How to Break a Trauma Bond With a Narcissist

A woman in purple pants trapped in a trauma bonded relationship.

A trauma bond is a very deep emotional attachment between two people that is developed through emotional and/or physical abuse. A trauma bond is very hard to break, so we conducted a study among 431 survivors of narcissistic abuse to find the eleven most effective ways to break a trauma bond, and this is what we found. 

An 11 Step Program to Break a Trauma Bond Created by 431 Survivors

  1. Learn Everything You Can About Narcissistic Abuse
  2. Make Sure That You’re Taking Care of Yourself
  3. Keep a Journal to Avoid Any Confusion
  4. Learn How to Set Boundaries With a Narcissist
  5. Make Sure You’re Living in the Present
  6. Use the Gray Rock Method
  7. Learn How to Use Radical Acceptance
  8. Find a Good Support Group
  9. Find a Qualified Therapist
  10. Go No Contact With the Narcissist in Your Life
  11. Know the Difference Between Healthy and Unhealthy Relationships

Before we dive into all eleven of those steps, we’re going to ensure that you know everything you need to know about trauma bonds so you can have a comprehensive grasp on why each of those pieces of advice work.

Table of Contents:

How Do You Know if You’re in a Trauma Bonded Relationship?

It is very unlikely that you’ll be able to know that you’re in a trauma bonded relationship without some level of acknowledgement that what you’re experiencing is abuse. In our article What Are the Signs of a Trauma Bonded Relationship you can learn more about the warning signs but a three of the biggest ones are justification, neglecting one’s well-being, and one being consumed with self-doubt and/or self-blame.

  • Justifying the Abuse You’re Experiencing
    • What makes escaping narcissistic relationships so difficult is that they aren’t always abusive. We will speak about this later on in the article but narcissists are very good at strategically using moments of empathy and compassion to manipulate their victims into rationalizing, normalizing, and justifying staying in the abusive relationship.
A man in a blue shirt worried about his friend who is wearing a red shirt because he is justifying his wife's abusive behavior.
A man in a red shirt justifying the abuse he is enduring because his wife has been using intermittent reinforcement to drag him back into the relationship.
  • Neglecting Your Own Thoughts, Feelings, Emotions, and Needs
    • Narcissists have a multitude of manipulative tactics designed to silence you through guilt, fear, and shame. For example, gaslighting with ultimatums is when a narcissist will force you to associate standing up for yourself or setting boundaries with fear. They do this by saying things like, “If you bring that up one more time, I am going to (blank).” Over time, you decide that you rather remain silent than face their wrath every time you set a boundary or stand up for yourself.
    • Another way a narcissist will force you to neglect your own thoughts, feelings, needs, and emotions is by gaslighting you through minimization. They do this by minimizing your statements with comments like, “you’re too sensitive” or “are you seriously going to complain about that when there are people starving in the world?” Gaslighting through minimization makes you feel like you are selfish for standing up for yourself or setting a boundary.
A narcissistic woman wearing a pink shirt yelling at her boyfriend because he was upset that she hit him the night before. Instead of standing up for himself, the boyfriend gaslights himself into believing that he was overreacting and shouldn't have said anything
A man in a green shirt neglecting his own emotions because of his girlfriend’s narcissistic behavior.
  • Having a Significant Amount of Self-Doubt and Self-Blame
    • Much like the previous example, narcissists have many tactics designed to consume you in a wave of self-doubt and self-blame. For example, traditional gaslighting is designed to eroded your emotional stability to the point where you doubt your own perception of reality. With statements like the following, combined with the many other manipulative tactics narcissists use, you’ll find yourself doubting and blaming yourself constantly.
      • That never happened.
      • You’re insane and everyone else thinks so too.
      • Is that really how you remember it? You have a terrible memory!
A narcissistic man in a purple shirt refusing to apologize and claiming that his girlfriend is insane. His girlfriend is overwhelmed by the gaslighting and decides to accept his version of reality by blaming herself for the problems in the relationship.
A woman in a maroon shirt doubting and blaming herself because her narcissistic boyfriend is gaslighting her.

An 11 Step Program to Break a Trauma Bond Created by 431 Survivors

This eleven step program to break a trauma bond has been created with the guidance of 431 survivors of narcissistic abuse, some of whom have gone on to be therapists, psychologists, and domestic violence advocates themselves.

