Trauma Bonds and Intermittent Reinforcement

Written by Lise Colucci

Ever wonder why you are so easily manipulated by a narcissist? Why you can never seem to break free from their toxic influence? And why it’s so hard to move on?

Narcissistic abusers are often pathological and subject to mood swings, where they can go from being very nice, charming, and giving to people who outright manipulate, demean and devalue you at the flick of a switch.

This is because narcissists have no emotional or compassionate empathy. In other words, they feel no remorse or guilt for their actions and truly believe they deserve only the best treatment from others.

Understanding the concept of intermittent reinforcement is an important step towards freedom. Why? Because it’s exactly what’s keeping you stuck in the trauma bond with the narcissist. 

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 they want 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 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.

 

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.

This is how they take control of you. 

Narcissists use intermittent reinforcement to get you addicted to them, whether they realize it or not. This is, in essence, the very nature of trauma bonding.

When you experience trauma bonding as a result of 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 – to make you feel confused, afraid, and unable to trust your own perception. 

This way, keeping you under their control is much easier. 

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? 

This is one reason it is hard to leave and let go of a narcissist.  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, as a result, from the narcissist. 

Understanding what you are experiencing can hopefully remove some of the confusion, fear, or anxiety involved with dealing with and ending a toxic relationship with an abusive narcissist. This will clear your head, so you can begin healing.

Do you have trauma bonds with a narcissist?

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.

Get Support in Healing From Trauma Bonds via Zoom

Other Ways to Get Help With Your Narcissistic Abuse Recovery

Contributors

  • 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.

  • 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.

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