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An Expert Reveals the 6 Stages of Trauma Bonding with Narcissists

As a researcher specializing in narcissism and psychopathy, I even have noticed there are six common stages of trauma bonding that survivors of narcissists often undergo before they turn into sufficiently “hooked” into the toxic relationship cycle. A trauma bond is an inextricable bond we develop with abusers through an influence imbalance, intermittent reinforcement corresponding to hot-and-cold behavior, and the presence of danger and betrayal. Here are the six stages of trauma bonding you will have experienced:

Idealization: Love bombing and the soulmate effect manufactures dependency.

In the start of a relationship with a narcissist, you’re feeling completely enamored with them. They mirror your interests, hobbies, goals, mannerisms, and personality traits to get you to consider that you simply are their “soulmate.” They flatter and compliment you immensely. They may engage in grand romantic gestures, buy you gifts, take you on lavish vacations, or mention the promise of a shared future early on. This could be an especially powerful manipulation tool to make use of on someone who’s craving that sort of affection and a focus or has a void of their life they’re subconsciously attempting to fill (corresponding to a recent trauma). Many survivors at this early stage of trauma bonding noticed that narcissists fast-forwarded milestones of the connection by moving in together quickly, getting engaged, married, and having children. Even for many who followed a slower pace, they experienced excessive communication and phone from the narcissist that created a reliance on their approval and constant praise. Survivors at this stage may or may not notice a red flag or two that’s amiss, but they usually tend to rationalize it since the mask portrayed by the narcissist is convincing and compelling – and their “love” is all-consuming.

Cognitive Dissonance: Nitpicking, micro-betrayals, and toxic love triangles followed by gaslighting breeds self-doubt.

Once the honeymoon phase of the connection has compelled the survivor to speculate within the narcissist, the narcissist will begin “testing” their victims with negging comments and nitpicking that eventually escalates. They will subject you to micro-betrayals which have plausible deniability like taking a day to reply to a text once they would otherwise respond straight away, or making a cutting remark where they’d often praise you. This will cement a way of cognitive dissonance within the survivor who’s now experiencing the emotional whiplash of checking out cracks within the narcissist’s false mask. During this stage, the narcissist will begin to fabricate love triangles and induce jealousy in you by mentioning their ex or potential love interests. They will then gaslight you into believing you misunderstood them or that they didn’t do or say something they really did. They will observe your reactions and discover whether you might be willing to dismiss these incidents as they escalate, pushing your buttons further with comments or actions that turn into increasingly cruel and devaluing. They can begin these tests and micro-betrayals as early as the primary few dates but in an insidiously minor way that escapes your notice. In this phase of trauma bonding, such nitpicking and jealousy induction becomes more apparent. You may feel self-doubt and uncertainty as you start to walk on eggshells, wondering what you probably did improper and the way you may get back to the “honeymoon” phase of the connection. Unbeknownst to you, the narcissist follows this stage with every one among their victims and there isn’t much you may do to forestall them from breaking you down.

Intermittent reinforcement: Small acts of kindness and the mean-sweet cycle create a biochemical addiction to winning favor back with the narcissist.

As you turn into more submissive and compliant to the narcissist’s criticism otherwise you begin to fight back, the narcissist will deepen a pattern of intermittent reinforcement where they incorporate moments of affection bombing and “small acts of kindness” to get you psychologically and biochemically hooked on the cycle of their mistreatment. They might offer you a seemingly sincere apology after a very harsh argument they instigated or turn into suddenly affectionate toward you after scary you and manufacturing chaos and crazymaking. These “small acts of kindness” turn into magnified and also you develop a heightened sense of gratitude for any positive actions the narcissist takes toward you because they have gotten increasingly rare. Much like a captor might “reward” a prisoner with food or the absence of physical punishment, you might be taught that you need to be “grateful” for the flexibility to survive in any respect – and gratitude acts as a survival mechanism, alerting you to resources that keep you alive. This is analogous to how a victim in a psychologically abusive relationship finds ways to address the cruelty of a partner by remembering positive moments or feeling struck by “abuse amnesia,” gaps in memory that could cause you to gloss over the abusive incidents so that you stay focused on survival. Dopamine is a serious player in creating this type of addiction because it flows more readily within the brain when the “rewards” are unpredictable and random – you have got no way of knowing when the narcissist will likely be kind or cruel next, but you strengthen your efforts to please them and bend over backwards to fulfill their needs.

