The ripple effect that trauma bonding has on people’s lives is both traumatizing and immobilizing. A trauma bond is a deep emotional attachment that is created by a cycle of abuse that consists of mirroring, manipulation, devaluation, invalidation, dehumanization, chaos, and intermittent reinforcement that manipulates vicitms of abuse into accidentally equating abuse with genuine love, compassion, and empathy.

Trauma bonds are hard to break because the cycle of abuse that causes them floods the victim’s brain with dopamine, causing them to develop an addiction for the relationship and because abusers often victimize themselves to make the victim doubtful, guilty, and ashamed for attempting to break the trauma bond.

A comprehensive understanding of the cycle of abuse that creates and solidifies a trauma bond is the centerpiece of the foundation victims of abuse must lay if they are to successfully break the trauma bond that keeps them tethered to their abusive relationship. This article is going to guide readers through the difficulties of breaking a trauma bond but we strongly recommend that readers seek out the guidance of a qualified professional as well.

A Trauma Bond Is Hard to Break Because It Feels Like an Addiction

It is very common for victims of trauma bonded relationships to experience a cycle of mirroring, future faking, abuse, and intermittent reinforcement, particularly in the beginning stages of the relationship. It is important for victims of abuse to understand every aspect of this cycle because its dysfunctionality is notorious for causing trauma bonds to feel like an addiction.

This means that the trauma bonded victim will have an intense craving for the high points of the relationship, they’ll lose sight of themselves in pursuit of these high points, and they’ll remain in the abusive environment despite the negative effects it has on their health. 

Addiction involves craving for something intensely, loss of control over its use, and continuing involvement with it despite adverse consequences. -A Quote From a Harvard Health Article About Addiction

We explain this process much more thoroughly in our article Why Do Trauma Bonds Feel Like an Addiction but the most important takeaway from that article is the abuser’s ability to use manipulation to make trauma bonds feel like an addiction.

Mirroring and Future Faking

Mirroring in a trauma bonded relationship is when an abuser will absorb an extraordinary amount of information about their victim’s identity and use that information to create a falsified identity to fill a void in the victim’s life. 

When an abuser makes false promises for the future to get what they want in the present, it is called future faking. Together, mirroring and future faking makes the victim feel as if they’ve met someone who understands them better than anyone else ever good and subsequently they envision a happy, healthy, and secure future with the abuser.

A narcissist using mirroring and future faking to strengthen the trauma bond

 

The Devaluation Phase 

After experiencing mirroring and future faking, the victim will be placed on the top of the emotional pedestal where they begin to shape their life around the happy, healthy, and secure image they have of their abuser, which allows the abuser to become the centerpiece for the victim’s current sense of self. 

This is an extremely vulnerable and dangerous position to be in with an abuser because the moment that the abuser senses that they’ve got the victim hooked, they’ll kick them right off of the emotional pedestal down into the devaluation phase which is plagued with a terrible amount of narcissistic behavior patterns. 

Suggested Reading: What Comes After Love Bombing With a Narcissist

This sudden change from a healthy, happy, and secure bond to abuse is incredibly destabilizing and causes the victim to fall into a state of cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive dissonance is a theory that suggests when we experience an inconsistency among beliefs, behavior, and information, it causes a tremendous amount of psychological tension. To ease this tension we will change one or more of the elements causing the inconsistency to make everything consistent. 

In abusive relationships cognitive dissonance manifests in the forms of the justification, rationalization, and normalization of abuse. 

How? 

When an abuser mirrors and future fakes their victim, they display the behavior and give the information needed for the victim to believe that the bond they share with the abuser is healthy, happy, and secure.

When all of this suddenly changes, it creates an inconsistency which causes a tremendous amount of psychological tension for the victim.

This forces them to choose between acknowledging the abuse by letting go of their deeply rooted belief that a healthy, happy, and secure bond exists or holding onto the falsified bond by justifying, rationalizing, and normalizing the abuse. 

Even though the correct course of action seems crystal clear, it is never that simple when it comes to abusive relationships because abusers have many manipulative behaviors that are designed to trick the victim into justifying, rationalizing, and normalizing the abuse but none are more powerful than intermittent reinforcement.

Intermittent Reinforcement

After the sudden change from mirroring and future faking to the abuse in the devaluation phase, the victim will be incredibly confused, emotionally starved, and craving the healthy, happy, and secure bond they felt on a daily basis. Intermittent reinforcement is a manipulative tool that abusers use to remind the victim of the falsified bond to keep them justifying, rationalizing, and normalizing the abuse. 

