner. This type of violence can occur among heterosexual or same-sex couples and does not require sexual intimacy.”

While there is a greater proportion of women who are impacted by perpetrators of IPV, it does not exclude men as being victims of abuse either. However, according to the World Health Organization, men are more likely to experience violent acts by strangers or acquaintances rather than by someone close to them. I hope that while I might hold in mind more women as I share this message, it is definitely not my intention to exclude or diminish the struggle experienced by men.

World Health Organization also looks at different forms of IPV:

Acts of physical violence, such as slapping, hitting, kicking, and beating.

Sexual violence, including forced sexual intercourse, and other forms of sexual coercion.

Emotional/Psychological abuse, such as insults, belittling, constant humiliation, intimidation (for example destroying things), threats of harm, threats to take away children.

Controlling behaviors, including isolating a person from family and friends, monitoring their movements, and restricting access to financial resources, employment, education, or medical care. Controlling behaviors are not always explicit.

Norah Casey is an Irish businesswoman, television personality, and broadcaster from Dublin, Ireland. She provided a powerful testimony on the “The Late Late Show” in 2017, of how she was a survivor of Intimate Partner Violence in her first marriage when she had just qualified as a nurse. A professional woman who earned her own money—had financial strength and individuality—and was still impacted for years by IPV. IPV does not discriminate.

What I found relatable in her story were the four phases she discovered when leaving an IPV relationship. We can relate these four phases to what we currently know about IPV from all the research. Whilst it is her four phases of journeying, it aligns with what other survivors themselves have experienced.

It is important for us to understand the connection between narcissistic abuse and the four phases involved in leaving.

1. Seduction Phase

2. Delusional Phase

3. Reawakening Phase

4. The Act of Leaving Phase

Seduction Phase

This is the initial phase of getting together. It is also a prominent feature of dating and courtship with a narcissist. In this stage, we can feel so infatuated, smitten, and floaty—like a teenager with a gigantic crush. The gestures are grandiose and romantic, and the charisma and confidence of the pursuer are intoxicating. It always results initially in sex. Yes, not just your ordinary lovemaking. There is an emphasis on passion, intensity and it occurs early in the relationship. For women (and men), sex is a natural response to the feelings and emotions she (he) feels for the seducer. For the seducer, it is the act of entrapment.

The reason it moves so fast is that we feel we have found the person we have dreamt about and craved for so long. Wanting to be loved is what makes us human. The seduction phase can last a few weeks, a few months, and even up to a year in more subtle cases. During this phase, we only see green flags and almost never can identify red flags. Even if they are there, they are watered down and excused as a misunderstanding. Our misunderstanding. This is the love-bombing phase of narcissistic abuse.

Delusional Phase

This is where the devaluing and discarding occurs. Any or even all forms of IPV can be displayed during this phase. It is delusional because it alters our perception of reality. We see the abuse as having been a result of something we have done wrong. We cannot just focus on the abuse. Instead, it is followed by excuses and apologies made for the behavior and acts of seduction thrown in again. So love becomes intensely confusing. This is what is known as trauma bonding and it can go on for years. It is filled with hot and cold behavior, and push and pull dynamics. The pursuer leaves and the one previously chased attempts to chase. In most cases, they return.

It is the time that we somehow feel responsible for the behavior and start loving and craving the love of the person. We believe that they have the capacity to love us as they did at the beginning. The person who was once able to love us is now discarding us and we must do whatever it takes to stop hurting and start getting the love we once had. Many of us can stay stuck in this constant dance for decades. This is the addictive part of the relationship and it is a tsunami of emotions that batter any form of reality from our interactions. Only those who have been in it will understand that they were groomed in the first phase for the second phase.

Reawakening Phase

This is when our lost selves start to resurface. When we wake up to reality. We wake up from the spellbound impact of the first and second phases. It can take years in some instances. To me, this stage is like an epiphany, a moment of great revelation. The moment we realize that the reasons for staying are not because we love the person but because we feel responsible for changing them. It is the moment we may realize that our partner/spouse suffers from Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). There are strong predictors between Narcissists as perpetrators of IPV. It could also be the moment we realize that what we have been experiencing is Intimate Partner Violence.

In the Journal of Women’s Health, a study entitled Understanding Turning Points in Intimate Partner Violence: Factors and Circumstances leading Women Victims Toward Change, identified five major themes that signify this reawakening phase for most women:

1. When she is protecting others (children, friends, family) from the abuse/abuser.

2. Increased severity and humiliation with abuse.

3. Increased awareness of options/access to support and resources.

4. Fatigue/recognition that the abuser was not going to change.

5. Partner betrayal/infidelity.

The lights go on and they stay on, longer than before. Enough is finally enough. We are no longer able to excuse the behavior and stay delusional. This is the impetus for the next and most significant phase.

The Act of Leaving Phase

It is an act because it is a series of steps involved in planning and finally leaving an IPV relationship. The literature on IPV and DV suggests that it is at this stage that we are most at risk. It is sadly the stage that most victims lose their lives and the lives of their loved ones. Because a lot of perpetrators of Intimate Partner Violence suffer from Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), the backlash can be explosive. This is the part I cannot stress more. We have to plan for leaving safely. It takes time to plan because there are considerations around the safety of yourself, your children, your pets, your finances, your home, custody, legal implications, and overall impact on mental health.

To those that ask, “Why do you stay?”—it is because leaving a narcissist results in them experiencing loss of power, control, and intense rage. There is a desperate attempt to reel back their victims or act out revenge for their victims discarding them. It is a stage that can be accompanied by significant barriers to leaving. So much time and energy can be spent in this phase. It is a stage that requires professional support and specialized organizations that work with IPV. Please access your country’s respective resources and links that support safe leaving for victims of Family and Intimate Partner Violence.

Unfortunately, legal systems can often fail us tremendously during this phase. Family Court Systems often support access and joint custody. This implies that as parents we often have no way of stopping unsupervised access of our children. This is why many stay as they feel that it will be safer than leaving. They feel they will not have the financial resources to fight. It’s is the most unsafe time for those who leave. Leaving is not easy. It takes every ounce of one’s being to leave. Safety should always be the focus of planning the “act of leaving’ phase. This phase is about speaking our truth about abuse and accessing every bit of support that the universe delivers our way.

If we want to ask meaningful questions to someone we know who is a victim of Intimate Partner Violence, ask them, “What can we do to support your reawakening phase?” This can come in the support of getting them access to professional links. It can come in allowing them to break the silence of their suffering when they tell us what is really going on. Ask them, “How can we support your safe leaving?”

It could be our daughters, sons, friends, colleagues, who reach out. Even if they go back several times we can understand that the phases of reawakening and the act of leaving take many attempts. It is not a reflection that we have failed them or that they have used us. Judgment serves to silence sufferers. It enables perpetrators to be excused. It puts the burden of proving the abuse on the already emotionally depleted victim. It maintains the status quo of dysfunction and complex trauma cycles for children exposed to domestic violence.

Let us use our voices to provide safe spaces for those impacted by IPV. It is the only way we can leave safely, gain our courage, our strength, and our hope for a meaningful life. Those who do survive and leave safely will tell you that it was never just one thing that led them to leave. It is an act of leaving—building toward freedom takes time.

In my own challenging experiences, I have drawn heavily on one inspirational quote from The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, “When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.” I pray deeply for our safety and for our chance to watch the universe deliver our freedom to us.


Another good one by Giselle: 4 Mindful Choices for Getting Unstuck from our Emotional Sh*tstorms.


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