Trauma Bonding – 9 Tips to Break the Bond
One of the first questions a victim of narcissistic abuse is often asked after they reveal the depths of despair they were in during their relationship with a narcissist, is ‘Why didn’t you leave sooner’, or worse, ‘Why the hell did you go BACK?’ Victims of narcissistic abuse frequently leave the relationship because it was unbearable to be treated so badly during the devaluing stage, or they have been discarded when their narcissist moved on to greener pastures, but they often go back of their own volition, or as soon as the narc ‘hoovers’ them back.
But the question is why? Why, when the relationship is so abusive and leaves them feeling so depressed and worthless, do they return, like lambs to the slaughter?
The reason is due to trauma bonding, a term first used by Patrick J Carnes, PH.D, who is the founder of the International Institute for Trauma and Addiction Professionals, and he outlined how traumatic bonding occurs as the result of ongoing cycles of abuse in which intermittent reinforcement of reward and punishment creates powerful emotional bonds that are difficult to change. Trauma bonding is also often referred to as Stockholm Syndrome… named after a very famous botched bank heist in Stockholm, where the hostages formed bonds with their captors and ultimately, refused to testify against them.
Such theories of reward and punishment have their roots in classic psychology, and I remember BF Skinner and his rats experiments when I was studying psychology. Skinner came up with ‘Operant Conditioning’ theory, but I’ll spare you the psychology lesson. What was important was his experiments showed – in very simple terms, that if a rat pressed a lever and no food pellet was delivered immediately after the lever was pressed, and none after several attempts, the rat would give up. But if a food pellet was delivered intermittently, the rat would keep pressing the lever. Basically, the idea that ‘I might get a pellet this time’, keep the motivation high to keep trying. Comparative studies have been done to show that playing slot machines functions the same way - the gambler will keep going and going in the hope that the win will happen.
So what has this got to do with narcissistic abuse and trauma bonding? When you’ve experienced the highs of ‘love bombing, and then the ‘devaluing’, narcissists typically swing back from time to time with flashes of the ‘love bombing’ to remind you of how great it was, and that keeps you hanging on. Effectively, though they are being abusive most of the time, they are keeping you bonded to them with the vague promise that that things will go back to being the way they were in the ‘golden period.’
According to Elinor Greenberg, Ph.D, and an expert on all things narcissism, there are 7 stages to trauma bonding: *
The 7 Stages of Narcissistic Trauma Bonding
Stage 1: “Love Bombing”—The Narcissist showers you with love and validation.
Stage 2: Trust and Dependency—You start to trust that they will love you forever. You now depend on them for love and validation.
Stage 3: Criticism Begins—They gradually reduce the amount of love and validation that they give you and start to criticize you and blame you for things. They become demanding.
Stage 4: Gaslighting —They tell you that this is all your fault. If you would only trust them and do exactly as they say, they would shower you with love again. They try to make you doubt your own perceptions and accept their interpretation of reality.
Stage 5: Control Is Established—You do not know what to believe but think that your only chance of getting back the good feelings of Stage 1 is to try doing things their way.
Stage 6: Resignation and Loss of Self—Things get worse, not better. When you try to fight back, they up their abuse. Now you would just settle for peace and for the fighting to stop. You are confused, unhappy, your self-esteem is at its lowest.
Stage 7: Addiction—Your friends and family are worried about you. You know that this situation is terrible, but you feel as if you cannot leave because this person is now everything to you. All you can think about is winning back their love.
Ok, so in the first stage of the relationship, you’re being love-bombed… like the rat, getting lovely pellets of food. You’ve learned to love and trust them. But then the love stops and the devaluing starts… but you’re hoping that you can get back to the ‘golden period’ where everything was glorious, and like the rat who keeps pressing the lever in the hope that more food will appear, you keep hanging on to the relationship in the hope that the love will return. A Narcissist will keep you on a psychological rollercoaster, Gaslighting you to make you think it’s you who’s got it all wrong, to keep you addicted. So they will devalue you, and then they will surprise you by turning the charm full on again, and you get reeled back in.
Those love-chemicals are firing on all four cylinders again and your idea that the narcissist really loves and cares for you - if they could just work their stuff out - lodges in your head so firmly, because you’re craving that feeling of being in love. You want those happy chemicals! They are totally in control of you and your emotional merry-go-round. You’re spinning in all directions and don’t know which end is up anymore.
