Notes From Kristen

Understanding What Really Keeps Us Bound to Narcissists

There are a lot of articles and books that discuss what keeps us bound to our narcissistic abusers long after we know we should leave.

In this article, I want to describe six major concepts that are frequently discussed as reasons why we cannot leave, but then propose the idea that one of them is, in fact, much more important than the others because it precedes the others in time in a way that then allows the others to exist.

Given that, and how it used to embed the others, I think it may be the most important of all of the concepts, as it holds the key to breaking free.

What Keeps Us Bound to Narcissists While

We Are With Them?

Five Major Concepts


1. Intermittent Reinforcement

First, there is the intermittent reinforcement of the narcissist’s behavior itself.  One day, he or she is loving and kind and the next, he or she is cruel and dismissive.

Experimental studies conducted on rats by behavioral scientists determined that the most effective schedule for producing desired behavior was an unpredictable one. When the rats received a pellet of food every time they pulled a lever or at predictable times, they were less likely to do it because they always knew what to expect.

In terms of abusive situations, we are more likely to keep going back to or staying with the abuser if we aren’t sure how he or she is going to act from moment to moment.  Shannon Thomas writes in Healing From Hidden Abuse, “Intermittent reinforcement is basically how people are brainwashed… This sort of conditioning trains survivors to anxiously anticipate when abusers will intermittently reinforce the connection between the two individuals. There is no rhyme or reason to their level of attention or affection. Sometimes it is based on the survivor playing by the abuser’s rules. Other times, abusers do not respond in the way that would have been expected.”

This is not something that survivors of abusers just “fall for” because they are a unique category of individuals who got involved with abusers or even just because they are being abused. This is a psychological principle that affects us all.

The same concept keeps people in casinos pumping money into slot machines, or even checking Facebook for comments or checking their E-mail to see if they have received any.

2. Biochemical Dysregulation in Our Brains

Another reason that makes it difficult to leave narcissistic abusers are the biochemical bonding disruptions, which Shahidi Arabi (p. 165-174) describes in Becoming the Narcissist’s Nightmare.  

The hormone oxytocin and the neurotransmitter dopamine, which both cause positive feelings to flow throughout the brain and body and promote bonding with others, become dysregulated and synced up with the intermittent reinforcement of the narcissist’s behavior.

For example, dopamine “flows more regularly when rewards are given on an unpredictable schedule,” such as when an abuser explodes after the survivor has been walking on eggshells or disappears with a silent treatment only to return and pretend as if nothing has happened.

3. Learned Helplessness

The trauma of the abusive relationship also changes the structure of the brain to have other effects as well.  Sandra L. Brown, author of Women Who Love Psychopaths (p. 224) writes that in some relationships, “the women are too impacted by Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), depression and other symptoms to be able to initiate and carry out the disengagement process which requires a level of functioning she does not currently have.”

(Please note that her conclusions are general enough to apply to all individuals who have been in relationships with psychopaths and I am using them as such).

There are important reasons why PTSD and other mental health issues have this effect.

As Arabi (p. 162-63) also states in Becoming the Narcissist’s Nightmare, this is because traumatic memories stay lodged in the areas of the brain that are responsible for executive functioning, the areas that are associated with logical tasks that require reasoning and planning. The result is that these areas of the brain shrink and stop functioning in the same manner, sometimes shutting down.

The women instead become “paralyzed,” and unable to do anything because of the trauma.  This is the same result shown in experimental studies.

When dogs in those studies were repeatedly given experimental shocks, the dogs who were kept from escaping them and eventually gave up trying became so traumatized that they didn’t even try to escape when they were given the chance

This is compared with the dogs who were given a chance to escape all along.

This mindset is called “learned helplessness,” and is an adaptation to trauma as a result of changes to brain structure that make it difficult for a person to function as they would if they could access and use all areas of their brain at a normal capacity.

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4. Stockholm Syndrome and Trauma Bonding

Also in the book Women Who Love Psychopaths (p.227)Brown writes, “Many of the women have the same symptoms seen in other types of conditions associated with emotional manipulation or psychological torture such as Stockholm Syndrome, cult programming, psychological warfare, coercion, mind control and trance logic thinking.”

She describes how psychologically the women experience the four dynamics of Stockholm Syndrome:

(1) perceiving a physical or psychological safety threat and that the abuser is able to carry them out;

(2) unconsciously seeing her abuser as human and letting down her guard when he acts in kind ways;

(3) undergoing a change in thinking that becomes delusional– this happens because he is able to distort her reality by indoctrinating her with his pathological worldview while simultaneously isolating her from outside perspectives that would challenge his ideas; and

(4) developing a perspective that she is unable to leave because the abuser has convinced and conditioned her through various tactics that she cannot escape from him.

All of these things work together to keep the survivor “on the abuser’s side.”

We as survivors develop a loyalty to the very person who is hurting us called a “trauma bond,” where we hide their abuse, try to see them in the most positive light, focus on the positive connection and try to stay in their lives, and have irrational thoughts about how we will are forever tied to them.

5. Identity Erosion

Finally, there is the identity erosion that takes place, where the survivor’s personality slowly starts to change into something different than it was before the relationship.

