Trauma Bonding and the Victim in Narcissistic Abuse

Artwork by Lionel Kennaugh

If I had to ask you to define a victim without a dictionary, what would you say? Something happens to you that is negative or harmful and not of your choosing? Let me ask you this: Would any reasonable or sane person ask to become a victim?

The pertinent dictionary definition is according to the Oxford Dictionary:

A person who has come to feel helpless and passive in the face of misfortune or ill-treatment.

It is the last line of this definition that really jumps out at me. ‘Someone who has come to feel helpless and passive’.

Indeed no one deliberately lets things’ stuff’ happen to them? No one in their right mind would do that right? Right?

Wrong. Narcissistic abuse and trauma bonding lead to this exact set of circumstances to be perpetuated over and again.

What is trauma bonding?

Given the nature of narcissistic abuse which is not necessarily and often isn’t physical but emotional and mental abuse, it is nonetheless emotionally and mentally violent. I have looked at many definitions of trauma bonding, none have quite described what I have experienced, however, to give an explanation within the context of narcissistic abuse:

Trauma bonding happens when the victim of narcissistic or other forms of abuse are held hostage and captive to the abuser emotionally and mentally (and sometimes physically). Or if the victim has not managed to put physical distance between herself/himself and the abuser or is unable to (because of shared children, for example).

Trauma bonding happens because of the cyclic nature of this abuse and the use of intermittent reinforcement. Even when the victim has managed to free themselves from the abuser, trauma bonding can be ongoing for the victim. A victim who very often also suffers from PTSD or even CPTSD revisits the abuse emotionally and mentally.

Some emotions for the victim have been crippled permanently. Ironically, the victim will very often seek solace or validation from the very person who has perpetrated abuse against them. Sometimes for years after the abuse has ended. The victim who is still held captive to the emotional and mental damage done to them have the desire for validation of some sort from the perpetrator of the abuse. Even if they don’t act on this desire, the victim will often ‘daydream’ about validation and support. A ‘wish they could see me now’ line of thinking is usually how this is played out.

What a trauma bond feels like to you personally can be different things to different people. Most especially when the circumstances of each trauma bond may be quite different. For example, Father to a child. Mother to child. Sibling to sibling and of course, including romantic relationships and co-parenting relationships. It is in the dual nature of the narcissist that this bond is formed, and it is this duality that is also so addictive.

Trauma Bonding is one of the most addictive ‘substances’ on earth. For many people, It is often easier to walk away from a powerful street drug than it is to leave the abusive narcissistic relationship.

A trauma bond ‘feels’ inescapable. When the dye was cast initially in the fabric of the relationship, the trauma had already begun. It quickly and insidiously becomes a part of the addiction, and a part of the trauma as the relationship unfolds.

For a child with a narcissistic parent, this will have started as soon as the child was emotionally able to comprehend relationships. This bonding to the narcissist for any reprieve no matter how brief is destined to trauma bond the victim to them and to the original and ongoing trauma.

The trauma bond is created, employing more than just intermittent reinforcement. However, this goes a long way to helping the trauma bond along. It is like being handcuffed to your tormentor emotionally. All belief in yourself is suspended in favour of pleasing this person or at worse, defeating your own self-worth and needs to ‘just keep the peace’. Which, of course, never happens, no matter how ‘good’ you are. No matter how hard you try to please and appease the abuser, the abuse does not stop.

When you have no choice but to engage with the narcissist, for example, co-parenting, you are still stuck in the cycle of abuse. Every issue, no matter how small becomes a complicated dance.  While you are trying to defend yourself from an attack, you still must consider your child/children. With a narcissistic parent, it is never about the child; it is about the narcissist. No matter how you try to frame it, you are still tied to the abuser via your child/ren as you are bound to watch them suffer in the same way that you have. For the child of a narcissist, love is always conditional. There is still a hidden price to pay. Even as you strive to be loved to seek out that unconditional love, the underpinning driving force of intermittent reinforcement is always there. It is the use of both the carrot and the stick simultaneously, leaving the child of a narcissist continually unbalanced.

Trauma bonding because of narcissistic abuse is a never-ending roller coaster. Nothing is ever settled satisfactorily, and there is always a loose end or a complicated situation to deal with. There is seldom reward and most often, punishment.

Kacy Musgraves says it so well when she sings

“When it rains, it pours, but you didn’t even notice
It ain’t rainin’ anymore, it’s hard to breathe when all you know is
The struggle of staying above the rising waterline.”

Well, the sky is finally open, the rain and wind stopped blowin’
But you’re stuck out in the same ol’ storm again
You hold tight to your umbrella, well, darlin’ I’m just tryin’ to tell ya
That there’s always been a rainbow hangin’ over your head

For many survivors of narcissistic abuse, we never did notice that it ain’t raining anymore. In our hearts and minds, we are still stuck out in the same old storm again. That is the tragedy of trauma bonding. We don’t see the rainbow hanging over our heads. Years after the abuse, we are still stuck in that emotionally bonded place.

