It’s confusing enough trying to make sense of why narcissists behave the way they do, but it can be downright baffling when they return to an ex-partner.
Is there a reason why they keep returning to past relationships? Is it because they’re truly repentant and want to make things right this time around? Or is it because they just want something — someone —familiar?
If you find yourself asking the same questions, this article is for you.
According to experts, here are common reasons why narcissists come back to old relationships:
Dr. Carissa Coulston
Clinical Psychologist | Relationship Expert, The Eternity Rose
They prefer to be with somebody predictable and familiar
For anyone who’s been in a relationship with a narcissist, one of the many problems they encounter is that their former partner returns time and again. They seek to renew the romantic connection, even if they were the ones to call it quits in the first place.
Related: 35+ Signs You’re Dating a Narcissist
Not all narcissists do this, but there is one kind that will almost certainly seek to return—the recycler.
A recycler may be of any gender, but all of them have something in common—they’ll cycle through a familiar set of partners time and again.
Somewhat unusually, this kind of narcissist prefers to avoid confrontation. Thus they prefer to be with somebody predictable and familiar rather than seeking the excitement of making a fresh conquest. While a recycler is in a relationship, they’ll be faithful to that person.
However, once they’ve become bored or felt that they’d been wounded in some way by that partner, they rapidly move on to other former lovers to begin the cycle again.
Eventually, they gather a set of lovers who will accept them back time and again, and if nobody drops out of the group, the pattern may go on ad infinitum.
So why do recycler narcissists take this course of action? Here are just a few of the reasons why:
Narcissists don’t have “object constancy”
The term “object constancy“ refers to our ability to perceive the good side of somebody, even if they believe that that person has in some way offended them.
Object constancy also involves maintaining emotional connections with partners even if they aren’t together. While a typical person will still be thinking about their loved one while apart, narcissists rapidly forget their partner the moment they are separated from them.
As a recycling narcissist lacks any object constancy, as soon as they experience a problem with one partner, they immediately lose all of their positive opinion of them.
Instead of trying to stay and work things out, they’ll simply cut all ties and move on to another lover within their group. As each one inevitably angers or disappoints the recycler, they’ll continue moving on through their previous partners one by one.
Narcissists view partners as being interchangeable
Often, a narcissist will view people, including their partner who they’re supposed to love and want to be with, as being interchangeable with anyone else.
Their mindset is often “if this person can’t give me everything I want, then I’ll find somebody else who can.”
All too often, a narcissist will view love as simply convenience. Therefore, returning to an ex-partner is second nature to a recycling narcissist, and it doesn’t really matter which one of those ex-lovers it is.
They believe they are doing their former partner a favor by coming back
All narcissists lack empathy. If they leave a relationship, their feelings for that partner immediately vanish.
They can rapidly move to someone else because they have convinced themselves their partner was the one at fault for the breakup, never themselves.
They feel no regret or guilt about ending the relationship. That, of course, means that they’ll have absolutely no qualms about coming back for more at a later date.
Most people would think twice about hopping a former partner would take them back after a split. They would feel very uncomfortable about even approaching a one-time lover to see if they’d be interested in trying again.
For a narcissist, though, there is a strong belief that they are actually doing their former partner a favor by deigning to take them back.
They are fully confident that their former partners will happily accept them back into their lives because, after all, they’re an amazing person, and surely everyone would want to be with someone so perfect.
Narcissists don’t understand love in any traditional sense
Narcissists have their own way of viewing love, and it isn’t how most people traditionally see it.
When they begin a new relationship, they lovebomb their new partner, showering them with compliments and gifts to make them feel special and important.
Once they are tired of them, or once they have “dared” to offend them, they cut all ties instantly and move on, leaving their former partner confused and distressed about what has happened.
Often, the former partner is also, by this point, hopelessly in love with the narcissist and so is more than willing to take them back when the cycle repeats itself. The narcissist returns, seeking to rekindle the relationship with more love bombing.
They view everybody with no strong feelings about anybody
For most people, when a relationship ends, there is a period of adjustment during which both partners learn to cope without the other around. While sometimes, they may get in touch with each other to discuss unresolved issues.
They both understand that the relationship has ended and is unlikely to start again.
For narcissists, however, no adjustment period is needed. They move on immediately from relationships without a second thought.