I would like to stress that everyone’s healing journey is going to be different and by no means should these eleven steps act as a substitute to personalized therapeutic guidance.

With that being said, we are always looking to add new Unfilteredd Participants to our program. Your stories and experiences are what fuels this website. So please don’t hesitate to click here for more information!

1.) Learn Everything You Can About Narcissistic Abuse

The best defense against narcissistic abuse is knowledge. The importance of having the ability to identify narcissistic behavior patterns as they unfold is immeasurable.

When you’re able to identify narcissistic behavior patterns, manage narcissistic abuse, and have a comprehensive grasp of the hidden aspects of narcissism, you’ll be able to take control of your emotional stability and of your identity.

Learning about narcissism teaches you that the limitations they placed on you are only as real as you let them be! A great place to start would be to read our article What Are the Three Biggest Things That Cause Trauma Bonding because the first step to breaking a trauma bond is to determine how it formed in the first place.

a small girl learning about narcissistic abuse so she can defend herself.
A girl learning about narcissistic abuse

2.) Make Sure That You’re Taking Care of Yourself

Let’s talk about the self-centeredness of a narcissist. Narcissistic abuse circulates around a narcissist’s need for narcissistic supply. You can learn about all the different forms of narcissistic supply in our article What Is Narcissistic Supply and Why Do They Need It So Badly, but for now we are going to focus on attention.

Narcissists feel entitled to your undivided attention. This behavior pattern manifests in their need to know where you are, what you’re doing, and who you’re with. It shows in their jealousy and paranoia around other people and so on.

You might be aware that this type of behavior causes you to become very isolated, but what often flies under your radar is the fact that it causes you to neglect your health.

5 Common Health Related Topics That Can Get Neglected Because of Narcissistic Abuse:

  • Preventative Health Care
    • Preventative health care includes things like cancer screenings, diabetes screenings, cholesterol tests, mental health screenings, blood pressure tests, well-child visits, STI screenings, and routine vaccinations.
  • Medication Adherence
    • The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) states,
      • “Medication adherence, or taking medications correctly, is generally defined as the extent to which patients take medication as prescribed by their doctors. This involves factors such as getting prescriptions filled, remembering to take medication on time, and understanding the directions.”
  • Daily Preventative Behaviors
    • These are things you should do on a daily basis to keep yourself healthy. Given the current situation with the pandemic, daily preventive behaviors refers to things like washing your hands, social distancing, wearing a mask in public, minimizing the amount of times you touch your face, being responsible when coughing/sneezing, using hand sanitizer and so on.
  • Daily Practices
    • These are little things you do every single day to acknowledge the things of importance to you. This could be writing in a journal, going on a walk, yoga, reading, spending time with your kids, watching your favorite TV show/movie, avoiding alcohol and other substances, learning something new and so on.
  • Safe Sex
    • Safe sex is always encouraged however low conscience individuals are notorious for exposing their partners to high health risks via STIs so be sure to practice safe sex if you learn that your partner has been cheating.

Keep in mind, these are ALL things that a narcissist will ensure that they do for themselves. In fact, you can almost guarantee it because narcissists have a fear of the things that come with old age. Read our article Do Narcissists Get Worse As They Get Older: Aging Narcissism for a better understanding of what I’m referring to.

That said, it is so important that you learn how to take care of yourself again. You may not be neglecting every single item on the lists above, but because of how intense narcissistic abuse is, it’s likely at least one of the items on the lists has been neglected.

The best way to ensure that you are taking care of yourself is by being proactive. The narcissist in your life will not deviate from their self-centered agenda just to help you take care of yourself. You need to be proactive.

4 Ways You Can Start Being Proactive

  • If your destination is within a reasonable distance, walk there instead of relying on the narcissist for the car.
  • Make sure you arrange for others in your life to give you a ride to your appointments.
  • Find ways to do daily practices and daily preventative behaviors around the narcissist’s schedule.
  • Remind yourself on a daily basis that nobody is responsible for your health expect you!
  • Use alarms to remind you to do what you need to do to take care of yourself.

3.) Keep a Journal to Avoid Any Confusion

When preparing to break a trauma bond, you can expect to feel guilt, shame, fear, and doubt simply because narcissistic behavior patterns are designed to make you feel that way.

