Breaking a trauma bond requires the victim of the trauma bonded relationship to have a comprehensive understanding of how he/she became trauma bonded in the first place. There are two really important reasons that having this understanding is so important.

First, understanding the origin of a trauma bond puts the victim in a position from which they can dismantle manipulating that keeps the trauma bond together. Second, understanding the origin of a trauma bond gives the victim all of the information they need to ensure that they never fall into a trauma bonded relationship again.

The four most common reasons that people find themselves in a trauma bonded relationship are an unhealthy/abusive childhood, love bombing, cognitive dissonance, and low self-esteem. All four of these reasons create very, very deep emotional attachments between the trauma bonded victim and their abuser so the importance of understanding each and every one of them is immeasurable.

An Unhealthy/Abusive Childhood Causes People to Gravitate Towards Trauma Bonded Relationships

Experiencing an unhealthy/abusive childhood has a list of negative consequences a mile long. One of the most commonly seen consequences for growing up in an unhealthy/abusive environment is one gravitating towards trauma bonded relationships in adulthood simply because it is familiar. 

The duration of a trauma bonded relationship depends on how long the abuser can consistently manipulate his/her victim into justifying, rationalizing, and ultimately normalizing their abusive behavior.

Those who grow up in unhealthy/abusive environments develop a very corrupted perception of healthy relationships because they’ve been forced to justify, rationalize, and ultimately normalize the abuse they either witnessed or experienced their entire lives. 

A child of a narcissist being incredibly confused about her parent's abusive behavior

Under these circumstances it is very common for said individual to equate love with abuse in their childhood and carry those beliefs into their adult relationships. This is really dangerous because oftentimes the dynamics of a healthy relationship are incredibly destabilizing simply because they’ve known nothing but chaos, abuse, and trauma. 

Meaning that the dysfunctional cycle of the high and low points of an abusive relationship is more comforting for them, causing them to naturally gravitate towards trauma bonded relationships because they’r already accustomed to the dynamics of unhealthy/abusive relationships.

SJ, a Relationship & Recovery Coach and Survivor of Narcissistic Abuse

The Love Bombing Creates a Very Powerful Trauma Bond

The love bombing phase is a very powerful form of emotional abuse. During the love bombing phase, the abuser will use a manipulative technique called mirroring. Mirroring in an unhealthy relationship is when the abuser will reflect the victim’s core values, personality, goals, and characteristics back to them, just as a regular mirror would reflect your image back to you. 

This is a very predatory behavior because what’s happening is that the abuser is actually collecting data on the ins and outs of the victim’s identity so they can transform themselves into the victim’s Mr. or Mrs. Perfect. 

Mirroring is truly one of the most lucid manifestations of an abuser’s mal-intended demeanor because in order to successfully mirror someone, the abuser has to step outside of their self-centered bubble just long enough to learn the identity of someone they truly don’t care about.

Let me elaborate…

In our article How to Have a Healthy Relationship After Narcissistic Abuse, we conducted a study among 431 survivors of narcissistic abuse to find some of the most common differences they saw between the abusive relationship they endured and the healthy ones they formed after they escaped the narcissistic abuse cycle. 

One of the most common differences that came up was that in the abusive relationship, they had really vague reasons for being with their abuser and in the healthy relationship, they were able to clearly identify the reasons for being with them. 

A woman describing her healthy relationship to a friend

For example, Erin, a survivor of 5 years of narcissistic abuse, reported that she would justify the relationship with her abuser to family and friends by claiming that they had a unique connection that nobody could ever understand. But once she found herself in a healthy relationship, she would have very clear reasons for being in the relationship. 

“He helps me be the best version of myself. I have never been with someone who is so understanding. When I’m upset about something, he doesn’t try to minimize it. When I succeed , he is genuinely happy for me instead of being threatened by it. The list could go on forever but what I love most is that he loves me for who I am.”- Erin, Survivor of 5 Years of Narcissistic Abuse

Why is this a significant piece of information? 

Well, the reason that Erin and many other victims of trauma bonded relationships are unable to come up with clear reasons as to why they are in the relationship with their abuser is because of the dynamics of the love bombing phase, specifically mirroring.