However, they’ll usually try to remain on friendly terms with them to keep them on their list of potential lovers to return to after breaking up with somebody else in the future.
For the ex-partner, the fact that their narcissistic former lover stays in touch with them gives them false hope that they may have a future together. It keeps them on the hook waiting for the next time they return to rekindle the romance.
The way that they stay in touch is well-thought-out and strategically planned. They often send nostalgic messages or get in touch on dates that hold significance, such as birthdays, anniversaries, or holidays.
They do this not because they care but because they want to trigger their former partner into thinking about them once more and rekindling those romantic feelings so that they are primed and ready to take them back at a moment’s notice.
Narcissists like to upgrade and get attention
Narcissists become bored very quickly, so eventually, they will get tired of the person they’re with and move on to the next lover on their list. Often, that lover will be viewed as an upgrade for one reason or another.
For example, if a former partner has just been promoted to a well-paid job or has lost weight and looks fantastic, they can expect their narcissistic ex to pay attention to them again.
Essentially, narcissists will return to old relationships repeatedly until that former partner no longer gives them what they desire—attention.
As long as former partners are prepared to take them back, they will remain on the list of willing ex-lovers who will be cycled through time and again.
The moment they stop responding to the narcissist’s tactics, they will be dropped from the list and won’t hear from their narcissist ex again.
Licensed Clinical Social Worker
Coming back to old relationships would be proving their power is still in existence
People suffering from the trait of narcissism believe that they are the super villain of the human race.
- They do no wrong
- They are seen as no wrong
- They are more powerful than everyone else
There is an incredible amount of effort that goes into creating their shields against outsiders seeing inside.
Those with narcissistic traits work overtime and pick up extra hours when they find someone they believe to be an option of their primary focus for:
Finding victims is a constant motivating factor for these folks — both in new and existing relationships. As soon as they identify somebody as a quality potential victim, there is no stopping the wrath of their behavior.
They find it as a challenge, and it’s a challenge to be won. They can, and will, get their way.
It is a challenge to regain control
They see rejection as a personal insult, and they will use this challenge to change their behavior to regain control.
The cycle of abuse is a primary example of why their victims may stay longer than intended, sometimes without even realizing how long they tolerate (or suffer in) this relationship.
- Tensions build,
- an incident occurs,
- reconciliation happens (where the manipulation continues),
- and the environment becomes calm.
Tension builds once again around the corner. The narcissistic person remembers, especially if you challenge them.
However, sometimes we escape (with the emotional luggage behind us). Then what happens? The healing journey can begin, but with one caveat—you need to build your shield.
Here’s why: Coming back to old relationships would be proving their power is still in existence. They want to enforce their ability to ensure that their victim is still under their narcissistic behavior wave.
They need to know they are still winning
Losing is a failure, and failure is unacceptable. Quite frankly, not even in their allowed vocabulary.
If they have identified that their power still exists, they’ll keep the victim close to periodically re-victimize. Remember, that’s how they’re driven.
- Regardless of your strength, they may return.
- Regardless of what you said, they may try again.
- Regardless of your plan, they might try to steer you back.
Find your support network. Make sure they’re nonjudgmental. Build that shield. You don’t have to feel defeated anymore.
Licensed Clinical Social Worker | Psychotherapist
Narcissists pursue ex-partners because it works for them
An ex is a known entity—the narcissist knows what needs they can get met and how this ex can be manipulated to align with the narcissist’s agenda.
Dating an ex can be more efficient for the narcissist as they do not have to waste time studying someone new or love bombing—their groundwork in the past relationship.
Those that suffer from narcissism can expect more from their ex based on a past shared history.
Dating an ex-partner can ward off loneliness and insecurities
Narcissists hate being alone—dating an ex-partner who is attracted to them can ward off loneliness and insecurities.
An ex-partner can become a “blue blanket” for a narcissist (think Linus and his blue blanket in the Peanuts cartoon). A narcissist can soothe themselves with thoughts that they can always go back to the ex and never be alone.
They hold past sins against a partner to maintain their superior position
Narcissists often need to play out the pattern of putting someone on a pedestal and knocking them down. Creating that pattern with someone whose typical responses are known can be less emotionally risky.
