While narcissists are some of the most manipulative, exploitative, and abusive people on the planet, they’re often able to stay married for years, sometimes even decades. It is really confusing to think about but the importance of understanding how narcissists are able to stay married for so long is immeasurable. 

The reason that a narcissist can stay married for so long is because the abusive cycle that they subject their spouse to creates a trauma bond that is so powerful it feels like an addiction and pushes the spouse into a cognitive dissonance where they equate the abuse that they’re experiencing with the love they desire.

In this article you are going to learn everything that you need to know about the abusive cycle that keeps narcissistic marriages intact for so long. With that being said, we put together a short video (see below) that lists some other common reasons that narcissists stay married for so long (e.g. children).

A Short Video With Common Reasons That Narcissists Stay Married For So Long

Narcissists Use Manipulation to Make Their Marriages Last a Long Time

The abusive cycle that causes those experiencing narcissistic abuse to develop a trauma bond that feels like an addiction and fall into a state of cognitive dissonance, consists of many manipulative and powerful narcissistic behaviors such as mirroring, future faking, the devaluation phase, and breadcrumbing, which is also known as intermittent reinforcement.

Mirroring

In regards to narcissistic abuse, mirroring is a manipulative technique that occurs when the narcissist absorbs an extraordinary amount of information about their victim’s identity and uses that information to create a falsified identity that is designed to fill a void in the victim’s life. 

Mirroring is all about the narcissist shaping themselves into the “perfect” person for their victim. A very common example of mirroring in a narcissistic relationship is the love bombing phase and it occurs in the beginning stages of many narcissistic relationships. 

someone learning about love bombing

While the love bombing phase is often spoken about in reference to romantic relationships and is usually described as “magical” or “love at first sight”, it is important to keep in mind that it can manifest in all types of narcissistic relationships because love bombing is just a form of mirroring. 

During love bombing phases that have been described as “magical” or “love at first sight”, the narcissist is simply using mirroring to fill a void in the victim’s life, which is most likely the victim’s desire for love. Love bombing isn’t about the narcissist making their victim feel “good”, it is about the narcissist using mirroring to make themselves feel familiar to their victim.

We’ve created a short video (see below) that contains three different examples of mirroring in three different narcissistic relationships so you can grasp a comprehensive understanding of mirroring and how it impacts the lives of those experiencing narcissistic abuse.

Mirroring is a powerful form of manipulation because it embeds a thought and/or feeling in the victim’s psyche that the narcissist in their life is someone who they can grow with, be happy with, and become the best version of themselves with. 

When done successfully, mirroring acts as the foundation from which a narcissist can launch the other manipulative techniques (future faking and breadcrumbing) that create a trauma bond that feels like an addiction and pushes the people that they abuse into a cognitive dissonance.

Future Faking

A future fake occurs when a narcissist makes a false promise for the future to get exactly what they want from someone or something in the present. There are two forms of future faking: verbal and nonverbal. 

A verbal future fake is pretty straightforward. It occurs when a narcissist makes a verbal promise for the future that they never intend on honoring (e.g. “I want to marry you but to make sure we have the best life together as possible, we need to be financially stable. That is why I think you should give me the 20 grand so I can invest it in that real estate deal I was telling you about. It is a no brainer. Once the money from that comes through, then we can get married!).

a narcissist manipulating her partner into giving her money

In the example above, the false promise occurred when the narcissist pretended that they wanted to get married to manipulate their partner into giving them the money that they wanted to “invest” with. 

A nonverbal future fake is actually the falsified identity that narcissists use mirroring to create so they can portray themselves as the “perfect” person for their victim. This falsified identity manipulates the victim into believing in a happier, healthier, and more secure future that is never going to happen. 

With nonverbal future faking, the future fake occurs when the narcissist creates a falsified identity with mirroring to manipulate their victim into letting their guard down. The combination of verbal and nonverbal future faking turns the thought and/or feeling that the narcissist is someone who they can grow with, be happy with, and become the best version of themselves with, into something that feels much more tangible.

The Devaluation Phase

Once the narcissist senses that they’ve manipulated you into attaching your thoughts, feelings, emotions, and needs to the relationship that you have with them, they will begin their abusive pursuit of validation, admiration, reassurance, power, and control. 

The devaluation phase has a lot of narcissistic behavior patterns that are invalidating, devaluing, degrading, humiliating, dehumanizing, manipulative, and minimizing. Generally speaking, victims of narcissistic abuse experience the most intense forms of narcissistic abuse during the devaluation phase. 

Suggested Readings: What Is the Devaluation Phase and What Comes After Love Bombing With a Narcissist

Breadcrumbing

Breadcrumbing, also known as intermittent reinforcement, is the delivery of a reward at irregular intervals. After experiencing mirroring, future faking, and then the invalidation, devaluation, humiliation, and dehumanization of the devaluation phase, victims of narcissistic abuse are very emotionally starved and oftentimes they begin to either emotionally or physically check out of the relationship. 