You see, in a healthy relationship mirroring is when two people unconsciously imitate one another’s identity. This could manifest in the form of someone taking up a new hobby because their partner is really into it. Or, someone being more affectionate than they typically are simply because of how affectionate their partner is. Mirroring in a healthy relationship strengthens the bond two people have in a very mutual, respectful and healthy way.

In unhealthy/abusive relationships mirroring also strengthens the bond between two people. Unfortunately, the bond I am referring to is the trauma bond. You see, what makes mirroring a healthy behavior is the mutuality in it. And a healthy relationship mirroring allows both parties to see each other accurately. 

In an unhealthy/abusive relationship the abuser will essentially place a psychological mirror in front of themselves to hide their true identity from their victim but simultaneously reflect back the victim’s identity.

A narcissist in a red shirt using mirroring to mimic his victim's identity.

So, the reason why victims in trauma bonded relationships often have vague reasons for being in the relationship is because once their abuser feels that they’ve successfully trapped them inside the abuse cycle, they’ll stop mirroring and the love bombing phase will shift to the devaluation phase.

What happens is that during the love bombing phase the victim feels as if they have very clear reasons to why they’re with their abuser because of the mirroring. But as a devaluation phase comes, the reasons they had begin to fade away but the feeling that the love bombing phase gave them doesn’t, which why their vague reasons for being in the relationship begin to emerge.

In one of our previous articles, How Long Does the Love Bombing Phase Last (Case Study) we conducted a study to determine the average duration of the love bombing phase with each type of narcissistic personality. When we add all of that data up, the overall average comes to 5.53 months.

That is five and a half months of spending nearly every waking moment with someone you believe completes you. Someone who understands you better than anyone else. Someone who you believe loves you more than anyone ever could. 

That is where the trauma bond gets formed. Once the devaluation phase comes, the victim is forced to choose between acknowledging that their “soulmate” is actually their worst enemy or riding out the storm in the hopes that their abuser will be the person they fell in love with again.

The love bombing phase creates unimaginably powerful trauma bond. Without the guidance of a medical professional they’re nearly impossible to break so be sure to check out How to Break a Trauma Bond With a Narcissist where you’ll find an 11 step program 431 survivors created to help you go through the highs and lows of ending the abuse cycle.

Cognitive Dissonance Is Trauma Bonding’s Best Friend

Imagine that you have been dating someone for a few months now and things are going really well. The two of you have similar interests, your family and friends really enjoy their company, you feel as if you have a fiery connection with them that no one else can understand and they’ve somehow checked off every single box on your metaphorical checklist of the “perfect” partner.

As the relationship progresses and you get to know them better and better, you start to notice some inconsistencies in their behavior. For months they’ve been this loving and passionate partner but now they’ve started to insult you, minimize your existence, accuse you of things that you didn’t do and sometimes even threaten to end the relationship. 

It’s really destabilizing because for months you’ve envisioned a happy life with this person but now their behavior is contradicting your image of them.

So, what do you do? Do you acknowledge the red flags and leave someone you care deeply about? Or do you do everything you can to find the good in them so you can support the future you’ve envisioned for yourself? 

Many victims of trauma bonded relationships choose the second option and this is called cognitive dissonance. 

Cognitive dissonance is a theory that suggests when an individual experiences inconsistencies among their beliefs, behavior and knowledge it causes a significant amount of psychological tension. So, to ease the tension they change one or more of the elements causing the inconsistencies to make everything consistent with their version of reality.

In abusive relationships this manifests in the normalization, rationalization and justification of abusive behavior. Just to be clear, by no means is this the victim’s fault. 

A victim of narcissistic abuse in red pants normalizing, rationalizing, and justifying her abusive relationship

Yes, they are technically the ones who are manipulating their own reality to eliminate the inconsistencies. But then again, who wouldn’t? Abusers are masterful at filling the void in their victim’s lives, the feeling that life couldn’t get any better is not something that is easy to discard. 

The blame is always going to be placed at the abuser’s feet because of how manipulative they are but the responsibility it takes to break these abusive cycles always lies within the hands of the victim and their supporters.

