Society often questions the credibility of victims of abuse who choose to stay in their invalidating, devaluing, dehumanizing, and chaotic relationship. The truth is that it is far more complex than a simple choice as a majority of victims of abuse stay in abusive environments because they’re trauma bonded to their abuser. A trauma bond is an emotional attachment that is formed through abuse and manipulation and it feels like an addiction.

A trauma bond feels like an addiction because the cycle of a trauma bonded relationship causes victims to crave the high points of the relationship. The manipulative nature of a trauma bond forces victims to lose control of themselves and remain in the relationship despite the negative impact it has on their health.

This article is going to take you step-by-step through the beginning stages of a trauma bonded so that you can grasp a comprehensive understanding of the reason that trauma bonds feel like an addiction. We’ve also created short video below about the addictive component along with some extra information about why trauma bonds are so hard to break so that you can go into this article with a better understanding of trauma bonding.

A Short Video About the Addictive Component of a Trauma Bond and Extra Information About Why They’re So Hard to Break

Understanding How Intermittent Reinforcement Causes Trauma Bonds to Feel Like an Addiction

Intermittent reinforcement is the delivery of a reward at irregular intervals and it is very common to see in trauma bonded relationships. With that being said, intermittent reinforcement is actually the last step in a complex abusive cycle that you must be aware of if you are to understand how intermittent reinforcement causes trauma bonds to feel like addictions.

This first checkpoint in the dysfunctional cycle that cause trauma bonds to feel like addiction is mirroring.

Mirroring Gives the Abuser the Information They Need Use Intermittent Reinforcement

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

A narcissist using mirroring to learn the ins and outs of a victim's identity as quickly as possible.

Mirroring in a trauma bonded relationship is very dangerous because it manipulates the victim into letting their emotional guard down, coaxes them into envisioning a happy, healthy, and secure future with the abuser, and lays a foundation from which the abuser can conduct many other forms of manipulation.

Suggested Reading: How Do Narcissists Use Mirroring?

You see, mirroring in a trauma bonded relationship is all about gathering data about the victim’s identity. It allows the narcissist to know the victim’s vulnerabilities, insecurities, core values, goals, fears, motivation, and so on.

What this does is it manipulates the victim into placing their trust in the abusers because they feel as if they have a special connection with them.

A victim of narcissistic abuse in a brown shirt falling victim to a narcissist's mirroring techniques.

Future Faking Allows the Abuser to Solidify the Trauma Bond By Manipulating the Victim Into Envisioning a Healthy, Happy, and Secure Relationship

The second checkpoint in this dysfunctional cycle is called future faking. When an abuser makes false promises for the future to get what he or she wants in the present, it is called future faking. The tricky part about future faking is that it can actually be done through both verbal and non-verbal forms of communication.

For example, a verbal form of future faking would be an abuser promising to move to a specific area for the victim to keep them hooked on the image of a healthy, happy, and secure relationship. A non-verbal form of future faking is actually mirroring.

By creating a falsified identity that is designed to fill a void in the victim’s life, the abuser is manipulating the victim into letting their guard down by pretending to be someone who is meant to be in their life for the foreseeable future.

Oftentimes an abuser will use future faking to distract the victim from the red flags of the relationship. For example, trauma bonded relationships are often very intense in the beginning stages of the relationship. This is most commonly known as the love bombing phase, which is really just an elite form of mirroring.

The abuser will use mirroring to create a falsified identity that is designed to fill a void in the victims life and just overwhelm them with it. This phase is often describe as a lot of time spent together, communication, spontaneous moments, intimacy, and so on.

It feels really good, but it is also a huge red flag. Some people who find themselves in this situation pick up on these subtle signs of forthcoming abuse and try to pull away from the relationship. This is when the abuser will swoop in with future faking to manipulate the vicim into believing that leaving the relationship would be the wrong choice.

a victim of narcissistic abuse being confused about the relationship she has with the narcissist

The Devaluation Phase Leaves Victims of Trauma Bonded Relationships Lost, Confused, and Emotionally Starved

The third checkpoint in this dysfunctional cycle is called the devaluation phase. In trauma bonded relationships the devaluation phase is a huge turning point. You see, the first two checkpoints, mirroring and future faking, place the victim up on an emotional pedestal where they can see a happy, healthy, and secure future.

