An Expert Reveals the 6 Stages of Trauma Bonding with Narcissists

As a researcher specializing in narcissism and psychopathy, I have noticed there are six common stages of trauma bonding that survivors of narcissists often go through before they become sufficiently “hooked” into the toxic relationship cycle. A trauma bond is an inextricable bond we develop with abusers through a power imbalance, intermittent reinforcement such as hot-and-cold behavior, and the presence of danger and betrayal. Unlike normal, healthy relationships, narcissistic manipulators insidiously warp the perception of their victims, and the betrayals in these types of toxic relationships actually deepen the bond victims have with their abusers as a survival mechanism. Here are the six stages of trauma bonding you may have experienced:

Idealization: Love bombing and the soulmate effect manufactures dependency.

In the beginning of a relationship with a narcissist, you feel completely enamored with them. They mirror your interests, hobbies, goals, mannerisms, and personality traits to get you to believe that you are their “soulmate.” They flatter and compliment you immensely. They may engage in grand romantic gestures, buy you gifts, take you on lavish vacations, or mention the promise of a shared future early on. This can be an especially powerful manipulation tool to use on someone who is craving that kind of affection and attention or has a void in their life they’re subconsciously trying to fill (such as a recent trauma). Many survivors at this early stage of trauma bonding noticed that narcissists fast-forwarded milestones of the relationship by moving in together quickly, getting engaged, married, and having children. Even for those who followed a slower pace, they experienced excessive communication and contact from the narcissist that created a reliance on their approval and constant praise. Survivors at this stage may or may not notice a red flag or two that is amiss, but they are more likely to rationalize it because the mask portrayed by the narcissist is convincing and compelling – and their “love” is all-consuming.

Cognitive Dissonance: Nitpicking, micro-betrayals, and toxic love triangles followed by gaslighting breeds self-doubt.

Once the honeymoon phase of the relationship has compelled the survivor to invest in the narcissist, the narcissist will begin “testing” their victims with negging comments and nitpicking that eventually escalates. They will subject you to micro-betrayals that have plausible deniability like taking a day to respond to a text when they would otherwise respond right away, or making a cutting remark where they would usually praise you. This will cement a sense of cognitive dissonance in the survivor who is now experiencing the emotional whiplash of finding out cracks in the narcissist’s false mask. During this stage, the narcissist will begin to manufacture love triangles and induce jealousy in you by mentioning their ex or potential love interests. They will then gaslight you into believing you misunderstood them or that they didn’t do or say something they actually did. They will observe your reactions and identify whether you are willing to dismiss these incidents as they escalate, pushing your buttons further with comments or actions that become increasingly cruel and devaluing. They can begin these tests and micro-betrayals as early as the first few dates but in an insidiously minor way that escapes your notice. In this phase of trauma bonding, such nitpicking and jealousy induction becomes more apparent. You may feel self-doubt and uncertainty as you begin to walk on eggshells, wondering what you did wrong and how you can get back to the “honeymoon” phase of the relationship. Unbeknownst to you, the narcissist follows this stage with every one of their victims and there is not much you can do to prevent them from breaking you down.

Intermittent reinforcement: Small acts of kindness and the mean-sweet cycle create a biochemical addiction to winning favor back with the narcissist.

As you become more submissive and compliant to the narcissist’s criticism or you start to fight back, the narcissist will deepen a pattern of intermittent reinforcement where they incorporate moments of love bombing and “small acts of kindness” to get you psychologically and biochemically addicted to the cycle of their mistreatment. They might give you a seemingly sincere apology after a particularly harsh argument they instigated or become suddenly affectionate toward you after provoking you and manufacturing chaos and crazymaking. These “small acts of kindness” become magnified and you develop a heightened sense of gratitude for any positive actions the narcissist takes toward you because they are becoming increasingly rare. Much like a captor might “reward” a prisoner with food or the absence of physical punishment, you are taught that you must be “grateful” for the ability to survive at all – and gratitude acts as a survival mechanism, alerting you to resources that keep you alive. This is similar to how a victim in a psychologically abusive relationship finds ways to cope with the cruelty of a partner by remembering positive moments or feeling struck by “abuse amnesia,” gaps in memory that can cause you to gloss over the abusive incidents so you stay focused on survival. Dopamine is a major player in creating this kind of addiction as it flows more readily in the brain when the “rewards” are unpredictable and random – you have no way of knowing when the narcissist will be kind or cruel next, but you strengthen your efforts to please them and bend over backwards to meet their needs.

Devaluation: Hypercriticism and isolation paired with hurt-and-rescue methods strengthens the trauma bond.

