Like a puppet on a string...

A narcissist employs subtle manipulative techniques in order to exert various forms of control over his partner, so that before too long she becomes much like a puppet on a string. Often this can happen without his partner understanding exactly how she has ended up in such a situation.

A narcissist is a master at creating confusion and doubt in his partner’s mind. He is the lead actor and director in his own play, an accomplished performer who has spent his entire life perfecting his act and projecting a fake persona to the world. His entire focus is to lure his prey and then trap her until he becomes bored, or finds someone else. Often the narcissist's partner does not see his true colors until it is too late and she is well and truly hooked (emotionally engaged). The following are control tactics to watch out for right from the start. If you notice any of these, proceed with caution.

The Romantic Beginning (Idealization)

What HE does – He will set out to make you feel like you’re the most amazing person he has ever met. You will be worshipped, adored, put on a pedestal, showered with affection, flowers, gifts. He will go all out to win you over, to secure your love and devotion. It’s a competition, which he wants to win at all costs.

What YOU can do – It’s tempting to fall into a romantic swoon and believe we have met ‘the one’ when things are this intense but it’s important to keep one foot on the brake, especially in the early stages of a new relationship. When a relationship starts off too hard, too fast, there will always be a point where a counter-balance occurs. Take your time getting to know him and don’t let your heart rule your head.


What HE does - In the beginning he will go to great lengths to get to know you, encouraging you to share stories about yourself and previous relationships. He will mimic the things you tell him, to build up a false sense of trust. ‘Wow, I’ve always wanted to go to Paris too. I can’t believe it.’ You’ll be amazed at how much you have in common. What he’s doing is working out your strengths and particularly your weaknesses, so that he can exploit these later on.

What YOU can do – Be circumspect with how much information you share with anyone in the early dating stages. I’m not suggesting you close yourself off but rather get to know someone before you share personal details about yourself. We can’t possibly know anyone well within the space of a few months, so keep certain things to yourself until the relationship has progressed and you are sure you can trust them.

Finding faults (Devaluation)

What HE does – After the fairytale beginning where you can do no wrong, suddenly you will be unable to do anything right. It can almost occur overnight. This generally happens when he knows you have fallen for him – he will start to feel threatened by the intensity of the relationship (the intensity he created), or bored because he’s won you over and there’s now no challenge. At this point he will begin finding faults with you and often be angry, moody or withdrawn. He will do this in such a way that when you protest about something he has said, he will come back with a comment like, ‘I was only kidding. Can’t you take a joke?’ (Gaslighting).

He will often bounce between this persona and Mr Wonderful from the beginning, which is confusing and makes his partner question whether she was actually too sensitive about what he said or did. He is starting to ramp up the control by keeping his partner off balance and uncertain, never sure of what is coming next.

What YOU can do – Generally this type of changeable behavior throws us out completely. We can’t work out why things have changed so quickly and often start to second-guess ourselves – ‘Was it something I did?’ Be true to who you are as a person and stand your ground the first time this happens. Own your mistakes but if you know you’ve done nothing to deserve this weird behavior, then it’s time to set boundaries. If you let him off the hook, it will only get worse down the track. If he’s acting moody and withdrawn, step back a little and take some time to yourself. If you rush in to try to prove to him you’re worthy, this gives him a greater sense of control and also bores him and he is only likely to try and provoke you further. If he’s putting you down, walk away.


A narcissist does not like his partner succeeding at anything because this threatens his own sense of false superiority– you must firmly remain less-than at all times, so he will make sure of this by belittling or undermining any of your achievements.

What HE does – Talks about himself as if he is superior to you and everyone else – ‘Anything you can do, I can do better.’ If you share something positive you’ve achieved, or are trying to achieve, he might say something like, ‘Do you really think you’re up for that? You’re not that confident.’ All of these comments are designed to create doubt and uncertainty. He does not want you bettering yourself because he must stay in control at all times.

What YOU can do – Don’t buy into it. Have a strong sense of self and stay true to who you are and what you know you have achieved, or are trying to achieve. Go after your goals with conviction and don’t listen to any negative comments.