Jackson MacKenzie includes an entire chapter in his book, Psychopath Free, about identity erosion, in which he describes the multitude of tactics narcissists use that erode the identities of their partners (p. 38-83).  These include (among others):

  • manufacturing emotions that otherwise wouldn’t exist by saying or doing dramatic, confusing or untrue things to provoke those reactions;
  • ignoring boundaries until the partner is doing things he or she never thought they would do; and
  • using a combination of conversational tactics to make partners fearful of expressing themselves or speaking up about mistreatment because of how the narcissist will react. The partner has been stunned and shamed into silence.

Narcissists also begin to criticize the very characteristics of the partner that he or she once praised.  Where once the narcissist exalted and complimented, now he or she demeans and humiliates, holding back none of the contempt.

Because the partner of the narcissist has learned how to confine and smother a large part of his or her personality and respond in new, unfamiliar ways that are unlike how he or she would normally respond, the narcissist has been able to implant himself in that spot where the lost identity has been drained away.

The narcissist’s preferences, needs, and desires now control and motivate that aspect of his or her partner, convincing the partner that this relationship is what he or she wants.

What Ties These Five Concepts Together?

There is one big idea that these five concepts, brain chemical dysregulation, learned helplessness, intermittent reinforcement, trauma bonding, and identity erosion all have in common.  It is the lack of control over reality because the narcissist has control.  This means that he or she gets to build the reality around the partner.

That lack of control, meaning, what the partner is undergoing at any given time due to living in the narcissist’s reality, includes one or more of the following:

  • a lack of awareness of the very fact that he or she does not have control
  • a denial of the awareness of the fact that he or she does not have control
  • a lack of awareness that he or she has any power to change it even if he or she has any awareness of being controlled.

What this means is that the partner of the narcissist does not realize at times how or if he or she is being abused, setting him or her up for further abuse and exploitation.

This happens because of these five things above, but the question is why?  How does this reality develop?

What Really Keeps Us Bound to Narcissists? 

The Biggest Factor

What is overriding each of these five factors is the bait-and-switch, which is the unique feature of narcissistic abuse.  More importantly, it is the effect of that bait-and-switch and what it does to us.

“While he worked hard to win her in the luring stage and to woo her during the honeymoon phase, during the mid-relationship stage he will begin the bait and switch and see how attached, tolerant and invested she really is. The mid-relationship dynamics can begin within a few months or as far into the relationship as 20 years or more… No matter when she hits the midpoint, when his mask slips, she realizes who she thought she got is not who she really got” (Brown, p. 203).

Almost since I began this blog, I have been writing about how narcissists split us in two, as we try to decide:  is the narcissist “good” or “bad?”

The technical term for this is cognitive dissonance, which is the mental anxiety felt when we hold two conflicting beliefs.  We resolve them by coming to a conclusion somehow about which one is correct, by rationalizing, ignoring evidence, denying, or some other psychological mechanism.

This is something everyone does, such as if you’ve made a commitment to save more money, but you go out to dinner with your friends on Friday night.  In this case, we might tell ourselves a reason why it was okay to make an exception or promise to double our deposit the next week.

With cognitive dissonance, usually, the belief or idea we encountered first is the most resistant to change, as it is older and provided the foundation for so many other of our beliefs afterward.  It makes more sense. 

In a relationship with a narcissist, where they literally show us two people, the one who was our soulmate at the beginning and then morphs into the one who holds us in contempt, looks at us with hatred and does things to us you didn’t even know people would be capable of doing to their enemies, cognitive dissonance literally becomes a mindset, the dominant state by which we filter all stimuli.

Cognitive dissonance causes us not to be able to see the narcissist clearly.

I argue it is the most important for two reasons:

  1. It begins almost immediately with the first negative incident.  

What that means is that without it, further incidents could not occur and the additional things that make it even more difficult to leave would not have the opportunity to occur.

Cognitive dissonance precedes intermittent reinforcement, which by definition, implies multiple incidents of rewards.

It precedes chemical dysregulation and structural changes in the brain, which occur over a long period of time, and the paralysis and learned helplessness that can result.

And it precedes the Stockholm Syndrome that can develop, which also implies that something happens over time (incidents of kindness and harm).

In other words, it is what holds us there long enough for the other tactics to work, each of which requires the narcissist’s ongoing presence.

2.  It lingers even after the relationship ends and the other factors have been “broken” or they have dissipated.

Because they require the presence of the narcissist, once a partner has gone no-contact, these will disappear or can correct themselves without the influence of the narcissist to maintain them.  Stockholm Syndrome disappears, and the chemical bond developed in sync with the abuse cycle will fade away.

The cognitive dissonance, however, can remain after the relationship is over, as we are left trying to piece together what happened, how so many actions that did not align could have taken place.

They can keep us guessing about whether the abuse took place and our role in it, the same lack of awareness or denial that has existed since the first moment we entered the relationship.

It is the cognitive dissonance which must be overcome to truly break free psychologically in every way, and it is our own psychological instincts we must fight to do it.