This is the stage of the trauma bond that can be especially excruciating for survivors to endure. Devaluation sets in and becomes the most dominant pattern of the relationship – acts of love bombing and healthy affection and attention become scarce as hypercriticism, stonewalling, constant comparisons to others, or silent treatments are the more prominent modes of “communication” the narcissist uses. The narcissist isolates you from friends and family (or ridicules their positive feedback and spreads false rumors to pit you against one another so you feel isolated) and makes you believe they are the only ones to be trusted. “No one else” understands your “special” relationship and everyone is just “misunderstanding” the narcissist’s behavior – at least, that’s what they’ll try to train you to believe. Due to the trauma of the relationship and misplaced sense of self-blame, you may withdraw from your usual activities and social life as self-isolation becomes the norm. During this stage, narcissists use their absence to make you long for their validation and use their presence to comfort you after incidents of abuse they instigated. For example, they might call you names, only to soothe you as you cry; this conditions you to seek out their comfort after their transgressions. These hurt-and-rescue methods appear blatantly unsettling to outsiders, but when you are within the toxic relationship cycle, it is difficult to extricate yourself because you become overly dependent on the abuser and their perspectives. 

Identity erosion: Distortion and enmeshment with the abuser makes you lose a sense of self.

The narcissist’s manipulation tactics are designed to disorient you and ensure that you lose your sense of self and self-esteem. They present you with a false image of your identity that you begin to internalize. Where once you were positive, cheerful, talented, and upbeat, you are now convinced by the narcissist that you are negative, bitter, and worthless through the funhouse mirror of distortions they set in front of you. These are the lies, false accusations, and projections they feed you so you no longer fight back against their abuse and so they can have more control over you and your psyche. You become “enmeshed” with the identity and beliefs of the abuser while foregoing facets of your own identity. You may also react in ways that are out of character for you in order to try to regain a sense of control in the relationship – such as finally raging back at the narcissist when they’ve attacked you chronically, snooping through their phone or combing through their social media when they keep dropping hints of betrayals, or comparing yourself to others you would never have dreamed of “competing” with before due to constant jealousy induction that leaves you on edge. This is like the “reversal” of the love bombing stage – whereas before the narcissist mirrored you, now you are forced to become more like them or who they want you to be in order to survive the trauma of the relationship. Before, your energy was full of life and vibrant while the narcissist was dependent on you for fuel; now your whole psyche is deflated and you are dependent on them for emotional sustenance while they appear energetic, having been “fed well” by your energy. Instead of nourishment, they give you more punishment.

Dangerous adaptation and learned helplessness: Continual sacrifices and post-traumatic symptoms keep you “stuck” in the relationship, protecting or defending the abuser and rationalizing their behavior, and returning to your abuser.

This is usually the final stage of trauma bonding before steps are made toward healing. At this stage, there have been immense sacrifices of your time, energy, labor, and resources made in the relationship that can be hard to walk away from. This investment can be difficult for everyone in a trauma bond, but having children or shared finances with the narcissist presents additional obstacles. The “sunk cost fallacy” leads you to believe that all the harm and trauma in the relationship represents the fact that this is a relationship worth continuing because subconsciously you feel the need to justify your investment. You begin to heavily sabotage yourself and self-destruct because you start to believe in the lies the narcissist has fed you about your worthiness and lovability. You may even defend or protect the abuser to loved ones who express concern for your well-being. You might fear retaliation because of threats the narcissist has made or any information the narcissist could use against you. You may return to the narcissist several times even before you leave for good. Since trauma has also burdened you with symptoms like fatigue, brain fog, hypervigilance, irritability, anxiety, and depression, and constant exhaustion, it feels easier to stay in the relationship to try to make it work rather than taking the seemingly impossible steps to leave. You battle learned hopelessness and helplessness. Your patterns of behaving and existing revolve around the narcissist and how to cope with the relationship rather than breaking ties. Often the first step of healing is recognizing and identifying these trauma bonds so you can understand that your seeming addiction to the narcissist has little to do with the merit of the relationship. On the contrary, this is a relationship sustained by trauma and mistreatment. You deserve to heal and free yourself.

About the author

Shahida Arabi

Shahida is a graduate of Harvard University and Columbia University. She is a published researcher and author of Power: Surviving and Thriving After Narcissistic Abuse and Breaking Trauma Bonds with Narcissists and Psychopaths. Her books have been translated into 16+ languages all over the world. Her work has been featured on Salon, HuffPost, Inc., Bustle, Psychology Today, Healthline, VICE, NYDaily News and more. For more inspiration and insight on manipulation and red flags, follow her on Instagram here.