Also, narcissists must be superior in a relationship and often hold past sins against a partner to maintain their superior position.
A past love interest has already accumulated “sins” according to the narcissist that they can call on to create:
- and guilt in the ex-partner.
Narcissists also struggle with endings as it equals their worst fear— abandonment. Keeping a relationship going with an ex keeps the narcissist from experiencing abandonment.
Rich Heller, MSW, CPC, ELI MP
Relationship Coach, Rich in Relationship
They are recreating the environment they know best
You need to understand how narcissists are formed to understand the question.
Your basic narcissist is formed when another narcissist grooms them, or they have a super traumatic childhood experience. Often these two situations are actually happening at the same time; the child is being groomed and traumatized all in the same moment.
Narcissists raise their children to either be a narcissist or scapegoats. If there’s one child, they’ll raise that one to be a narcissist. If there are two children or more, they’ll usually raise the oldest to be a narcissist and the youngest to be the scapegoat.
The scapegoat takes on the role of the other parent. They carry all the blame and wrongness that the narcissist and the golden child refused to. They love repetition and safe environments. A safe environment is familiar, one that doesn’t challenge their beliefs.
The other way narcissists are formed is in trauma. I had a very young client who was forced to choose between his parents. He chose his father over his mother.
He spent the rest of his life repeating that pattern with every woman he was with.
- Choosing the woman
- Cheating on her
- Begging her to take him back
- Starting all over again with the same woman
He would do that until the woman would not take him back. And then he’d find another one and start all over again.
It’s not that narcissists are evil; they are recreating the environment they know best.
They do this because there is an emotional structure that they’re maintaining in themselves. The structure is basically: “I’m perfect; I’m always right. Everyone around me either agrees with me; they’re to be made to agree with me or to be crushed.”
Like my client, they will go back to the same partner again and again and again in the hope that they can create the psychological environment in which they are most comfortable.
Is it healthy? No. It’s actually sad when you think about it this way. It may be that they’re hoping that by recreating the scene of the crime, they can finally erase the damage.
Dr. Shazmin Rafaqat
Clinical Psychology and Speech Therapist, Healthwire
They are inclined towards things they are accustomed to
One of the primary factors that allow a narcissist to welcome old bonds rather than embrace new relationships is the sense of security and familiarity they feel with the previous ones.
To understand the internal mind mechanism of why narcissists do so, you have to understand the type of narcissist you are dealing with.
If you are dealing with a recycler, then they are okay with the comfort and predictability of the old bonds. They are not comfortable with the factor of surprise and accountability and thus tend to incline towards things they are accustomed to.
Below are some main reasons which tend to fuel the whole process of embracing an old form of love that invokes familiarity:
They are confident about their charms
This is the main headline of the entire query. The primary reason a narcissist thinks that you are going to accept them is because of their confidence.
People who have experienced narcissist abuse in the past are highly dependent on them for their emotional stability, which calls for the continuation of a loop that will not end well for both parties involved.
The reason why people are often welcoming to their abusive partners is that they have never experienced the safer and softer side of love.
Related: How Dating a Narcissist Changes You
They do not feel empathy for others
As narcissists do not feel empathy for others, they are often null and void about the feeling and passions of others. This is a prime reason why they tend to move on so quickly. This is also why they will leave for something that is old and their comfort zone like an old lover.
They completely disregard your feelings in such situations and will not even think about how much anguish they are causing you.
The ex is on the narcissist’s recycling list
A narcissist never wants you to believe they have moved on from you. On the contrary, what they will do is they will try to keep a list of all the potential loved ones that they can click on in their hour of need.
It’s not about you; it’s about them, it will always be about them, and it will never be about you for them.
Understand the difference and break the cycle if you can.
Dr. Bryan Bruno
Founder and Medical Director, Mid City TMS
Some key traits of narcissism include:
- Lack of empathy
- Need for validation
These traits often manifest themselves in toxic ways within their relationships, leading them to behave in a way that serves these personality traits.
Some reasons that narcissists may repeatedly return to old relationships:
They’re bored in their current relationships
Narcissistic people may find themselves getting bored in their new relationships or not finding the emotional stimulus they seek with their current partner.
In cases like these, a narcissist may seek out their ex to get the attention they crave.
