What Is Trauma Bonding With A Narcissist (How To Break It)

A long history of abuse can trap us permanently in the panicky “fight or flight” mode, or in the paralyzing “freeze mode” — mentally and emotionally frozen, unable to react.

Psychologist Martin Seligman found that dogs put under long, inescapable trauma develop “learned helplessness”. They give up trying to flee the trauma scene, even when given a way out.

The same happens to a narcissistic abuse sufferer.

After years of facing the narcissist hurling insults at us, while forced to stand in shamed silence, we finally give up trying to escape our abuser.

Worse, even after the victims have left the abuser, they seek the same punishment-reward environment that they are so used to.

That is trauma bonding, which frequently occurs with a narcissistic abuser.

While narcissists will always abuse the other person in their relationships, some narcissists are downright cruel.

Abusers like narcissists bind you with the hurt they cause you.

What is trauma bonding?

Trauma bonding is an unhealthy psychological response to abuse in which the abused person develops feelings for their abuser and wishes to return to them. The victim may grow sympathy for the abuser, which gets perpetuated by successive cycles of abuse and rewards. However, not every victim of long-term abuse develops a trauma bond.

Traumatic bonding is a strong emotional attachment between an abused person and his or her abuser, formed as a result of the cycle of violence.

— Austin & Boyd, 2010

The narcissist abuser mistreats the victim physically, emotionally, and psychologically. However, they also interspersed it with gestures of love, caring, kindness, generosity, and promises not to abuse again.

These little episodes of good behavior, occurring at random between phases of abuse, reinforce trauma bonding.

trauma-bonding is abuse-good-cycle
Trauma bonding: cyclic phases of good behavior and abusive behavior.

Trauma bonding is a form of addiction that emerges prominently in the aftermath of a traumatic event. The main feelings involved are attachment, loneliness, fear, and worry.

The term “trauma bonding” was first used to describe addiction to certain tormentor-tormented, sadist-masochist, and abuser-abused behaviors.

Trauma bonding can form with anyone who witnessed the traumatic event, including romantic partners, friends, family members, and even first responders.

A trauma-bonded person may react with anger if you suggest that they need help to stop the abuse. They may even sneer at you, insisting that their abusers love them and that what seems abuse is actually their way of romancing.

Such victims may find it extremely hard to move on after ending the toxic relationship.

Trauma bonding is actually a survival strategy. It grows on the false belief that if the victim loves the abuser, they would love them back and hurt them less.

The well-known Stockholm syndrome, in which an abducted person develops sympathy for the captor, is a type of trauma bonding.

However, Stockholm syndrome may have the abuser also softening their stand against the victim whereas, in trauma bonding, the abuser maintains a harsh stance.

Remember, if you leave them, narcissists may send in their “flying monkeys” to you to get you back.

When can trauma bonding happen?

Trauma bonding can happen in love, parent-child, and sibling relationships. It can also occur in cults, hostage situations, human trafficking, sports coaching, and military training. Research by H. F. Harlow published in Nature of Love (PDF) showed that infant monkeys form attachment bonds even with abusive mothers.

Children are the most vulnerable victims of trauma bonding.

We are conditioned as children to form bonds with a particular type of person.

When the hurt kids grow up, they show signs of repressed childhood trauma. One of them is trauma bonding.

Living with a narcissist in your childhood will always make you gravitate toward narcissists, and make narcissists gravitate toward you.

When we grow up with narcissistic parents, we are likely to develop trauma bonds. When we always see conflicts among parents and get constantly abused as children, we get programmed to seek refuge in those feelings, values, ideals, and emotional environments.

Narcissists use their charms to trick our primitive brain, particularly the amygdala, to fall in love with them.

Once under their spell, they make you feel jumpy, cranky, emotional, and vulnerable all the time. People undergoing narcissistic gaslighting feel disturbed, nervous, and unable to trust themselves.

Break The Trauma Bonding With Narcissist
Trauma bonding can form in children of narcissistic parents

How to get over trauma bonding with narcissists

Many believe that they can get over a narcissistic trauma bonding by learning more about narcissism and protecting themselves by identifying the red flags of narcissism.

But it is often not easy, as the narcissists in our life condition our primitive brain to respond to situations with a flight-or-fright response.

The two main factors that allow the creation and continuation of a trauma bond are a power imbalance and intermittent reinforcement.

