Malignant narcissists and psychopaths have a sadistic need to belittle their victims. As manipulation expert Dr. George Simon notes, “Psychopaths con and manipulate adeptly and mercilessly. Moreover, they can make sport of using and abusing. They enjoy “toying” with people. Naturally, they find this easy because they simply don’t care.”
One of the most common ways psychopathic individuals toy with their victims is through a manipulation tactic known as withholding. After they idealize you in the honeymoon phase, they begin to deliberately withhold elements of the relationship which directly contribute to intimacy and a sense of personal security. These withholding tactics serve to instill insecurity in their victims, provoke their victims into reacting, and also grant narcissists a grandiose sense of power and control. Here are the five most common ways malignant narcissists and psychopaths practice withholding in their intimate relationships:
1) Withholding affection.
Unlike normal, healthy partners who may have the occasional need for space or may not want affection during naturally occurring conflict or distress, narcissists withhold affection randomly and deliberately without reason (apart from the conflict and chaos they themselves manufacture out of thin air). In fact, you may have even encountered a narcissist who began withholding affection right after being excessively attentive and warm. These “hot and cold” behaviors, also known as intermittent reinforcement, are used to train you into gradually accepting the unacceptable cruelty they will inevitably dish out during devaluation periods. During times of withholding affection, some narcissists will even physically distance themselves from you dramatically to get you to react.
When it comes to sex, affection also becomes a power play. As Salman Akhtar, MD, notes, “The narcissist might deliberately overlook the partner’s appeal signals in order to sadistically withhold affection from them.”
2) Withholding healthy interest, praise or genuine compliments when warranted.
Perhaps one of the most glaring red flags you’re dealing with a toxic predator is their inability to share in your joy or success, often due to their pathological envy or need to maintain control and an illusion of superiority. Healthy relationships have some degree of capitalization – the expression of excitement for a partner’s accomplishments – which studies show contribute to the relational well-being of both partners as well as the quality of the relationship (Pagani, Parise, Donato, Gable, & Schoebi, 2019).
Malignant narcissists do not like giving healthy praise to others, even when it is warranted – unless it caters to their agenda. They may engage in excessively praising you at the onset when they are love bombing you to get you to invest in them, but once they feel you’re “hooked,” they will begin withholding interest in your life entirely. They will fail to acknowledge what makes you happy, refuse to recognize events that are worthy of celebration, and withdraw from complimenting you altogether. Meanwhile, they will sadistically give praise to someone else to further demean you – an act of triangulation meant to unsettle you into feeling undeserving and less than.
In the context of an abusive relationship, withholding healthy praise and interest is used to strategically torment the victim and make the victim feel “needy,” “obsessed,” and “desperate” as they attempt to understand what has changed. Narcissists may even accuse you of fishing for compliments or attention when you question their strange behavior. In fact, these are exactly the words they will use to depict you as crazy and irrational for having the normal human desire to connect. Please know, if you are experiencing these withholding behaviors with an abuser, the problem isn’t you. It’s them.
3) Withholding validation and discussion (stonewalling).
According to Dr. John Gottman, refusing to engage in healthy communication and frequently shutting down discussions – also known as stonewalling – is one of the “four horsemen of the apocalypse,” or predictors of divorce. It is also one of the malignant narcissist’s most beloved withholding tactics. Much like the way they withhold affection, malignant narcissists will subject you to stonewalling and the silent treatment even after periods where everything seems to be going well. They also use stonewalling as a way to escape accountability for their actions – if, for example, every time you raise a legitimate concern to the narcissist about their behavior, they shut down the conversation and exit quickly, they also manage to escape any kind of consequences in the process. Experiencing behaviors like stonewalling and the silent treatment take a toll on victims, as they activate the same area of the brain that registers physical pain; this means that the withholding of emotional validation and being ostracized by them can feel akin to being sucker punched in the gut (Williams and Nida, 2011).
4) Withholding the truth (especially by omission) to string you along.
Malignant narcissists are pathological liars. Deception is the trade by which they deal their illusions to their vulnerable victims and keep one step ahead of them. Lying by omission is common among these types. Unlike the occasional white lies empathic people might tell to spare others or themselves from embarrassment or shame, malignant narcissists “omit” to tell you the truth about some pretty big facts – such as the fact that they are already married, that they’re having multiple affairs, or that they’re engaged in large-scale fraud. Withholding the truth can put their victims at risk but narcissists will do so frequently without care or concern because they lack empathy and possess an excessive sense of entitlement. To them, the most important thing is that their needs are met. Your shattered sense of trust and safety is simply collateral damage – and if you’re dealing with a true psychopath, actively putting you in danger while avoiding being caught can actually add to their sense of sadistic thrill.
5) Withholding resources.
Financial abuse, isolating you from friends and family, or attempting to orchestrate smear campaigns are various ways that narcissists withhold resources from you – whether those resources are monetary, social, or even emotional. Malignant narcissists know that in order to create a sense of dependency in their victims, they must isolate the victim from outside feedback and capital which would enable the victim to exit and move forward from the abuse cycle with more ease and certainty. Isolating you from your support network allows them to become the dominant “voice” in your life which alters your reality and self-perception as they gaslight, belittle, and slowly but surely dismantle your sense of self. Smear campaigns in which they try to slander you and taint your reputation – whether at work or shared social circles – allow the malignant narcissist to feed others misinformation about you so that you look like the abuser while they play the victims as they terrorize you behind closed doors. Taking complete control over your shared finances gives them the means to keep you trapped in the relationship and unable to leave.
That’s why it’s so important for victims to build their own resources and find new support networks outside of the abusive relationship to begin the process of leaving. Know that with a narcissist, your life will always remain in the torturous limbo of “waiting” – waiting for them to miraculously change, waiting for them to stop withholding from you the healthy and normal aspects of intimacy, and waiting for closure. The only way you can get closure when you’re dealing with a predatory type is paving the path back to freedom. Don’t let the narcissist withhold from you the life and intimate relationship you truly deserve – one without manipulation or mind games.
Akhtar, S. (2009). Love, Sex, and Marriage in the Setting of Pathological Narcissism. Psychiatric Annals, 39(4), 185-191.
Gottman, J. (2014). Why marriages succeed or fail. London: Bloomsbury Paperbacks.
Pagani, A. F., Parise, M., Donato, S., Gable, S. L., & Schoebi, D. (2019). If you shared my happiness, you are part of me: Capitalization and the experience of couple identity. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin,46(2), 258-269. doi:10.1177/0146167219854449
Simon G. (2017, October 17). Malignant narcissism goes beyond haughtiness. Retrieved February 20, 2020, from https://www.drgeorgesimon.com/malignant-narcissism-goes-beyond-haughtiness/
Williams, K. D., & Nida, S. A. (2011). Ostracism. Current Directions in Psychological Science,20(2), 71-75. doi:10.1177/0963721411402480
5 Withholding Tactics Malignant Narcissists and Psychopaths Use To Torment You