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.