Devaluation: Hypercriticism and isolation paired with hurt-and-rescue methods strengthens the trauma bond.

This is the stage of the trauma bond that could be especially excruciating for survivors to endure. Devaluation sets in and becomes probably the most dominant pattern of the connection – acts of affection bombing and healthy affection and a focus turn into scarce as hypercriticism, stonewalling, constant comparisons to others, or silent treatments are the more distinguished modes of “communication” the narcissist uses. The narcissist isolates you from family and friends (or ridicules their positive feedback and spreads false rumors to pit you against each other so you’re feeling isolated) and makes you suspect they are the one ones to be trusted. “No one else” understands your “special” relationship and everyone seems to be just “misunderstanding” the narcissist’s behavior – at the very least, that’s what they’ll try to coach you to consider. Due to the trauma of the connection and misplaced sense of self-blame, you could withdraw out of your usual activities and social life as self-isolation becomes the norm. During this stage, narcissists use their absence to make you long for his or her validation and use their presence to comfort you after incidents of abuse they instigated. For example, they could call you names, only to appease you as you cry; this conditions you to hunt down their comfort after their transgressions. These hurt-and-rescue methods appear blatantly unsettling to outsiders, but if you find yourself inside the toxic relationship cycle, it’s difficult to extricate yourself since you turn into overly depending on the abuser and their perspectives. 

Identity erosion: Distortion and enmeshment with the abuser makes you lose a way of self.

The narcissist’s manipulation tactics are designed to disorient you and be sure that you lose your sense of self and self-esteem. They present you with a false image of your identity that you simply begin to internalize. Where when you were positive, cheerful, talented, and upbeat, you at the moment are convinced by the narcissist that you simply are negative, bitter, and worthless through the funhouse mirror of distortions they set in front of you. These are the lies, false accusations, and projections they feed you so that you now not fight back against their abuse and so that they can have more control over you and your psyche. You turn into “enmeshed” with the identity and beliefs of the abuser while foregoing facets of your individual identity. You can also react in ways which can be out of character for you with a purpose to attempt to regain a way of control in the connection – corresponding to finally raging back on the narcissist once they’ve attacked you chronically, snooping through their phone or combing through their social media once they keep dropping hints of betrayals, or comparing yourself to others you’d never have dreamed of “competing” with before resulting from constant jealousy induction that leaves you on edge. This is just like the “reversal” of the love bombing stage – whereas before the narcissist mirrored you, now you might be forced to turn into more like them or who they want you to be with a purpose to survive the trauma of the connection. Before, your energy was vigorous and vibrant while the narcissist was depending on you for fuel; now your whole psyche is deflated and you might be depending on them for emotional sustenance while they seem energetic, having been “fed well” by your energy. Instead of nourishment, they offer you more punishment.

Dangerous adaptation and learned helplessness: Continual sacrifices and post-traumatic symptoms keep you “stuck” in the connection, protecting or defending the abuser and rationalizing their behavior, and returning to your abuser.

This is frequently the ultimate stage of trauma bonding before steps are made toward healing. At this stage, there have been immense sacrifices of your time, energy, labor, and resources made in the connection that could be hard to walk away from. This investment could be difficult for everybody in a trauma bond, but having children or shared funds with the narcissist presents additional obstacles. The “sunk cost fallacy” leads you to consider that each one the harm and trauma in the connection represents the indisputable fact that it is a relationship value continuing because subconsciously you’re feeling the necessity to justify your investment. You begin to heavily sabotage yourself and self-destruct since you begin to consider within the lies the narcissist has fed you about your worthiness and lovability. You may even defend or protect the abuser to family members who express concern on your well-being. You might fear retaliation due to threats the narcissist has made or any information the narcissist could use against you. You may return to the narcissist several times even before you permit for good. Since trauma has also burdened you with symptoms like fatigue, brain fog, hypervigilance, irritability, anxiety, and depression, and constant exhaustion, it feels easier to remain in the connection to attempt to make it work reasonably than taking the seemingly not possible steps to go away. You battle learned hopelessness and helplessness. Your patterns of behaving and existing revolve across the narcissist and easy methods to address the connection reasonably than breaking ties. Often step one of healing is recognizing and identifying these trauma bonds so you may understand that your seeming addiction to the narcissist has little to do with the merit of the connection. On the contrary, it is a relationship sustained by trauma and mistreatment. You should heal and free yourself.

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