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Breaking the Deceptive and Toxic Cycle of Trauma Bonding

When people think of unconditional love, they tend to imagine positive images of nurturing mothers or life-long friends. In these situations, the relationships have a healthy bond based on qualities like trust, loyalty, and most of all: compassion for each other.

But not all unconditional love formed through bonding is healthy – when a narcissist is involved, this unconditional love becomes destructive and toxic.

Why do people stay in abusive relationships with narcissists?

Why can’t you just leave?

A big part of the answer lies in trauma bonding: forming an unconditional love you don’t share with anyone else on the planet.

This is the chain keeping you from going “No Contact.”

It’s not your fault and there’s nothing wrong with you, but you can take control of the situation. Here’s how traumatic bonding works and how to break the chain for good.

Intermittent ReinforcementWhy Do People Stay in Abusive Relationships with Narcissists?

It’s easy to identify trauma bonding when you’re on the outside looking in.

“Tell your abusive mother you don’t need her anymore,” you yell at the TV character. “Get over him and find someone who appreciates you,” you say about the protagonist in the movie.

We watch physical abuse from the sidelines and ask ourselves “why do people stay in abusive relationships” even while we are in emotionally and psychologically abusive relationships with narcissists ourselves.

We believe that no matter how toxic the relationship becomes, we cannot leave because we have already formed a special bond with this person. In many cases, this bond feels so intense that relations with other people – even close friends – pale in comparison.

It’s very scary to watch a friend or loved one experience traumatic bonding because the level of vulnerability and possibility for danger is so high.

What is Trauma Bonding?

Narcissists thrive on fights for a few reasons. For one, you’re providing the narcissist with undivided attention, emotional capacity, and energy – all of which feeds their addiction.

But the psychological effects go deeper than that. Although the narcissist may not objectively realize it, they instinctively know that fighting actually brings you two closer together.

This is known as “trauma bonding.”

Now, traumatic bonding isn’t necessarily toxic.

Let’s say you and a friend experienced a traumatic event together – such as another friend passing or suffering a chronic illness. You all come out of that hardship with a stronger bond, right?

For the narcissist, however, trauma is just another tool in the shed for furthering their toxic agenda of keeping you hooked – biologically and mentally.

The Difference Between Trauma Bonding and Love Addiction

Love addiction and traumatic bonding occur simultaneously so often that most people can’t pick them apart.

People with a love addiction crave an emotional bond so badly they’re willing to put up with extreme abuse and unhealthy situations – even for a meager payoff.

Just like a person suffering from substance abuse, a person suffering from a love addiction ignores personal boundaries they’ve set for other people. They might manufacture situations to gain attention from the abuser, feel needy and desperate, and put up with anything to avoid loneliness.

You can share a traumatic bond with someone without feeling compelled to put up with their abuse. Why do people stay in abusive relationships?

Love addiction plays another large part.

How Intermittent Reinforcement Keeps You Hooked

Intermittent reinforcement is another dangerous tool the narcissist uses to exploit your love addiction and cement traumatic bonding.

Studies show that when people receive a reward at consistent intervals, they start to expect the reward and work less intensively. If people don’t know when a reward will pop up, they tend to work harder than they would (or should) in hopes of receiving a reward.

Even in healthy relationships, people start to take each other for granted due to consistent reinforcement. In these cases, people communicate their feelings and work together to improve the situation.

But a narcissist does not process feelings and emotions the same way. A narcissist uses your feelings of inadequacy, desperation, and worthlessness as an opportunity to hold their own affection hostage. It’s the carrot and stick approach.

You confront the narcissist for hurting you. They ignore your feelings. By the end of the argument, you’re apologizing to them. Then, for a fleeting moment, they also apologize and tell you how much they value you.

That’s your reward and it’s completely void of any actual intention or real emotion – don’t buy it for a second.

Traumatic Bonding is the Chain Keeping You Linked to the Narcissist

The narcissist thrives on your need for approval and love while manufacturing traumatic situations to enforce bonding.

In healthy relationships, people bond with each other through positive experiences. But the narcissist is different. To them, emotions exist to manipulate and control others.

That breaking point where the narcissist finally changes will never happen because they honestly believe they are in the right. That’s why psychological experts admit that it’s almost impossible for narcissists to change – even through comprehensive therapy.

Keep in mind: these concepts of intermittent reinforcement, trauma bonding, and love addiction take many forms and many narcissists will enter your life. Imagine a mother-in-law or mother you can never seem to please no matter how hard you try. Think of a boss dangling a raise over your head.

