Handcuffed together

Trauma Bonding Explained

Narcissists (and other emotional abusers) rely on manipulation of primal emotions, love and fear to hook their victims.

A rudimentary study of psychology introduces us to the concepts of positive and negative reinforcement, which narcissistic manipulators employ, but the most powerful, dangerous and damaging psychological reinforcement is random and intermittent.

The narcissistic abuse cycle begins with “love bombing,” where the abuser begins to hook a victim with sometimes over-the-top, premature professions of love and admiration. During this phase, the narcissist learns about the victim’s strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes and fears. The narcissist mirrors his or her victim, sharing tastes and interests to become a near perfect companion. It may seem like a match made in heaven, but it’s an entirely artificial manipulation tactic.

The narcissist may say things like “I never believed in it before, but I think we’re soul mates” to make the victim feel special and imply a supernatural bond outside the normal bounds of reason.

Love bombing causes feel-good chemical responses, like release of dopamine and oxytocin into the brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter associated with pleasurable feelings and oxytocin is associated with love and bonding.

To gain a victim’s trust, a narcissist may reveal “secrets” about themselves very early on in a relationship. This encourages the victim to become more open and vulnerable in return which creates the illusion of a profoundly intimate connection and fosters both trust and sympathy. That also makes the victim more susceptible to suggestion and manipulation. By this point, the groundwork for gaslighting has already been laid and the narcissist is already gaining control of his or her adoring and protective victim. A malignant narcissist will also use any secrets learned against his or her victim.

Next, a campaign of devaluation begins. This occurs directly between the narcissist and victim and with outside friends of the narcissist the victim may not be very familiar with. The narcissist begins finding faults with the once idealized victim. Vacillation of positive and negative reinforcement begins and over time, the negative, fear-based manipulation is employed more often than the love-based encouraging behavior.

As the positive reinforcement becomes more scarce, it also becomes the main thing the victim seeks, because he or she is addicted to the early chemical highs brought about by love bombing and will now do nearly anything to get those feelings back! Random and intermittent reinforcement like drips or crumbs keep the confused victim hopeful and chasing.

The narcissistic abuser will use either subtle or overt negative reinforcement to make their victim fear losing him or her, often triangulating with other people by introducing a romantic rival (“Joe keeps hitting on me”) or by suggesting that someone else is being critical of the victim. “I was talking to my brother and he said he doesn’t think you’re any good for me,” for example.

Then comes the gaslighting. “I never said my brother thinks you’re not good for me. You must have misunderstood what I said. Have you ever seen a therapist for that paranoia?”

The abuser can even be antagonist and savior at the same time. “My friends say you’re no good, but I told them how much I love you and you’re perfect for me.”

This makes it seem like a case of “you and me against the world,” and even though the narcissist is causing the injuries, it seems like only the narcissist can heal the wounds.

A narcissist’s reality isn’t objective. It’s only consistent with what they feel, so it’s always in flux and they are always manipulating, massaging, stretching, exaggerating, bending and outright breaking the truth.

Over time, reality seems fuzzy and only the narcissist can be the arbiter of what is real.

After the devaluation period, there usually comes an abrupt discard. The narcissist may just up and vanish like a ghost with no explanation. “Ghosting” is another horrendously psychologically damaging tactic and it’s one that leaves the victim dependent on the abuser for answers. No one else can explain, “why.” This creates an open wound that defies healing, or “closure.”

During the discard phase, the narcissist is usually spending time love-bombing a new or secondary source of narcissistic supply. He or she may be absent for days, weeks or even months before reappearing to “hoover” back the confused and traumatized victim. A new period of love bombing seems to heal all wounds and makes the victim ever more dependent on the abuser for a sense of well-being. The cycle repeats – each time inflicting more cumulative trauma and also strengthening the bond. Gaslighting may also instill in the victim a sense that his or her neuroticism was to blame for the discard or whatever strife (real, manufactured or imagined) led up to it.

For myself, I found that each time I was devalued and discarded, it was progressively more painful than the last and that became something to be avoided at almost any cost.

This abusive manipulation keeps a victim in a constant state of excitation and prolonged, continuous exposure to stress hormones like cortisol causes physical changes to the brain that make it easier to trigger anxiety and even panic. At the same time, those stress hormones attack and weaken regions of the brain responsible for forming new memories and logical thinking. The changes to the size and functionality of the amygdala and hippocampus in particular help cement the trauma bond to a narcissistic abuser.

The trauma bond functions like the so-called “Stockholm Syndrome” where hostages “fell in love” and sympathized with their captors. It is essentially a very powerful addiction to one’s abuser. Various sources have compared breaking the trauma bond to breaking alcohol or even heroin addictions. Like any other addiction, denial, secrecy, excuses and horrendously skewed priorities naturally follow.

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  • J

    I have two kids with a Cluster B and raising her other kids for 8 plus years. I need help. I’ve been going through the ghosting phase for years and am in the midst of one now the worst one yet and I keep letting her back because of the trauma bond and to have my kids living with me. I am in so much pain and torment, I’m messing up at work. My whole life and mind and emotions and health are a complete mess and have been for years. I know what has been happening to me for years is not normal. I am so broken inside to the point of being suicidal for years just to make the hell inside me stop. I need help please point me in the right direction. Thankyou.

    • Dan

      I’m so sorry you’re going through all of that. It sounds like it’s tearing you apart. It also sounds like going “no-contact” isn’t going to be practical with kids involved, so I recommend the “gray rock” method, which means you have to keep your distance emotionally. Only discuss the practical matters that need discussing and do it impassionately. Don’t allow yourself to show any emotion. Don’t get roped into angry arguments, for example. I never really had to do the gray rock routine, since I just went no-contact once I realized what I was dealing with, so I haven’t written about it, but there’s ample information about gray rock out there and it’s pretty simple in concept. A key part of my recovery stemmed from realizing how much of the damage done to me was actually physical! Talk therapy helped with the psychological aspects of the trauma and for occasional practical advice or exercises, but there are also physical solutions for the physical damage! Getting your cortisol levels under control is job one for that. I did write quite a bit about my experiences with that: https://danandtina.net/healing-strategies-after-narcissistic-abuse

    • Ray

      Wassup J. Your not alone in this struggle. These disorders seem to run rampant these days. I too have kids in common with a Narc. Wouldn’t wish what we going through on my worst enemy considering their are kids caught up in the middle. And they do get caught up into the emotional rollercoaster unfortunately. My only advice is for you to focus on them and become proactive in securing them. Now that you have knowledge of whats at play, use it to your advantage behind the scenes without making her aware that you’ve caught on. Do not! I repeat, Do not, under any circumstances, attempt to rescue her by trying to inform her of her condition. They will only sharpen their tactics and become better at covering their tracks. Trust me on that. Sadly, our caring instincts would have us do exactly that in hopes that they will have a breakthrough of clarity and recognize their wrongdoings. You got better chances of winning the lottery. If you did already then oh well, gear up. Suicide is not an option, EVER! Especially when you got kids in this….. Like i stated earlier, become proactive. Take notes of dates, times & occurrences & document everything that will aid you in family court. Consider hiring a private eye to track her escapades. If the car she drives is under your name or both, slap a gps tracker in it. Start preparing a case on the low for future purposes. Overall, keep your head up & maintain your composure thru all the bullshit that comes your way. rummy213@gmail.com <– if you need someone to talk to. And remember, Time heals all wounds. This to shall pass.

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