The need for validation often leads them to old relationships
Most often, narcissistic people lack confidence and aren’t solid in their sense of self. Narcissism is the negative manifestation of these emotions and leads narcissistic people to seek validation.
Unfortunately, this need for validation often leads them to old relationships. Narcissists often claim that they have evolved past the issue that ended their old relationship, hoping their previous partner will give them the validation they seek.
Old relationships often offer a sense of security
Old relationships often offer a sense of security for a narcissist that lacks confidence in other areas of their life.
Victims of narcissistic abuse are often left emotionally attached to their abuser, even if that abuser seems to have moved on. Narcissistic people may take advantage of these feelings and go back to old relationships in times of hardship.
It’s important to note that many of the feelings and emotions that narcissists experience are entirely normal to everyday people:
- lack of confidence,
- the need for validation,
- and missing old relationships.
A person can be described as narcissistic, primarily based on how these emotions manifest in their relationships and behavior.
Relationship Scientist and Coach, Hily
They come back knowing that their partner is likely to be in a vulnerable state
A narcissist may have been in a relationship in which their partner was dependent on them (as in the case of narcissistic abuse).
In this situation, the narcissist may come back knowing that their partner is likely to be in a vulnerable state and, as such likely to take them back. This confidence takes the guessing work out of re-initiating the relationship.
A narcissist focuses on the self. When in a relationship, this can present a problem as this individual sees their partner in terms of what they can provide.
The narcissist fails to consider the partner’s needs or how they can meet them. This can lead to an unbalanced and potentially toxic relationship.
Set personal boundaries and protect yourself from repetitive relationships
A narcissist often doesn’t consider how their behaviors affect others, so setting boundaries can be challenging.
Being proactive and assertive in setting boundaries with a narcissistic partner is essential, as is consistently upholding their adherence to them.
By waffling when it comes to setting boundaries, you may set the precedent that the boundaries aren’t important or don’t really matter. For each person, the boundaries may differ (depending on the relationship and the context surrounding it).
Some important boundaries to consider may involve equity in the relationship and respect, which can manifest in the behaviors and forms of communication that you find acceptable/unacceptable.
For the partner in the relationship, it is important not to be drawn into situations in which they are made to take the blame.
It is okay to ask for space and time during disagreements so that you can process the situation and better understand your own emotional responses.
It is important to leave the relationship if there is any physical or emotional abuse.
It is also imperative to leave if:
- Your boundaries are not being respected
- You are being manipulated/gaslighted
- You are feeling negatively impacted by being in the relationship
Related: How to Respond to Gaslighting
Dr. Sanam Hafeez
Licensed Clinical Psychologist, Comprehend The Mind
They will come back to old relationships simply for their selfish needs
If you notice your partner is:
- Overly obsessed with themselves
- Seeks constant attention
- Possesses a superiority complex
A relationship with a narcissist entails emotional abuse and manipulation. They disregard the other person’s emotions and only empathize with what makes them content.
A motivator that often reels a narcissist back is the need for validation. Unfortunately, victims of narcissistic abuse still have an emotional connection to the abuser, even after being abandoned.
With that in mind, narcissists prey on that vulnerability and take advantage of it. They are confident their previous partner will take them back and give them the attention they want.
Narcissists don’t come back because they love you; they come back because they need a fix.
Narcissists don’t like to lose the battle. They are unable to have things not go their way. That being said, a narcissist will do anything to fix what was lost. If that means winning their previous partner as a “friend,” they will take measures to get that so-called win.
Narcissists recycle and come back to old relationships because they feel people are interchangeable.
With this lack of empathy, a narcissist goes back to feeling a sense of comfort for some time. Once satisfied with what they received, the narcissist proceeds to move on.
Ariella Grosse, LMSW
Psychotherapist, Prescott Psychotherapy + Wellness
Returning to old partners may guarantee an esteem boost
It’s important to remember that people with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) tend to have inflated self-views, which are inextricably linked to sources of external validation.
They require the praise and admiration of others, primarily their romantic partners, to fuel their sense of self-worth and power.
People with NPD often struggle with interpersonal relationships; they may have limited friendships, and those they maintain can be characterized by conflict.
As a result, if they lack other sources of validation, individuals with NPD may return to old partners and relationships, which may guarantee an esteem boost.
