For those outside looking into a highly toxic relationship, the question most often asked is, “Why do they stay?” Heck, I’m guilty of questioning the same and I even briefly studied this psychological phenomenon in the past.
Then came the horrendous firsthand experience. The kicker is, I continued to ask myself, “Why the heck do I miss him after the insane mind-funkery he dragged me through?” Until I combined the knowledge and experience to finally get a clearer understanding of what was happening.
First I want to make clear that trauma bonding is NOT a sign of weakness or failure in the victim. It’s a survival response to intermittent reinforcement by an abuser… the cycle of ongoing reward and punishment where the victim is conditioned to hold onto the promise of a reward (in this case, a small amount of kindness or attention) if they hold on long enough no matter what.
Like a gambling addict who sits hours on end at the slots waiting for a payoff. They drop $50… the machine gives back $20. Feeling hopeful, they drop $100… and the machine eventually gives back $60. The addict continues throwing away their hard-earned money, not even aware of how much cash they’ve used up… because the high they receive from the little returns keeps them hanging on.
See, in an ongoing toxic relationship, there’s always a time when things seem to be “normal.” The victim becomes addicted to that little window of “normalcy” and holds onto hope that they will get more of it if they remain obedient to the abuser. The more intense the punishment… the more appreciated the “reward.”
Signs of a trauma bonding:
- The other person demonstrates a constant pattern of poor behavior, not following through with what they say they’ll do, and breaking promises. However, every once in a while, they will throw little scraps of kindness and attention toward you, leaving you hanging onto hope that things will get better “this time.”
- Others are disturbed by the other person’s behavior towards you, but you cannot understand why.
- You are constantly arguing and fighting about the same darn things they keep doing, and no matter how much they say they’ll change or “get better” things remain the same and you feel helpless and stuck.
- You do not trust the abuser or can no longer identify what exactly you appreciate about them, but you are addicted and unable to completely remove yourself from the relationship. When you try to detach, you miss them and you feel like you are unable to survive without them.
Regardless of how “deep” you feel like you’ve sunk into this illusion, there is hope for recovery. Here are some techniques to get you started:
Accept that they weren’t getting better… and they never will. Because there is no definite cure for narcissistic personality disorder.
After a long stretch of crazy-making where you are kept on-guard for fear of being attacked, the abuser shows a small act of kindness that brings you hope. But the bad behavior returns and the cycle continues. This is how victims survive dangerous and threatening situations. We desperately keep an eye out for any evidence of hope that things will get better. The frightening reality of this is… we have been so badly and covertly abused that we give credit to the abuser when we are not verbally, emotionally, and even physically beaten to a pulp. Quite literally… “I am so happy and grateful you did not hurt me today!”
Love, acceptance, and security is totally available to you… just not in the person you were addicted to. The reality is, that person is in fact, a mentally ill individual who is hardwired to only look after their own needs in order to survive the misery that exists within them.
Feel your feelings.
Narcissistic relationships are based on lies and manipulation, but that does NOT make the emotions and bond YOU were feeling any less real. It’s totally natural to feel angry about the absolute betrayal by the abuser, but you genuinely invested your heart, dreams, and life into the relationship… so don’t disregard that fact. Honor yourself. Take time to acknowledge and mourn your loss.
Forgive. Not the abuser, but YOURSELF.
Many survivors blame themselves for sticking around for so long… to a point where they blame themselves for the abuse altogether. It wasn’t your fault that you were manipulated and brainwashed. And now that you know you were subconsciously reacting this way as a means for survival… forgive yourself.
Find other supportive relationships to draw strength from.
Finding genuine, trustworthy people feels almost impossible after enduring narcissistic abuse… I mean, who can you REALLY trust when the one person you would’ve given your everything to was a big, lying phony? Try to keep in mind that there still are good people out there. Find a therapist familiar with narcissistic abuse, get a competent coach, or join an online recovery program.
I know you’re hurt, disappointed, and angry (to say the least), but you’re not alone. I know what you’re going through and I believe you. Get your healing started with my free 14-day recovery plan, with daily email support, 2 step-by-step guides, and access to my online group coaching session.