Abusive relationships circulate around an abuser’s need for power and control. Trauma bonding happens to be one of the most lucid manifestations of this need and it can keep victims of abuse trapped within the abuse cycle for months, years, and even decades. After learning about trauma bonding, it is very common for victims of abuse to question whether or not trauma bonding is intentional and there’s a good reason for that.
Trauma bonding is a deliberate onslaught of manipulation that manifests in the back and forth between misleading phases of empathy and intense periods of abuse. The meticulously planned approach that abusers have for the creation of a trauma bond is intentional and makes breaking them incredibly difficult.
This article is going to take you step-by-step through the deliberate onslaught of manipulation that creates trauma bonds to give you a better understanding of just how intentional they really are. We’ve also created a short video below about the reason that a trauma bond can never become healthy just to serve as a reminder of how seriously trauma bonds need to be taken.
A Short Video Explaining Why Trauma Bonds Can Never Become Healthy
What Makes Trauma Bonding an Intentional Form of Abuse?
This section of the article is going to take you step-by-step through the cycle of mirroring, future faking, the devaluation phase, and intermittent reinforcement to paint a clear picture of the deliberate onslaught of manipulation that abusers use to create trauma bonds.
Mirroring in an abusive relationship is when an abuser will absorb an extraordinary amount of information about their victim’s identity to create a falsified identity that is designed to fill a void in the victim’s life.
The purpose of mirroring is to manipulate the victim into a space where they believe that they have a special bond with the abuser. When done correctly, mirroring makes the victim feel as if the abuser understands them better than anyone.
It places the victim up on an emotional pedestal from which they begin to envision a happy, healthy, and secure future centered around the feelings, thoughts, and emotions that they have for their abuser.
An Example of Mirroring
John, a narcissistic manager at a fast food restaurant, has to interview a potential new hire in an hour. He is reading through her resume and sees that she has a goal of owning her own restaurant one day. An hour passes and it is time for the interview. John lies to the woman and tells her that he hasn’t had time to read her resume but wants to tell her what the company is looking for anyway.
He goes on to tell her that the company is looking for someone who is really ambitious to replace an employee that he personally trained who left the company to start their own restaurant on a partnership program that the company offers. Everything he said was a lie but now he has the woman that he’s hiring ecstatic and feeling like she is about to be working for someone who can help her achieve her goals.
What Else Should You Know About Mirroring?
Mirroring lays the foundation from which an abuser can begin to build a strong trauma bond between themselves and their victim. It is all about the abuser learning as much information as possible about the victim so that they can be exactly who the victim needs them to be.
In the example above, the abuser knew enough information about the victim to begin the process of manipulating the victim into envisioning a promising future because he had her resume. But it is also very common for abusers to gain access to the victim’s identity by asking them a ton of questions which makes them come off as being interested in the victim.
When an abuser makes a false promise for the future to get what they want in the present it is called future faking. A future fake can be delivered verbally with a promise and it can be delivered nonverbally through who the abuser presents themselves as.
What this means is the falsified identity that the abuser creates is a form of future faking because it manipulates the victim into envisioning a happy, healthy, and secure future that is never going to come.
Example of Future Faking
Emily, a narcissistic woman, is trying to think of ways to convince her daughter to stay close to home and help with the family business instead of going off to college. Emily is worried that if her daughter was to go off to college then she would lose all of her power, control, validation, admiration, and reassurance.
Knowing how expensive college is, Emily tells her daughter that she will pay her tuition if she takes a year off after her senior year in high school to help her with the business. She then goes on to tell her daughter that she will sign over ownership of the business and run things herself so that she can earn money passively and focus on her studies when she goes to college.
Ecstatic about the opportunity, Emily’s daughter accepts the deal. She works for the full year but once it is time to go off to college Emily runs off with a new boyfriend who is just as impulsive and narcissistic as she is and reveals to her daughter that the business is actually two-hundred thousand dollars in debt.
What Else Should You Know About Future Faking?
A good future fake solidifies the victim’s belief that there is a healthy, happy, and secure life ahead of them. This level of manipulation is made possible by the information about the victim’s identity that the narcissist accumulates throughout the relationship.
Emily is a perfect example of a narcissist who used future faking to get what she wanted exactly when she wanted it. Emily wanted her daughter to remain a source of validation, admiration, and reassurance until she was able to get another source of narcissistic supply, the new boyfriend.
Once this happened she discarded her daughter and left her in debt which will prevent her from going to college. What this future fake did was it gave Emily a guaranteed source of narcissistic supply if her new supply isn’t viable.
The Devaluation Phase
The devaluation phase is when an abuser’s abuse will start to be undeniable. The phase is plagued with an insane amount of narcissistic behavior patterns like narcissistic rage, projection, gaslighting, baiting, triangulation, and so on.
What makes the devaluation phase so dangerous is cognitive dissonance. This is a theory that suggests when humans experience an inconsistency among beliefs, information, and behavior, it causes a tremendous amount of psychological tension. To ease these tensions we will change one or more of the elements causing the tension to make everything consistent.
In a trauma bonded relationship this manifests in the form of the justification, rationalization, and normalization of abuse.
An Example of Cognitive Dissonance
Justin has been dating a narcissistic woman for a few months now and everything has been great. He has connected with this woman on so many different levels, he thinks that she might be the one for him. Sadly, he doesn’t know that she has been mirroring and future faking him for the entire relationship.