Moreover, if they notice a past partner’s admiration fading, they may desperately seek to re-establish a connection and receive praise.
Individuals with NPD also seek power and control. If another party ended their relationship, they might return to the old relationship to attempt to re-connect.
As part of their grandiose view of self, they may actually see re-entering a relationship or returning to a partner as an act of service, only further contributing to their persona of excellence.
Alisha Powell, PhD, LCSW
Licensed Clinical Social Worker, Amethyst Counseling and Consulting
They believe the issue was with the other person, and they’ve done nothing wrong
Narcissists tend to return to rekindle a relationship for several reasons.
First, they believe that the issue was with the other person and that they’ve done nothing wrong.
Many times individuals leaving a relationship with a narcissist will go to therapy. This action can attract a narcissist back because they believe you’ve gotten the help you need.
Second, a narcissist may return to a relationship because it’s familiar. It can be difficult to develop and maintain a relationship with a narcissist, and often they’ve alienated family and friends due to their actions.
Approaching someone they’ve dated in the past can feel less daunting, and they may believe there’s a higher likelihood of rekindling the relationship.
Relationship Expert | Co-Founder, Platinum Poire
They seek validation to boost their confidence and ego
Narcissists come back to old relationships because they seek validation, which they had clearly received previously. This validation boosts their confidence and ego and makes them feel like they’re king of the world again.
They also know they can control the relationship through manipulative tactics. Whether that is a compliment or service-based, the narcissist wants to continually feel like the cat’s meow.
It may also be that the narcissist has recently become single. The last fling or relationship has sizzled, and the egomaniac seeks that revival of showering adoration again.
The narcissist is experiencing a wave of insecurity
Whatever the reason it may be:
- work woes
- lack of exercise
- financial stressors
The narcissist needs a cheerleader to make them feel infallible again.
The last fix clearly ran its course, and they’re reverting to whatever had once solved the narcissist’s self-obsessed issues.
Narcissistic Abuse Survivor | Mental Health Blogger
They maintain people who they can tap for their narcissistic supply
Narcissists like to maintain a “harem” of people they can use for narcissistic supply, so they can pick and choose between who to turn to according to what they need in that present moment.
This is why they are often drawn back to past relationships even after years of being apart. They know their previous partner was a good source of narcissistic supply, and they will try to tap into that again.
This is why we refer to the narcissistic abuse cycle because the narcissist repeats the same behavior in a loop:
- Step 1 – Idealization: The narcissist idealizes their target and sweeps them off their feet with grand gestures of love. This stage is often referred to as the “love bombing” stage.
- Step 2 – Devaluation: This is when the narcissist’s true nature is revealed, and behaviors such as gaslighting and manipulation emerge.
- Step 3 – Discard: The narcissist is now bored and wants to move on, so they discard their partner.
- Step 4 – Recycle: after some time, the narcissist will reach out to the victim again and return to step 1 for a repeat.
Mental Health and Addiction Recovery Specialist | Medical Reviewer, OK Rehab
It’s easier to manipulate an ex than someone else
When a narcissist decides that they want you in their life, it may take them a long time to get you to trust them and to want to stick around.
They try all sorts of tactics, including:
- love bombing,
- and plain bullying
to manipulate you into getting into a relationship with them.
Often, they start with the love bombing and only begin to show the other tactics when you are already in an established relationship that it would be tricky to get out of.
If a narcissist wanted to find someone else, they’d have to start this game all over again, including hiding their manipulation until the other person trusted them enough.
This would take a lot of time and effort, so sometimes narcissists would instead return to their old relationships where most of the work has already been done, and you are likely to feel a sense of obligation to them if they have manipulated you successfully.
They need you to validate their superiority complex
Though they want you to believe you need them and not the other way around, your narcissistic ex needs you to be their supply—in other words, to validate their superiority complex and give them constant praise.
This is their coping mechanism in life, and when they are without a constant narcissistic supply, they may enter into a narcissistic rage.
To prevent this, they return to their ex as they know this is where they can get their supply, whereas many other people won’t worship them in the way they desire.
What’s more, as narcissists tend to view their loved ones as possessions, they need you as they feel a desire to control you. They may feel empty and unable to tell you how to live your life, so they return to regain power and control over you.
