Trauma Bonding & the Narcissist – Nobody Does it Better!

emotional-rollar-coasterFeeling attached to a narcissist or sociopath even though he treats us badly is a constant source of angst for those in recovery from toxic relationships. Victims want to know why…why can’t I just let go of this guy? Why can’t I move on? Why am I obsessed with no closure? Why do I feel so connected to someone who feels no connection to me? One logical answer to this is that we’re normal and they’re not and normal people want to fix things that are broken so that they work again.

The problem, of course, is that a narcissist can’t be fixed because he was never right to begin with. In essence, the narcissist isn’t really broken at all. He simply is what he is and what he is is no good. This being true, what do we do, after a Discard, when we can’t shake the feeling of being only ½ a person without him…of feeling utterly attached even when we’re apart and even when he’s with someone else? Why can’t we disconnect from the Bad Man? Well, there is an answer to this for those who seek a deeper psychological reason for the suffering and it’s a condition often referred to as trauma bonding.

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When we think of trauma bonding, we typically associate it with The Stockholm Syndrome (TSS) – a condition named after a real-life situation where a group of hostages became emotionally attached to their kidnapers. TSS, however, although certainly similar to trauma bonding, typically occurs in life-threatening situations where the victim is literally in fear of dying at the hands of her toxic, abusive partner. Trauma bonding is more descriptive of the attachment dilemma that occurs from the type of trauma caused to our emotions (i.e. betrayal and neglect, over and over and over). It’s the type of bonding that can easily occur via passive-aggressive manipulation (i.e. sex, lies, silent treatments) and other forms of narcissistic control.

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The narcissist partner, as cunning as he or she is, understands the process for streamlining a victim’s codependency to point of least resistance. He has actually figured out – without a single day of formal training – that the best way to ensure narcissistic supply is to create trauma bonds with his targets via the method of “seduce and discard”.  He has figured out an easy way to turn us into a narcissist’s enabler.

The conditioning that leads to trauma bonding focuses on two powerful sources of reinforcement recurring in succession over and over and at perfectly timed intervals. Psychologists call this reinforcement the ‘arousal-jag’ which actually refers to the excitement before the trauma (arousal) and the peace of surrender afterwards (jag). Take a second to reflect on the narcissist’s behaviors. Creating trauma bonds is what he’s been doing his whole life!

‘Arousal-jag’ reinforcement is all about giving a little and then taking it away over and over and over in well timed intervals. Narcissists do this all the time (disappearing/reappearing, silence/chaos) whereby creating an illusion of twisted excitement that reinforces the traumatic bond between us and them. And to be clear, the narcissist feels a connection here as well only his connection is to the excitement alone and not to us. This is why a narcissist always has multiple partners because it doubles and triples his excitement factor. The fact that we – as his victims – become so attached to the chaos that we’ll eagerly await a hoover is quite an added bonus!

Are you getting it yet??

The excitement before the trauma (of betrayal and neglect) is created during the devalue stage…that point in time right before a discard when our intuition has already told us he’s going to leave based on his behaviors. It’s that knot-in-the-stomach feeling, the overwhelming urge to call his phone 100 times, the torment of cognitive dissonance…. it’s the hours spent scouring the internet looking for clues…it’s the feeling we get from the chaos that a narcissist ALWAYS creates right before the silence. Like it or not, we become highly addicted to his narcissistic behaviors and all of the nonsense that goes with it… and we miss it like a motherfucker when it’s gone…when, suddenly, the narcissist goes silent. We long for the connection – as manipulated and fabricated as it is – until we can barely breathe. Then, right before we either kill ourselves or come to our senses, in swoops the narcissist once again – like a Phoenix rising – to give us the second reinforcement: the peace of surrender that happens afterwards. His reappearance is meticulously timed for maximum effect and usually follows a silent treatment that has lasted just a tad longer than the one before. The narcissist is conditioning us to accept less and less so he can get away with more each time he vanishes.

Either way, this second dose of reinforcement – the peace of surrender – is absolutely heaven! Again, it’s an addiction – to the narcissist and the make-up sex, to the vanishing of our anxiety, and to the feeling of calmness and euphoria we get from knowing that, once again, we’ve been given a reprieve to breathe until the cycle repeats again. Seduce and discard…seduce and discard…till the end of all fucking time. And, at the moment it’s happening, we’re actually okay with that! In fact, there’s no place in the world we’d rather be.

As I am writing this, I am realizing that my ex worked very, very hard at trauma bonding. In fact, he was a Master at it, subjecting me to silent treatments (two weeks on/two weeks off) like clockwork, for months at a time, and with no explanation at all. In addition, from mid-October to mid-January every year for 13 years he made like Houdini and fell completely off the grid.  And right before leaving, he’d ramp up the chaos, making me feel horribly anxious and angry yet desperate for his attention. But I was addicted to it and he knew it.  Wayne knew exactly what he was doing!

Our addiction to the narcissistic chaos and then to the reprieve also explains why we find it so hard to maintain No Contact and/or to move on into new relationships after it’s over. No one excites us in quite the same way or with the same intensity as a toxic partner. Via trauma bonding, we become the suffering and the suffering becomes us. We forget what normalcy feels like. We stop differentiating between good excitement and bad excitement. The chaos and turmoil becomes almost as big a turn-on for us as it does for the N.

