Trauma bonded to a narcissist? – how to get off ‘the hook’
‘There are none so blind as those who will not see.’ John Heywood, 1546
If you are in a relationship with a narcissist then you could be ‘trauma bonded’ with them, especially if you have codependent or enabling tendencies.
What is a ‘trauma bond?”
These are bonds formed by trauma with the narcissist. Initially in the relationship, you will feel loved – even idealised, but then you will be devalued when their domination and control issues kick in, then discarded, and the cycle starts again. In this cycle love and abuse are intertwined. The victim will experience inconsistent or intermittent reinforcement from the narcissist. First the ‘love-bombing’ then being devalued and discarded and around it goes, keeping the victim off balance, and maintaining their hope that the ‘good times’ will return and things will get better – commonly known as ‘bait and switch.’ If you were raised by a narcissist, then you are familiar with this energy and it is more likely that you will attract narcissists in adult life, most likely as partners but they can arrive in the form of friends, co-workers, bosses etc.
‘Real love’ for the trauma bonded partner needs to be dramatic and chaotic, a rollercoaster ride, and for them to experience abuse for it to feel like a relationship. The ‘feel-good’ hormones of oxytocin, endorphins and dopamine are released from the brain and it makes it difficult for victims to manage their emotions in a healthy fashion, and they become psychologically bonded to the narcissist – hence ‘the hook.’ However, excitement and intensity is not love, it’s a dysfunctional dependency on the narcissist. The ‘devaluation’ and ‘discard’ phase of the cycle can then feel very distressing to the victim. Healthy relationships will seem boring in comparison. Like any addiction, the victim is craving the release of these hormones, living in hope and waiting until the (fake) ‘love-bombing’ or idealisation and adoration happens again and the narcissist hooks them back in.
A ‘trauma bond’ is therefore an unhealthy attachment in a relationship with someone who is emotionally abusive towards a victim. The intermittent reinforcement of love punctuated by abuse is addictive, and very difficult to break as it keeps the victim going back to the abusive person. Narcissists also get worse as they age and ‘decompensate’ or ‘collapse,’ so the longer you stay, the worse the abuse becomes.
Signs you’re trauma bonded
The first place to start is to actually identify the cycle of inconsistent patterns of love and abuse, gaining insight into the true dynamics of the relationship. Abuse can be not only physical, but emotional, verbal, financial and psychological. Actions including name-calling, yelling, intimidating, bullying, being critical, manipulating, gaslighting, triangulating, isolating, stonewalling and the silent treatment are all part of abuse.
Have an ‘honesty chat’ with yourself and take some time to examine exactly how you really feel about this person. If you decide that you really don’t like them and you’re still with them when focussing on the dysfunctional behaviour between you, then you’re most likely trauma bonded. Acknowledge that this is the case, without resorting to putting on ‘rose-coloured glasses’ and only remembering the ‘good times,’ making excuses for their behaviour, hoping they will change, or think the abuse isn’t really that bad. Face facts. Abuse is abuse. Let yourself off ‘the hook’ by recognising that it really is abuse. If, as a victim, you are owning any responsibility for any part of that toxic behaviour, then you’re still in the trauma bond.
Healing and recovery from ‘trauma bonding’
- Know that everything you need to heal is within you. Set an intention to detach from the abuser.
- Go ‘no contact’ and separate yourself from the abuser as far as possible, if you have to see them due to co-parenting responsibilities for instance, speak as little as possible and only offer ‘grey rock’ responses. Being away from the narcissist assists in breaking the trauma bonds and the pattern of enmeshment and poor boundaries that victims of narcissistic abuse are embroiled in. Be strong through the withdrawals – the waves of emotion diminish with time.
- Start focussing on yourself and your own identity – the ‘who am I’; disengage from subscribing to the abuser’s reality. Let go. At last you can see that what’s happening is extremely unhealthy for you, only seeing what the narcissist wants you to see, doing what they want you to do etc.
- Stop living in denial and resisting the reality of your circumstance. Accept the situation as it is, and become educated on narcissism. Read widely, join groups on Facebook, and any support networks in your area. Arm yourself with as much knowledge as you can. Acknowledge that their abuse is in no way acceptable. Abusers do not love you.
- Obtain professional help in the form of psychotherapy from someone who knows and understands narcissism and trauma bonds.
- Do not think of the future, just take it one day at a time. Make one decision at a time. Commit to making decisions in your own best interests.
- Be patient. Take the time and effort to break the pattern. Be disciplined and consciously monitor your self-control. This too shall pass. The trauma bonds DO break. Recovery is different for everyone, everyone heals in their own time, and where you are meant to be, is where you are meant to be for you. There is no rush or timeline.
Above all, reclaim the power and control in your own life by working on improving your severely damaged self esteem and self worth. Take responsibility for your own actions. Work too on your self care, self love and meeting your own needs. Stop people pleasing – say ‘no’, do some inner child work and start to exercise healthy boundaries. You will go into future relationships wiser and healthier, and without being bait for someone else’s hook.