What is Trauma Bonding?

Woman holding a gloved man's hand on a mountaintop.

Have you ever stayed in a relationship that you know you’d insist your friend get out of if the tables were turned?

It’s exhilarating in the beginning. When a rush of early feelings come on fast and furious for someone new, the excitement can be all consuming. But, when that wave of chemistry starts feeling more like a catastrophic tsunami, it’s important to know how to get back to dry land.

This sequence of events can happen so fast that a person misses that they’ve even been swept up in a narcissist’s storm. What is it about these toxic individuals that makes them just so…magnetic? And why is it so hard to break a bond with people like this?

The more we learn about narcissistic personality traits, the more we can understand the psychological reasons that drive people to stay in unhealthy relationships.

What is Trauma Bonding?

If you’ve ever observed a relationship that made you question whether it was love or abuse, then you’ve witnessed the toxic power of a trauma bond. This unique form of manipulation is characterized by repetitive behaviors, in which the narcissist operates within a cycle of abuse, resulting in a trauma bond that is strengthened with every repeated misdeed.

Before looking more closely at this trademark cycle, it’s important to know that narcissists don’t reserve their problematic behaviors only for romantic relationships. Trauma bonding can occur as a result of mental or physical abuse in any adult-to-adult relationship including those of boss and subordinate, professor and student, and colleague-to-colleague, just to name a few. It also extends to parent-to-child relationships, as well as other family relationships, and impacts both children and adults.

A narcissist’s cycle is an addictive pattern that fuels a need for validation, while conditioning their partner to believe toxic behaviors are normal. This cycle can be summarized in three stages: infatuation, devaluation, and rapid discarding of the partner. The loop becomes toxic as the partner begins to crave the infatuation that marked the beginning of the relationship, propelling them to quickly forgive and do anything to get the partnership back to a place of good feelings.

As the pattern repeats, a narcissist leverages inconsistent positive reinforcement to lure their partner back. Often, this cycle becomes an endless pursuit to win back the original love and admiration that was once abundant. By the time awareness kicks in, and it’s clear the relationship must end, victims often feel too trapped to leave.

If you find yourself feeling deeply attached to a toxic partner, here are tips to breaking the bond:

No contact

Commit to a total break. Do not engage with your partner. Ignore emails, texts, calls, and any other means of outreach after parting ways. Yes, there was the overwhelming charm that marked the beginning of the relationship, but remember the start of each cycle thereafter. Avoid the risk of falling back into old patterns.

Live in reality

Commit to living in the present moment, avoid dwelling on what your relationship could have been. Instead, take note of how you are feeling in this moment and remind yourself that healthy relationships do not leave a person feeling devalued or trapped.

Detachment

Lean into your dispassionate cognitive abilities and return to them every time the void leaves you tempted to go back to the relationship. Establish the truths about the nature of your relationship and ask friends and family to surround you with this way of thinking. In the same way that the pursuit of inconsistent positive reinforcement was a conditioned behavior, this network can help you retrain your brain. This practice will serve as protection for your emotional health in a confusing time.

Warning signs

If your new romantic interest exhibits strong traits of a narcissist, it is important to be cognizant of the risks a potential relationship could carry. Be wary of individuals who place razor-focused attention on you, implore grand gestures in public, rush emotional intimacy, or create a false-sense of deep familiarity. Pay close attention to how they speak about past relationships and take note of the other relational dynamics in their life.

And finally consider bringing your concerns to a licensed therapist who can work with you to identify risks and encourage self-care as you navigate the complexities of dealing with this person.