Intermittent reinforcement is the delivery of a reward at irregular intervals. In abusive relationships this “reward” is a false sense of empathy, compassion, and love. When the abuser senses that they’re losing power and control and their victim is starting to realize the abusive behavior patterns that they’re experiencing, they will use intermittent reinforcement to trigger the victim’s desire to have a healthy, happy, and secure bond with the abuser.

A narcissist using intermittent reinforcement to trap his victim in the abusive relationship

In fact, the victim is emotionally vulnerable at this point that the “reward” triggers the reward center in their brain and floods their body with dopamine. Dopamine is the same neurotransmitter that is released when humans abuse drugs like opiates, alcohol, nicotine, amphetamines, and cocaine and is insanely addictive and makes the trauma bond even harder to break.


Just to sum everything that has been stated in this section up, mirroring and future faking manipulates the victim into feeling a happy, healthy, and secure bond with the abuser which convinces the victim that their abuser is meant to be in their life. 

The sudden change from mirroring and future faking to the devaluation phase disrupts the victim’s belief that they have a happy, healthy, and secure bond which forces them to make a very difficult decision. 

Do they acknowledge the abuse by letting go of their deeply rooted belief that a healthy, happy, and secure bond between themselves and the abuser exists or holding onto the falsified bond by justifying, rationalizing, and normalizing the abuse?

Sadly, abusers have many techniques that are designed to manipulate victims of abuse into justifying, rationalizing, and normalizing the abuse. 

So, trauma bonded victims of abuse find themselves committed to the relationship because they believe that the healthy, happy, and secure bond they once had is still there despite all of the abuse they’re enduring.

Intermittent reinforcement, the delivery of a reward at irregular intervals, allows the abuser to become the victim’s only known source of happiness and floods their brain with dopamine, In fact, the victim is emotionally vulnerable at this point that the “reward” triggers the reward center in their brain and floods their body with dopamine. 

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is released when humans abuse drugs like opiates, alcohol, nicotine, amphetamines, and cocaine and is insanely addictive and makes the trauma bond even harder to break.

This flood of dopamine causes the high points of the relationship, the “reward” during intermittent reinforcement, to become so addictive that the victim remains trauma bonded in the relationship for months, years, and sometimes even decades of their lives.

A Trauma Bond Is Hard to Break Because Abusers Often Victimize Themselves

One of the most neglected pieces of information about abuse is just how dependent abusers are on their victim. A majority of abusers are so emotionally inadequate that they can’t regulate their own emotions in the same way a non-abusive person would. Instead, they use their victims as repositories, or scapegoats, for their suppressed negative emotions.

Without someone to project all of their negative emotions that they’ve compartmentalized and suppressed deep within their psyche onto, the negative emotions would make their way to the surface and destroy the abuser’s emotional stability.

Suggested Reading: Why Do Narcissists Need a Scapegoat?

It is really important for victims of abuse who are getting ready to break the trauma bond to be aware of the role they play in their abuser’s emotional stability because it is very common for trauma bonded victims to actually notice the deterioration of their abuser’s emotional stability when they begin to break the bond.

If they weren’t to understand that the deterioration of their abuser’s emotional stability was because they couldn’t project all of their negative emotions onto them anymore, there’s a high probability of them being manipulated back into the abuse cycle through guilt, shame, and doubt because abusers are masterful at portraying themselves in an incredibly victimized light when their victims are trying to break the trauma bond.

a narcissistic woman portraying herself in a victimized light

What Should You Take Away From This Article?

While trauma bonds can feel impossible to break, guidance from a qualified professional can make it feel much more manageable.

Empowerment is something that narcissists are allergic to. To break away from a narcissist, you must step into a strong sense of self.  Develop a list of things you love about yourself and read it throughout the day. – Advice From Vanessa Reiser, LCSW

Advice From Sarah Finch, MBACP, Integrative Counsellor & Narcissistic Abuse Specialist

Suggested Reading: How to Break a Trauma Bond With a Narcissist 


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

Your subscription could not be saved. Please try again.
Your subscription has been successful.

Join 2,509 People That Get Our Insightful Infographics & Much More About Narcissism Every Week!

REFERENCES

Saunders, Eleanor A., and Jill A. Edelson. “Attachment style, traumatic bonding, and developing relational capacities in a long-term trauma group for women.” International Journal of Group Psychotherapy 49.4 (1999): 465-485.

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.