The moment you implement anything you’ve learned about narcissistic abuse with a narcissist, they will try to manipulate you into letting your guard down.

They’ll pretend they’ve changed, they’ll yell at you until their face turns blue, they’ll try to play the victim with friends and family, they’ll even have the audacity to threaten to leave the relationship. Like I said before, nobody is perfect and we are all destined to make mistakes.

Being overpowered by self-doubt and self-blame when you make changes in a narcissistic relationship is normal. With that being said, it is important that you acknowledge that what you’re experiencing is abuse and that the narcissist in your life will not change.

This is where keeping a journal is handy…

Narcissists are very, very good at minimizing their behavior to the point where you start to make rationalization and justifications to normalize their behavior.

If you were to keep a journal where you wrote down every single time they broke one of your boundaries, abused you, or made you uncomfortable in any other way, you’d be much less likely to justify their behavior because you have the truth written down.

a woman in a white blouse keeping a journal of all of the narcissistic abuse in her relationship.
A woman looking at her notes to remind herself how abusive her partner is.

4.) Learn How to Set Boundaries With a Narcissist

The importance of learning how to set boundaries with the narcissist in your life is immeasurable. Learning how to set boundaries protects you from manipulation because it teaches you to focus on the narcissist’s behavior patterns instead of their words and how to take your time with decision making.

Narcissistic abuse is designed to silence you. With manipulative behaviors like gaslighting, stonewalling, narcissistic rage, projection, and scapegoating it is very, very common for those who’ve suffered narcissistic abuse to not feel comfortable expressing their thoughts, feelings and concerns out of fear of their abuser’s response.

A woman with a red dress setting a boundary with her narcissistic father who is wearing a yellow jacket.
A woman in a red dress setting a clearly marking her boundaries while her narcissistic father watches.

Learning how to set and maintain boundaries is a really important skill to master because it will teach you how to be comfortable with using your voice again.

4 Boundaries You Could Practice Setting With the Narcissist in Your Life

  1. Refusing to take the blame.
    • One of the reasons narcissistic abuse is so damaging is because they’re masterful at blame shifting. They create pervasive environments of self-doubt and self-blame in an attempt to make you chronically apologetic for things you didn’t do. It’s one of the ways that narcissists protect their falsified identity from being contradicted.
  2. Work on becoming comfortable with asking for space.
    • Narcissistic abuse is intense, isolating, and fast. They don’t want you consulting with other people about their behavior and they don’t want you to think about what is happening. Asking for space gives you a chance to reflect on what happened before they manipulate you into suppressing it within your psyche.
  3. Understand that you have the right to change your mind.
    • Listen, nobody is perfect, you’re most likely going to give in on at least one of the boundaries you’ve set. It is completely normal because it is a new skill that you have to practice. What is important is that when you do break one of your boundaries that you feel comfortable changing your mind. You are the only one who can dictate what happens in your life, remember that!
  4. You have the right to express sexual boundaries.
    • A narcissists need for power, dominance, and control is one of the biggest reasons that sadism is often linked with those who have narcissistic personalities. For your safety and emotional stability, make sure you express sexual boundaries with the narcissist in your life if needed.

5.) Make Sure That You’re Living in the Present

Living in the present is another way you can avoid normalizing, rationalizing, and justifying the abuse in your life. The tricky part about escaping the narcissistic abuse cycle is that narcissists have four very powerful techniques designed to manipulate your sense of hope: future faking, intermittent reinforcement, typecasting, and hoovering.

I’m sure you have a sense of what future faking, intermittent reinforcement and hoovering is but the term typecasting might be something that you’re unfamiliar with. Well, we’ve had the privilege of collaborating with Dr. Kerry McAvoy Ph.D. to give you the chance to grasp a comprehensive understanding of what exactly typecasting is .

Circling back to the section about love bombing, mirroring is a huge part of the love bombing phase. It is when a narcissist gathers an insane amount of information about you. It feels as if they know you better than anyone else. Well, instead of using that information to have a healthy relationship, they use it to manipulate you.

When it comes to trying to keep you under their control, a narcissist’s brain become an encyclopedia of information about you that they can use to manipulate you. They won’t remember a thing about you during the relationship, but the moment you’re about to leave they’ll snap back into your Mr. or Mrs. Perfect again.

