Trauma bonding is a powerful, inextricable bond that develops between an abuser and victim due to the presence of danger, betrayal and a power imbalance. Dr. Patrick Carnes also calls it “the betrayal bond.” According to researchers, in order to survive the abusive environment, the trauma bond causes victims to engage in behaviors to appease the abuser in an attempt to avoid further abuse, mistreatment or violence – they may even develop a sense of gratitude for the abuser for being “allowed” to survive. Victims who are trauma bonded may also develop an amplified appreciation for the small rewards doled out in the abuse cycle, what Dr. Joe Carver calls the “small kindness” perception.
Victims who are trauma bonded find themselves biochemically and psychologically tied to the abuser in ways that make it difficult to leave the relationship. Trauma bonding can cause the victim to tolerate mistreatment because they are so focused on survival and of maintaining the relationship that they feel unable to protect themselves – in fact, some victims who are trauma bonded develop the need to defend and protect their abusers.
It is important to remember that trauma bonding has little to do with the actual merits of the abuser, or how “strong” the victim is. Even the strongest of people can become trauma bonded to an abuser who has subjected them to chronically cruel and callous treatment.
Due to their lack of empathy, and their ability to manipulate, deceive, gaslight and subject their victims to countless mind games, narcissistic and psychopathic individuals specifically create very powerful trauma bonds with their victims. Here are six ways they do so:
1. Intermittent reinforcement. One of the most powerful ways narcissistic individuals create trauma bonds is through intermittent reinforcement. This is when they subject you to hot-and-cold behavior to get you fixated on them and seeking their validation. They will intermittently incorporate periods of affection and attention into the abuse cycle. They may love bomb you with excessive contact, attention and affection, only to abruptly withdraw or mistreat you, treating you with cruelty and contempt.
This intermittent reinforcement creates a powerful biochemical and psychological addiction to the cycle of abuse, as you work even harder to get the next “fix” or “reward.”
Research by Dr. Helen Fisher shows that people in love, particularly those in adverse-ridden relationships, show activation in the same areas of the brain’s reward system as in people addicted to cocaine and other drugs. When a narcissistic or psychopathic person subjects their victims to a “mean and sweet” cycle of abuse, it can feel akin to a drug addiction. That is why it feels especially painful for victims to detach from their abusers and they experience “withdrawal”-like symptoms and craving from the trauma bond that is created.
Since studies show that dopamine flows more readily in the brain when “rewards” are intermittent and unpredictable, this cements the reward circuits in your brain related to what Fisher calls the “frustration-attraction” experience. As their attention becomes more scarce and more unpredictable as the cycle of abuse continues, so do your frantic attempts to regain the honeymoon stage of the relationship which they first presented you with. Like a gambler at a slot machine, you become trained to continue “playing” their games in hopes of the elusive win.
2. Manufacturing chaos. Individuals with narcissistic and psychopathic traits enjoy manufacturing chaos and getting reactions from others. By creating chaos in your life, they monopolize your attention and resources so that you are unable to take care of yourself or tend to your needs.
They may do so by: crazymaking arguments that are instigated out of thin air, inducing sleep deprivation especially before important events, engaging in relentless interrogation and accusations, or making blatantly inappropriate comments followed by gaslighting of your reactions as “crazy” or “oversensitive.”
Such interrogation and destabilizing tactics can be similar to the ones that are used on prisoners of war, according to researcher Albert D. Biderman, who developed a Chart of Coercion to show how these tactics can overlap with the tactics of domestic violence perpetrators.
By manufacturing chaos in your life, narcissistic and psychopathic individuals gain leverage. As you spend most of your time and energy navigating their diversion tactics, defending yourself against their claims and trying to skirt their sabotage, your self-care is depleted and you become too exhausted to fight back as effectively.
The trauma bond becomes even stronger as you subconsciously justify your investment in them as a relationship “worth” fighting for despite all the obstacles they subject you to – this is one of the ways you cope with and survive the tumultuous relationship.
3. Jealousy induction. Research indicates that narcissistic and psychopathic people both engage in jealousy induction to gain a sense of power and control. Some narcissists and psychopaths also provoke jealousy on purpose to exact revenge, test the relationship, or compensate for low self-esteem depending on the specific subtype of narcissism or psychopathy at play.
By subjecting you to implicit or explicit comparisons, flaunting past partners or potential prospects, or constantly bringing in others into the dynamic of the relationship, you become trained to “compete” for the narcissist, even if you were the one who was originally less interested in them. You also lose a sense of your uniqueness and positive qualities as you become hyperfocused on the love triangles they manufacture and this takes a toll on your self-worth and self-perception over time. The narcissist skews your self-perception so you no longer see yourself and your positive qualities accurately and feel less important and valuable.
