Trauma Bonds and Intermittent Reinforcement

Written by Lise Colucci

How does intermittent reinforcement create trauma bonds?

Trauma bonding is a coping mechanism. It’s also a survival instinct. Most people who have narcissistic parents experience something called intermittent reinforcement. Before we get into how trauma bonding is caused by intermittent reinforcement, let’s talk about what each of these terms means in detail. 

What is trauma bonding?

Trauma bonding as a coping mechanism is 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 is intermittent reinforcement?

Intermittent reinforcement can be defined as positive (reinforcing) behaviors from the narcissist from time to time, leaving you in a continuous cycle of trying to de-code what it is that they want in order to keep getting the good treatment. Setbacks or negative behaviors follow after periods where the waves of good treatment come, which keeps you hooked on trying to figure out how to please the abuser and get back into their good graces once again.

How does intermittent reinforcement lead to trauma bonding?

In layman’s terms, intermittent reinforcement is this on and off giving affection unpredictably that almost every narcissist does. This really does a trick on your brain! It’s what creates trauma bonding. 

That’s because, when you are trauma bonded from intermittent reinforcement, it’s the intermittent reinforcement it keeps you trapped in the cycle of narcissistic abuse. Tiny bits of affection may now be all it takes to keep YOU addicted to the narcissist. 

This could even be why you can’t leave a relationship or feel the strong urge to reach out to the narcissist once you are doing no contact. The breadcrumbing in narcissistic relationships sets you up for the foundation of trauma bonding.

Another problem is this intermittent reinforcement could be the reason you think things will change, setting you up for cognitive dissonance.

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. As you might expect, it often affects narcissists as well as their victims at different times and for very different reasons.

In the case of trauma bonding and intermittent reinforcement, it leads to you not trusting yourself – and sometimes not even knowing what you feel or think. Of course, this is the narcissist’s goal all along. They use trauma bonding and intermittent reinforcement to get you addicted to them, whether they realize it or not. By doing so, they also find it much easier to keep you under their control. 

Check out the video below for more about the narcissist, intermittent reinforcement, and how it affects you. 

Are you dealing with trauma bonding in a toxic relationship? 

If you aren’t sure, try our trauma bonding self-assessment. And remember: trauma bonding is a real experience created by narcissistic abuse – and it is challenging to struggle through. Understanding what you are experiencing can hopefully take some of the confusion, fear, or anxiety out of it so you can begin healing. This is one reason it is hard to leave and let go of a narcissist.  I know that when you have been affected by narcissist abuse and are trauma bonded there is a lot going on but know that bit by bit you can free yourself from the trauma bonds and the narcissist. 

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Author

  • Lise Colucci is an intuitive healer and certified life coach, as well as a certified narcissistic abuse recovery coach. She is a long-time admin and mentor for the SPAN Narcissistic Abuse Recovery Group, actively helping survivors of narcissistic abuse in the expansive community to learn and heal.

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