If we look back on or inward on (if we’re still in it) our relationship, we see that at the moment the Idolize Phase ends, the trauma bonding began. We may not have even known this but you can be sure that the narcissist did. As time passed and the narcissistic partner became more successful at managing down our expectations of the relationship, our connection to the nonsense began to stick like super glue. But now that we know it….that there is a name for that strange hold this bizarre person had over us..we can make sure it never happens to us again. If we’re still in the relationship, then we can get out (and fast!) because, unlike a hostage victim who trauma bonds with a kidnapper, we are NOT being held at gunpoint and we CAN escape. Let us be grateful for that fact and do what we need to do to save our sanity.

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  • Brandie

    March 28, 2016 at 8:13 am Reply

    Thank you for this. I’m having trouble healing but now I know it’s trauma bonding. It’s been one month NC and I had to put a PFA in place bc if I didn’t I would keep falling back into this trap. I spent 5 yrs doing this!

  • Maureen

    March 23, 2016 at 3:13 am Reply

    I am at the tail end of a two-and-a-half-year fight with the state who took my son because of domestic violence and gas lighting from my narcissist ex husband. I am also the family scapegoat and my narcissist mother sided with my ex-husband in battle. I cannot describe here the evil that has happened, but I want to connect with you folks I know you will believe me I just read the top two comments and I can hardly believe my eyes so I know you will believe me and maybe can help me I swear I will not allow myself to be scapegoated ever again and it’s time to go have a very hard to talk with a caseworker and tell her who I am, what really happened …
    I am scared! I need help I want to talk to someone else who has survived a narcissist mother/narcissist husband attack

    • Zari Ballard

      April 30, 2016 at 2:00 am Reply

      Hi Maureen,

      I am running so far behind that a month has passed since your post. Anything could have happened between then and now. PLEASE send me an update so it will bump to the top of the list, okay. I also went in and deleted your last name so that just your first name shows. No need to have any more information out there than you need to. I hope and pray you are okay….I will look for a post from you in case you’d like to writer again, okay?

      Zari xo

    • Liv

      June 3, 2016 at 6:31 pm Reply

      Hey Maureen.

      Would love to chat. I resonate with life after leaving a narc…..the clean up can be brutal!

  • Masha

    March 7, 2016 at 9:18 am Reply

    Dearest Zari, thank you so much for enlightening us and for letting us know we are not alone. i have just been confronted with this madness for the last 2 years and my intuition has been dragging me into some kind of paranoia. you see, i met this narcissist during a post partum depression… and so i left my child and her father to get into the most ugly turmoil with a Colombian macho pig. hah. you can imagine the disaster, the pain… on top of that, he got me hooked on drugs, sex, weird friends… i am now back with my family, taking care of my daughter. but still he hoovers. more than that. his bff calls me up and tries to convince me they are not friends anymore… i even try to play along just to see what he wants me to believe… but i know thats dangerous. more than that, once i tried to warn another woman he studies with about him,… but she never responded to me and later he told me she stopped talking to him. but i saw a message from her saying she missed him. what do i do? i want to play their game (him and his bff, they operate together obviously, to get women/sex slaves) to discloses them. i want to warn other women in their lives! but i know i shiould just get away with my child. move to another country…. what do you think?

    • Zari Ballard

      March 16, 2016 at 3:03 pm Reply

      Hi Masha,

      First, let me say that I’m having trouble responding to this post because I’m not sure how to feel about the post-partum excuse. The women I’ve known who’ve suffered with post-partum depression could barely stop crying enough to get out of bed let alone find themselves in a social situation where meeting someone they’d leave their family for (baby and all) would even be possible. If you were, in fact, diagnosed with post-partum, then there would have been help available then and there should still be help available now. My concern is that you mention it so casually as if post-partum women do this all the time…and they don’t. So do you still have it? Because if you don’t and now you are back with your daughter, having been given another chance to be a mom, you know what I’m going to say to you….get away from this guy once and for all. Stop playing and participating in games with him and with all of his flying monkeys. As for other women, let the rest of the world find out about him on their own. You may be living apart but you obviously have not blocked him and everyone associated with him. Why are you still communicating with these people? Did you go home voluntarily and under what circumstances? You’re baby must still be very small, right?

      If you think moving to another country is the only way that you can pull yourself away from this guy and the type of lifestyle he offers, then I’d have to say do that. You don’t have any ties to this guy, right? Block him, change your number, cut all the ties that bind, grab your baby daughter, and go somewhere where you can concentrate on being a mom. The post-partum thing, for some reason, is really throwing me off here. It’s confusing me relative to your intention and main concern. None of us have good reasons for hanging with the narcissist but I’ve never heard pp used as an excuse and I don’t know whether to address it or ignore it or worry about it. It changes the dynamic if it, indeed, is a true diagnosis. Either way, I get the feeling that this guy and that life…you’re still very much drawn to it and all the dangerous games involved.

      Zari xo

  • Diana

    December 10, 2015 at 9:53 am Reply

    Think of the r/s as a walk to Damascus on which you evolve spiritually out of the arousal-jag and on to freedom. Be sure to have therapy back-up and meditt ad pray. Don’t ever show you’re hurt. Do what Al Anon does-detach with love.XX Practice the principles of Al Anon.

  • B

    December 9, 2015 at 8:53 am Reply

    Before I learned no contact rule, after repeated hovering, I said 3 needs of mine aren’t negotiable. I made it clear I won’t budge from them. One was that I attend one of her counseling sessions to address my concerns. I am sure none of the manipulative behaviors were being discussed. Expressing this clearly and calmly ended hovering. No chance for supply, no hovering.

    • Zari Ballard

      December 13, 2015 at 6:43 am Reply

      Hi B,

      Yup, expressing our needs is a foolproof way to make them all disappear! Let’s hope she stays away:)

      Zari xo

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