Trauma Bonding

Written by Angela Atkinson

This article has been medically reviewed by our content partner Dr. Robin Bryman

Trauma bonding is a common condition among narcissistic abuse survivors and their abusers. Thanks to an ongoing cycle of intermittent reinforcement, many survivors of toxic relationships go through this, much like kidnapping victims and hostages do.

Trauma bonding is often a bigger issue for people who also grew up in toxic and abusive homes, partially just because it feels like “normal” to them.

As Warwick Middleton said, “The capacity for dissociation enables the young child to exercise their innate life-sustaining need for attachment in spite of the fact that principal attachment figures are also principal abusers.”

What is Trauma Bonding?

Trauma bonding is often used interchangeably for the term Stockholm Syndrome.

“In 1973, Jan Erik Olsson walked into a small bank in Stockholm, Sweden, brandishing a gun, wounding a police officer, and taking three women and one man hostage,” writes Rachel Lloyd. “During negotiations, Olsson demanded money, a getaway vehicle, and that his friend Clark Olofsson, a man with a long criminal history, be brought to the bank. The police allowed Olofsson to join his friend and together they held the four hostages captive in a bank vault for six days.”

Lloyd continues: “During their captivity, the hostages at times were attached to snare traps around their necks, likely to kill them in the event that the police attempted to storm the bank. The hostages grew increasingly afraid and hostile toward the authorities trying to win their release and even actively resisted various rescue attempts. Afterward, they refused to testify against their captors, and several continued to stay in contact with the hostage-takers, who were sent to prison. Their resistance to outside help and their loyalty toward their captors was puzzling, and psychologists began to study the phenomenon in this and other hostage situations. The expression of positive feelings toward the captor and negative feelings toward those on the outside trying to win their release became known as Stockholm syndrome.”

Similar to Stockholm Syndrome, it’s a condition that causes abuse victims to develop a psychological dependence on the narcissist as a survival strategy during abuse. Of course, this makes recovering from a toxic relationship significantly more difficult than it might otherwise be. While bonding is normal in healthy relationships, trauma bonding is a sort of toxic version of this that results in an abusive relationship – verbal, physical, or otherwise.

What does trauma bonding feel like?

Trauma bonding is the feeling of being addicted to a person. And it literally causes you to become almost physically addicted, due to the ongoing cycle of intermittent reinforcement. You are fighting a battle within yourself and it turns out that your own body is sort of against you on this one. The cognitive dissonance and the feeling of addiction are what lead us to stay with a narcissist in a toxic relationship even when we logically know better.

“Many survivors have such profound deficiencies in self-protection that they can barely imagine themselves in a position of agency or choice,” writes Judith Lewis Herman. “The idea of saying no to the emotional demands of a parent, spouse, lover, or authority figure may be practically inconceivable. Thus, it is not uncommon to find adult survivors who continue to minister to the needs of those who once abused them and who continue to permit major intrusions without boundaries or limits. Adult survivors may nurse their abusers in illness, defend them in adversity, and even, in extreme cases, continue to submit to their sexual demands.”

This video explains how trauma bonding directly affects our decision-making ability and why it causes it to feel so hard to let go and move forward from a toxic relationship.

“Their experiences led them to create assumptions about others and related beliefs about themselves such as ‘this is my lot in life’ and ‘this is what I deserve,'” writes Christine A. Courtois. “Some also learned that personal safety and happiness are of lower priority than survival and that it may be safer to give in than to actively fight off additional abuse and victimization. When abuse is perpetrated by intimates, it is additionally confounding in terms of attachment, betrayal, and trust. Victims may be unable to leave or to fight back due to strong, albeit insecure and disorganized, attachment and misplaced loyalty to abusers. They may have also experienced trauma bonding over the course of their victimization, that is, a bond of specialness with or dependence on the abuser.”

What is cognitive dissonance?

Cognitive dissonance is a form of psychological stress or discomfort that happens when you simultaneously hold two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values. Often affects narcissists as well as their victims at different times and for very different reasons. Are you struggling with cognitive dissonance during or after narcissistic abuse? Get your free cognitive dissonance toolkit right here.

This video offers an overview of cognitive dissonance as well as actionable and practical self-help tips for healing from cognitive dissonance.

How does trauma bonding affect your body and brain?

Is there such a thing as narcissistic abuse-induced trauma bonding? Yes. And, this is exactly why you might find it so difficult to get over a narcissist. It is like you are literally addicted to them! It might even be why haven’t already left the narcissist. When you’re in a relationship with a narcissist or sociopath, it often looks nearly perfect from the outside, especially to people who aren’t aware of the dynamics that happen behind closed doors.

And most likely, you don’t want anyone to know how ugly your relationship really is on the inside. Hint: think Stockholm Syndrome (aka trauma bonding) – codependency – and feeling stuck.

How can you manage and heal from trauma bonding?

It isn’t easy, but it’s totally possible to heal from trauma bonding – or at least to manage it into submission. In this article, my fellow QB coach Lise Colucci explains how self-care can help. Lise also runs a small group coaching program for healing from trauma bonding.

