Katrina couldn’t believe how her friend was treating her husband at dinner. She was demanding, controlling, domineering, belittling, unrelenting, sarcastic, and unnecessarily rude. For some time now, Katrina suspected that her friend was narcissistic and after the evening they spent together, she was even more convinced.
Feeling bad for her friend’s husband, she gently confronted him letting him know that she did not agree with her friend’s treatment of him. Much to her surprise, the husband minimized the event and said her comments were not that humiliating. There were times when his wife was much worse and this was mild by comparison.
His response confused Katrina so she watched and waited to see just how bad things could get. After another gathering, her friend even threw an object at her husband, twisted the truth to make her husband look bad, and called him names. After seeing the dismayed look on the husband’s face, Katrina again confronted him. And again he defended his wife.
Befuddled, Katrina took to the internet to explain his response. What she found was the term trauma bonding which is loyalty and continued commitment to an abusive person despite the intolerable treatment. In the case of a trauma bonding to a narcissist, there tends to be a persistent denial of the problem even when others bring the evidence to light. So how does this happen to people?
- Ignorance of abusive tactics. Most people are conditioned to believe that abuse requires some sort of physical mark and only happens to uneducated people. But there are seven categories of abuse: physical, emotional, verbal, mental, sexual, financial, and spiritual. And most studies show that abuse is prevalent in all socioeconomic groups, cultures, intelligence levels, and ages. Thinking that “It can’t happen to me,” is the easiest way to fall prey to an abusive person.
- Attractive abuser. Narcissists are famous for looking good in front of others with their charming personality and attractive appearance. During the initial engagement with a narcissist, they tend to become everything the other person is looking for in a partner. They love-bomb the person with generous amounts of affection, attention, and gifts. The prospective partner believes this is the real person. But it is not and this shell game can only last so long which is why they move the relationship very quickly into something more permanent.
- Initial angry outbursts. In the beginning, when the narcissist explodes, it seems so out of character. So the partner easily accepts the narcissistic explanation of blame-shifting as an excuse for their behavior. Slowly, the narcissist starts to criticize their partner by saying, “You made me so mad.” The partner, desperately wanting things to return back to the initial encounters molds themselves into whatever the narcissist says they need. Unfortunately, one transformation is not enough and the narcissist begins to demand more and more.
- It becomes addictive. The harder it is to please the narcissist, the harder the partner tries. Achieving some small token of gratification becomes a drug of sorts. The partner gets a high out of obtaining even small amounts of the love-bombing from before. It is no different than an addiction to a drug. The first trip is the best and every one after that fails by comparison yet the person is hooked so they keep trying over and over. The partner becomes unable to see their own fall in this downward spiral.
- Addictions have rewards and consequences. The reward of addiction (in this case pleasing the narcissist) is a release of the happy hormone dopamine. This feeling of euphoria can make a person feel they can do anything. By contrast, the consequence of an addiction (when the narcissist becomes abusive) is a flooding of the stress hormone cortisol. This puts a person in fight, flight, freeze, or faint mode and diminishes a person’s ability to think straight. It takes approximately 36-72 hours for a person to recover fully from this hormone.
- The addiction is hidden from the addict. Because the partner is not taking a drug, it is very hard to identify that they are even caught in an addictive cycle. This is why the abuse fog becomes so dense and the person is unable to see what is happening. Even when confronted by others outside of the relationship, they still struggle to see what is occurring. Plus, the narcissist tends to isolate the partner from anyone and everyone who might be a threat to them. This makes leaving even harder.
- Inability to detach. Even when the partner wakes up and tries to leave, the narcissist pulls them back with promises of returning things to the former existence. Because the narcissist has an intense fear of abandonment, they cannot allow a person close to them to leave. And they will do, say, and fake anything they need to just to keep their partner in the relationship. The mask of the narcissist’s former self comes out again but once again, it is short-lived. As soon as the partner has returned, the mask is smashed as the partner is even more ensnared.
- Addicted to the mask. Even when times get bad, the addiction to the mask of the narcissist is so strong now after all of the reinforcement. The fear that life can never be as good without the mask of the narcissist traps the partner into staying. Just the thought of leaving again causes panic attacks, depression, and even suicidal thoughts. The darker a person gets, the harder it is to take action to leave which is exactly what bonds them to the narcissist.
Once Katrina understood what was happening to her friend’s husband, she employed a different strategy. Instead of trying to wake him up, she came alongside him and offered her friendship to him instead of his wife. This allowed him to feel more comfortable with her and he eventually confessed his frustration. When Katrina revealed to him her discovery of trauma bonding, he finally took action and began to see a counselor.