These instincts were activated and then conditioned to work against us so that we could be potentially exploited forever.

“What makes psychopathy so different, so surreal, so much like a relational bitchslap that it nearly knocks her head off?

  • The sensation of being emotionally ‘jumped’ from behind.
  • The inability to wrap her head around the emotional-physical-spiritual-sexual gang-band that just happened when she thought she was with the most wonderful person.

“No one can figure out how a dangerous psychopath curled up to them like a purring cat. Half of recovery is just trying to figure out ‘what was THAT?’  The longest portion of therapy is always helping the woman understand ‘what’ the psychopath is. What he does, how he feels, how his brain thinks, what he says, what is that his core– all these traits are far outside the average person’s experience.  To understand what happened to her she must learn to understand his peculiar traits” (Brown, p. 49).

Kristen Milstead

Instagram: fairytaleshadows

19 thoughts on “Understanding What Really Keeps Us Bound to Narcissists

  1. OUCH
    You have done IT again ‘sister’s!

    Going to digest this one slowly no doubt!!

    PS looking into…’Vagel Tone’ anxiety management, nervous breakdown yadda yadda

    Spocks Daughter

    1. Hi! I’m sorry to hear about what you are going through, but I am glad to hear that you may have found something that seems hopeful for relief. -Kristen

  2. Kristen, your insight is frighteningly accurate, I’m so grateful I found your blog. You’re helping me find a path out of this confusing, nightmarish quagmire, in very real and practical terms, you’re saving my life, thank you so very much.

    1. Hi Pete: I’m so very glad that my articles have been so helpful for you. Thank you for reading them and for taking the time to let me know. I hope that you are able to find some peace and keep moving out of the confusion. -Kristen

  3. I guess I’m not the only one who notices your special gift to describe something so complex, raw and indescribable! Reading your articles make me feel sane because you describe the hell we went through so well…I’ve said all this before 🙂 You ROCK!!!!

  4. This is a great article, it explains a way to break free from this horrible abuse. I can’t stop thinking why can’t i break free if I know is a lost case. I clearly see the connection with the intermittent reinforcement bs that narcissist apply, it’s very true. Thank you for sharing this knowledge.

    1. Hi Tania. I’m glad you enjoyed this article. Thank you for reading, and thank you for being here. Stay safe! -Kristen

  5. Wow, how eye opening and articulately put. I have a mother who does not accept that her mother is a narcissist. Unfortunately, her mother stroked out and is paralyzed on the right side of her body and now my mother is her fullntime care provider. My relationship with my mother is limited due in fact she emulates her mother and tries to force her similar relationship onto me. The strain is that we are both faith base and at times the faith is used to enforce on me. I’d rather have a limited relationship with my mother than to give in to this madness. Thank you for this sharing this article, I am learning more and more about this disorder and healing from childhood hardships resulting from my Nana’s narcissim.

    1. Hi Yagit. I’m sorry to hear of what you are going through. It sounds incredibly painful to recognize what is going on and why, but still have to limit the closeness with your own mother to keep yourself safe. It is great that you have reached a point to where you are able to create and enforce that boundary for yourself. I’m glad to hear that my article helped in some way. Thank you for being here, although I’m sorry it had to be under such circumstances. Stay strong. -Kristen

  6. I feel at times I’m in this type If relationship. What once was so inviting now feels like a nightmare. I’m constantly criticized now and told daily that I’m not doing anything right. At the beginning I was told how beautiful I was and motivated and a wonderful person. This person will do nice things for me then the next day act like I don’t exist and then threatens terminating the relationship when I try and stand up for myself. I feel lost and depressed now whereas I used to feel capable and happy. I don’t know how to completely disconnect from this person because I have been isolated. I think though this article has helped me to look inside myself and realize I am being manipulated. Thank you!

    1. Hi April: I am so sorry for what you are going through and I can empathize as I remember so well, as my story is so very similar. It’s hard to see the big picture while we are in it because of the brain fog. The daily interactions with them literally change our brains and keep us tied there, making it difficult for us to make changes in our lives. I hope that putting together in one place in the article the various things that are happening and in what order and why helps make sense of why we feel so unhappy. I am only now starting to be able to understand it and put it together in new ways so I strive to put them in writing, in case they help others. The way I see it is that we literally get pulled in two different directions, and the one that will save us is the harder choice to make because of all of the things working against us– but it can be done! Please stay safe. -Kristen

  7. Just found your blog today and reading several of them is helping me to realize who the stranger is that I once thought I knew so well after 20+ yrs of marriage. Learning about cognitive dissonance makes so much sense of what I have been going through. The covert narc I married is like Jekyll and Hyde and I never know which one will appear at any given time. Definitely keeps me jumpy. Thank you for helping me to learn more about this horrendous form of abuse. Hopefully I will stop being in denial and find my way of escape before it’s too late. I will continue reading your blogs.

    1. Hi Holly: I’m glad that you’re here, and so sorry to hear your story and what you are going through. I know this feeling of “denial” you are having, and am hoping for you to soon find your way out as well. You are not alone, and there is a path forward. Please take care of yourself. -Kristen

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