Understanding the Red Flags of Narcissistic Manipulation

Being in a relationship with a narcissist often involves enduring unrelenting and cruel emotional abuse. Narcissists use a variety of tactics to gain control over their victims, including gaslighting, manipulation, threats, insults, blame-shifting, criticism, withholding love and affection, and dominating their partner.

As self-proclaimed narcissist and author of “Malignant Self-Love, Narcissism Revisited,” Sam Vaknin puts it, “the narcissistic abuser infiltrates their victim’s defenses, shattering their self-confidence, confusing their thoughts, demeaning and debasing them at every turn. The narcissist may use various roles, such as ‘psychiatrist’ or ‘parent figure,’ to further gain control and weaken their victim’s defenses.”

The sadistic nature of the narcissist’s abuse cannot be overstated. They often veil cruelty in the guise of care, acting as though they know what is best for their victim, all the while working to break down their self-esteem and mental well-being. This behavior can be highly damaging and has the potential to cause long-lasting emotional trauma for the victim.

It’s important to recognize the tactics of narcissists and to remove oneself from a toxic relationship if one is discovered. Seeking professional help can also be a valuable tool in recovering from the emotional abuse inflicted by a narcissistic partner.

Here are 15 ways that narcissistic abuse can manifest in relationships

Manipulation through guilt

Narcissistic abusers commonly use manipulation through guilt to control their partners in a relationship. They make their partners feel guilty for situations they have no control over or use guilt to force them into doing things they don’t want to do. This manipulation can take the form of emotional blackmail, subtle insinuations, or direct remarks aimed at pressuring their partner to comply with their wishes. This type of behavior can lead to long-term emotional damage, causing feelings of anxiety, depression, and distress. Recognizing and addressing this toxic tactic is essential to create a healthy and safe relationship.


Another common trait of narcissistic abuse is projection. Narcissists may project their flaws and insecurities onto their partners, blaming them for actions they haven’t committed. For example, a narcissist may accuse their partner of being unfaithful when they are the ones cheating. This behavior not only creates unnecessary conflict in the relationship, but also allows the narcissist to avoid taking accountability for their actions and projecting their negative traits onto another person. It is important to recognize projection as a form of narcissistic abuse and to seek help if this behavior is present in a relationship.


Gaslighting is another tactic utilized by narcissists, which involves manipulating their partner’s perception of reality to make them question themselves and their sanity. The narcissist may deny or refute their partner’s memories, feelings, or experiences, causing them to doubt themselves and their own perceptions. This technique can be incredibly damaging, leading the victim to lose their sense of self-worth and identity. As a result, it becomes tough for them to trust their instincts and recognize abuse in their relationship. If someone suspects they are being gaslit, it is crucial to seek help from a professional therapist or counselor.


Narcissists often devalue their partner and undermine their accomplishments to inflate their self-importance. They may seek to establish dominance by intentionally belittling or criticizing their partner’s successes, dismissing their accomplishments or expertise. If the victim becomes too successful, the narcissistic abuser may undermine their recognition or even compete with them by claiming false accomplishments or outdoing them. Their partner may begin to feel insignificant or face additional emotional stress, further impairing their sense of self-worth. This behavior is a reflection of the abuser’s deep insecurities about their capabilities and is an effective way of exerting control in a relationship. Victims of this type of abuse should seek therapy to learn how to recover from the trauma and rebuild their self-worth.

Invalidating feelings

Another common characteristic of narcissists is their tendency to dismiss or minimize their partner’s emotions and feelings. They may ignore or belittle their partner’s concerns and perspectives, resulting in them feeling unheard and unsupported. Narcissists may use this tactic to maintain control in the relationship and place themselves above their partner’s needs and emotions. Victims of this type of emotional abuse may develop feelings of isolation, frustration, and low self-esteem. It is important for those experiencing this behavior to communicate their needs and seek out counseling or therapy to develop healthier coping mechanisms and address the trauma inflicted by narcissistic abuse.


Stonewalling is another control tactic used by narcissists in relationships. It involves the refusal to communicate or engage in a conversation effectively, leaving their partner feeling unheard and disconnected. Narcissists may use stonewalling to gain power and control over their partner, as they often believe that ignoring or withholding communication can be an effective technique for achieving their desired outcome. Victims of stonewalling may feel anxious, frustrated, and invisible in their relationship, leading to further emotional turmoil. It’s important to recognize this behavior as a form of emotional abuse and seek support from a therapist to address the trauma inflicted by the narcissist.


Narcissistic abusers often isolate their partner from loved ones, in an attempt to limit their support system and control their access to information. They may convince their victim that family and friends are unreliable or untrustworthy, portraying themselves as the only one who genuinely cares for them. Isolation is a common tactic used by abusers to increase their power over their victim, making it difficult for them to leave the relationship and seek outside help. As a result, the victim may feel trapped, alone, and helpless in their situation, which can result in long-term emotional distress. Victims need to seek professional help to escape the abuse and establish a supportive community of resources.