We feel something is missing if we don’t have that anxious environment, with periodic flashes of love and tranquility.

Here are some ways to get over narcissistic trauma bonding:

1. Get aware of narcissistic abuse

The narcissists don’t allow you the mental space to become self-aware. So, you never realize where it hurts, how it bleeds.

They keep your stress motor constantly whirring in the background.

Narcissists keep questioning “your stupidity, your inefficiency, your wrongness of decisions, your emotional instability, your improper emotional response, and your failure to understand what they want.”

You give up your freedom of will and thought to slave it out for them so that they are happy.

Narcissists bind you with the hurt they cause you. Then they don’t let you heal.

Get awareness of their abuse. Take a long break from them or go on a holiday without them to introspect.

Time away from your abuser gives you a better shot at abuse awareness. It gives you an insight into your status as the narcissist’s victim.

Awareness gives you the time and focuses to attend to your wounds. It helps tap into your inner strength to break the cycle of trauma.

It allows you to change your behavior from one of self-victimization to one of self-healing.

2. Change the way you think

Narcissists keep you overwhelmed with anxiety and apprehension. It prevents you from being aware that the wounds they gave you are bleeding.

They know that as long as they keep you traumatized, your focus will be on them, not yourself. You will always keep finding ways to please them so that they don’t hurt you anymore.

It won’t occur to you that they will keep finding new ways to hurt you. They cause you to engage in self-harming thoughts, emotions, and behavior (Bancroft, 2002).

They may even instigate you to hurt yourself as punishment for failing them.

You won’t realize that the fault is with them, not you.

A relationship with a narcissist makes us overthink and ruminate on the lies we are fed day after day. We can no longer tell how the real world feels.

Self-introspect with a notebook about what your thoughts are telling you, distancing yourself from them.

For example:

“My thoughts tell me that I am no good. But I am not my thoughts. I chose to focus on my strengths, let go of my negative self-image, and embrace myself with love.”

3. Break bonds with the narcissist

To fix the traumatic bonding with the narcissist, you need to break away from the relationship.

Of course, you need a clean break. As a precaution, take yourself to a safe place before declaring your breakup. Narcissist rage can get ugly.

Now, the first problem you face after leaving a bond of trauma is the withdrawal symptoms. They make you crave the old, familiar ways and prevent you from healing.

When you break up with your narcissistic partner, you feel an oxytocin detachment, making you desire to reconnect with them. The way to circumvent it is to give yourself an alternative.

Cuddling increases your oxytocin levels. Get a pet dog or a teddy bear to cuddle.

Oxytocin can help people with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder become prosocial (Gi, 2016).

Here’s how Stoic Philosophy can help you recover from a breakup.

4. Join social groups

Find an interesting social group to join. Be around people who are fun to be with.

Hang out with happy friends.

If you have supportive friends who can give you some time, take them to a restaurant, café, museum, or any other place of mutual interest.

Start a gym membership. If you can’t, then go out to the park for walks and jogs.

Join a laughter yoga class. Smiling and laughing release endorphins and promotes relaxation.

Join a weekend social activity group, like a homeless food service group.

Join a narcissist survival support group, or domestic abuse support group.

Socializing can work the other way too. Instead of seeking people to support you, help a friend in need, a social cause, or educate disadvantaged kids.

5. Lean into a new connection opportunity

Do not dive into a rebound relationship to resurrect your self-esteem.

You may spend some time with someone you like and feel secure with, like a friend or a colleague, or a casual date.

Keep your new relationship with no strings attached. Take it easy while keeping your expectations low.

Do not overindulge in this new person’s company.

Do not rush things or hurry into intimacy.

You just left a toxic relationship. But do not make this new person a replacement, and don’t cling to them with all your might.

Allow yourself time to feel safe in this new person’s company. You may gradually drop your defenses as you increase your trust levels with them.

6. Self-love and self-compassion

It’s time to give yourself all the love, kindness, and compassion that you have been depriving yourself of for years.

Date yourself. Take yourself on a restaurant date. Invite yourself (like, literally leaving yourself a card) to a movie or a fun place.

Go on a solo adventure like a tourist in your home city. Go out on a thrilling activity like rick-climbing or paragliding.

Soak up on sunshine every day. Listen to a music list to lift your mood.

Recall happy times and cheerful experiences from before your relationship with the narcissist.

Learn to practice mindfulness meditation, even if for 3 minutes a day.