If you make sure that you are living in the present and not buying into whatever they say or do while hoovering, future faking, or using intermittent reinforcement, you’ll be in a much better position to acknowledge that what you’re experiencing is abuse and escape the trauma bonded relationship.

a woman in a red dress living in the present by ignoring her narcissistic partners attempt at hoovering.
A depiction of a woman living in the present and ignoring her narcissistic partner’s attempts to drag her back into the relationship.

6.) Use the Gray Rock Method

The most important thing for a narcissist’s well-being is narcissistic supply, the validation and admiration they receive from others. Narcissistic supply is the fuel that narcissists use to maintain their falsified identity.

When you use the gray rock method it means that you’ll refuse to participate in significant conversations with the narcissist. You won’t argue with them, you would validate them. You won’t try to defend yourself, you’ll remain calm and collected until you’re in a safe place, away from the narcissist, to express your emotions.

A woman in a red tank top using the gray rock method to protect her emotional stability.
A woman reminding herself that by using the gray rock method it means that she will not allow her narcissistic brother bait her into an argument.

The gray rock method actually gives you a unique opportunity to see the narcissist in your life more clearly. You’ll be able to see a steady decline in their emotional stability the longer the gray rocking goes on. As their emotional stability begins to decline, their falsified identity will begin to disintegrate, and you’ll be able to see their true identity clearly.

This would be a perfect time to record everything you observe in your journal to validate your experiences. If you pay attention, you might learn some of the hidden aspects of narcissism which will put you in a better position to ensure that you never fall into another abusive relationship again.

7.) Learn How to Use Radical Acceptance

In the narcissistic realm, when you let go of the wish for things to be different by accepting the reality that the narcissist in your life isn’t going to change, it is called radical acceptance. This is not an easy thing to do.

For many of you, the relationship was real. At some point you may have wanted them to be a loving partner, beloved family member, trusted co-worker, or best friend. In fact, the dynamics of a trauma bond are terrifyingly similar to those with addictions to illegal substances. You can read our article Why Do Trauma Bonds Feel Like An Addiction for more information.

So, writing someone off as permanently damaged is not an easy task, but it is one of the best things you can do to escape the narcissistic abuse cycle.

Some of our participants have suggested that when using radical acceptance that you should start out with small things.. For example, you radically accept that arguing with the narcissist in your life is pointless before you try to radically accept that they will never change and they’ve taken a portion of your life that you can’t get back.

A woman sitting against a tree acknowledging that her husband will not change his behavior, which is radical acceptance.
A woman sitting against a tree on a sunny day teaching herself how to use radical acceptance.

It is important that you understand that radical acceptance also means that you acknowledge the limitations the narcissistic abuse placed on you are only as real as you let them be. You’ll have to work hard to redefine yourself, but trust me, you’ve always been and always will be an amazing person.

8.) Find a Good Support Group

This is a huge part of one’s healing journey! It’s so important that victims/survivors of narcissistic abuse find supporters, not narcissist enablers. Narcissist enablers are people with a significant lack of knowledge about narcissistic behavior, therefore they tend to make absurd suggestions and comments because they approach the situation as they would a healthy relationship.

It makes one’s healing journey so much harder because enablers could potentially be just as traumatizing as the narcissistic abuse itself. Finding supporters, people who understand narcissistic behavior or at the very least respect the victim’s/survivor’s perspective, and removing enablers is crucial for victims and survivors of narcissistic abuse.

We’ve heard time and time again from survivors of narcissistic abuse that when they confided in others about the abuse they were experiencing, it wasn’t because they knew the abuse was wrong, it was because they needed someone else to validate their reality. So, finding supporters that understand narcissism and aren’t going to accidentally gaslight you back into your abusers arms is incredibly important.

A group of friends learning about narcissism so they can be a much better support group.
Having a support group is one of the most important things you can do to heal from narcissistic abuse.

9.) Find a Qualified Therapist

Finding the right therapist can be really difficult because not every therapist is qualified to help those who’ve suffered narcissistic abuse. We’ve had many participants who’ve been gaslighted by their therapist because they didn’t have the qualifications to help those who’ve suffered narcissistic abuse. Finding the right therapist will allow you to create a solid plan of action that they can use to break their trauma bond.