Verbal, emotional and physical abuse

In many cases, narcissistic abuse can escalate from emotional or verbal abuse to physical abuse. Narcissists will often lash out, becoming angry, explosive, or violent, especially if they feel challenged or failed to get what they want. Victims of this abuse can suffer significantly, both physically and emotionally, leading to long-term trauma. Narcissistic abusers may use physical violence to enforce their authority or to maintain control and power over their partner. The scars of physical, emotional, and verbal abuse often last long after the relationship has ended, which is why it is important to seek professional help to recover from the trauma inflicted by the narcissistic abuser. Victims of physical abuse should also seek help from domestic violence hotlines, crisis centers, or law enforcement agencies to ensure their safety and well-being.

Using sex as a weapon

A narcissistic abuser may use sex as another tool to achieve control over their partner. Narcissists may use sex to manipulate their partner, coax them into doing something they wouldn’t want to do, or even use it as a form of punishment. They may withhold sex as a way to control or punish them or use it as a bargaining chip to exert power. This behavior is an invasion of personal boundaries and can be extremely damaging to the victim’s self-esteem and self-worth. Their partner needs to recognize this type of abuse, seek professional help, and create a safe space for them to talk about their feelings and regain control over their own body and emotions.


Triangulation is a common control tactic used by narcissistic abusers to create tension and competition within a relationship. This occurs when a narcissist inserts a third person into the relationship, often an ex-partner or new love interest, to make their partner feel insecure and compete for their affection. The narcissist may use this tactic to maintain control, make their partner feel inferior, or establish dominance over the relationship. The victim may feel jealous, mistrustful, and anxious, leading to further emotional turmoil and feelings of inadequacy. It’s important to recognize triangulation as a form of emotional abuse and seek help from a therapist to develop tools to break the cycle of abuse.

Controlling finances

A common tactic used by narcissists to maintain control in a relationship is controlling their partner’s finances. Narcissists may limit their partner’s access to money or control the purse strings entirely, making it difficult for the victim to leave the relationship. They may also use financial abuse as a tool to exert power and control over their partner, making them feel helpless and trapped in the relationship. Victims of financial abuse may experience feelings of low self-worth, desperation, and anxiety, leading to serious emotional trauma. Seeking professional help to gain independence and develop financial skills can be crucial in escaping the abuse of a narcissistic partner. Additionally, support groups and legal resources can provide victims with the necessary tools to begin rebuilding their lives.

Withholding affection

These abusers often use manipulation tactics to enforce power dynamics within the relationship. Withholding affection, attention, or love is one such tactic that they may use to punish their partner or make them feel unworthy. In these cases, the narcissist may withdraw from verbal and non-verbal gestures of love or become emotionally distant to punish their partner or gain control of the relationship. This behavior is often used to make the victim feel helpless, desperate, or dependent on the narcissist for emotional validation.

As a result, the victim may experience long-term emotional damage, feelings of low self-esteem, and destabilization of their sense of worth in the relationship. Victims of such emotional abuse require constant support and encouragement to overcome this cycle of abuse. Seeking therapy to develop emotional independence and regain self-esteem is crucial in the recovery process.

Overbearing criticism

Narcissistic abusers may constantly criticize and belittle their partner as a tool to exert control or inflict emotional pain. They may regularly point out their partner’s supposed flaws, dismissing their accomplishments or expertise and highlighting their mistakes or perceived weaknesses. This type of behavior is aimed at diminishing the victim’s sense of self-confidence, causing them to doubt themselves and feel inadequate. Over time, victims may develop feelings of insecurity, depression, and anxiety, leading to long-term emotional distress.

To break free from this cycle of emotional abuse, the victim must recognize the nature of this behavior and seek support from a licensed therapist. Enlisting the support of family and friends, creating healthy boundaries, and developing a strong sense of self-worth can help overcome the damage inflicted by abusive relationships.

Using nostalgia or promises

When their partner attempts to leave, a narcissistic abuser may use nostalgia or grand promises to lure them back into the relationship. They may bring up past memories or make grand gestures to convince their partner that things will be different in the future, despite their history of abuse. This manipulation tactic aims to reestablish control over their partner and maintain the power dynamics within the relationship. Victims must recognize this behavior as another tactic in the cycle of abuse and seek professional help to break free from the narcissistic abuser’s control and avoid returning to the abusive relationship. Developing healthy relationships, communication, and self-worth can help rebuild the lives of those seeking to escape narcissistic abuse.

Shifting blame

Narcissistic abusers may use blame-shifting as a manipulative tactic when problems arise in the relationship. They may shift the blame onto their partner, making them feel responsible for any issues in the relationship, or create a false narrative in which they are the victim. By doing this, narcissistic abusers can absolve themselves of any responsibility and avoid accountability for their actions. They may also use this tactic to undermine their partner’s sense of worth and trigger feelings of guilt and self-doubt.

Recognizing blame-shifting as a form of emotional manipulation and seeking professional help can help victims work through the abuse and regain independence. Victims can also benefit from sharing their experiences with a trusted friend or therapist who can help them develop healthy coping mechanisms and overcome the emotional trauma inflicted by the narcissistic abuser.

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