Once the abuser gets the sense that they have a significant amount of power and control over their victim, they’ll kick the emotional pedestal out from under them with invalidating, devaluing, dehumanizing, and chaotic behavior to initiate the devaluation phase. 

Once this happens, the victim of the trauma bonded relationship has a really hard decision, do they stay in the relationship or do they leave the relationship.

At a quick glance, one may think that leaving the relationship is the obvious decision. Unfortunately, it is not because abusers are masterful at bullying their victims into a state of cognitive dissonance. 

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

In trauma bonded relationships cognitive dissonance manifests in the form of the justification, rationalization, and ultimately normalization of narcissistic abuse

How?

When a trauma bonded relationship moves from the healthy, happy, and secure phase that mirroring and future faking manipulated the victim into envisioning, to the devaluation phase, it causes a tremendous amount of psychological tension. The abuser’s behavior contradicts the beliefs and information that the victim has about the bond that they share. 

As you can imagine, all the victim wants in the healthy, happy, and secure future they could see so clearly. They’re lost and confused because they’ve never seen this invalidating, devaluing, dehumanizing, and chaotic version of their abuser before.

As they become more and more accustomed to the devaluation phase with little to no explanation as to why they’re in the position they’re in, the victim of the trauma bonded relationship will become extremely emotionally starved.

This means all the abuser needs to do is give them a small emotional push to manipulate them into justifying, rationalizing, and ultimately normalizing the abuse and that is where intermittent reinforcement comes into play.

Intermittent Reinforcement Strengthens the Trauma Bond and Causes It to Feel Like an Addiction

As we mentioned in the previous section, the devaluation phase leaves victims of narcissistic abuse lost, confused, and emotionally starved and when using intermittent reinforcement, the delivery of a reward at irregular intervals, abusers are masterful at exploiting this.

How?

The “reward” that an abuser will give their victim during intermittent reinforcement is a glimpse of the healthy, happy, and secure version of themselves they created by mirroring their victim in the beginning stages of the relationship.

At this point in the relationship victims of abuse are so emotionally starved that the “reward” their abuser gives them actually triggers their brain’s reward center which floods their body with dopamine

Dopamine is the same neurotransmitter that is released when humans abuse drugs 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.

Meaning that the victim will have an intense craving for the “reward” when they don’t have it, they’ll lose sight and control of themselves in pursuit of it, and they’ll remain trauma bonded to the relationship, despite the negative consequences on their mental and physical health, because the “reward” they randomly receive from their abuser has become their only known source of happiness.

Intermittent reinforcement strengthens the trauma bond and causes it to feel and look like an addiction.

What Should You Take Away From This Article?

Our best piece of advice for those trying to break the addictive component of a trauma bond is to learn every single thing there is to know about trauma bonding with the guidance of a qualified professional, and there are a few reason for this.

First, much like an addiction to opiates, alcohol, nicotine, amphetamines, or cocaine, there are going to be powerful withdrawals once you’ve broken the addictive component of a trauma bond. A qualified professional is going to be able to help you work through those withdrawals and give you the information needed to ensure that you don’t find yourself back in the abuse cycle.

Second, the addictive component of a trauma bond is only one reason that breaking a trauma bond is so challenging. By diving into the hidden aspects of trauma bonding, you’ll uncover many other components of its complexity that you can work through with the guidance of a qualified professional to not only break the trauma bond but learn how to heal from it as well.

Suggested Reading: Why Are Trauma Bonds so Hard to Break, How to Break a Trauma Bond With a Narcissist

Third, just because you’ve broken a trauma bond doesn’t mean that the trauma has gone with it. Taking the time to learn how to conceptualize a realistic sense of self without the abuser is going to help you find the healthy, happy, and secure environment that you deserve but it requires the guidance of a qualified professional.

You can develop a list of abusive things that you remember the narcissist in your life doing to you and a list of things that you love about yourself to begin to feel better about yourself and worse about your abuser.  – Advice From Vanessa Reiser, LCSW

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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.

References:

Efrat Fridman. (2019) Insecure Attachment and Drug Misuse among Women. Journal of Social Work Practice in the Addictions 19:3, pages 223-237. 

Mette K. F. Kreis, Kirsty Gillings, Jenny Svanberg, Matthias Schwannauer. (2016) Relational Pathways to Substance Misuse and Drug-Related Offending in Women: The Role of Trauma, Insecure Attachment, and Shame. International Journal of Forensic Mental Health 15:1, pages 35-47.