By Dana Morningstar
Trauma bonding is a term that refers to the strong emotional attachment or bond between an abused person and their abuser, which is formed due to the trauma of the bad times followed by the relief of the good times that a person often experiences during the cycle of abuse. A target will often try to walk on eggshells in an attempt to avoid the abuse, get the good times back, and to keep the relationship going as smoothly as possible.
Because abusive people are generally not “actively” abusive one-hundred percent of the time, the target clings to the moments of the narcissist’s good behavior as proof that everything is going to be okay and that the relationship can work.
One way the target attempts to cope with all the abusive behavior (and ease all the cognitive dissonance that they are experiencing) is to shift their thinking from “me” to “we.” This way, the abuse isn’t something that happens to them alone. Instead, it is a shared experience with their partner. It is an ordeal that they survive together. The target feels that they are “going through so much together,” instead of seeing it as being put through so much by this person. This new mindset is often fed by manipulations and lies by the narcissist, who may claim that “going through so much” is what relationships are all about, or that people in real relationships stay together no matter what. When this mindset shift is made, a bond forms between the narcissist and their target, as there are now three elements in the relationship: the abuser, the target, and the abusive or exploitative behavior. The problem is that there really is no third element; the abusive person and their behavior are one in the same.
The target often continues to seek reassurance and comfort from the abuser, thinking, ”He/she caused pain, and only he/she can take it away.” This is because when people experience trauma/abuse, they instinctively seek reassurance that everything is going to be okay. When they have become conditioned to only turn to their partner (or have been isolated), then they are sent on a confusing and chemically induced emotional rollercoaster. The good times produce oxytocin and dopamine, which are two chemicals the brain releases that facilitate both attachment and bonding. And the bad times are full of stress and fear of their partner hurting them (either physically, or emotionally by leaving). During these bad times, cortisol and the chemicals that compose adrenaline (norepinephrine and epinephrine) are released. The result is the lows switch on a person’s fight or flight mechanism, which is then deactivated or calmed down by the highs of the oxytocin and dopamine (the beginning of the next cycle).
These ups and downs often create feelings of craving and dependency, much like an addict feels when they are going through withdrawal. These feelings can be really intense (unlike anything the target has ever experienced) and can often be confused for love. A person may feel addicted to this abusive person and wonder what the hell is wrong with them and why they still miss or love this person, or why they can’t stop thinking about them. Many people also report feeling “numb” or “flat” after a relationship with a narcissist, especially if they are not aware that they went through abuse, or they feel it was somehow their fault and that they lost a great partner. They worry that they’ll never feel this way about anyone again. Or they may leave this relationship, but then unbeknownst to them, be primed for abuse as they are easily hooked by the intense highs (and resulting oxytocin and dopamine) that are manufactured during the love bombing that so often accompanies an abusive relationship.
Example: John yells and belittles Sarah for feeding her dog a piece of her meal. He raises his voice and tells her that he’s disgusted by her letting her dog eat her leftovers and that she has no class, and he doesn’t know what he’s doing with someone like her. John’s reaction and attitude catch Sarah off guard, and she feels confused, upset, and scared by his behavior. They finish dinner in silence, and when she gets up to clear the table John tells her how sexy she is in her new jeans, and how he’s so lucky to have her as a girlfriend. Sarah quickly goes from a low to a high and experiences a tremendous amount of relief.
Example: Starting as far back as she can remember, Nancy has always been the target of her mother’s abuse. Nancy spent a large portion of her childhood walking on eggshells around her mother and continually trying to simultaneously avoid being abused and earning her love. She often wondered what it was about her that was so unlovable to make her mother act this way. Any crumb of kindness that her mother gave to her was treasured by Nancy, and used as proof to her that her mother really did care. It was these crumbs that kept Nancy continually trying to make her relationship with her mother work…and kept her in the cycle of abuse.
Dana Morningstar is a former psychiatric nurse turned domestic violence educator who specializes in abuse awareness and prevention. Her passion is working with survivors of abuse to reclaim and rebuild their self-esteem, boundaries, confidence, and identity. She is an author of multiple books on the subject, and also has a blog, podcast, and YouTube channel, as well as several online support groups, all of which you can find under the name “Thrive After Abuse.”