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Trauma Bonding: Explaining Your Narcissistic Relationship

Have you ever noticed that sometimes when you try to explain to other people how you were abused in narcissistic relationships, they either minimize what happened or they don’t believe you?

It all comes down to a lack of understanding of a narcissist’s motivations and what they are “in it” for.

The typical understanding of a narcissist is someone who stares in a mirror all day, and the typical understanding of a sociopath is a crazed killer with a butcher knife.

People often fail to understand that there are those who lack the brain structure for remorse or empathy who go to work every day, get married, raise children, go on dating sites, and get into relationships– all areas that require some form of social cooperation.

Yet by actively and knowingly failing to participate in the social contract for those things, and instead pretending that they desire to be a part of it in the exact same ways as everyone else, narcissists and sociopaths wreak havoc in all of those domains.

Narcissists and sociopaths don’t all get on the Internet and try to con people out of money or stalk and kidnap people and keep them in the basement, nor do they need to in order to destroy lives. The lack of understanding of how narcissists act in their daily lives can lead to victim-blaming. The victim-blaming, however, is full of double standards.

By examining the double standards, we can illuminate the abuse in narcissistic relationships for what it really is. 

The just-world hypothesis helps explain why victim-blaming exists and why victims of abuse internalize it. But here's why it's not your fault.

Double Standards in Narcissism Relationships

Outsiders can choose to focus on either the impact on the victim or on the abuser’s actions to try to understand the abuse and then dismiss it.

Yet it is impossible to focus on the relationship as a whole (on both the victim and abuser at once), or else they reveal double binds that can’t possibly be true. For example, 

  • Is what happened so petty that it’s not even abuse, or is it so crazy and ‘out-there’ that it seems as if I’m making it up?
  • Are you doubting me that it was bad because I didn’t leave sooner or saying the whole thing is too outrageous to be believed?
  • Do you assume that I’m leaving something or you can’t even fathom why someone would do the things I’m claiming happened?
  • Was I just naïve or do you also assume and live your life as if we all have a ‘right and wrong’ motivated by emotions such as guilt and shame?

doublestandards

Somewhere in the midst of the double standards that the victims face, is the shame that the victims internalize. It may be different in each victim’s world, and colored by the abuser’s world as well and the people they both knew.  Liar. Attention-seeker. Crazy. 

And yet, in each of the questions above, in each of these double standards, both cannot be true. 

This is precisely how and why narcissists can get away with abuse and why it is so effective. It’s one reason why it takes us so long to leave. We don’t see or understand the dynamic that is happening within the relationship and because of that, they have all the power to define it.

Even after we leave the relationship, we have difficulty understanding why they did what they did and what has happened to us.

The double standards illuminate the fact that the narcissist has operated covertly to abuse us, and how they have done so: by taking advantage of the generally accepted values, beliefs, and ideas that are already present about love and relationships which they do not share.

If it were easy to accept that there were people who had a different value system the rest of us who are willing to engage in these behaviors, then their behaviors would not be so unbelievable. They would not be given the benefit of the doubt when their behaviors were brought to light.

The behavior would be seen for what it is.

Narcissists use language to control and condition their partners. Here is a list of things narcissists say that have very special double meanings.

Narcissistic Relationships and the Truth

The non-double binds:

1. Narcissists and other toxic people cannot enter relationships through regular means and do not even desire to. They are not seeking healthy relationships.

2. They must enter through counterfeit means.

3. We do not recognize this is what they are doing; they operate under the radar.

4. They operate under this radar because (a) we project our assumptions that we all want the same things out of relationships onto them, and (b) they are acting in ways that indicate that that is what they want.

5. When the relationship ends, we don’t have explanations for what we experienced because no one, including the narcissist, suddenly comes clean and explains what the narcissists was actually up to, so we continue to project.

6. No one outside the relationship understands or sees it either because they also project and assume everyone has the same value system.

7. Therefore, all of these gaps in understanding remain in the explanation for what happened in the relationship.

8. The blame is heaped on us or the events are invalidated– our naivete, our inability to leave sooner, our “exaggeration” of the situation, this isn’t as bad as we’re saying it is, this is no worse than a normal relationship, etc.

9. The general framework for understanding what happened is that both the narcissist and the partner were entering the relationship with the same motivations and desires, even if one of them was an abuser. A lack of application of the narcissistic view of the world means that a true understanding of what really happened in the relationship is missing.

This is narcissistic abuse. This is how they abuse. This is how they get away with it.

So then how can we explain what we are doing there as it happens?

What is Trauma Bonding?

The narcissistic abuse dictionary describes a trauma bond as:

“Similar to Stockholm Syndrome, in an abusive relationship, the abused partner may develop a loyalty to the abuser and suppress memories of their negative treatment in order to view him or her in the most positive light.”  

