Is it love … or psychological abuse?
The more you learn about people with narcissistic personality traits, the easier it is to see why so many of us fall in love with the charming and magnetic, yet highly toxic people who possess them, especially when they’ve aimed their razor-focused attention directly at ensnaring you into their trap.
Sadly, by the time you figure out just how toxic the narcissist you’re dating is, it’s highly likely they’ve manipulated you into having intense feelings for them, as well as into feeling emotionally stuck, as though you simply cannot break free.
That feeling isn’t your fault. It’s the direct result of a process known as trauma bonding, and understanding this is a crucial step toward setting yourself free.
What is trauma bonding?
Trauma bonding is the phenomenon that “occurs as the result of ongoing cycles of abuse in which the intermittent reinforcement of reward and punishment creates powerful emotional bonds that are resistant to change.”
It is characterized by strong emotional ties that develop between two people when one of them is intermittently cruel, threatening or intimidating, while at other times treating their partner like 24 karat gold.
Trauma bonding develops over the course of this two-step process:
Step 1: Love Bombing
“Love bombing” is the practice of attempting to accelerate feelings of romantic love by using a number of behavioral tactics to overwhelm the target with displays of intense adoration and attraction.
At this stage, you’ll hear them saying things like:
- “You’re the perfect person for me.”
- “Nobody has ever understood me like you do.”
- “We are soulmates. I know it.”
- “You’re so beautiful, funny, and brilliant.”
Narcissists and social predators are always on the lookout for someone to manipulate, and these flattering compliments, excessive praise, gifts, and loving and doting texts are all part of their love bombing strategy. These techniques increase in frequency and fervor in order to create that highly addictive feeling of infatuation, which can result in disturbing levels of devotion and adoration to the narcissist.
What makes it even more unsettling is that as you spend more time with the narcissist, you spend less time with others, which serves to keep you isolated, enhancing their ability to indoctrinate you into their version of reality.
Step 2: Cruelty
This step is where the narcissist gets downright mean.
You’re likely to hear them say thing like:
- “You’re being ridiculous.”
- “You’re never here for me. My other girlfriends didn’t treat me like this.”
- “Why are you always such a brat?”
- “Good luck trying to find someone as good as me.”
Combined with the intermittent reinforcement of love-bombing behaviors, this up and down rhythm causes a psychological “addiction” to the unpredictable cycle of abuse.
While it may seem obvious to an outsider that these behaviors are relationship deal-breakers, but it’s rarely that straightforward. Due to the cunning and highly manipulative nature of narcissistic abuse, they are able to spin the truth so that you feel confused and unsure of yourself.
It’s critical to understand that trauma bonding affects the neurochemistry of your brain.
The powerful hormones adrenaline, oxytocin, serotonin, dopamine, and cortisol all get involved, creating a powerful biochemical reaction in the brain, which continues fluctuating wildly through each phase of abuse.
The initial high you experience when falling in love creates a dizzying, euphoric state in the brain, setting the bar in the relationship. Afterward, you may feel a constant need to reach those same levels of intense exhilaration — over and over again.
Harsh, insensitive behavior is followed by “hearts and flowers” to keep you unsettled, confused and off-balance. Your toxic partner attempts to make up for their poor behavior by sucking up, pleading forgiveness and showering you with affection, fancy meals and gifts as a way to prove how truly sorry they are.
However, this is usually short-lived, as toxic personalities can rarely maintain this behavior for very long. Soon, you come to realize that it is an emotionally abusive cycle, and you are spinning right in the middle of it.
Helplessness and hopelessness often follow, and you feel unable to escape this unsafe and emotionally abusive relationship.
This results in feelings of cognitive dissonance, where you have contradictory thoughts and feelings about the abusive person, i.e., who you want to believe they are versus who they truly are. Your version of reality and the actual truth stand in total opposition to one another, leading you to feel disoriented, as though you are looking at the world through a veil to protect yourself from the reality.
You may then become increasingly ashamed of your situation and choose to further isolate yourself from others, no longer able to receive their support, as it only deepens your shame.
Oddly, you may also find yourself identifying with your abusive partner.
The human mind has powerful survival instincts and, by identifying with an abuser, the ego protects itself. When a victim holds the same beliefs and values as the abuser, the abuser feels like less of a threat.
What a scary thought!
All of these things play a part in preventing you from finding the internal and external resources necessary to leave the relationship. You may also be tethered to your abuser by money, children or fear of being subjected to a smear campaign, all of which are valid and understandable concerns.
If you want to free yourself from an emotionally abusive relationship, there are two things you must do in order to break the manipulative trance of trauma bonding.
It’s imperative to detach from the toxic person for a period of time in order to fully see the destruction they have caused in your life.
The cycle of trauma bonding has to be halted through a period of “detox”, during which you have no contact with your narcissistic partner.
2. Forgive yourself
You must forgive yourself in order to move forward in your healing journey.
This means letting go of self-critical thoughts about why you didn’t leave or see the truth sooner, and why you didn’t do a better job of protecting yourself.
You will undoubtedly struggle with these thoughts, but please know it is critical for you to come to the point of self-forgiveness and self-compassion.
You didn’t know then what you know now. You did the best you could with the knowledge you had at the time.
You’ve been told you were nuts, losing your mind, and behaving ridiculously. You’ve been told your version of events is untrue and that your reality is false. You’ve been told you have a mental disorder and that your emotional reactions were overblown.
You’re not crazy; this is psychological abuse.
The truth is that you are reacting normally to an abnormal situation.
Anybody who is mistreated, demeaned and abused will lose patience, have emotional reactions, and stand up for themselves.
Abusers will use anything and everything they can against you, including using your perfectly normal reactions as evidence that you are the problem, not them.
The moment they realize you see them for what they are, they feel threatened. To combat this, they up the ante with all of their manipulation techniques and abuse in an effort to keep you under their thumb.
The toxic person needs to hurt others in order to feel significant — to control, demean, humiliate, and hurt you, when all you wanted was to be loving and caring, and to receive the same in return.
But you are healthy and normal.
The more you are aware of the process of trauma bonding, the more quickly you can identify it in your own relationship and avoid falling into another narcissist’s trap.