Low Self-Esteem Enables Trauma Bonds to Form

Much like growing up in an unhealthy/abusive environment, low self-esteem causes the victim to normalize, rationalize and justify abusive behavior. However, there is an important distinction between the two. 

What I outlined in the unhealthy/abusive upbringing section depicts an individual who gravitates towards abusive relationships because they’re familiar and because of their corrupt perception of healthy relationships makes unhealthy/abusive relationships comfortable.

But when an individual is trauma bonded to a relationship because of low self-esteem, it implies that they remain in the abusive relationship because they truly believe that they’re not worth anything more than the abuse they’re enduring.

This low self-esteem can come from many different sources, especially from growing up in an unhealthy/abusive environment. But the reason I wanted to separate the two is because the narcissistic behavior patterns that are commonly seen in all types of abusive relationships are designed to erode your emotional stability, hijack your identity and dismantle your self-esteem.

For example, wherever there’s an abuser, especially one with a narcissistic personality, there will always be a scapegoat. From an abuser’s perspective, scapegoating is actually a form of cognitive dissonance. You see, scapegoats are essentially repositories for their abusers’ negative emotions.

A narcissist in a white shirt projecting his anger onto his wife

I strongly believe that a majority of the abusers in the world have narcissistic personalities so I am going to explain this from a narcissistic perspective. 

One of the driving forces for narcissistic behavior patterns is their inability to regulate their own emotions because of their emotional immaturity. Narcissists are some of the most self-loathing, insecure and vulnerable individuals on the planet. They spend their entire lives fabricating a falsified identity to hide this truth. 

Unfortunately, this lifestyle causes them to develop a deeply rooted hatred for core aspects of their true identity. But because they’ve devoted their lives to this falsified identity, acknowledging these aspects of their true identity would contradict their reality. And because of their emotional immaturity they’re incapable of regulating the negative emotions that come with the realization that they aren’t as special/unique as they like to portray themselves as.

So, instead of acknowledging this harsh truth what do they do? They use cognitive dissonance in the form of a scapegoat. They take all of their negative emotions and project them onto their scapegoats. So many different ways that this behavior can manifest but to get the gist of it you should understand that narcissists live their entire lives feeling incredibly inadequate.

Anything, and I mean anything, that either intentionally or unintentionally triggers their sense of inadequacy or other deeply rooted negative emotions get ruthlessly attacked by the narcissistic behavior patterns they have in their arsenal. 

A scapegoat is a person that a narcissist will target because the scapegoat’s demeanor somehow antagonizes the narcissist in a very specific way. For example, if a narcissist were to feel inadequate because he/she was never athletic, they may target their younger sibling who is athletic and make them their scapegoat. 

Scapegoats are not randomly chosen so please check out our article How Is a Scapegoat Chosen to learn all of the ways scapegoats are chosen! It gives you some really valuable information that you can use to protect yourself from abusers. 

To sum up everything that has been said so far in this section, low self-esteem is a trauma bond magnet and it can already exist within the victim or be caused by the narcissistic behavior patterns commonly seen in abusive relationships. 

What Should You Take Away From This Article?

You’ll be in a much better position to break a trauma bond if you have a comprehensive understanding of it and why it was formed in the first place. 

For example, if you were able to identify that the trauma bond in your relationship was created by love bombing phase you’re in a much better position to acknowledge that what you’re experiencing is abuse because you now know that it definitely isn’t love, it was just unhealthy/abusive mirroring.

With that being said, the love bombing phase can manifest in many different ways (as if narcissistic behavior patterns weren’t hard enough) so be sure to familiarize yourself with How Long Does the Love Bombing Phase Last (Case Study) to further protect yourself from its grasp!

Now that you have all of this information about how trauma bonds are created, what are you gonna do with it? Remember, it’s the abuser’s fault that you’re in the situation that you’re in. However, it’s your responsibility to pull yourself out of the dark place that abusive relationships put you in.

But that doesn’t mean you have to do it alone! In fact, you shouldn’t! You should spend a considerable amount of time ensuring that the people around you are supporters that you can rely on. Don’t know where to start?

Check out our article How to Support Someone In a Narcissistic Relationship to get a sense of the characteristics of a supporter.

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      This information is for educational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for clinical care. Please consult a health care provider for guidance specific to your case.