Trauma bonds create an intense emotional bond that create an unavoidable physiological and psychological response.

For example, imagine a continuum of interaction, where on one end of the continuum is harsh, abusive, and cruel behavior and on the other end is kind, loving, and gentle behavior. Person A inflicts trauma of some kind onto Person B and then follows it up with relief from that trauma, without ever landing in the middle of the continuum.

The unstable interactions create a strong sense of loyalty in Person B to Person A because the default state is either pain or pleasure. Person B rationalizes the infliction of the pain in order to survive because he or she feels so grateful to Person A for ending it.

They can form in any situation, even in a cult, where a person who inflicts suffering is also the rescuer from that suffering. 

Patrick J. Carnes, author of The Betrayal Bond, claims that trauma bonds have five important qualities.

Trauma bonds:

  • are almost always accompanied by other reactions to trauma, such as addition, toxic shame, repeating the same traumatic patterns, and others.
  • can be easy to repeat. Once someone forms one relationship trauma bond in their lives, they are vulnerable to forming more.
  • are very hard to break and can be long-lasting.
  • can happen to anyone.
  • are not always bad, but they are about surviving a negative situation.

Trauma Bonding is Mind Control  

Richard Grannon, life coach, describes trauma bonding like this:

“Trauma bonding in that sense as I first came across it was saying, well, look if you want to mind-control somebody you get them as a child… and you slap them around and shout at them and scream at them so that they’re frightened, you leave them poorly nourished and so they’re a little bit dazed and confused and then you lock them in a cupboard dark cupboard for eight hours which is an intensely frightening experience. You are the abuser if you did that that.

“In the child mind, they would associate your voice and the sight of your face to feelings of pain and suffering and that should create resentment.  However, if you come back to the child after eight hours of isolation in a dark cupboard and release the child from the dark of it and then feed the child and speak nicely to the child you are then also the rescuer so then the child has intense feelings of gratitude and of warmth and love towards the person who is abusing them. That’s trauma bonding.”

He continues by using 1984 as his example. In this dystopian novel set in the future, a totalitarian government controls the lives of every citizen down to feeding them propaganda to make them compliant:

“Where else do you see it? I think where it was fictionalized very nicely and very cleanly was in George Orwell’s 1984 where the main character… is being tortured… and the book conveyed a sense of almost like a weird love that develops between the tortured for the torturer when the torture is framed as being education: ‘I’m doing this for your own good.’ This is the kind of thing an abuser usually will say, ‘I’m doing this to teach you a lesson,’ ‘I’m doing this to drive the devil out of you.'”  

You can watch his full video here where he discusses how he conceptualizes trauma bonding.

Margaret Singer, an expert in cult mind control, says, “Interestingly enough, George Orwell was perhaps the first to note that language, not physical force, is the key to manipulating minds.

In fact, growing evidence in behavioral sciences reveals that a smiling Big Brother has greater power to influence an individual’s thought and decision-making than does a visibly threatening person. As Orwell says of his brainwashed hero, at the close of his prophetic book: “He loved Big Brother.”

It’s not hard to understand how trauma bonding works in narcissism relationships to bond a victim to an abuser due to intermittent reinforcement.

Trauma Bonding Isn’t Always Negative

“Boot camp is the time when a teen, or young adult, is taken and slapped in one of the worst places to be. That kid is broken down to that of a whimpering boy, then rebuilt into what the Marine Corps wants in its warriors… Every single person who goes through boot camp is, at some point, a blubbering idiot. All common sense leaves!…

“We had numbers written on our arms, our head was shaved, any and all personal belongings were taken, excluding money, credit cards, IDs, etc., we were issued our gear, and our identities were effectively removed. From this point on I was recruit, the lowest of the low. There wasn’t one thing on the planet that I was above. Trash was more important than me, or so this is what they make you believe… Basically it is hell, and anyone who says it isn’t or wasn’t is lying… These are US Marines who are trained to destroy your soul” (Evans 2015).

Military boot camps “are scientifically and psychologically designed to tear apart the ‘civilian’ and build from scratch a proud, physically fit, and dedicated member of the United States Armed Forces” (Powers 2018). 

They break down the individual by subjecting him or her to intense psychological stressors. Then they instill an intense loyalty and duty to the military, other service members, and the country.

This is a necessary part of building a military. It saves lives!

Not everyone makes it through, but everyone who signs up has done so by choice.

Interestingly, and perhaps strangely, the psychological tactics used to break down and build loyalty are similar to what happens when someone forms an attachment to an emotionally abusive person.