The image of the relationship also helps them in this department as they feel powerful when people view them as desirable, which is more likely to occur if they are in a seemingly happy relationship.
They can easily return without feeling the guilt
Narcissists feel less empathy than average people, so they are less likely to consider how their actions will affect you. This means that when they leave the relationship, they won’t sit and reflect on how they hurt you and why they should apologize for that.
Consequently, when they decide they want you back, they can easily return without feeling the guilt and believing they need to change their ways.
Furthermore, the possibility that they will end up leaving you again doesn’t fill them with guilt like it would for the average person.
So they aren’t against the idea of constantly leaving you and returning when they want you back as they don’t consider how this will make you feel.
Physical Therapist and Animal Adoption Advocate, Every Creature Counts
Narcissists are certain you would welcome them back into your life
In the end, narc abuse victims remain emotionally tied to their abusers even if they are no longer in contact with them. They do this during periods of low supply, and the objectives are utilized as fillers throughout the dry season — till something better is acquired.
Don’t forget that narcs can’t tolerate being alone for any time, which is why they ought to put anything (that is, someone) in the hole with them.
Using the term “human being” is a misnomer since Narcs do not see other people as humans but as things to be used.
When it comes to love bombing, the victim is generally already ‘hooked‘ to the narc and simply “gives in” again, saving:
- grooming, and so on.
Because of this, the narc may quickly get to the sex stage with the former lover. That’s the entire point, isn’t it?
They’re looking for a “get ahead of the game“ card that they can employ to their own advantage.
Usually, the victim is someone the narc has already dumped, but it may also be the one the narc just can’t let go of. The narcissist needs one more chance to win the heart of the triple-A grade supply.
They get satisfaction from knowing they can get back with their ex
Narcissists keep coming back to those they’ve successfully manipulated. If they hit a roadblock trying to cast someone new under their spell, they’ll turn to those they previously knew.
They get satisfaction from knowing they can turn on the charm anytime and get back into someone else’s good graces. It boosts their self-confidence. It helps them overcome their insecurities.
Often the person or persons the narcissist has manipulated will agree to welcome them back—even when they know they’ve been wronged before.
They still have that emotional connection. They still recall those moments of joy or euphoria that come with being in a relationship with someone who gave them those feelings.
Maybe the victims of narcissists still cling to the belief that they can change that person’s behavior. They have a nurturing instinct that they can’t set aside for certain people. That’s often why victims of emotional abuse often leave a window open.
Narcissists crave attention. They want it all to themselves and don’t like competing for it. They’ll return to an old flame if they think they can recapture that person’s attention and affection.
Be leery of someone who comes back to you again and again.
Relationship Expert, Sameera Sullivan Matchmakers
It makes them feel good
Narcissists tend to be very unaware of their actions and the repercussions those actions might have. They believe that you will take them back if they keep returning to you.
Initially, they might act as an ideal partner, but at the end of the day, it’s no use because they take advantage of your emotional vulnerability to make themselves feel good.
They are entirely emotionally unavailable individuals. All they require from backing back to you is validation.
Unfortunately, the people don’t hold value. For them, people are a “means to an end.” If their partner is providing them with the things they need, they will stay with them; if they aren’t, they can also discard them.
Recruiter | Leader, USScrapYard
It’s an attempt to feed off their vanity
I’ve had the unfortunate experience dating a narcissist back in my twenties. She was extremely self-absorbed in everything to the point that it made me feel bad about myself most of my days throughout that relationship.
After finally taking the step to end it, I noticed that she tried to contact me again after a while, trying to rekindle what we had without her saying that she wanted to get back together.
The thing about a narcissist is that they’d try to stir up their ex-partner’s emotions so that the latter would end up asking for another chance.
Thinking back on how those conversations went after the break-up, I think that a narcissist would always come back to an old relationship in an attempt to feed off their vanity.
They try to go back to feel validated, wanted, and still desired by their ex-partner. The worst decision the partner can make is to be weakened by the attempt and dive right back into this toxic relationship.
The narcissist would be only using them for their own benefit, as they would be going back to that safe place where they had successfully dominated the partner.
I think this is why they try to go back to old relationships, which is something everyone needs to be aware of if they have dated a narcissist.
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