Uselessly holding onto hope that the abuser will change somehow and become a rational human being is another thing that those of us still in an abusive relationship with a narcissist do. We endlessly hope. A friend of mine recently expressed that she feels much better now that she’s given up hope. In a change of perspective, this is a massive statement to make. If you can throw this into a positive light and look at it objectively, giving up on the hope that they will somehow miraculously change is the first step in the right direction.

The victim is continuously betraying their own needs and desires that are valid to appease or appeal to the abuser’s sense of superiority or power. There is always an imbalance of power and an atmosphere of unpredictability. However, the narcissist can often be predictable in their unpredictability, i.e. the vicious circle of abuse – reinforcement – abuse.

There is a constant feeling of being on edge and waiting for the other shoe to drop. To avoid the inevitable rejection, abuse, and degradation and to ease this feeling of constant tension, the victim will alter their own behaviour towards the abuser to do anything to avoid this happening.  The victim changing their own behaviour only reinforces the imbalance in the relationship. This gives the abuser the well-plotted idea that they are in fact, superior and that the victim is as useless as he says she is.

The intense secrecy of the narcissist makes it exceedingly difficult to read him, which sets up dynamic tension within the victim. The victim is continually in a place of being unbalanced. The victim also starts secretive behaviour as a defence mechanism.

The victim is eventually ground down into a place of feeling worthless and questioning her every move and decision. Continually looking outside to others to validate her choices and her sense of self-worth. The ability to get that from within is no longer available to the victim, as emotions are permanently paralysed in the cycle of abuse.

For the victim, her sense of reality is warped. How much power the abuser has is magnified in the eyes of the victim, disproportionately to the actual amount of power the abuser has. This is amplified by the victim’s own lack of belief in herself and her need to keep the abuser pacified at all costs. Including her own innate confidence and the need to sacrifice herself at the alter of the abuser’s need to feel superior and powerful.

The lack of belief from outsiders who cannot comprehend such cruelty is a double whammy for the victims of narcissistic or any other form of abuse. This lack of depth of understanding brings about victim-blaming. The narcissist is very often incredibly charming and ‘credible’ to outsiders. They find it extremely hard to get a grip on what the victim is genuinely experiencing behind closed doors. When the narcissist is on display on his best behaviour, misrepresenting what he does to the victim out of sight of others, this further confuses outsiders.

Accusing the victim of having a victim mentality is not helpful. Victim blaming and re-abuse and traumatisation of the victim in a cyclic pattern happen not only by the abuser but also by well-meaning friends and family. People who have no grasp of the depth or the damage done to the victim of this type of abuse reinforce the trauma bond and serve to isolate the victim even further. They now have nowhere to turn to.

I have put together a glossary of unhelpful things to say, and what to say instead to someone who has come to you, telling you they are a victim of this type of abuse. Perversely and sadly the narcissist is often able to play the reverse victim by claiming he is the victim of the very abuses he has perpetrated and continues to perpetuate.

Just let it go.

How in the world is this helpful to someone stuck in a trauma bond? Do you think if someone who is trauma bonded to an abuser doesn’t want to ‘just let it go’? You are asking this person to simply just release a world of pain and uncertainty, like flipping off a switch. There are such deep and complex emotions and traumas tied up in the abuse they have experienced. Even even if it is a clear as day to you to say this, it is almost impossible for the victim to ‘feel’ and ‘experience’ that little word ‘just’ to let things go. Having been trodden down and brought to their lowest of lows the way out for a victim looks like an emotional maze of the worst kind.

What to say instead

I don’t necessarily understand what this feels like to you. I can’t offer any advice; however, I can be here for you. If you do make the break and decide to leave this relationship or limit your exposure, I will be here to help you do that. In the meantime, I will listen and try to understand what it is you are experiencing. So, although I lack the full understanding of this dynamic, I can employ my empathy to you as a victim and become an active listener for you.

Just be nice, love is the only answer.

This one really gets my goat. To a victim who’s spent years’ just being nice’ to avoid the abuse they have experienced anyway, how much ‘nicer’ do they have to be? To a victim who has spent years ‘ loving’ as best they could, and self-sacrificing, being as subservient as possible to appease their abuser, only to experience punishment for this. How can you tell them that love is the only answer? A twee comment at best and shows the total lack of understanding for the victim of this type of abuse.

What to say instead

I understand that you have invested a large portion of your heart and mind and even physical well-being in this relationship. I know it’s hard to step away from that. Your conditioning and your need for survival has brought you to the point of being bonded to this person in ways I don’t fully comprehend. Again, I’m here for you. I can be an active listener and soundboard.

