If you’ve been unsuccessfully trying to distance yourself from the narcissist in your life, you might ask, “How do narcissists keep you hooked?”
There are seven tactics narcissists typically use to keep the person they are abusing hooked: withholding affection, self-victimization, financial abuse, gaslighting, love bombing, isolating the target from their support system, and shifting the goalposts.
In this article, I will guide you through these seven tactics to help you understand why distancing yourself from a narcissist can be so challenging.
1.) They Withhold Affection from You
Narcissists often withhold affection to manipulate the emotions of their target.1
By deliberately depriving them of love, warmth, or attention, the narcissist can create a sense of longing and unease.
This makes the target more willing to do whatever it takes to regain the narcissist’s affection, and this willingness keeps them hooked on the relationship.
For example, let’s say one day the narcissist in your life suddenly stops talking to you, avoids eye contact and gives you the cold shoulder.
When you ask what’s wrong, they dismiss you or don’t answer.
Days go by, and this continues.
Feeling desperate for a connection and not understanding the sudden change, you second-guess your actions, wondering if you’ve done something wrong.
Eventually, this causes you to approach the narcissist, apologizing and asking how you can make things right, even though you’re not sure of your mistake.
Seeing their tactic has worked, the narcissist slowly starts giving you attention again.
Experiencing this causes you to believe that you must always work for the narcissist’s affection, and, overtime, this belief keeps you hooked in the relationship.
2.) They Play the Victim Card
Narcissists are good at twisting situations to make themselves appear as the victim.2
Wendy T. Behary, LCSW, vividly depicts this behavior in her book, Disarming the Narcissist: Surviving and Thriving with the Self-Absorbed:
“(…) If you dare to disagree with or ignore her, she’ll make you pay by pouting, sobbing, or maybe even threatening to abandon you or hurt herself. (…) She might drop to the couch, clutching her chest and complaining of a sharp pain.” 3
By painting themselves as the wronged party, they can manipulate the target into feeling guilty, responsible, or sympathetic.
Sometimes, this keeps the target hooked to the relationship because they are constantly trying to “make things right” or avoid “hurting” the narcissist further.
Learn more about the manipulation tactics narcissists use to make you feel guilty.
For example, suppose you decide to spend a weekend with your friends after weeks of dedicating your free time to the narcissist in your life.
When you return, the narcissist confronts you, eyes teary, claiming you neglect them and always prioritize others over them.
Despite having valid reasons for spending time away, you’re made to feel guilty and find yourself with the narcissist more often (hooked).
3.) They Take Control of Your Finances
Financial abuse is a common tactic narcissists use to keep their target hooked.
By dominating the financial aspects of the relationship, the narcissist ensures that their target becomes economically dependent on them.4
This dependency makes it incredibly challenging for the target to consider leaving, as they may feel trapped due to financial instability.
For example, after moving in together, the narcissist in your life convinces you it’s best for both if only one person handles the finances.
Learn more about the signs of financial abuse.
Gradually, they take control over all shared bank accounts and bills.
When you want to buy something for yourself or even see the bank statements, they make you feel guilty for “not trusting them.”
When you show the slightest amount of independence, they shut you down with comments like “How will you manage without me? You don’t even know our bank balance,” highlighting your financial dependence on them.
Over time, experiencing this type of abuse keeps you hooked because you can’t leave the relationship without access to your money.
4.) They Gaslight You into Doubting Your Reality
Gaslighting is a manipulative technique where a narcissist intentionally tries to make their target doubt their memory, judgment, or perception of reality.
Stephanie Moulton Sarkis, Ph.D. NCC DCMHS LMHC talks about this in her book Gaslighting: How to Recognize Manipulative and Emotionally Abusive People and Break Free:
“Gaslighters know confusion weakens the psyche. With uncertainty comes vulnerability. Toward the end, you are believing blatant lies that you never would have accepted at the beginning of your relationship.” 5
By creating confusion and self-doubt, narcissists can make their target more reliant on them for what’s “true.”
