Trauma bonding – why you can’t stop loving the narcissist
Trauma bonding makes you psychologically addicted to your abuser. This explains why trying to stop contact feels like you are coming off a drug.
Survivors and perpetrators of domestic abuse will often form trauma bonds whereby they both become emotionally hooked into the relationship – this can make it extremely difficult for the survivor to unlock herself and escape from the abuse.
Trauma bonding happens when an abuser provides the survivor with intermittent rewards and punishments – a psychological conditioning develops, the survivor becomes snared into the relationship, ever hopeful of the next reward and a reprieve from the suffering.
Powerful emotional bonds develop that are extremely resistant to change. Trauma bonding involves cycles of abuse – following an abusive incident or series of incidents, perpetrators will often offer a kind gesture to try to recover the situation. A period of relative peace can follow before tensions start to re-build and the abuse inevitably starts again.
Survivors will try their best not to anger their partner, to do everything expected of them, they will remember how loving their partner can be and was in the early days of the relationship, hoping for the return of that behaviour. They think they just need to work out what they’re doing wrong to bring back the loving part of their relationship. It won’t occur to them that the loving gestures were always manipulative and never genuine – their partner being incapable of real love.
Trauma bonding feels like you’ve broken me into pieces but you’re the only one who can fix me.
Trauma bonding has similarities with Stockholm Syndrome where people held captive develop feelings of trust and affection towards their captors. Both Trauma-Bonding and Stockholm Syndrome are survival strategies that develop to help survive an emotionally or physically dangerous situation.
Women will hold onto toxic and abusive relationships and become more vulnerable to trauma bonding for a variety of reasons.
Survivors who were raised in abusive households are more vulnerable to trauma bonding – an abusive relationship may seem more normal and acceptable to them. This is one reason why it’s so important for parents to model healthy relationships to their children.
Women raised with abuse will also be likely to have lower self-esteem with less expectation of being treated respectfully. Being in the abusive relationship will further damage self-esteem, sometimes to the point the woman will believe she deserves the abuse she is being subjected to – the abuse becomes her normal despite it making her deeply unhappy, she may stop aspiring to anything better as she doesn’t feel worthy of love. The longer the survivor remains with the narcissistic abuser, the more difficult it is to break the trauma bond.
Trauma, fear and abandonment actually increase feelings of attachment. The more you have been hurt by him, the more intensely attached you will be. Trauma bonds are hard to break but even harder to live with.
Women in trauma bonds will tend to blame themselves for their partners’ abusive behaviour. She will agree with him when he tells her she wouldn’t cope without him, that she’s not really good enough, that she made him angry and that he wouldn’t need to punish her if she tried harder. She will also make excuses for his abuse: “He had a difficult childhood; his mother didn’t love him so it’s understandable he gets angry”. She’ll think that if she can stop being stupid, try harder, show more affection and never doubt him, things will be fine.
If she does manage to break free from the trauma bond, the abuser will commonly revert to the courtship phase to win her back and she will be very vulnerable to his efforts. The more she reaches out to the abuser for love, recognition, and approval, the more the trauma bond is strengthened. This also means she will stay in the relationship when the abuse escalates, perpetuating the destructive cycle. Because he is the one abusing her and making her feel terrible, she will often see him as the only person able to validate her and make her feel okay again.
Although the survivor might disclose the abuse, the trauma bond means she may also seek to receive comfort from the very person who abused her.
Escaping from a trauma bond is notoriously difficult, professional help is often needed. The following steps can help liberate the survivor from this destructive relationship:
- Physically separate from the abuser. It’s essential, and although this can be difficult, it’s invariably easier than emotional separation.
- Cut off all lines of communication as far as possible. This can be made almost impossible if you share children. However restricting communication to just email for instance, or through a third party for childcare related matters might be possible.
- Acknowledge you have a choice and can choose to leave the relationship. When choice is acknowledged, you can gain control and drive your destiny with less vulnerability to further abuse.
- Self-reflection will enable you to understand how your character traits and vulnerabilities played a part in this co-dependant bond. Being abused is never your fault, however there may be aspects of your personality that made you more susceptible to abuse.
- Work out what hooked you into this abusive relationship, was it a fantasy or illusion of a perfect future? Was it that your partner convinced you he’d meet some deep-felt need? Were you hoping he would make up for something you felt you were lacking?
- Learn about the character traits of narcissistic abusers as this will help you to understand what happened to you so you are less susceptible to future abusive relationships.
- Develop a support network of professionals, friends and trusted family who will actively, positively and compassionately support you to recover from the trauma bond. Domestic abuse is an isolating experience but prioritising social connections is vital for recovery.
- Make decisions that only support your self-care. Be self-compassionate both physically and emotionally and don’t berate yourself for ‘mistakes’, see recovery as a work in progress and life as a journey.
- Live in the present and notice how you’re feeling now. If you’re still in the relationship, notice how trapped you feel, notice how scared and unloved you feel. Notice how you have compromised your self-worth for this relationship. Stop hoping for things to be better in the future but notice how you’re feeling now.
- Accept sadness and realise you must grieve the end of an intensive and abusive relationship. Don’t expect to feel better too soon but have confidence that better times will come.
- Write a list of what you’d refuse to tolerate in a relationship, for example ‘I will not be intimate with someone who calls me names’, ‘I refuse to be questioned every time I go out’, ‘I will wear what I like’, ‘I will not have conversations with someone when I feel desperate / obsessive’.
- Start planning your future free from your abusive partner. Make life affirming positive choices for your future.
Trauma is a fact of life. It does not, however need to be a life sentence.
As soon as you feel ready to escape your abuser, there is support available. The Outreach Team at Broxtowe Women’s Project are experienced in supporting those affected by trauma bonds.
If you are experiencing domestic abuse or are affected by past domestic abuse, we are here to help you. You can contact us on firstname.lastname@example.org or call our support line – 01773 719111.
A group of Nottingham women who came together while receiving support for their experience of domestic abuse from us have raised hundreds of pounds by completing more than 1,000 miles in a fundraising challenge.
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