The person he is falling in love with is an imposter, not an authentic lover. As the relationship progresses on and the narcissistic woman senses that she has Justin under her control, she begins the devaluation phase.
One day she goes into a narcissistic rage because Justin got angry at her for kissing her ex-boyfriend and hits Justin in the face with her fist. She begins to bombard Justin with gaslighting statements that are designed to manipulate him into believing that he was being jealous, insecure, and toxic.
Justin takes the bait. He accepts her gaslighting to be true, apologizes, and tells himself that none of that would have happened if he wasn’t so jealous. When Justin’s friends ask him how he got the black eye, he tells them that he was acting crazy and his girlfriend was just defending herself.
What Else Should You Know About the Devaluation Phase and Cognitive Dissonance?
The reason that cognitive dissonance exists in the devaluation phase is because mirroring and future faking shows the victim the information and behavior they need to see in order to develop a belief that they are in a healthy, happy, and secure environment.
But the moment that the abuser throws the relationship into the devaluation phase, they change the behavior and information but the belief the victim has stays the same. This forces the victim to make a very hard decision.
Do they hold onto the belief that they are with someone who they believe to have a special healthy, happy, secue, and unique bond with or do they let go of what they believe by acknowledging the abuse and letting go of the wish for things to be different?
The decision seems obvious but unfortunately the abuser makes it far more complex with a variety of narcissistic behavior patterns that are designed to keep the victim holding onto their beliefs by justifying, rationalizing, and normalizing the abuse with one of the most powerful being intermittent reinforcement.
One of the hardest parts of this manipulative process of mirroring, future faking, the devaluation phase, and then intermittent reinforcement is that by the time the relationship gets to the devaluation phase and the abuser wants to use intermittent reinforcement, the victim is severely emotionally starved.
What this means is that they have been invalidated, devalued, and dehumanized so frequently that they are searching for the smallest indication that the healthy, happy, and secure relationship they once cherished still exists.
This makes the abuser’s job extremely easy because they don’t want the victim to leave. The victim is a viable source of validation, admiration, and reassurance that they are not willing to let go.
So, they use intermittent reinforcement, the delivery of a reward at irregular intervals, to manipulate the victim into believing that the healthy, happy, and secure relationship they are desperate to have exists. Sadly, the relationship is so emotionally starved that the “reward” that the abuser often uses is kindness.
An Example of Intermittent Reinforcement
Eric, a narcissistic man, notices that his wife is starting to checkout of the relationship because of all of the abuse he is subjecting her to so to manipulate her desire for him to be the man she fell in love with again, he decides to take her out to her favorite restaurant, stay off his phone the entire time, open doors for her, pay for dinner, and talk about the future he “wants” the both of them to have together. His wife is so happy. It was exactly what she needed and it has given the marriage a new wave of energy.
What Else Should You Know About Intermittent Reinforcement?
We spoke about this thoroughly in our article Why Do Trauma Bonds Feel Like an Addiction but the “reward” that victims of trauma bonded relationships receive during intermittent reinforcement actually triggers their brain’s reward center and floods it with dopamine.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is released when humans abuse substances like opiates, alcohol, nicotine, amphetamines, and cocaine. What this does to the victim of abuse is it turns the “reward” that their abuser gives them during intermittent reinforcement into their only known source of happiness.
So in the example above, Eric’s wife’s brain was flooded with dopamine when he used intermittent reinforcement on her by being so “kind” which causes her to feel energized about the relationship again.
This causes her to develop a craving for the “reward”of intermittent reinforcement which will lead to her to losing control of herself in pursuit of the “reward” and remain in the relationship, despite the negative impact it has on their health, just to experience the high she got from intermittent reinforcement because it is her only known source of happiness.
What Should You Take Away From This Article?
Trauma bonding is an intentional form of abuse. Abusers are constantly searching for opportunities to put themselves in a position of power and control over others to maximize the amount of validation, admiration, and reassurance they can get, and it is no different with trauma bonding.
An abuser will use mirroring and future faking to place the victim up on an emotional pedestal where they can see a happy, healthy, and secure life. Then they kick that emotional pedestal right out from under them when they begin the devaluation.
They’ll use manipulative behaviors like gaslighting to force the victim to justify, rationalize, and normalize the abuse and top it all off with intermittent reinforcement to make their vicitms addicted to the relationship. Trauma bonding is a meticulously planned form of abuse that keeps victim trapped within the abuse cycle for years.
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All of the content that Unfilteredd creates is for educational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for clinical care — please visit here for qualified organizations and here for qualified professionals that you can reach out to for help. This article has been reviewed by our editorial board and has been approved for publication in accordance with our editorial policies.
Suggested Readings About Narcissistic Abuse
- What Are the Signs of a Trauma Bonded Relationship?
- Can a Narcissist Be Trauma Bonded?
- Is Trauma Bonding Intentional?
- Why Trauma Bonding Is Not the Same as Stockholm Syndrome
Erin F. Pesek-Cotton, Joshua E. Johnson, M. Christopher Newland, Reinforcing behavioral variability: An analysis of dopamine-receptor subtypes and intermittent reinforcement, Pharmacology Biochemistry and Behavior 97 (3) 2011, pp. 551-559.