You’re just addicted to the drama

Well and so, this is the whole point, isn’t it? If you are speaking to someone who has been caught up in the narcissist’s drama for an extended period, there is an addiction. That is a trauma bond. The victim is so hooked on the endless cycle of abuse, reconciliation, and re-abuse. The belief that they can ‘love’ the abuse out of the narcissist is born from intermittent reinforcement. Pretty much the same as a gambling addiction. It’s that one small win, in the face of many losses that keep the victim trapped. A victim can feel physical symptoms of anxiety and fear in the face of ‘losing’ this person they love so much. Yet, this same person is the source of their greatest torment.

What to say instead

I understand that this is an emotionally and mentally turbulent set of circumstances to be caught up in. I empathise with the duality of your feelings and the fact that you are torn between staying or leaving. How can I help? If listening and validating is all you can do, then actively do that. Don’t leave a victim stranded on her own, if you say you are going to be there, then commit to that and be there. Don’t give judgemental advice but do offer support and validation.

Why don’t you just leave? Why do you stay?

This is seldom a black and white issue, and there can be multiple reasons why a victim stays in an abusive relationship.

Financial control and constraints – narcissists are adept at nailing down tangible commitments early on in the relationship, such as gaining financial control over the victim.

Children, many people stay because of their children, or they are bonded to the narcissist via co-parenting. They cannot make a clean break from the narcissist.

How about pressure from people outside of the relationship who have little to no understanding of how damaging a dynamic like narcissistic abuse is. Whether this pressure is from family or friends, who may be well-meaning, yet actively glue the victim to the narcissist with their own expectations.

To the victim who has been ground down, the lack of any self-worth and the belief instilled in them that they are worthless makes them feel helpless. This breeds the believe they won’t cope without the narcissist. This is yet another way of controlling the victim.

Isolation from friends and family and feeling genuinely alone is another reason a victim stays with a narcissist. Often the narcissist has actively ensured this isolation by making ultimatums and demands that the victim should choose him over family and friends.

The genuine fear of retribution and possibly physical harm is another reason victim stay. The victim has a slanted view of how bad the abuse actually is or downplays the abuse. The reality of what is happening to them is too horrific to admit to. It can be hard to convince someone like this that it is in their best interests to leave. The victim will make excuses for and even defend their abuser, as the fear of leaving them is far greater than the fear of staying. The victim may well be threatened with retribution should she go, and this threat is genuine. Again, this is where the trauma bond plays a role in the choice to stay.

I’m good, I’m a good person, I can help him/her. I can show them the right way to have a relationship. If I stay and I behave myself, I can love them better. I can save this person – when the narcissist has turned the tables and plays the reverse victim. It’s my fault if only I was stronger, wiser, more patient the list goes on with my abuser they’ll eventually change because of my love for them. I can try harder, be better, I’m the one who can lead them to understand. These things the victims tell themselves. The fact is the narcissist doesn’t want saving. All this behaviour by the victim underscores their own vulnerabilities. The narcissist grows even more emboldened and arrogant by the victim’s behaviour, and it feeds right into his sense of superiority and invincibility.

What to say instead

Don’t judge what you don’t understand. It’s okay to say I don’t fully comprehend what you’re going through, but I don’t judge you. I am concerned for your safety. Saying something like ‘but you let this happen to you’ is entirely unhelpful. This will further isolate the victim and make it less likely that they will ever open up to you again. You cannot make a choice for this person to leave, but you can:

Empower them to have a safety plan

Actively listen

Believe them when they tell you what is happening to them, this can almost immediately alleviate some stress and anxiety.

Reaffirm to them and validate that they are not in the wrong.

Reaffirm that what is happening to them, is wrong and that they don’t deserve the ‘punishment’ meted out to them.

Actively help them to find the right resources to empower themselves to leave the damaging and dangerous situation.

If you commit to being there for this person, then be there, don’t jump ship when things get rough for them.

Can we please stop with victim re-traumatisation by way of victim-blaming language? The things I have highlighted above are but a few ways we, when we try to be helpful, do even more damage than is necessary. Knowledge is power, if you have someone, you’re worried about, arm yourself with the knowledge to guide them to safety without blaming or judging them. As frustrating as this can seem, it is more helpful than further dehumanising someone who is already at rock bottom.

From the victim’s perspective, she didn’t know what she didn’t know. Very often it is the very people you would believe to be the least likely, who fall for a narcissist. Or have come from a childhood background of narcissistic abuse and therefore, attract the same type of damaging people to them, unwittingly. So many survivors of narcissistic abuse blame themselves for being ‘so stupid’ as to fall into one of these traps. For many survivors, it has taken years of self-work to undo the damage done to them and to be able to move forward freely.

Emotional abusers don’t come with neon signs, there is no warning notice when you get involved with them. The fact that this abuse is so insidiously perpetrated makes it awfully hard to spot and understand from a victim’s point of view. What victim’s need most is someone who believes them when they are trying to communicate what is happening to them. Very often, just the act of finally sharing their experiences makes it easier for them to start the healing process and ultimately remove themselves from danger.

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