The difference, again, is that people sign up to join the military by choice. They know what they are getting themselves into. It’s a mutually beneficial agreement by which recruits are choosing to subject themselves to extreme physical and psychological stress in order to gain self-discipline and test themselves.

This article explains the three roles the narcissist plays during each of three types of emotional abuse that combine to form a deadly trap for victims.

Trauma Bonds Explain the Connection with a Narcissist

Explaining the plot of 1984 and describing how boot camps work helps to demonstrate the psychology of inflicting cruelty upon someone and then offering them kindness. This tactic is not something that happens only in abusive relationships.

More importantly, it’s not something that only works on a special kind of person.  

The trauma bond that forms with a narcissist is more similar to the one that forms in the fictionalized universe of 1984. 

There’s a second part to trauma bonding to address. If narcissists inflicted pain earlier in our interactions with them, it’s unlikely this tactic would have been effective.  

Narcissists deceive us with love-bombing, charming personas cobbled together with largely false bits of detail, mirroring, gaslighting, and exploited details they learn about us.

In other words, it looks as if the relationship is mutually beneficial from the partner’s point of view.  But because of the deception on the part of the narcissist, anything given willingly by the partner, whether it is something emotional or whether it is something more material, is falsely obtained. 

Relationships with narcissists do not provide us with informed consent. By the time we realize it, we have formed a trauma bond.

Having language to point to so that we don’t absorb the negative messages from others that blames us for our own involvement in the relationship can help us start to empower ourselves to gain control again. 

It’s bad enough they scoop out a large part of our own identities and replace it with our own ways of seeing things.

I was already trying to purge everything he had poured into me over the years: doubts, blame, fear, lack of trust in my own judgment. To do that, I had to see it through my own eyes and no one else’s and understand what had happened to me.

 

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Sources

Carnes, Patrick J. (1997) The Betrayal Bond

Evans, Trace. (2015). “This is what the first 36 hours of marine boot camp is like.” Business Insider. Retrieved on August 26, 2018 from https://www.businessinsider.com/this-is-what-the-first-36-hours-of-marine-boot-camp-is-like-2015-7

Orwell, George. (1961). 1984.

Powers, Rod. (2018). “How to survive military basic training.” The Balance Careers. Retrieved on August 26, 2018 from  https://www.thebalancecareers.com/how-to-survive-military-basic-training-3353989

Singer, Margaret. (2003). Cults in Our Midst.

Kristen Milstead

Kristen Milstead is a narcissistic abuse survivor who has become a strong advocate for finding your unique voice and using it to help others find theirs.

15 Comments

  1. I watched your books earlier, however this one I believe the best.

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  3. I love my man and I hope and pray that he will change for me because he loves me more than any of the others. Yes he cheated with me on his ex wife but he promises hes turned over a new leaf and it will never happen again. The women he seen in the past still want him but he promises he hasn’t had anything to do with them. I really want to believe him but what if it’s all a lie just like the lies he told the ex wife? We have moved in together in I’ve put my house up for sale so I’m hoping this is perminent but yet I’m scared to death it could all fall apart at any minute.

    1. Kristen Milstead

      Hi Faith. I assume that since you’re online reading articles about narcissism that you have seen some red flags or have a feeling in your gut something isn’t right? I don’t know your situation so I don’t know anything other than what you’ve told me. But what I can say is that if your boyfriend is truly a narcissist, they cannot just suddenly decide to change, as narcissism is a defense mechanism developed when someone is young over a period of years and it would take a long time and professional help to dismantle it and put healthy behaviors in its place– if at all. It’s linked to differences in the pre-frontal cortex and amygdala in the brain that partially explain the lack of empathy and remorse, so just deciding to act differently one day would be nearly impossible. I don’t say all of this to be discouraging or make you feel bad, but because I would feel as I would be doing a disservice if I didn’t point it out. Maybe he is not a narcissist, and he has seen where he went wrong in the past and is really changing. You’ll have to decide this for yourself. When you think through all of the signs and symptoms of someone being a narcissist, when you think through the narcissstic relationship cycle, do you see this keep repeating for him (and is it happening for you)? Please be careful and thank you for taking the time to tell your story. -Kristen

  4. I love my man and I hope and pray that he will change for me because he loves me more than any of the others. Yes he cheated with me on his ex wife but he promises hes turned over a new leaf and it will never happen again. The women he seen in the past still want him but he promises he hasn’t had anything to do with them. I really want to believe him but what if it’s all a lie just like the lies he told the ex wife? We have moved in together in I’ve put my house up for sale so I’m hoping this is perminent but yet I’m scared to death it could all fall apart at any minute.

