Have you ever been in a relationship where you felt like you couldn’t leave, even though you knew it wasn’t good for you?
Maybe you’ve been with someone manipulative, abusive, or just plain toxic, yet you keep returning. If this sounds familiar, you may be trauma bonded.
We’ll explore what a trauma bond with a narcissist looks like, break down the signs, and provide tips for breaking free.
- What Is a Trauma Bond?
- What Does a Trauma Bond With a Narcissist Look Like?
- 1. You feel stuck in the relationship.
- 2. You believe that deep down, your partner is a good person.
- 3. You constantly walk on eggshells around them.
- 4. You live inside your head.
- 5. You put a lot into the relationship but get little in return.
- 6. You are overly appreciative of small gestures from your partner.
- 7. You feel addicted to your partner.
- 8. You’ve lost yourself.
- 9. Your world is small.
- Long-Term Effects of Trauma-Bonded Relationships
- What Draws Narcissists To Trauma-Bonded Relationships?
- Do Narcissists Know They Are Creating a Trauma Bond With Their Partners?
- Do Narcissists Feel The Trauma Bond?
- How Do I End a Trauma Bond With My Narcissistic Partner?
What Is a Trauma Bond?
A trauma bond is when an individual becomes emotionally attached to someone who has caused them pain.
It can happen in any type of relationship, but is often seen in relationships with narcissists.
Trauma bonds are characterized by intermittent reinforcement, where the narcissist will give just enough positive attention to keep their partner hooked.
They occur gradually over the course of seven stages that keep the victim in an endless cycle of manipulation and abuse.
What Does a Trauma Bond With a Narcissist Look Like?
At their core, trauma bonds with narcissists are rife with psychological manipulation, codependent habits, guilt, and shame. If you think you might be in this type of relationship, look out for the following signs:
1. You feel stuck in the relationship.
You know, logically, that your relationship is unhealthy, but you still can’t leave.
If any of your friends were in this relationship, you would beg them to leave and never look back, yet here you are, unable to escape.
2. You believe that deep down, your partner is a good person.
Despite all evidence to the contrary, you still cling to the idea that your partner is a good person with good intentions. It’s how you rationalize staying with them.
No matter how often they lie, cheat, and make you feel small, you cling to an idealized image of your partner or make excuses for them.
“They grew up in an abusive household, so they sometimes act this way. But deep down, they’re a good person.”
You cling to this fantasy of one day freeing the good part of your partner and vanquishing, once and for all, the bad parts that do and say horrible things.
But this is fiction.
Another name for this aspect of trauma bonding is Stockholm Syndrome. For a quick, comprehensive take, watch this:
3. You constantly walk on eggshells around them.
Your narcissistic partner is volatile, and you’re terrified of upsetting them. They’ve convinced you that your behavior is to blame, so you spend the bulk of your time figuring out how to change, so you no longer provoke them.
4. You live inside your head.
Being in a trauma bond with a narcissist often looks like playing defense against a barrage of psychological games. So you retreat inwards, overanalyzing and dissecting conversations, arguments, and situations in the hope that you can crack the code and make your partner happy.
5. You put a lot into the relationship but get little in return.
This is a classic indicator of codependency.
One partner constantly gives while the other takes. In this instance, you are the giver, pouring an endless supply of love, understanding, and support into your partner. In return, you get drama, suffering, and punishment.
Occasionally they reciprocate your affection. They have to, or you’ll become fed up and leave. But on the whole, they get significantly more than they give.
The real kicker? Despite the imbalance, you’re actually grateful for their emotional scraps.
6. You are overly appreciative of small gestures from your partner.
If you are all too happy to accept the bare minimum from your partner while simultaneously bending over backward to make them happy, you may be in a trauma-bonded relationship.
Despite knowing better, you feel grateful and relieved at the slightest gesture from your partner. You’re so desperate for an act of kindness from them that you’ll accept almost anything.
This is connected to the way narcissistic partners devalue us. They make us feel like we don’t deserve anything, so when they do throw us a bone, we’re thrilled to receive it.
7. You feel addicted to your partner.
Trauma bonds with narcissists feel addictive. Relationship coach Lisa Romano talks about the high highs and low lows of a trauma-bonded relationship that keep us stuck in the abusive cycle.
The explosive lows of your relationship are terrifying, and your partner has psychologically manipulated you into believing they’re entirely your fault. And yet, your partner is the only person who can make you feel better. They become your source of pain and comfort.
You hate to feel like this and wish your relationship was better, but you can’t leave. You crave your partner’s affection and validation above all else.
For more insights from Lisa on why you struggle to leave your narcissistic partner, I highly recommend this video:
8. You’ve lost yourself.
Sometimes, a trauma bond with a narcissist makes you unrecognizable to yourself. You spend so much time trying to accommodate and please your partner that you no longer know who you are.
Your sense of self has been buried under the weight of this relationship. On top of that, your partner has convinced you not to trust your own thoughts or instincts, gaslighting you into believing you aren’t valuable.
Do you have interests outside of your relationship? Hobbies or personal pursuits that excite you? Many people in trauma-bonded relationships don’t, which makes leaving even harder.
