What is the trauma bond and how to break free
Let me ask you something.
When you met your narcissist partner, did you feel like you finally met the one perfect person for you?
Did you feel a connection so strong that you thought this person is the one you’ve been looking for your whole life?
You were sure Allah (swt) created them exactly for you and brought them to you?
But then something changed.
It might have been a few months later or perhaps a year or two after you got married. But you started to see a side of them you had never seen before, almost like a different person.
It got worse and they started to treat you badly. The abuse started. Hot and cold behaviour. Emotional and psychological torment.
And yet you would make excuses for them. You thought if you changed this and changed that, it would get better. That it would go back to how it was before?
Unfortunately, this is part of the soul-destroying cycle of hell that comes with being in a relationship with a narcissist.
In order to break the trauma bond and truly be free, let’s first understand what the trauma bond is and how it happened in the different emotional stages in a relationship with a narcissist.
what is the trauma bond?
It’s the bond and connection that occurs in a toxic relationship between yourself and your abuser.
In this case, we are specifically talking about someone with Narcissistic Personality Disorder. However, there are other personalities that it could occur with, such as borderline personality disorder or somebody with some level of psychopathy.
It's important to note that a trauma bond can happen with someone you’re married to, dating, only got as far as the ‘talking stage’ or perhaps someone you met online and didn’t even meet in person! I’ve seen it happen in all these cases.
The point is, it’s created when you feel like you have connected to this person emotionally and what happens during the relationship is you go through a psychological and even biological journey too.
The nature of a relationship with an abuser like a narcissist is the fluctuating hot and cold behaviour, the extreme highs and lows of both love and care and then intense emotional abuse.
If we break down the stages of this kind of relationship, you’ll get a much clearer picture.
It all begins when you first meet. They seem absolutely incredible, so different to all the others you’ve met before.
He’s attentive, he’s not afraid to say what he thinks and feels, he wants to talk to you all the time, call you, text you.
He wants to meet your family and so you know he’s serious, and honestly you respect it. He might even express how he wants to ‘do this right’ and ‘get family involved early’ so it’s in alignment with Islamic principles.
It seems he isn’t afraid of commitment like the other guys have been. You’re being listened to in a way you never have before. It feels like you’ve found the person you’ve been looking for your whole life.
For some, it may not start quite like this fairy-tale but instead, they still follow similar patterns.
They bombard you, they are always around, they just had to have you and all of this felt like validation and a source of love and attention that you’ve been craving (perhaps it’s a love you’ve been lacking in your life in other ways?).
Now let’s get something clear here, it’s only natural that you would connect with someone like this.
And if this person was healthy, you would be developing the same feelings, connection and a level of attachment or wanting them in your life.
But with a narcissist, at this early point, it’s like you reach that emotional attachment much faster and possibly stronger. This is the love-bombing phase when the narcissist really draws you in and consumes you with love and attention.
Stage 1 Key Point: This is the Love-Bombing phase - overwhelmed and consumed by their attention. It can occur where we may have lacked self-love or let go of it and so we later depend on their validation and love.
At this stage, we really start to trust them, want them in our lives and start to depend on them, particularly for our sense of self-worth and that love and validation.
It feels really good when we receive all of this from them.
But there is also a very slight shift that occurs here that we don’t notice at all because it is so subtle. There starts to be a slight change of attitude and an indifference to you whenever you’re doing something unrelated to them. When you’re doing your own thing.
There is no emotional response, it’s empty and bland.
But then when you do something nice for them and they have received your attention, then they shower you with love.
This is how they teach you what behaviour they want and expect from you and will reward you for. If you ever learnt about Pavlov’s experiment in Psychology then you’ll know what I mean.
So this conditions you to please them and want to please them because of how it feels to you when you do so.
Stage 2 Key Point: Shift in emotional response, initial conditioning stage.
Here the ratio between positive and negative moments in your relationship tips heavier on the negative. There are fewer loving and caring moments and it slowly starts to diminish and you don’t know why.
In fact, it’s still quite subtle so you can’t pinpoint exactly when it changed or how it changed.
But you have now noticed a side to them you hadn’t seen before and you think to yourself:
“Where did this come from?
"Why isn’t the relationship like it was at the beginning?
They become more demanding of you and at the same time, they give you less and less.
You may also start to notice some very difficult situations where they blame shift, criticise you and devalue you.
Stage 3 Key Point: Devaluing stage
By this stage, it is clear there is something not right about this relationship.
You bring it up to them innocently, genuinely wanting to find out what has changed and what’s going on, so that you can both fix it.