This erodes the target’s self-confidence and keeps them hooked to the relationship.6
For example, let’s say you clearly remember the narcissist in your life promising to attend your family dinner. But when the day arrives, they’re nowhere to be found.
When you confront them, they respond, “I never said that. You must have misunderstood,” even though you know the conversation happened.
Over time, with more instances like this, you start questioning your memory and relying on the narcissist for clarity (hooked), even when you know something feels off.
Check out these three steps you can follow to protect yourself against gaslighting.
5.) They Overwhelm You with Love Bombing
Love bombing is a manipulative tactic where narcissists overwhelm their target with affection at the beginning of the relationship.
This flood of positive emotions can make the target feel incredibly valued and special.7
Narcissists do this to make the target emotionally dependent, so when they later withdraw this affection, the target is left craving it, hooking them to the relationship.
For example, let’s say that in the first weeks of your relationship, the narcissist in your life showered you with gifts, compliments, and time.
They made it seem like you were the center of their universe by saying things like, “I’ve never felt this way with anyone before.”
But as months pass, this attention becomes less and less frequent, and eventually, gets replaced by indifference and cruelty.
Nevertheless, the memories of those initial weeks keep you hoping that the affection will return and hooked to the relationship.
Learn more about the strategies you can use to protect yourself from love bombing.
6.) They Isolate You from Your Support System
Narcissists often try to cut their target off from their support system (i.e., friends and family members).
This tactic, known as isolation, ensures the target has fewer people to confide in, leaving them more dependent on the narcissist.
By isolating the target, the narcissist reduces the chances of others pointing out the unhealthy nature of the relationship.8
This makes it easier for the narcissist to use the other manipulation tactics mentioned in this article to keep the target hooked.
For example, imagine that you just started a relationship with a narcissist.
At first, the narcissist seemed to get along with your friends and family.
But as time progressed, they started dropping comments like, “Do you really trust her?” or “Your brother doesn’t seem to respect you.”
Learn more about the tactics narcissists use to isolate you.
Over time, you begin to pull away from your loved ones, thinking it is for the betterment of your relationship with the narcissist.
But the more isolated you become, the more you turn to the narcissist for emotional support and validation.
Unfortunately, this leaves you even more vulnerable to the narcissist’s manipulative tendencies and keeps you hooked to the relationship.
7.) They Constantly Move the Goalposts on You
Moving the goalposts is when narcissists continuously changes the expectations to make their target feel like they aren’t trying hard enough.
This tactic is a method of control that keeps the target off-balance and trying harder to please the narcissist, thinking they’ll finally gain approval if they can meet the narcissist’s ever-changing expectations.9
For instance, imagine you’ve noticed that the expectations of the narcissist in your life suddenly change every time you do something they requested.
A simple example of this could be if you spent more time at home because they asked you to, they’d then complain about one or both of you not going out enough.
When you try to talk about it with them, the narcissist says things like, “I just thought you’d know how to balance things better.”
This cycle leaves you constantly trying to meet their demands, hoping you’ll finally get it “right” this time.
But the rules keep changing, leaving you feeling inadequate and hooked on the relationship because the narcissist makes you feel like you aren’t trying hard enough.
What Should You Take Away from This Article?
Seven tactics narcissists often use to keep the person they are abusing hooked are:
- Withholding affection.
- Financial abuse.
- Love bombing.
- Moving the goalposts.
Thank you for reading this article, please consider leaving a comment if you’ve ever been hooked by a narcissist, I’d love to talk with you about this.
If you have any other questions that you can’t find an answer to, be sure to check out our latest articles about all things narcissism and narcissistic abuse.
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About the Author
Hey, I’m Elijah.
I experienced narcissistic abuse for three years.
I create these articles to help you understand and validate your experiences.
Thank you for reading, and remember, healing is possible even when it feels impossible.