Stockholm SyndromeStockholm SyndromeHow Trauma Bonding Skews Your Sense of Normal Intimacy

When you’re relying on traumatic bonding to maintain a relationship with a narcissist, it changes how you perceive normal intimacy.

You’ve probably opened yourself up to the narcissist more than you have to anyone else in your life. We tell the narcissist things we’ve never said to anyone. We kick boundaries to the curb. We make ourselves completely vulnerable and call it bonding.

It’s pretty intense and in the beginning, it feels really good.

Letting someone go through your phone feels like building trust.

Who cares if your friends say it’s a toxic behavior? Your relationship with the narcissist feels so connected that you’ll never share that intimacy with anyone else.

No one understands.

Much like a person newly sober, other relationships and experiences seem boring because they lack such a deep intimacy and excitement.

But this is a false intimacy.

10 Signs You’re Suffering Traumatic Bonding with a Narcissist

A co-dependency formed through trauma bonding can become extremely dangerous – both physically and physiologically – when a narcissist is involved.  Trauma bonding is basically Stockholm Syndrome inside of a relationship with someone you know and care for.

It’s already very difficult to leave relationships when we’ve formed a strong bond with someone. Keep an eye out for these signs.

  1. You have trouble relating to other people – even long-time friends or friendly coworkers.
  2. You constantly feel burned out.
  3. You routinely check each other’s phones and pick fights over small things.
  4. You’re afraid that you’ve exposed too much of yourself to the narcissist.
  5. You think that your relationship with the narcissist is misunderstood by friends and family.
  6. You feel like nothing you do or say is enough to please the narcissist.
  7. You prioritize responding to the narcissist’s texts over work, eating, or other important activities.
  8. You’re convinced you’ll never have such a deep relationship with anyone else.
  9. When you try to leave, you are tormented by such longing to get back with your partner you feel it might destroy you.
  10. You know this person will cause you more pain, yet you constantly give them the benefit of the doubt and expect them to follow through on their promises, even though they never do.

Recovering from Trauma Bonding

Why do people stay in abusive relationships? Why are you so drawn to people who seem physically incapable of providing love and genuine affection?

There’s no broad-brush reason here: I’d have to type a different answer for everyone reading this post. In order to figure out why you’re using trauma bonding as a crutch, you need to examine your own disposition.

How have you been conditioned over the years to form relationships? How have you been conditioned to bond with people and express intimacy?

Not to get too Freudian, but think back to your childhood and how you learned to receive love or approval from parents or family members.

It takes quite a bit of self-reflection and isn’t easy to do without some third-party perspective from a therapist, counselor, or qualified mentor. Although friends are great (and necessary), their support and advice are still subjective.

As humans, we seek out situations and experiences that feel familiar.

After all, change is scary and uncomfortable. This also means that we’re more likely to find ourselves in toxic relationships (especially if abuse feels familiar) and less likely to leave the relationship once we’re in it.

Breaking Free is the Only Answer

Although you’ve formed a trauma bond – possibly over the course of many years – with a narcissist, No Contact is the only solution.

Much like kicking a drug, you can’t recover from trauma bonding and narcissistic abuse with the narcissist remaining in your life. At the same time, like substance abuse recovery, love addiction recovery and breaking your bond with the narcissist require healthy support structures, inflection, and planning.

But you can rid yourself of the abuse.

You can and will form healthy and meaningful relationships with other people. And you’ll come out stronger and happier than you ever thought possible.


Breaking the Deceptive and Toxic Cycle of Trauma Bonding

Kim Saeed - Author, Researcher, Educator

Kim Saeed is an internationally respected self-help author and educator specializing in recovery and rebuilding after narcissistic abuse. She is the author of two Kindle bestsellers, How to Do No Contact Like a Boss! and 10 Essential Survivor Secrets to Liberate Yourself from Narcissistic Abuse. She is also writing an upcoming book, The Way of the Warrior, for Balboa Press, a division of Hay House.

Kim is a credentialed educator with a background in psychology, education, research and development, and organizational development. Her work has been shared in non-profit women's shelters and lauded by therapists and mental health experts. If you struggle and have a hard time, consider enrollment in The Essential Break Free Bootcamp.

You can find Kim’s work and sign up for her newsletter at

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APA Reference
, . (2019). Breaking the Deceptive and Toxic Cycle of Trauma Bonding. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 27, 2020, from


Last updated: 17 Jan 2019
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