A woman sitting on a yellow couch speaking with a therapist who understands narcissism because she was once abused by a narcissistic partner.
A woman finding out that her therapist has experienced a narcissistic relationship as well and feeling secure because she now knows that she’s in good hands.

10.) Go No Contact With the Narcissist In Your Life

There’s no denying that going no contact with a narcissist is the best thing you can do to protect yourself from a narcissist, after learning about narcissistic abuse of course. But I’m placing it towards the end because not everyone is in the position to cut the narcissist in their lives out.

You may have children with them, you may not be in the financial position to leave, you may not have acknowledged that what you’re experiencing is abuse yet and so on.

But for those of you who are in the position to leave and never look back… DO IT.

Don’t expect this to be a walk in the park. This will make the narcissist in your life furious because by cutting them off completely, you’re contradicting their sense of specialness, you’re taking away all their narcissistic supply, and you are triggering all of their suppressed emotions.

So please make sure you are in a safe place when you decide to go no contact. Have a safety plan in place, and ensure that you have a very, very good support group around you.

11.) Know the Difference Between Healthy and Unhealthy Relationships

A reason that victims of narcissistic abuse normalize, rationalize, and justify the abuse they’re enduring so frequently is because narcissistic abuse is designed to corrupt one’s perception of a healthy relationship.

When you’re in a relationship with a narcissist, you are a repository for all of their suppressed negative emotions. They’ll project their shame, fears, doubts, insecurities, and inadequacies onto you until you begin to absorb them by yourself.

If you were to leave the narcissistic relationship without having a clear understanding of what you experienced, you could very well find yourself gravitating towards another abusive relationship in the future simply because it is familiar.

If you’re ready to learn about the difference between healthy and unhealthy relationship, go check out our articles How to Have a Healthy Relationship After Narcissistic Abuse or How Do You Know If a Bond Is Trauma or Love where we incorporated the stories of 431 survivors of narcissistic abuse to create a really good source you can use to find a happy and healthy relationship.


This article has been reviewed by our editorial board and has been approved for publication in accordance with our editorial policies.

Suggested Readings About Trauma Bonding

Can a Narcissist Be Trauma Bonded?

How Can Trauma Bonds Be Prevented?

Is Trauma Bonding Intentional?

Why Trauma Bonding Is Not the Same as Stockholm Syndrome

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Sources:

Interviewing 431 survivors of narcissistic relationships

Reid JA, Haskell RA, Dillahunt-Aspillaga C, Thor JA. CONTEMPORARY REVIEW OF EMPIRICAL AND CLINICAL STUDIES OF TRAUMA BONDING IN VIOLENT OR EXPLOITATIVE RELATIONSHIPS. International Journal of Psychology Research. 2013;8(1):37-73. https://www.proquest.com/scholarly-journals/contemporary-review-empirical-clinical-studies/docview/1625577532/se-2?accountid=14774.

Strutzenberg, Claire, “Love-Bombing: A Narcissistic Approach to Relationship Formation” (2016). Human Development, Family Sciences and Rural Sociology Undergraduate Honors Theses. 1.

DISCLAIMER

THIS INFORMATION IS FOR EDUCATIONAL PURPOSES ONLY AND IS NOT INTENDED TO BE A SUBSTITUTE FOR CLINICAL CARE.

IF YOU’RE IN THE UNITED STATES AND ARE SUFFERING DOMESTIC ABUSE, PLEASE CONTACT THE NATIONAL DOMESTIC VIOLENCE HOTLINE AT 1.800.799.7233 OR YOU CAN VISIT THEIR WEBSITE FOR MORE HELPFUL CONTACT METHODS.

WE URGE YOU TO ENSURE YOU’RE IN A SAFE ENVIRONMENT WHEN YOU DECIDE TO REACH OUT FOR HELP. FOR THOSE WHO CURRENTLY RESIDE IN THE UNITED STATES, VISIT NATIONAL DOMESTIC VIOLENCE HOTLINE’S LOCAL RESOURCES TO FIND HELP IN YOUR AREA.

FOR THOSE OUTSIDE THE UNITED STATES, BE SURE SAFELY REACH OUT TO THE PROPER AUTHORITIES.