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  • samreastwood

The Ties That Bind Us - Trauma Bonding

Updated: Feb 23

Narcissism is a word that gets thrown around way too much, in my opinion. It seems like the go to insult for anyone who treats us badly, or who we perceive to be a bit self-centred. If you’ve ever been in a relationship with someone with true narcissistic traits you’ll know that it is a whole other level of insidious trauma that you’ve been exposed to, and you’ll also know just how hard it can be to leave.

Our childhood will often influence the relationships we enter into as we come into adulthood. If you have a parent or primary caregiver with narcissistic traits, such as a sense of their own self-importance, entitlement, lacking in empathy and manipulative or exploitative, you’ll likely have grown up in a household where you have been shown that love is conditional on your admiration and capitulation toward that parent. Everything they say is correct; they can’t be challenged. If you dare to, that’s disrespectful and you’re ungrateful for everything they’ve sacrificed for you. Your existence in the world is something you need to thank them for. Your emotions about their behaviour are silly, pointless, or worse, a punishment towards them that you are then made to feel guilty about. You end up treading on eggshells, monitoring and modifying your behaviour to avoid an angry outburst. You don’t trust your own thoughts and feelings because your parent(s) has told you they’re wrong. You don’t ask for any needs to be met because you should be grateful for what you have already got, and asking for more is greedy and unappreciative of ‘everything’ they already do for you. You never hear a true apology from them and they can stonewall you for days for the slightest misstep. But oh, when you meet their conditions, when you do everything ‘right’ (which you’ll never know how to do in the same way again because the goalposts change constantly), they’ll shower you with gifts and attention, and ‘see how you made me happy, when you’re just good?’

How confusing for a child to never be able to trust in their own reality. The people who are meant to love them only do so on their own terms, the landscape beneath their feet constantly shifting and changing. But they are still bonded to that person as their caregiver and the person they look to to help them understand how the world works. As a child they’re dependent on that person to fill their basic needs for food, shelter and love, and so they develop ways to keep themselves safe by making sure their parent is kept happy, at whatever cost to their sense of self – their survival depends on it.

As an adult we can find ourselves repeating this pattern in our romantic relationships. We feel safe in the unsafe because it feels familiar, we know how this plays out, often unconsciously, but anything else doesn’t feel like love. We don’t know what it is to feel safe and truly cared for, so when we meet someone who is steady, secure and reliable, it conversely feels unconsciously unsafe in its unfamiliarity, even to the point of it feeling boring, as we’re not experiencing the extremes of emotion that we’re so used to.

So why is it so hard to break the cycle?

Trauma bonds develop when this cycle of abuse, followed by positive reinforcement, creates an addictive process. You keep chasing the highs, because they’re so wonderful and you feel so loved when they happen! Physiologically, the brain seeks out those opportunities for the dopamine and oxytocin hit that comes with the positive reinforcement. Narcissistic people are master manipulators - knowing exactly how to draw you back in so they don’t lose the power and control they have over you, while maintaining just enough of a high to keep you coming back wanting more, despite how much they’re hurting you. Like any addiction, the craving for that high is what keeps you tolerating the low points. You think, ‘if I can just help them feel happy again it will all be alright’. Making excuses for their bad behaviour, often blaming yourself because ‘if I just hadn’t said/done/worn that, they wouldn’t be mad at me now. You take responsibility for fixing whatever part of them is broken, because it’s your responsibility to manage their emotions, maybe like you had to for your parent or caregiver. Often you won’t even know what it is you did wrong, leading you straight back into that self-doubt and inability to trust your own reality. Gaslighting is almost inevitable in these types of relationships, the narcissist will never take real accountability, only showing false remorse in order to manipulate you into staying.

In my own experience, and with so many people I work with, when we finally pluck up the courage to leave, or the manipulator gets bored and finds a new person to toy with the emotions of, we can feel a tremendous amount of guilt and feel really, really stupid for staying so long in such a harmful situation. It’s hard to understand how our brain can have hijacked us so badly in the face of all logic and reason. I want you to know that trauma bonds are real. The relationship is an addiction. Our brains have learnt that we need to keep that relationship at all costs – it’s a matter of survival, just as we experienced as children. Even without a history of childhood abuse, even if you know yourself to be a strong and capable and knowledgeable person, these relationships can still happen to you. The narcissist will always delight in breaking someone down, whether it’s someone they sense are already vulnerable, or someone they see as more of a challenge. It bolsters their fragile ego to know that they can gain power and assert dominance over anyone.

The fact that you ended up trauma bonded is NOT your fault. But you can learn to recognise your own patterns and understand what it is in yourself that draws you to these types of relationships, you can break the trauma bond and learn what to watch out for to stop it repeating itself again. You can learn to trust in yourself again.

So how do you know if you’re trauma bonded to someone?

·         You feel dependent on the other person – that you can’t manage without them

·         You make excuses for, defend or rationalise their behaviour –‘it’s not their fault they treat me this way, they’re going through….’ ‘If I could just do things better, they wouldn’t be so stressed and lash out at me’

·         You’ve been isolated from friends or family, often because ‘they don’t understand’ or the other person thinks they’re a ‘bad influence’.

·         You constantly think about the other person - maybe others have even said you're obsessive

·         You think if you just love them enough, things will get better

·         You crave the ‘good times’ – waiting for the love-bombing to come again

·         You don’t want to give up on the relationship, even though you know it’s hurting you

·         You’ve lost your sense of self

  • You find yourself acting out of character in order to comply or keep them interested

·         You never feel good enough any more

The first thing to say is that if you recognise this in yourself, and are thinking about leaving an abusive relationship, it’s of paramount importance that you assess your safety. You can contact or in Northamptonshire, for help and advice on how to safely move away from the relationship. If you feel you are in danger, the police are also there to support and record any incidences.

It is also important to say that not all abusive relationships are violent. Never feel that your trauma is less valid because you don’t have bruises to show for it. The trauma of emotional abuse is just as real, and takes time to heal from.

In therapy, much of the work to be done is in recognising the patterns of abuse that have happened to you. We can also work on learning about how your nervous system has responded to the abuse. This can help you learn to recognise future red flag behaviour by learning how to quite literally listen for your body’s cues of safety. This is all part of learning how to have trust in yourself and your reality again. Another part of that is to focus in on the truth. We might explore questions such as:

·         What is the objective reality of the situation?

·         How has this person harmed you?

·         Are the ‘good’ qualities you see in them objectively substantiated by their behaviour?

·         Are you holding on to good memories of them? How does that help or hinder your recovery?

·         How have your survival responses saved you in the past and do you still need them now?

·         What needs were you looking for to be met by this relationship? Did that work or is there a healthier way to get those needs met?

Recovery from trauma bonding is not linear. I went back many times, and had many, many hours of therapy before I was able to cut ties for the final time. It’s even more complicated if there are children involved, or if you’re wanting to break the cycle with a parent or caregiver. It may feel impossible if you’re unable to fully remove yourself. Even though it’s not straightforward, it IS possible. Like any addiction, you can break the bonds that tie you. Someone once described it like their abuser was their puppet master and it felt impossible to cut the strings. It can be done. The first step is recognising you’re in it, and making the decision to get out. Therapy can help support you, as can the many amazing organisations out there. Please do reach out for help. You’re not alone.


Find help here:

Refuge 0808 2000 247

Northamptonshire Domestic Abuse Service 0300 0120 154

ManKind Initiative 01823 334244

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