The Bedroom

Another place the narcissist uses control is in the bedroom. In the beginning your sex life will no doubt be glorious. When you’re in the devaluation phase things will change completely.

What HE does – Once he’s won you over, he will start to find things that bother him in the bedroom (‘You’re too aggressive’, or, ‘You’re not confident enough.’) He will mention previous relationships and bring them into your intimate moments (‘I like your lingerie, X wore ugly knickers from Wal Mart’) – to build your confidence up (random reinforcement), then counter it the next time with (‘My ex-wife and I couldn’t keep our hands off each other’) – to bring you down. Comments like this will often be made when he’s told you he’s just not feeling into it right now. This is termed with-holding. He enjoys seeing his partner squirm and it is designed to set up a sense of insecurity in order to make her jump through hoops to prove herself worthy of his interest.

What YOU can do – You don’t need to prove yourself to anyone. Have confidence in yourself rather than trying to fix the situation. Recognize that if someone can change that rapidly, there is something going on with them, not with you. Don’t be undermined by it. The more you don’t react, the quicker things will revert to normal.

Personal Attacks

I call this one the Poisonous Word Mallet. When he feels he has lost control – perhaps you have stood up to him, argued back about something, or questioned him on some level, his sense of superiority is threatened and he must retaliate.

What HE does – Because he cannot accept that he has made a mistake, he must shift the blame firmly to you. Think of Donald Trump – whenever he is questioned about something negative or nasty he’s said, he immediately twists it back onto the other person and blames them but in such a way that it almost seems believable. He is audacious enough to do this in the public eye. When a narcissist’s great sense of self is threatened behind the scenes, in private, the verbal assault is nothing short of vicious. He will hurl insults and character assassinations at full force that are so unfair and untrue that the recipient of the abuse will have no chance to refute what is being said, but will simply be trying to defend themselves. Then he will turn it around and say, ‘Why are you getting so angry and defensive? It must be true.’

What YOU can do – Don’t bite back. You can’t win in a situation like this. When it happens, the best thing is to walk out of the room. Standing your ground is like drowning in toxic verbal quicksand. Anything you say will only incite him further. Tell him you won’t put up with this and move away if you can, or say nothing. You are wasting your breath because he will only hit harder and faster. Trying to argue back or defend yourself only pulls the trigger of the bomb.

The Silent Treatment and Houdini (Disappearing) Act.

A narcissist is a shape shifter, never in the same place for long, impossible to pin down to any true level of commitment. He is forever on the lookout for New Supply, others who will worship and adore him. He employs the Silent Treatment and Houdini Act as another form of control. When the relationship is going well, it increases a narcissist’s inherent fear of commitment. At this point he must withdraw for a while to a) get his own emotions under control and b) get you under control. Likewise when he is bored with the relationship, he often needs to get away, generally to New Supply he is setting up, or has already established.

What HE does - Out of the blue, Mr Nasty will rear up and rage over nothing and then he will remove himself completely from your life. He will not respond to texts, calls or emails and sometimes he will disappear to another city or country. Not knowing what has happened or how long it will last, is designed to set up a heightened sense of anxiety in his partner. It’s like a form of mental torture that leaves the person on the receiving end, confused, depressed and insecure, willing to try anything to get some kind of communication or response, wondering if it was her fault as how could the reaction be so extreme over something so trivial? After a day, a week, a month, or longer, he will reappear as if nothing has happened, back to Mr Wonderful from the beginning and poised to push the re-set button - if you allow it.

What YOU can do - Every narcissistic relationship follows the same pattern – Idealization, Devaluation, Submission (Relenting) and Reconciliation. The first time he pulls the Silent Treatment and Houdini Act is the most important time. What you do from here will shape the course of the entire relationship. If you let him back in, without holding him accountable for his actions, you can be guaranteed that the nightmare roller coaster will only occur again but faster and faster each time. Some of us have repeated this cycle every few months for years. My advice – give him the benefit of the doubt the first time. Set boundaries around what you will and won’t put up with. The second time it happens, be the one to remove yourself from the situation.

Portions of this article are from Planet Ben: Inside the World of A Narcissist, Susan Williams, Copyright 2014.

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