But this is when you’re met with our narcissist’s favourite tool – gaslighting.
They tell you things like:
“you’re the one who’s changed.”
“you’re not prioritising me"
“you’re spending too much time with your family”
“you aren’t doing enough”
“if you hadn’t done this and that, then things wouldn’t have changed”
They’ll tell you sob stories of how you aren’t trusting them enough, and they’ve put themselves out there with you and you aren’t reciprocating, you aren’t appreciating them and accuse you of not loving them.
What this does is gets you to believe you really are at fault and that you need to do more for them to show your love and appreciation.
So you start making changes, you think about what you can do to please them. You put your own feelings on the backburner, you dial them down so as not to upset them or anger them.
But nothing you do makes any difference at all.
Stage 4 Key Point: Gaslighting – altering your perception of reality and creating immense self-doubt within you in order to exploit and abuse you further.
Due to all the gaslighting, you feel confused and you start to doubt yourself.
And at this point, remember, you already trust them, you already love them and care about them, you remember how they treated you at the beginning so the idea that this person has bad intentions toward you and is doing you wrong is a tough pill to swallow.
You just can’t think it to be true so you begin to believe what they’re saying.
You try harder to please them. You’re the only one giving. You hide your likes, your feelings, even talking to your family less, you’re doing whatever they want no matter what it does to you.
You stop thinking for yourself, you actually believe that the best way to make this relationship great is to behave exactly as they want and not to steer even a tiny bit from it at all for fear of the consequences.
Stage 5 Key Point: The controlling stage: all your actions, thoughts, feelings, decisions are manipulated and altered to suit the narcissist.
Now you’ve changed yourself to be what they want, to serve them and please them and follow all of their rules and this becomes your purpose.
You wake up and everything is about them, your thoughts, your feelings, your actions your decisions in your own life, who you talk to, what you do with your time, where you go, even what you post on social media.
You always think of them first, how they are going to react and feel about things first. You don’t want anything you do to upset them or make them angry with you.
You would think by doing all this, that things would get better right?
But instead it gets worse.
The abuse is worse, the devaluing gets worse, the way they treat you, lie to you, humiliate you, criticise you, hurt you.
When you try to point it out to them, you get blamed and you believe it.
Trying to get them to see what they’re doing becomes impossible and in fact their reaction hurts you so much more so you decide to stop.
You stop defending yourself, you don’t speak up for yourself anymore, and most of the time you believe perhaps that you deserve the treatment because you aren’t good enough.
So you don’t do anything that would rock the boat. You do everything to keep the peace. But you’re left confused, hurt, full of anxiety and soul-destroyed.
Stage 6 Key Point: Loss of self: after all the control, you have changed parts of yourself to accommodate them, you lose touch with your own feelings and thoughts and morph into somebody you don’t recognise anymore while also losing joy in life and the things you once used to enjoy.
The final stage that consolidates the trauma bond is that you are now addicted to this cycle of abuse.
You begin to crave the very few moments of good treatment you may receive from your narcissist.
So you stick around all the bad for that one little fix that makes you feel good. All for a miniscule moment that alleviates your anxiety.
Biologically-speaking, that droplet of dopamine your brain releases in these moments makes you feel so good that you desperately seek this and so you stay attached and bonded to a narcissist who abuses you for their own gain while in reality you’re being crushed.
Your well-being is being destroyed as you work yourself to the bone, emotionally, mentally and physically to serve them.
Stage 7 Key Point: Addiction and the cycle of abuse continues.
Understanding the Neurochemistry involved during relationships and in the Trauma Bond
To take your understanding to another deeper level, let's also briefly touch upon the physiological sense of this trauma bond.
During the bonding stage – something called oxytocin is being released. It’s often called the love hormone because it comes out to play when you have an amazing conversation with someone, connecting with someone in a way that’s meaningful to you, cuddling or getting intimate with someone, even playing with a cute dog, among many other things.
It’s a normal reaction to have when connecting with someone, but dangerous when it’s with someone who is abusive.
Later, natural opioids (you may otherwise know opioids as drugs that kill pain!) are released in the pleasure points during the cycle of abuse, again strengthening a bond to this person, but also during the painful times and when becoming dependent.
When you experience withdrawal from your narcissist, your body releases corticotropin releasing factor, which is a hormone heavily involved in our stress response.
And these strong chemicals in your body go haywire and are out of control in a toxic relationship like one with a narcissist.
