What is Trauma Bonding?

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

Updated on 10/15/2020

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 comes 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 in abusive relationships can happen so fast that a person often 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. Trauma bonding, a unique form of manipulation, is defined by repetitive behaviors, in which a narcissist operates within a cycle of abuse, resulting in an attachment bond, or trauma bond that is strengthened with every repeated misdeed.

Although at first, a narcissist’s partner might feel secure and loved in the relationship, over time the narcissist might begin to engage in more emotional, mental, or physical abuse. Often, people stuck in abusive relationships are unaware that they are in one because the abuse is so repetitive that they grow accustomed to it. The abuse becomes so intertwined in their relationship that they conflate trauma and love.

It’s also challenging to decipher when they are experiencing a trauma bond because the traumatized partner continues to feel entranced and the passion of the relationship. It’s vital to keep in mind that often these strong emotions are brought on by the wound the abusive partner has inflicted and is not genuine love.Before looking more closely at this trademark cycle of trauma bonding, 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 can also extend to domestic violence in parent-to-child relationships as well as other family relationships, and impacts both children and adults.

A fascinating example of the trauma bond occurring outside of romantic relationships is the Stockholm Syndrome. This syndrome refers to a complex relationship between captors and captives when the captives begin to feel positive emotions towards their captors. This phenomenon is named for a bank robbery in Stockholm, Sweden, where the robbers took bank workers as hostages and held them in captivity for six days. That was enough time for the workers to feel a sympathetic bond to the robbers and, upon release, refused to testify against their captors. Stockholm syndrome is not only used to describe situations regarding literal captors and captives, but also other relationships with narcissists. 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.

How to Stop Trauma Bonding

If you find yourself feeling deeply attached to a toxic partner, here are tips for breaking the bond and preventing yourself from going back.

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 and freeing yourself from an abusive relationship.

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