Meditation can help re-activate the areas of your brain that process emotions and higher thinking. It can also increase the gray matter in the frontal lobes, whatever your age (Lazar, 2005).

Meditation is not about shutting out your thoughts or emotions, but observing and accepting them, and then releasing them.

7. Take help from a therapist

Talk to a mental health expert who specializes in narcissistic abuse in relationships.

CBT, or cognitive-behavioral therapy, is a helpful way to change the distorted patterns of thinking given to us by the narcissist.

CBT was developed by Aaron T. Beck in the 1960s and 1970s.

Beck based it on the idea that:

  • our interpretation of events influences our reactions (emotional, behavioral, and psychological),
  • our interpretations may be distorted, wrong, and unhelpful (these are called “automatic thoughts”),
  • when we change our interpretations, we change the related emotions, reactions, and behaviors.

Beck found that when he helped his patients evaluate and change their distorted thinking, they felt better and could modify their behavior. The positive effects lasted a long.

CBT became the first therapy to be shown more effective than medication for treating depression.

The idea that our thoughts influence our feelings, and feelings influence our behaviors, has its roots in the ancient philosophy of Stoicism.

“Man is disturbed not by things, but by the views he takes of them.” — Epictetus, 1st Century Stoic philosopher

“People don’t just get upset. They contribute to their upsetness.” — Albert Ellis, 20th Century psychologist

Albert Ellis, the developer of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT), admitted he was influenced by Stoics. Aaron Beck, the founder of Cognitive-Behavior Therapy (CBT), also acknowledged the influence of Stoic philosophers on his work.

Stages of trauma bonding

Trauma bonding is a condition that occurs when someone who has been terrorized over an extended period of time begins to sympathize with and even care for their captor.

The 7 stages of trauma bonding are:

  1. The honeymoon phase – The first stage can be defined as “the honeymoon period” where the survivor feels relieved from the stress and anxiety of the traumatic event.
  2. The tension phase – They may believe that their captor has been unfairly scapegoated or that others are not aware of the captor’s personal struggles. Trauma bonding can also occur in instances where the victim is too young to understand what is happening, and may exhibit emotional attachment as a result. It includes an emotional dependency on their partner or caregiver, which may lead to them feeling deeply hurt when they are not around.
  3. The love bombing phase – The love bombing phase of trauma bonding is when the abuser shows kindness and affection to the victim. The new relationship is established as a positive, loving one- but it’s an illusion. It’s a ploy to form the trauma bond, which will be used against the victim.
  4. The devaluation phase – With traumatic bonding, it is common for the victim to idealize the abuser, minimize their actions and then devalue them in an attempt to protect themselves. This phase is often a result of trauma and can be difficult to recognize.
  5. The discard phase – The discard phase of trauma bonding occurs when the abuser wants to end the relationship. The abuser may be ending the relationship because they grew bored or are no longer in need of the abused person’s attention. It is characterized by an obsessive need for control over their partner or caregiver, which can lead to extreme jealousy, anger, or violence when they feel like they have lost control over them.
  6. The rescue/hoovering phase – The rescue or hoovering phase of trauma bonding is the second phase of this relationship. This is when the victim realizes that they are trapped and that escape is impossible. They may feel powerless and insignificant, yet still dependent on their abuser for survival.
  7. The recovery stage – The trauma bond is a powerful and unhealthy connection that forms between victim and perpetrator. It is common in abusive relationships, co-dependent relationships, or among victims of kidnapping or hostage situations. Individuals experiencing trauma bonding often have a difficult time breaking the cycle and getting themselves to move on.
Narcissistic Abuse Cycle
Narcissistic Abuse Cycle

Final Words

Trauma bonding is the process of ongoing emotional attachment between an abused victim and their abuser.

It’s a very complicated thing to recover from, but there are many things you can do to make it easier.

The worse thing is that they give you trauma and then do not let you process it.

You look at your wounds and do not understand how to nurse them. One crisis pours into another, obscuring your emotional vista. You even forget to laugh with abandon.

• • •

How To Recover From Narcissistic Gaslighting (Why It’s Hard)?

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Author Bio: Written and reviewed by Sandip Roy — medical doctor, psychology writer, and happiness researcher. Founder and Chief Editor of The Happiness Blog. Writes on mental well-being, happiness, positive psychology, and philosophy (especially Stoicism).

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