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.
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?
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.
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.
- 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.
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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Don’t forget to check out these resources:
- Taking Your Life Back After a Relationship With a Narcissist – Free Recovery Toolkit
- Comprehensive Narcissistic Abuse Dictionary
- Narcissistic Abuse Recovery Playlist
- The Best Resources for Narcissistic Abuse Recovery
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.