The Trauma Bond with a Narcissist: A Dark and Dangerous Pas de Deux

(Read time: 1-2 mins)

If you are, or have been in a relationship with a narcissist, it is highly likely that you are trapped in a trauma bond, or are trying to break the trauma bond, and know how excruciatingly difficult this is.

Many people have never heard of a trauma bond, even those who are trapped in one. The term was coined by Patrick Carnes, PhD, to describe “the misuse of fear, excitement, sexual feelings, and sexual physiology to entangle another person.”

Traumatic bonding occurs as the result of ongoing cycles of abuse. The narcissist uses intermittent reinforcement, rewards, and punishment to create a very powerful biochemical bond that is highly resistant to change over time.

It’s difficult to realize you are trapped in a trauma bond until you have either left the narcissist, or have been discarded. Following this, it’s common to feel trapped mentally and emotionally, and obsess over the narcissist. This increases the mental strain and can cause a high level of chronic distress.

The level of harm inflicted by the narcissist can be so debilitating that victims often develop C-PTSD. It is critical to get into therapy as soon as possible and work to prevent this. It’s also important to find a licensed therapist who has experience working with survivors of narcissistic abuse and complex trauma.

The biochemical trap is laid

At the beginning of the relationship,  the chains encircling you are invisible. The narcissist’s profuse loving gestures, promises of a beautiful future, and constant affection are intoxicating. This phase is called “love-bombing.”

Often the physical chemistry with the narcissist is intense. Many say they have never experienced anything like it, and they have met their soulmate. The soulmate connection is reinforced by narcissistic mirroring. The narcissist will expertly mirror their partner’s behaviors, attitudes, interests, even phrases and expressions. The partner interprets this as genuine compatibility, shared values, dreams and hopes, and has no idea it is just a manipulation technique the narcissist uses to gain control.

Over time, often after several months, the narcissist will start to show his true colors. He will mock and criticize, lose his temper over something that didn’t previously bother him. Feelings of inadequacy and being a continual disappointment set in. Any defense against the criticism provokes comments such as, “you are too sensitive/dramatic/overreacting.”

Panic and anxiety set in at the thought of losing the narcissist. The partner agrees with the narcissist’s criticism – will do anything to gain approval and restore the balance; and in doing so has unknowingly reinforced the trauma bond.

When the partner submits, the narcissist shows approval by being nice, affectionate, and accepting. The ongoing punishment and reward abuse cycle creates a biochemical brain trap with the alternating rushes of adrenaline, dopamine, cortisol, and oxytocin – the biochemical building blocks of the trauma bond.

Trying to move on from the narcissist when the relationship ends, is when most discover the chains that bind them and realize they are traumatically bonded to the narcissist.  Cognitive dissonance ensues, and creates conflicting feelings of love and bitterness, desire and repulsion for the narcissist. This reinforces the bond. The trauma bond is a major, but critical, hurdle to overcome to break free from the narcissist – psychologically and emotionally – in order to fully heal.

The good news is – it can be done! Read Breaking Free to find out how you CAN. 

*Due to my own experience, at times I use masculine form of pronouns in writing. And statistically, the majority of abuse victims are women, and the majority of narcissists are men. However, it is important to be aware that men are abuse victims too, and women are also narcissists. Abuse is always wrong, no matter what your gender, or gender-orientation is. Every human being has the right to be treated with dignity and respect. 

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