If you find yourself stuck in a toxic relationship, these practical steps will help you heal from a trauma bond and finally let go of the narcissist, once and for all. The heartbreak is painful, but the healing is real. We will discuss the psychology of a trauma bond and how to let go of the narcissist, plus PTSD and NPD, and how they work. Being trauma bonded to an abuser is being tied to something you know harms you yet still feeling unable to get away. The emotional ties alone are confusing and challenging. Here are a few ways to help you break those bonds too.

Trauma Bond Healing Tips from Dr. Robin Bryman

Do Your Research

Learn as much as you can about the narcissist and how they think differently than you do. This is critical in order for you to understand that you are not alone in this, that there are so many people that are impacted by narcissistic abuse.

Time (Limits) for Obsession

Try to structure your day. For instance, for each hour, give yourself ten minutes to “obsess” about your relationship with the narcissist. For the rest of the hour, focus on yourself, live in the present moment, and plan for your future. At this point, try not to focus on your past.

Get Help

Find a therapist or coach that understands trauma bonding or who has been through it themselves.

Get It Together

Start organizing your life. Start with finances, career, family, friends, home, etc. The toxic relationship you were in took so much of your energy and as a result, a lot has been neglected in your own life. You deserve to focus now on taking your energy back and building a beautiful life for yourself.

Choose Intentionally

Make a list of goals for yourself. They don’t have to be life goals. You can create a list of things you would like to do. When you’re having a hard, choose something to do from that list.

Get It Out of Your Head

Keep a journal. It doesn’t need to be organized. For instance, when you’re upset, you can just scribble, free associate, or write down whatever you would like. It doesn’t have to be neat.

 

Take the Trauma Bonding Test

Think you’re trauma bonded with a toxic narcissist, but still not sure? Try this test.

 

Our Recent Posts About Trauma Bonding

How to Heal from a Toxic Relationship

How to Heal from a Toxic Relationship

This healing guide offers not only solutions but also resources to help you learn not only how to heal from a toxic relationship, but why you were there in the first place. Plus, you’ll learn how you can level up your life after a toxic relationship and begin to evolve into the person you’ve always wanted to be.

Ignoring the Narcissist

Ignoring the Narcissist

How do you ignore a narcissist? Why is it so hard to ignore a narcissist? Here’s the truth about ignoring the narcissist, including everything you need to know. Why you should ignore a narcissist, when you should avoid ignoring the narcissist and more. Plus, tips, techniques and the psychology of ignoring a narcissist.

Contributors

  • Angela Atkinson is a certified trauma counselor and the author of more than 20 books on narcissism, narcissistic abuse recovery, and related topics. A recognized expert on narcissism and narcissistic personality disorder who has studied and written extensively on narcissistic personality disorder and narcissistic abuse in toxic relationships since 2006, she has a popular narcissistic abuse recovery YouTube channel. Atkinson was inspired to begin her work as a result of having survived toxic relationships of her own. Atkinson offers trauma-informed narcissistic abuse recovery coaching and has certifications in trauma counseling, life coaching, level 2 therapeutic model, CBT coaching, integrative wellness coaching, and NLP. She is a certified trauma support coach and certified family trauma professional. She also has a professional PTSD counseling certification. Her mission is to help those who have experienced the emotional and mental devastation that comes with narcissistic abuse in these incredibly toxic relationships to (re)discover their true selves, stop the gaslighting and manipulation, and move forward into their genuine desires – into a life that is exactly what they choose for themselves. Along with her solution-focused life coaching experience, Atkinson’s previous career in journalism and research helps her to offer both accurate and understandable information for survivors of abuse in a simple-to-understand way that helps to increase awareness in the narcissistic abuse recovery community. Atkinson founded QueenBeeing.com Narcissistic Abuse Recovery Support, the SPANily Narcissistic Abuse Recovery Support Groups and the Life Makeover Academy. She offers individual and group coaching for victims and survivors of narcissistic abuse here at QueenBeeing.com and at NarcissisticAbuseRecovery.Online.

  • Dr. Bryman is a Licensed Psychologist and the QueenBeeing.com psychology advisor and content partner. Dr. Bryman earned a Doctoral Degree in School Psychology from the City University of New York in 2002 and holds two Master’s Degrees in Counseling Psychology and Industrial Psychology from Teacher’s College, Columbia University, earned in 1990. Before that,she earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology from the State University of New York at Albany in 1988. Dr. Bryman has vast experience in the field of Psychology over the years. This includes an extensive research background involving children, adolescents, and parenting. In addition, she was an adjunct professor at Queens College, teaching both Undergraduate and Graduate students courses spanning from Psychology, Elementary, and Secondary Education. For over 18 years, Dr. Bryman has been in private practice specializing in children, adolescents, families, individual counseling, and marital counseling. Often treating anxiety and depression, as well as conducting play therapy and parenting training. In addition, she is a specialist in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Psychodynamic Therapy. Read more about Dr. Robin Bryman.

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