A trauma bond is a response you may have to abuse or being in an abusive relationship. These bonds refer to a situation when you have an unhealthy attachment or relationship with your abuser as an abused person. People often wonder, What does a trauma bond with a narcissist look like?
Below we’ll explore more about this type of dynamic in a romantic relationship, what narcissistic behavior generally looks like, and the experience of a trauma bond with a narcissist.
What is Trauma Bonding in a Relationship?
Traumatic bonds occur when you’re the victim of abuse. You develop a sense of connection or sympathy for the person who’s abusing you, whether that’s narcissistic abuse, psychological abuse, physical abuse, or sexual abuse. Stockholm syndrome is an example of unhealthy bonding.
This type of bond between an abused person and their abuser can develop quickly over a few days or take weeks or months. If you are the victim of abuse, that doesn’t mean you’re inherently going to establish a bond in this unhealthy relationship, but bonds can stem from complex trauma.
You may have heard most about Stockholm syndrome. A reference to one type of bond stemming from trauma is a scenario where a captive person develops positive feelings for their captor.
What Causes Trauma Bonds?
Researchers think a few factors contribute to the development of a strong bond in an abusive relationship or a domestic violence situation.
- Unhealthy attachments: When we’re born, we begin to form attachments. These attachments help us survive. When you depend on someone for support or comfort, even as an adult, attachment develops. If your primary support system is someone who’s also abusing you, it can lead to an unhealthy bond.
- Dependence: You may rely on an abusive partner to fill your emotional needs. You might find that you blame yourself for what’s happening. That can allow you to keep seeing your abuser as good and you see yourself as inadequate.
- Cycle of abuse: When you’re in a relationship with an abusive person or toxic person, they may express remorse and promise they’re going to make changes. After abuse, the person may be incredibly kind to you and show positive behaviors, strengthening the bond so that you’re more willing to stay with them even when there’s bad behavior.
Specific situations or toxic relationships where traumatic bonds can occur includes:
- Domestic or child abuse
- Religious extremism
- Elder abuse
There are a few criteria that are present in the formation of a traumatic bond or connection.
- You must feel a genuine threat or sense of danger from the person abusing you.
- The treatment is typically harsh if you’re being abused, but periods of kindness are interwoven occasionally.
- Isolation is a criterion for the formation of this type of bond.
- You have the belief that you’re unable to escape.
Criteria that are also common with these relationships include manipulation tactics, a power differential, high arousal and bonding periods, and, as was briefly mentioned, periods of both excellent and inadequate treatment.
Intermittent positive reinforcement can be essential to understand these relationships and the cycles of abuse that occur. The victim will constantly seek out the approval of their abuser. They’ll take the tiny crumbs of affection they’re given by the abuser, which is a way to keep them hooked in the relationship. It’s crucial to maintain this type of bond that the abuser provides a sense of hope on an intermittent basis that the situation will improve.
Signs of Trauma Bonding
Signs and symptoms of these unhealthy emotional bonds include:
- You agree with the reasons the abusive person outlines for why they treat you the way they do
- You might try to cover for the domestic abuse experience because of feelings of attachment
- If someone tries to help you, like your friends or family members, you might withdraw from them
- There’s a sense of defensiveness or hostility if someone tries to step in and help you
- You feel unwilling to leave the situation or take steps to break the bond because of a misguided sense of loyalty
Do Narcissists Also Feel the Trauma Bond?
Abusive narcissists likely do feel the bond too, but differently. It’s so confusing for anyone in a relationship with a narcissist who’s abusive to understand why they continue to hurt them, even when they say they love them.
People with narcissistic personality disorder tend to repeatedly follow the same relationship patterns, which can lead to each relationship promoting a type of traumatic bonding.
There are two critical reasons that narcissistic partners abuse people they’re in romantic relationships with.
The first is that they don’t have empathy.
- When you have emotional empathy, you’re less likely to hurt other people because you feel their pain and suffering.
- If you cannot feel what you inflict on another person, you’re not motivated to treat someone well.
- A narcissist can have intellectual empathy without being emotionally empathetic. That means that a person who’s abusive and narcissistic might know cognitively what they’re doing is painful for the other person. They might not care because it’s not causing them negative emotions or experiences.
The second reason narcissists abuse people is because they lack something called whole object relations and object constancy.
- That’s a complex way of saying they aren’t able to see themselves and others as having a combination of both good and bad qualities.
- Most of us can know that other people aren’t perfect, but we can still care for and love them, and we know that we aren’t perfect ourselves.
- A narcissist can’t understand that. They can’t continue to feel a connection to someone when they’re hurt or upset, leading to abusive behavior.
Narcissists enjoy the sense of power that they can achieve in this type of unhealthy bonding. They might also take pleasure in the way they can chip away at your self-worth and create the sense that you’re powerless. They’re reinforcing your ideas that you need them, and you’re nothing without them.
If you find yourself in a situation where you are seeing red flags with someone you’re dating, the most important thing to do is first make sure you’re safe.
From there, try to consider what your relationship might look like from an outside perspective. Begin to talk to loved ones about taking steps towards leaving the relationship.
Don’t blame yourself—this is critical in traumatic bonds. Blaming yourself is how the bond and the cyclical pattern of abuse is maintained, and when you do that, your abuser can continue to prey on it.
The goal in this situation should be to cut off contact entirely with the person you have a traumatic bond with, no matter what. Don’t listen to their false, empty promises, and from there, the hope is that you can call (858) 258-9883 get professional help at The Mental Health Center of San Diego to begin to break free from the emotional attachments you had with that person with Trauma Therapy, so that you may form healthy relationships.