Breaking up with a toxic person, narcissist, or psychopath is not easy, especially if you are in an abusive relationship with them. Leaving can be one of the most dangerous times for domestic violence victims. It is no surprise, then, that survivors of domestic violence attempt to leave the abusive relationship an average of seven times before they finally leave for good. This is usually due to the strength of trauma bonds, fear of retaliation, and diminished self-esteem that usually occurs in abusive relationships – as well as the many forms of emotional and financial dependence victims are coerced into by their abusers. Not only can narcissistic and psychopathic individuals be extremely manipulative and exploitative, they tend to have a sixth sense for when their partners are withdrawing from them and will usually try to manipulate them back into the cycle of abuse. In planning a break-up with a narcissist or psychopath, it’s important to be strategic and to anticipate the tactics of narcissists and psychopaths.
Here are a few different methods you can use if you are thinking of leaving a narcissist or psychopath for good. You may primarily choose one technique that best suits your circumstances or use a combination of tips from all these techniques. Remember to adapt tips to your own needs and always consider any safety concerns with a mental health professional and law enforcement.
1) The slow fade. This technique is used to incrementally detach from the narcissistic individual in a way that allows you to desensitize yourself slowly to their absence while escaping their notice. If you are not ready to leave the relationship yet or have other barriers in the way of leaving, the slow fade can be a more flexible way to recondition yourself to enjoying life without their interference. This is ideal for situations where you are not living with the narcissist, as some abusers may physically isolate and punish you for daring to live a life outside of them. This is also best for situations where the narcissistic individual is already devaluing you and attempting to use intermittent reinforcement (an alteration of mean and kind behavior) to keep you trauma bonded to them by giving you the bare minimum mixed with random incidents of affection and attention.
Do not settle for these crumbs. Instead, while they devalue you, re-idealize yourself. Use their silent treatments, absences, disappearances or sudden withholding as time for you to heal, recover and plan your departure. They key is taking advantage of these periods to benefit your mental and physical health. As you spend more of your time on self-care, healing, therapy, affirmations, career goals, exercise, hobbies, and support networks outside of the narcissist, these “periods of peace” will remind you of how joyful life can be without their abuse and mistreatment. The added bonus is that you will also be “leveling up” in areas of your life, which will make it more excruciating for you to be in the presence of someone who is continually trying to put you down and detracting from your otherwise positive experiences.
During this time, you will engage in “reality checking” to ensure you are in touch with the reality of the abuse and why you need to leave the relationship; these forms of reality checking tap into the prefrontal cortex of the brain which is often dampened in the face of trauma. In order to calm the hyperactive “emotional” amygdala and reconnect with the more “reasoning” part of their traumatized brains, survivors can find it helpful to visit forums, websites, or read books on narcissism and manipulation during this time to better identify the tactics they were subjected to. It is also recommended that you process your traumas in therapy with a trauma-informed counselor familiar in abuse dynamics. Eventually, you will get to a place where you know you can survive without them and be ready to leave when the time comes.
2) The reverse discard and the grey rock method. The reverse discard is when you subtly push the narcissistic individual to discard you first so that there is a reduced chance of narcissistic rage or retaliation since they feel they have “won” the break-up. One of the most effective ways to induce a reverse discard is by using what is known as the grey rock method. This is when you become flat, boring and lifeless to the narcissist in a way they cannot extract narcissistic supply (e.g. praise, attention, sex, resources, ego strokes, positive or negative reactions) from you anymore. Narcissists and psychopaths thrive in manufacturing chaos. When they realize they can no longer provoke the same emotions and reactions as they once did, they will become dissatisfied and hungry to meet their needs. As a result, they will usually start to look for narcissistic supply elsewhere.
While using the grey rock method, it is best to keep interactions short, brief, and nonchalant. Try to offer “yes” or “no” replies to questions whenever possible, or detached responses that signal acknowledgment but not engagement, such as “Hmm,” “Interesting,” “I see,” or “Thanks for telling me that.” It is best to use this method when you believe you won’t be as emotionally traumatized or harmed by the narcissist discarding you first, and when you don’t anticipate there will be as much punishment for your lack of reactions to them.
3) The great illusion. In this break-up technique, you pretend that nothing has changed in your relationship with the narcissist. You act as if their manipulation methods (such as love bombing) are working to maintain your interest in them. This is to fall under the radar and flee their detection as you plan your escape safely. While they assume you’re still entrenched in the abuse cycle and besotted with them, you will use this period of time to strategically prepare: whether that means getting your finances together, documenting the abuse if you want to bring a legal case against your abuser, consulting with a divorce lawyer, researching custody laws in your state, or looking for your new home. This break-up method can be especially effective in cases where you are cohabiting with or are married to the narcissist, or there is a threat of immediate retaliation or narcissistic rage. If you are escaping a physically violent relationship of any kind, ensure that you have a safety plan in place.
4) Cold turkey and the last straw method. Cold turkey endings are best for survivors who are already mentally ready to leave the relationship but need that final “push” to make the decision to end it with finality. You may or may not need to experience a last straw to finally go cold turkey for good; some survivors wait for a minor incident that finally allows them to remember they are no longer able to tolerate mistreatment in the relationship, while others are able to cut ties swiftly without such a last straw. To hold yourself accountable, you may choose to tell a trusted friend about ending the relationship or do something too “final” to backtrack too easily on (such as signing the lease on a new apartment far away from the narcissist or blocking them on all social media channels – any step that reminds you of how far you’ve come and will push you to take those final additional steps to leaving for good). Cold turkey endings means no contact and cutting all contact with the narcissist, their cronies and removing any reminders of the narcissist from your life. You do not allow the narcissist to ensnare or “Hoover” you back into the cycle of abuse nor do you give them any opportunity or means to contact you.
5) Exposure “therapy.” While this technique is not for everyone, some individuals find it too difficult to leave a narcissist due to deep-rooted abandonment issues and the strength of the trauma bond. That is why they will remain in the relationship until they have had enough. This technique is not recommended for most people due to the risk of trauma, but it will help some people who otherwise might not leave to leave an abusive relationship for good without looking back make use of their time in the relationship. Sometimes, survivors feel the compulsion to “check” if the narcissist really is as harmful as they think they are due to the heavy amount of cognitive dissonance that has resulted from the relationship. Since they already feel too “stuck” to exit the relationship, they approach this as an exercise to continually experience the truth of the abuser’s true self until they have seen what they have needed to see – the strength of the abuser’s malice, callousness, and lack of empathy for them. While this is occurring, survivors can use reality checking to identify the tactics they’re experiencing and document the abuse. Only then do they connect with their authentic outrage at being violated, resolve some of the cognitive dissonance as they see the abuser’s true self behind the false mask, and this helps to sever the trauma bond as they feel empowered to leave.
No matter what method you choose to cut ties with a narcissist, it’s important to engage in safety planning and consult a trauma-informed therapist or law enforcement if there is abuse of any kind in the relationship. While narcissists and psychopaths are focused on “winning,” and one-upping you, you must keep your eye on the real prize: your freedom, safety, and the possibility of a joyful life ahead. That is how you really “win” and thrive after the break-up with a toxic person.