But any kind of addiction is toxic, and addiction to a Narcissist is especially so, because it leads you down a path of behaviour modification of yourself that’s only happening because you want to keep the Narcissist happy and you want those feelings of love and security back again. This is when the erosion of self, loss of self-esteem and self-love start really kicking in. You start believing that when things go wrong, it’s your fault and you need to work harder at the relationship, you need to be better, you need to stop being the cause of his (or her) troubles. You start blaming yourself, and trying really hard not to rock the boat. You find yourself constantly walking on eggshells. When you get into this line of thinking and behaviour, you’re already on dangerous ground because the truth that you can’t see is, there’s nothing wrong with you. It’s the narc who is playing their sick game – a game that they are incapable of quitting.
And there is nothing you can do to NOT rock the boat, because narcissists crave stormy waters and they’ll find a way to rock it. Before you know it you’ll be back in that place where you can’t do or say anything right. And so you might leave, because it’s become unbearable, but that longing, that craving, to be back in the arms of the narc is all consuming. Because now you’re like an addict without a fix, an alcoholic without a drink… you’re so addicted to the narcissist that you are helpless when they comes crawling back in… and they will… it might take 20 years, as it did for one client who I worked with, but they’ll come back if they can.
So why is this happening? What’s the cause?
The answer lies in your brain, and research has shown that your brain establishes an intense bond to the narcissist. This means that leaving is not solely a cognitive decision (based on thinking), but one that is tied to neurochemical, psychological and emotional anchors. Your brain is firing up on dopamine and oxytocin, leading you to crave the ‘fix’ you get from the narcissist.
So how do you break this incredibly powerful bond?
Well first the good news is that it can be done. People do it all the time. Just like people quit smoking, drugs and alcohol, you can quit your addiction to a narcissist.
Here are some some practical steps you can take to start breaking the bond.
- Go NO CONTACT. This is absolutely vital for your sanity and healing. No matter how hard it is at first, and it will be, do it. Cut all contact with the narcissist in your life. Block them and block everyone you know who knows them.
- When you start feeling all dewy-eyed about the ‘love’ you’re craving and missing, hit the pause button in your head. Then change your position – if you’re sitting down, stand up, if you’re standing, sit down and so on. This creates a ‘pattern interrupt’ in your brain and helps you to stop letting your thoughts rule you.
- Now with that button on pause, bring to mind the reality of what the relationship has or had become. Recall with as much detail as you can how much the narc has hurt you. Really think about this. Call up as many incidents as you can, and remember how you felt each time.
- Now ask yourself if you really want to go back to that reality? Ask yourself if someone who really loved you would do that to a person they really loved? And think about what LOVE really is – what does love really mean to you, when you get down to the core of it?
- Get out and about and DO things. Take long walks. Go to the gym. Or the cinema. Or the shopping mall. Just get out and about rather than wallowing in misery at home. Self-care is absolutely critical. Do whatever it takes to make yourself a priority, to make yourself feel better, and do things for yourself every single day.
- Take a few moments to breathe, and imagine a stress-free, narc-free future for yourself. Do this several times a day. Really wallow in your imagination and feel what it would be like to live in freedom.
- Keep positive. Keep telling yourself that you can and will get over this. Find a phrase that signifies a happy, narc-free future for yourself, and keep repeating that over in your head every time you start thinking the bleak thoughts, or feel the craving to be with your ex again. Remember to hit the pause button and go over exercises 2, 3 and 4 again. And again. And again. Repetition is key.
- Finally, reach out and get support. If you’ve been in a narcissistic relationship for a long time, the chances are very high that you’ve become isolated, because that’s what a narcissist does… they work to ensure they isolate you from your family and friends. And you are probably feeling very alone and lost. You don’t have to be. Reach out and get support here.
- Consider getting therapy. Most of the people I know who have recovered, reached out and got therapy to help them understand and get over the abuse. You can’t fight this alone, so please reach out. Take the first big step to healing and let me help you break the Trauma Bond. Book an appointment to talk with me. I can help you to break the trauma bond and heal in weeks, not years.
Now this is by no means an exhaustive explanation about trauma bonding, or ways to heal from it, but these simple tips can help you to give yourself the reality check you need to keep you away from the narc, and you will get stronger the more you practice these simple techniques. However, if you’re really struggling with the trauma bond and want help to break it and heal in a matter of weeks, not years, let’s talk. I can help you to break the bond in one session.