Why it's hard to leave or break the bond
We are complex beings and are made of up of so many things: the soul Allah (swt) breathed into us, our central heart that guides us and sees the invisible, our mind with all our thoughts and our bodies that move in accordance with all of these components.
They each play a part in every moment of our lives, they are intertwined with each other and so these potent neurochemical signals in our body influence us too.
They can make it difficult to think logically or even listen to our gut and our emotions that are trying to protect us and keep us safe in danger. And a toxic, abusive relationship is certainly a dangerous situation to be in.
We may even begin to believe that it would be more painful to leave the narcissist than to stay and endure abuse.
This is why it’s difficult to leave, it’s why you’re always back and forth in your mind and trying to justify it. Make excuses for them. It’s why you defend them, it’s why you hang onto how they used to be at the start of your relationship, that wonderful version of them which really wasn’t ever real.
As much as it hurts to read all this, I hope that it does one thing – confirms exactly what you experienced.
If it does then you needed to read this, you needed to hear it. What you felt in your relationship was real. You didn’t make it up, you didn’t exaggerate either.
And while the narcissist may continue to deny your experience, you must know that you don’t need them to.
You know what happened and you must validate yourself.
Now that you know how it happened and how you are trauma bonded, we can work out ways to break this bond for good.
4 ways to break the trauma bond
1. Go No-Contact
This is the literal sense of cutting the bond.
It’s the step I always talk about as one of the first things to do to break out of abuse because we have to stop the cycle that goes from craving them and hoping for a narcissist to treat us well but still being abused.
The withdrawal may be a painful process but it must come from the knowledge that it is not sustainable long-term. It must come from understanding the very true but harsh fact that they will never change and so logically you cannot keep living this way.
You may go through phases where you think you have made a mistake, or that maybe ‘it wasn’t as bad as you made it out to be’ or that you miss them but no matter what – the decision to go No-Contact must be kept.
That temporary high is not worth it. And more often than not, when you do contact them again you are abused once more (or multiple times).
With time, you’ll learn to be okay with being alone and this will be the true start to your healing!
2. Validation and Understanding
As already mentioned, you now know what your toxic relationship was all about and you’ve got to give yourself validation and stop doubting or playing down what happened to you.
It was a traumatic experience, and it’s not to taken lightly at all as the effects and consequences of relationships like this can be very serious and life-long. Healing will take effort but it is definitely possible when you understand first the details of your abuse and how it happened.
So learn, learn, learn. Understand the nature of abuse and the abuser, the red flags, the tactics and behaviours they used in your relationship to manipulate you and control you and all the other things they did. You can download free checklists straight to your email here.
When you understand this, not only can you begin to process your emotions and start your healing journey but you can prevent abuse from happening again (many targets of abuse have more than one abusive relationship!).
But extra note here: don’t dwell in this phase too long as you can get obsessive and develop an unhealthy need to research, read, and watch everything about narcissism that you remain stuck and never truly get to the healing stage.
3. Build or Strengthen your Healthy Relationships
Build safe, non-toxic relationships – with friends or family that you might have that you truly can trust and that you have healthy relationships with.
Remember the love hormone we talked about earlier? On a physiological level, this is creating oxytocin in the right way.
Absolutely don’t try to get this from your abuser or the bond will get deeper and harder to break out of.
But build this with people who truly care about you and love you and want all that is good for you.
4. Strengthen your Connection with Allah (swt)
Build your connection with Allah, the One who has always been there for you and always will be.
Remember that during a narcissistic relationship, we depended on our abuser for our self-worth, we behaved in a way that placed them at the centre of our being. We revolved around them, pleasing them and serving them.
Of course, this experience is dangerous even if done with a healthy person and so it’s catastrophic to do so with a narcissist who abused it. In addition to that, your duties to your Creator may have been neglected or even controlled by your narcissist too.
So instead, to claim back our power and our worth, we can redirect our dependence on Allah and never a person again. With Allah, there was never a condition on your relationship.
You’ve only ever had to be you for Allah to love you and that’s such a beautiful bond to strengthen.
Decide with full intention that you will only ever revolve around Allah and that everything else in this life (including all the people in it) are secondary to Him. Your bond to Allah will strengthen and your trauma bond to your narcissist will weaken until it’s gone for good.
Healing from narcissistic emotional abuse is multifaceted and there will be many things you’ll explore and uncover as you go into your journey. The ways mentioned above are a good starting point and we will get into it further in future posts.
But know that you can take charge and decide each step of the way. You deserve to be treated with nothing other than love and kindness and I hope you know that it’s my mission to help you throughout.
Would love to hear your thoughts.