What do 1984, boot camp, and emotionally abusive relationships have in common? The first is a fictional dystopian novel. The second is a training experience that will prepare those who sign up for it for military service. The third, if you’re reading this, you’re probably already all too familiar with. Interestingly, however, trauma bonds explain the connection and emotional loyalty that are present in all three situations.
What is a Trauma Bond?
A “trauma bond” is an intense emotional bond that someone develops due to interactions with others 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.
Trauma bonds are similar to the concept of Stockholm Syndrome. They can form in any situation, such as 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.
1984 and “Teaching You a Lesson”
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.”
Boot Camps and Knowing What You’re Getting Into
“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.
How 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.
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
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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.