Trauma bonding refers to the strong emotional attachment or bond between an abused person and their abuser. A trauma bond is formed through the anxiety and fear during the bad times, followed by the relief of the good times that a person often experiences during the cycle of abuse. The result is a feeling of unhinged neediness and emotional dependence upon the abuser. Unfortunately, these intense feelings are often confused for love.
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 will be okay and that the relationship can work.
The target attempts to cope with all the abusive behavior and ease all the cognitive dissonance they are experiencing 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. The target feels they are going through so much together. Instead, they are being put through so much by this person. Manipulations and lies often feed this new mindset by the narcissist, who may claim that “going through so much” is what relationships are all about or that commitment is forever. When this mindset shift is made, a bond forms between the narcissist and their target. Now there are three elements in the relationship: the abuser, the target, and the abusive behavior. The problem is that there is no third element; the abusive person and their actions are one and the same.
When people experience trauma or abuse, they instinctively seek reassurance
The target often continues to seek reassurance and comfort from the abuser, thinking, "They caused pain, and only they can take it away.” When people experience trauma or abuse, they instinctively seek reassurance that everything is going to be okay. They have become conditioned to only turn to their partner or have been isolated. They are sent on a confusing and chemically induced emotional rollercoaster. The good times produce oxytocin and dopamine, two chemicals the brain releases that facilitate both attachment and bonding. The bad times are full of stress and fear of their partner hurting them either physically or emotionally by leaving. Cortisol and the chemicals that compose adrenaline, norepinephrine, and epinephrine, are released during these bad times. The result is the lows switch on a person’s fight or flight mechanism, which is then deactivated or calmed down by the high of the oxytocin and dopamine, the beginning of the next cycle.
These ups and downs often create craving and dependency, much like an addict feels when they are going through withdrawal. These feelings can be intense 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 feel it was somehow their fault and 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.
Examples of Trauma Bonding
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, 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.
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 avoid being abused and earning her love simultaneously. She often wondered what it was about her that was unlovable to make her mother act this way. Any crumb of kindness that her mother gave her was treasured by Nancy and used as proof that her mother did care. These crumbs kept Nancy continually trying to make her relationship with her mother work and kept her in the cycle of abuse.