As the narcissistic or psychopathic person forces you to compare yourself to others or compete, they create the illusion of false desirability. Your ability to identify their red flags and mistreatment of you becomes diminished as you become conditioned to see the narcissist or psychopath as the “valuable” one – someone you have to “win” over regardless of their heinous transgressions – even if you have more options than they do and surpass them in many aspects. This makes you more trauma bonded to them as you fear the loss of their attention moreso than the loss of your own identity and self-confidence.
4. Identity erosion and distortion. Narcissistic and psychopathic individuals do not always abuse in a way that is outwardly obvious. That is why they engage in underhanded methods to take control over your mind and erode your sense of self and identity over time. This is a key component of the trauma bond, as researchers note that trauma-bonded victims internalize the perpetrator’s perception of them rather than staying grounded in their own sense of self. One of these tactics is the method of “distortion” – a way of making you see yourself as the opposite of what you actually are, in an attempt to lower your self-esteem so that you are more compliant and malleable to their advances.
Narcissists will distort your true traits and behaviors to depict you as the opposite of who you are. Ironically, their accusations tend to be a projection of their own behaviors, traits, and character.
You will notice that their accusations contradict the feedback you get from empathic people who have no agenda to gaslight or control you. While others may comment on your kindness, empathy, integrity, intelligence and knowledge, the narcissist may claim you are selfish (especially when you start setting healthy boundaries with them), deceptive, or lacking in some way – all claims that better describe them.
This is a way to isolate you from the healthy and accurate feedback and support they know you have so they can control your self-perception – and better control you.
Imagine the narcissistic individual metaphorically placing a funhouse mirror in front of you to “distort” your true proportions – this is exactly what they are doing when they engage in covert insults or make comparisons to you and something else that represents the opposing qualities of what you actually are. For example, a covert narcissist may do this by commenting on a positive trait you possess by implying you’re the opposite (e.g. “You’re no fun,” or “You’re not very social” when you are in fact outgoing and popular). Or, they may compare you physically or emotionally to someone you could not be more different from to covertly diminish you.
Distortion can happen in a number of ways, but the motive is the same: to destabilize you, plant self-doubt especially about positive qualities you possess, as well as the positive qualities others notice about you and celebrate. This is a way to alienate you even when you are surrounded by support and healthy praise from others.
By alienating you, you become further trauma bonded to the narcissist for comfort and approval as they become your primary source of validation and feedback for your sense of “self.”
5. Alienation and degradation. Not only do narcissists isolate you from healthy feedback from others, they alienate you emotionally. They may do this by falsely comparing you to other people, claiming they’ve “never had a problem like this” with anyone else to make you feel defective and separate from others and deserving of their abuse.
By gaslighting you in this manner, they’re able to paradoxically pull you closer to them as you may feel subconsciously conditioned to seek their reassurance after this claim. You may be mislead into believing that your reactions to the abuse are the problem, and become further bonded to them in a subconscious effort to validate the fact that you are not the problem.
In reality, many people who are closest to the narcissist have been subjected to their manipulative and aggressive ways, but they’d rather gaslight you into believing you’re the only one so they can continue to get away with their abuse.
In saying you are the problem, narcissists can convince you that your perceptions are inaccurate and that you are overreacting. However, if you you ever talk to any of their other victims, you’ll soon find out they follow very similar patterns indicating their lack of empathy, callousness, cruelty, and degradation of others.
6. Destructive conditioning. Narcissistic and psychopathic individuals punish you for experiencing joy outside of them. That is why they attempt to pair your joyful moments with insertions of terror, abuse, criticism and minimizing remarks.
They want to destructively condition you to associate the experience of gaining fulfillment and pleasure from sources outside of them with experiencing fear, distress, and their rage.
This is also due to their pathological envy and the sadistic pleasure they derive from attempting to deflate your excitement.
That is why narcissistic and psychopathic individuals are notorious for ruining holidays, special celebrations and birthdays.
Remember: toxic people always feel a compulsive need to destroy beautiful moments – to better isolate you, control you, get you to associate joy with their punishment, and make you dependent on only them for fulfillment.
That is why it is so important to detach from toxic individuals early on, so you have a pathway back to peace. You deserve to hold onto your joy. In your healing journey, after processing some of the trauma (preferably with a trauma-informed mental health professional), you can revisit the memories where they tried to sabotage you and savor the joy that should have been savored all over again. This time, imagine these joyful moments playing out without their interference. Use this reconditioning of memories to assist in your healing and remind yourself of the pure, unadulterated joy you truly deserved to experience.
If you are in a trauma bond with a narcissist, you are not alone and support is out there. You must connect to your authentic outrage at being violated and get in touch with the reality of the abuse in order to begin breaking such a bond, but the first step to breaking a trauma bond is to recognize it in the first place.
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