I am seeing more and more people in my office who tell me some version of the following story:
I used to be a really confident and mentally healthy person. I had a good job, lots of friends, and I was happy most of the time. Now I am a total wreck. I can’t concentrate on my work and I feel as if I am going crazy. I know that I am in a really destructive relationship with a Narcissist who abuses me, but somehow, I can’t manage to leave once and for all.
This person used to be incredibly loving to me, but now they treat me like dirt. I don’t understand what is happening or what I have done that makes them treat me this way. I love them so much! I have tried to leave, but each time I come back the moment that they start being nice to me again. I literally cannot make myself stay away. Can you help me?
Why is it so hard to leave the abusive Narcissist in your life?
If the above story resonates with you, and you too have found yourself begging for crumbs of affection from an abusive person with Narcissistic Personality Disorder, I may be able to help you understand how you got here—and why you are finding it so hard to just walk away and not look back. The answer is that you have become “Trauma Bonded” to this person through a blend of “Intermittent Reinforcement” and “Stockholm Syndrome.”
What is “Narcissistic Trauma Bonding”?
Humans are wired to emotionally bond with the people around them. This ability to bond is the glue that keeps families and relationships together. When we feel endangered or insecure our natural reaction is to reach out to those we are bonded with for protection. But what happens when the person we are bonded to is the one who is mistreating us? Then our tendency to bond works against us.
Under normal circumstances, we might be able to walk away from our abuser and look for help elsewhere. Unfortunately, the conditions that create trauma bonding are not at all normal.
With “Narcissistic Trauma Bonding,” you are initially showered with intense love and approval. It is like a fantasy come true. Then gradually the ratio of positive to negative events shifts—often so subtly that you cannot say exactly when this happened. You find yourself in fights with someone you desperately love who claims that everything bad that is happening is all your fault.
Unless you walk out immediately and never look back, you are well on your way to becoming this person’s psychic prisoner. You will find yourself “Trauma Bonded” to someone who is destroying you. This is like your own personal opiate addiction crisis. You are now addicted to this person’s approval and only desire their love and no one else’s. You know you should stop, but you do not have the willpower to do so on your own.
The 7 Stages of Narcissistic Trauma Bonding
Stage 1: “Love Bombing”—The Narcissist showers you with love and validation.
Stage 2: Trust and Dependency—You start to trust that they will love you forever. You now depend on them for love and validation.
Stage 3: Criticism Begins—They gradually reduce the amount of love and validation that they give you and start to criticize you and blame you for things. They become demanding.
Stage 4: “Gaslighting”—They tell you that this is all your fault. If you would only trust them and do exactly as they say, they would shower you with love again. They try to make you doubt your own perceptions and accept their interpretation of reality.
Stage 5: Control Is Established—You do not know what to believe but think that your only chance of getting back the good feelings of Stage 1 is to try doing things their way.
Stage 6: Resignation and Loss of Self—Things get worse, not better. When you try to fight back, they up their abuse. Now you would just settle for peace and for the fighting to stop. You are confused, unhappy, your self-esteem is at its lowest.
Stage 7: Addiction—Your friends and family are worried about you. You know that this situation is terrible, but you feel as if you cannot leave because this person is now everything to you. All you can think about is winning back their love.
How is it possible that this can happen to a normally sane and functional person like you?
The answer to this question lies in understanding the underlying dynamics of how humans react to a combination of dependency and abuse coupled with “intermittent reinforcement.”
Many research studies have focused on how to get healthy laboratory rats to keep pressing a bar in the hope that they would continue to get food pellets. The researchers’ goal was to keep the rats working for rewards long after they had stopped giving them any. They chose lab rats because they react very similarly to humans in these types of situations.
The researchers experimented with different patterns of rewards and found the following:
Pattern 1 — Reward them every time they press
This was the least effective reward schedule. The rats expected to be rewarded after every bar press. When the rewards stopped, they might press one or two more times just to see whether any new food appeared. But…even the dumbest rats quickly wandered away and stopped paying attention to the bar.
Pattern 2 — Reward for every 10th press
Here the researchers got the rats used to pressing the food bar 10 times before the food came out. This means that the rats could not learn that no more food would come until after they had already done the work of pressing at least 10 times. Most tried at least one more time and did another set of 10. Eventually, all the rats realized there were no more food rewards for bar pressing and they stopped working and wandered off to look elsewhere for food
Pattern 3 — Reward every 10 minutes
Here the rats learned that they would only get food on a set time schedule. Once they figured out that they would get rewarded 10 minutes after a press, they would eventually get very economical with their presses. They would press once or twice towards the end of the 10-minute period, then stop and wait for their reward. After the rewards stopped, it only took a few non-rewarded 10-minute periods for the rats to stop pressing the bar.
Result: The researchers learned that having any predictable pattern of rewards for pressing the bar resulted in fewer bar presses after the rewards stopped for good.
Pattern 4 — Intermittent Reinforcement
The researchers finally outwitted the rats by doing away with any predictable pattern of reward. They varied the times between rewards and how many bar presses would be required to get food in exchange for work.
Result: The rats kept pressing the bar, even though they were never rewarded again.In the terminology of “Learning Psychology,” the response of bar pressing was never extinguished on a schedule of “intermittent reinforcement.” In human language, the rats continued to work in the hope that someday they would once again be rewarded.
Stockholm Syndrome is the term for a situation in which adults who are mistreated by their captors develop positive feelings towards the people who are mistreating them. As the situation progresses, the captives start to become more childlike and dependent. They become grateful for any small signs of approval and affection. Eventually, they may bond with their captors and even come to love them.
The name comes from a 1973 bank robbery in Stockholm, Sweden in which the robbers took hostages. Much to the world’s surprise, by the time the captives were freed, they had developed positive feelings towards their captors, instead of hating them.