They become so psychologically addicted to pleasing their partners that it becomes their primary focus in life.
9. Your world is small.
Abusive partners in trauma-bonded relationships like to isolate their victims. It makes controlling their partners easier.
Have you become increasingly distant from friends and family throughout your relationship? Does your world revolve around your partner?
This is another sign.
Long-Term Effects of Trauma-Bonded Relationships
Emotional stress can wreak havoc on our health. Because these relationships are fundamentally stressful, victims often suffer a wide range of psychological and physical effects, such as:
- Panic Attacks
- Obsessive thoughts
- Compulsive behavior
- Addiction and Alcoholism
The damage from trauma bonds can be life-altering which is why it’s so important for victims to leave their abusive partners and get help.
We’ll discuss how in a minute.
If you’re interested in exploring the signs and lasting impact of trauma bonds with narcissists further, here’s another good resource:
What Draws Narcissists To Trauma-Bonded Relationships?
Narcissists are drawn to trauma-bonded relationships because they like to have the ability to control their partners.
It’s not uncommon for narcissists to be attracted to people who have experienced traumatic events in their past because they know that these people are more susceptible to trauma bonds.
Even if they’ve never heard of a trauma bond, they are innately driven towards relationships that fit the definition.
But how do they do it? How do they hook their partners?
As previously mentioned, one of the most common signs you’re in a trauma-bonded relationship is feeling like you can’t leave, no matter how much you want to.
This is because the narcissist has been using intermittent reinforcement on you – giving you just enough love and attention to keep you hooked but never enough to satisfy your needs.
Think of it like a slot machine at a casino: you play, and play, and play and continue to lose. Just before you give up, you win, big! This inconsistent high of finally receiving what you want keeps you coming back for more.
Narcissists use gaslighting to get their partners psychologically dependent on them. Gaslighting occurs when your abuser (the narcissist) causes you to question your own reality. This can be done through denial, false accusations, distortion of events, or lying.
Eventually, victims will buy into the narrative that they are the problem, not the narcissistic partner.
The more a narcissist can convince you that your memory of events is wrong and your feelings are unfounded, the more you will rely on them to interpret reality.
It sounds farfetched from the outside, but anyone in this situation knows how maddening it feels.
Another method used by narcissists in trauma-bonded relationships is devaluation. Once an abuser has hooked their victim through the honeymoon stage and excessive love bombing they pull away.
This can be sudden, but in most cases, it happens slowly, beginning with critical comments or downright degrading behavior.
This is when those explosive lows start to occur. A narcissist will push their partner very close to the edge, but the minute they sense distance or pulling back, they will start love bombing again.
In trauma-bonded relationships, the abused partner becomes so addicted to the intermittent reinforcement that it traps them.
They tolerate longer stretches of bad behavior in hopes of getting back to that love-bombing phase, which their partner will only give to them in spurts, usually when they sense their partner detaching.
Access should not be a barrier to help.
Do Narcissists Know They Are Creating a Trauma Bond With Their Partners?
A hot take, indeed. Are narcissists aware of what they’re doing?
There’s a great deal of speculation on this topic, and much has been left to debate.
On one hand, some narcissists are very aware of the effect they have on people and often use it to their advantage.
They know that by intermittently reinforcing their partner, they will keep them hooked on the hope that things will improve. This allows the narcissist to maintain power and control over their partner.
In other cases, the narcissist may truly believe that they are helping their partner and may be surprised when their partner tries to leave.
This is because many diagnosed narcissists have a hyper-inflated sense of importance and deeply believe they’re better than everyone else. In their eyes, they’re simply doing what they feel is necessary, no matter the cost.
Whether your partner is intentionally doing this is irrelevant. The unintentional narcissist is still dangerous.
Do Narcissists Feel The Trauma Bond?
A misconception regarding narcissists is that all people with this personality disorder are evil or malicious. While rare, people with narcissistic personality disorder can, in fact, show emotion.
However, the suffering within a trauma bond is typically one-sided. Unfortunately, most narcissists that engage in trauma bonds cannot feel empathy. At the very least, they don’t feel empathy like a neurotypical person does.
How Do I End a Trauma Bond With My Narcissistic Partner?
If you’re ready to end your toxic relationship with your narcissistic partner, there are some steps you can take to make it happen:
1) Reach out to friends or family for support: Even if you’ve become isolated or estranged, reach out to your loved ones. Let them help you.
2) Talk to a therapist about what you’re going through: They can help provide guidance and support as you navigate this difficult time.
3) Make a safety plan: This includes things like having an emergency contact list and knowing where you will go if you need to leave quickly.
4) Create healthy coping mechanisms for yourself: Prioritize your self-care. Sign up for therapy and/or group sessions. Treat yourself well, eat healthy food, exercise, and give yourself space to heal. This is an oversimplification, of course. Your road to recovery is just starting, but you have to begin.
5) Reach out to national helplines like The National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or The National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673: They can provide additional support and resources.
6) Know that it’s not your fault: Despite what your partner taught you, none of this is your fault. You didn’t cause their abusive behavior. Don’t spend time beating yourself up over this relationship. In the months ahead, you’ll have a lot of work to do around trusting and loving yourself. This is step one.