When the narcissist realizes that they’re losing power and control over their victim, they’ll use breadcrumbing to remind them of the thoughts, feelings, and emotions they developed during the mirroring and future faking stages.

A victim of narcissistic abuse being breadcrumbed

The “reward” that they give are just the slightest amounts of empathy and compassion. This “reward” manipulates the victim into believing that the narcissist is someone who they can grow with, be happy with, and become the best version of themselves again. 

Breadcrumbing is a very strategic form of manipulation that narcissists use to manipulate their victim’s sense of hope that the narcissist is the “perfect” person for them. In a short video (see below) we’ve put together three examples of breadcrumbing so you can understand exactly what it looks like in practice.

The Manipulation Creates Addictive Trauma Bonds and Causes Cognitive Dissonance

A trauma bond is an emotional attachment between a victim of abuse and their abuser that is formed through an abusive cycle of mirroring, future faking, devaluation, invalidation, dehumanization, and intermittent reinforcement. 

When someone is trauma bonded, it is extremely difficult for them to acknowledge that what they are experiencing is abuse because they’ve been manipulated into equating abuse with love. For more information on trauma bonding we highly recommend that you check out our Trauma Bonding Content Hub but these types of bonds become very addictive when narcissists use breadcrumbing, which is also known as intermittent reinforcement. 

We spoke about this a lot in our article Why Do Trauma Bonds Feel Like an Addiction but the “reward” that narcissists give their victim during breadcrumbing actually triggers the reward center in the victim’s brain and floods their body with dopamine.1

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is released when people abuse drugs like opiates, alcohol, nicotine, amphetamines, and cocaine. For victims of narcissistic abuse, dopamine turns the “reward” that their abuser gives them to breadcrumb them into their only known source of happiness. 

This causes the victim to develop an intense craving for the “reward”, lose sight and control of themselves in pursuit of the “reward”, and remain in the trauma bonded relationship despite the negative consequences on their mental and physical health, because the “reward” they randomly receive from their abuser has become their only known source of happiness.

A victim of narcissistic abuse feeling lost without the narcissist that they are married to

When a trauma bond becomes addictive, it can make narcissistic marriages last for months, years, and even decades and often goes hand in hand with cognitive dissonance. This is a theory that suggests when we experience an inconsistency among belief, information, and behavior, it causes a lot of psychological tension that we attempt to ease by changing one or more of the elements that are causing the inconsistency to make everything consistent. 

In narcissistic relationships, this manifests in the form of the justification, rationalization, and normalization of abusive behavior. It happens because when the narcissist uses mirroring and future faking, they are giving their victim the information and showing them the behavior that is needed for them to develop the belief that the narcissist is someone who they can grow with, be happy with, and become the best version of themselves with. 

When the narcissist senses that their victim has attached their thoughts, feelings, emotions, and needs to the belief that the victim has, they begin the abusive devaluation phase which means they change the information that they are giving and the behavior they are showing.

This change in information and behavior is the inconsistency that causes a lot of psychological tension and leaves the victim with only the belief that the narcissist is someone who they can grow with, be happy with, and become the best version of themselves with. 

In a perfect world, victims of narcissistic abuse would be able to acknowledge that the narcissist is nothing more than an abuser who isn’t going to change.

A victim of narcissistic abuse leaving her abuser

Unfortunately narcissists want to remain in power and control of their victim for as long as possible. So, in addition to the addictive trauma bond, they have a ton of narcissistic behavior patterns (e.g. gaslighting, narcissistic rage, hoovering, etc.) that are designed to keep their victim trapped within the relationship, which is why narcissist are able to stay married for so long . 

What Should You Take Away From This Article? 

It is extremely hard to escape a narcissistic marriage. In our article How Long Do Trauma Bonded Relationships Last we conducted a survey among 300 survivors of narcissistic abuse and found that the average duration of the relationship for those bonded to a romantic partner who they had children with was 16.4 years, and for those without children it was 6.6 years.

In our article How Long Do Trauma Bonds Last we conducted another survey with the same number of participants and found that that the average duration it took those who experienced narcissistic abuse in a romantic relationship to break the trauma bond once they left the relationship was 5.5 years.

The reason that narcissists are able to stay married for so long is because the abusive cycle that they put their spouses through creates trauma bonds that are addictive and pushes them into a state of cognitive dissonance where abuse is equated with love!

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All of the content that Unfilteredd creates is for educational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for clinical care — please visit here for qualified organizations and here for qualified professionals that you can reach out to for help. This article has been reviewed by our editorial board and has been approved for publication in accordance with our editorial policies.

References

[1] Pesek-Cotton, Erin F., Joshua E. Johnson, and M. Christopher Newland. “Reinforcing behavioral variability: an analysis of dopamine-receptor subtypes and intermittent reinforcement.” Pharmacology Biochemistry and Behavior 97.3 (2011): 551-559.

What Is Dopamine?