    1. Kristen Milstead

      Hi Faith. I assume that since you’re online reading articles about narcissism that you have seen some red flags or have a feeling in your gut something isn’t right? I don’t know your situation so I don’t know anything other than what you’ve told me. But what I can say is that if your boyfriend is truly a narcissist, they cannot just suddenly decide to change, as narcissism is a defense mechanism developed when someone is young over a period of years and it would take a long time and professional help to dismantle it and put healthy behaviors in its place– if at all. It’s linked to differences in the pre-frontal cortex and amygdala in the brain that partially explain the lack of empathy and remorse, so just deciding to act differently one day would be nearly impossible. I don’t say all of this to be discouraging or make you feel bad, but because I would feel as I would be doing a disservice if I didn’t point it out. Maybe he is not a narcissist, and he has seen where he went wrong in the past and is really changing. You’ll have to decide this for yourself. When you think through all of the signs and symptoms of someone being a narcissist, when you think through the narcissstic relationship cycle, do you see this keep repeating for him (and is it happening for you)? Please be careful and thank you for taking the time to tell your story. -Kristen

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  6. Great article, and yeah from the inside it is very difficult to explain to people on the outside. I use the boiling frog analogy. At first the frog enjoys the warm water, but then things get very gradually worse until it’s too late for the frog. Luckily we’re smarter than frogs, or at least we like to think so.

    1. Kristen Milstead

      Yes, I love this analogy too!

    2. Kristen Milstead

      Yes, that’s a great analogy!

  7. Ouch!!

    Your ‘process’ has tremendous value to me. Been full on moveing into acceptance guess I should go back and review what else you have summed up and swim in it too.

    But why I am commenting at all (As some one: 27 yrs traumabonded to my ‘shy’ wounded human)

    Is honey…. speed-up and find out what the life purpose of that intellect of your is! Life Goes fast then it is all most all hindsight. Not a pretty additional grieve on top of facing the alone you speak about so elegantly.

    Spocks Daughter

    1. Kristen Milstead

      Thank you for taking the time to read my post! I’m glad you’re here. Moving into acceptance myself!

  8. Same here – he put it as… I couldn’t deal with her constant lies but it was him who kept making a false reality for me. He married someone else and continued to call me. I was so heartbroken when it happened (in a matter of 10 days of breaking up) that I took that call and I listen to the “ I made a mistake”

    Fast forward 12 months of this- she divorced him. He blamed her as usual.

    Called me to cry again only to get me to meet him cos he was fake dying. I didn’t want to go since I am in a new relationship but the empathetic person I am went.

    After all the fake apologies of how it eats him every day what he did to me and he wants me back but I must leave my current relationship blah blah.
    He loves me so much.

    Two weeks pass- he calls me to say I’m a cheater and this is why he left me in the first place that I went to meet him. Like some sick test. I tell him to fcuk off. Block him.

    I get a call a week later- his in a new relationship. Telling her how much I want him and I went to meet him and I’m a slut and he just met the wrong woman ( now divorced twice) plus my failed relationship.

    But he isn’t a bad guy cos look- I went to meet him right ? And he wants to be “honest with her” and tell her the truth when he saw me and when I called. (Fake triangulation again)

    I called and confronted him about his lies- that I don’t want him and his mentally sick.

    He told me I am not even worth talking about and we are done. Now the newbee is all in love cos his so perfect – dream guy- as we all thought in the start.

    I haven’t heard from him for a month.

    What I want to know is why don’t people believe us about what happened and why do these ass holes still have so much mind space ?

    Isn’t talking about it not letting it go? Or letting us move on. I just cannot seem to get over it.
    These blogs have become obsessive and I can’t tak to my bf about this as it’s comes across like still hung up or have issues.

  9. This is spot on. I explained what occurred in my relationship that was ended with a sleazy discard right in front of my narcs flying monkeys- yet they say to me “ I wish she would stop portray her as evil” – so – now I regret even trying to tell them to some extent. I put the truth out there and maybe in the future they will question it but they are secondary or tertiary sources of supply to the narcissist and she has them fully under control. They’re like she’s discreet about things. I’m like what does discretion have to do with friendship and honesty ? Her “discretion” is how she controls information -it’s called lying by omission . I’ve learned that people that say they are private people often are so because they’re hiding something for a reason.
    Arggh – Lakelly I have a few friends who know the truth that people like this exist and they have experienced the odd behavior enough to tie it together and believe what I experience… Plus I’m the second ex who is saying the same stuff .

    1. Kristen Milstead

      It’s not discretion, it’s deceit. It just disguises itself as discretion because of our own biases about who they are and what they want out of relationships, and they are quite happy to play along with it. Some people don’t want to believe the truth even when it’s right in front of them. It took us a long time to see it ourselves. They fool everyone the same way but use different tactics depending on the type of relationship. Thank you for reading, Kathleen.

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