I’ve been thinking a lot about Trauma Bonding lately. That is because I have been submersing myself into information about narcissistic abuse, whether growing up with it, or encountering it in romantic or work or friendship relationships. The truth is, narcissists are everywhere. They aren’t going away. And to a certain extent, we can all be a little narcissistic sometimes. This is natural and normal. We all have egos. And this is why NPD is considered a spectrum disorder — because everyone who falls into that category falls differently on the spectrum, and it varies greatly how much that person’s tendencies impact their lives and the people around them.
The Trauma Bond
In case you’ve never heard of it, the trauma bond occurs during abuse abuse (narcissistic or otherwise; physical or emotional) where it is possible to feel deeply connected to the person who is treating you badly.
The most well-known formation of this is Stockholm syndrome. This is essentially a trauma bond. A person or group of people may be captured and let’s say taken hostage by another person or multiple people. Logically, rationally — as a person outside the situation — you might think it makes sense to hate those people who have taken you hostage, and to do everything you can to get away from them. However, from inside the situation, there is a psychological process that can take place which causes you to do the opposite. Realizing that you may have few options for escape, and knowing that your captors hold your life in your hands, you may begin to fawn on them. Because when it comes to responses to situations of danger, there is more than just a fight or flight reaction. There is fight, flight, freeze, and fawn — the four F’s. And I didn’t make these up.
Of course, there is another “F” besides “fawn,” and it’s often written as “sex.” You can do the math. But I like “fawn” because it describes ingratiating behavior that is not necessarily sexual in nature. It may be proto-sexual or para-sexual. And it certainly can be, and often is sexual, in many cases. But there are also many situations in which this fourth F is not actual sex. Moving on.
This very practical survival response — fawning on your captors, treating them with admiration and respect to (hopefully) win their approval, so that they won’t, you know, kill you or hurt you badly, or to even go so far as turning them and/or seducing them, can morph into a very real feeling of admiration, trust, and even love — bonding. This psychological event is often compounded by these captors providing random acts of kindness, such as offering a glass of water. Yes, they may be holding several people at gunpoint, but by offering that water in the situation of danger, they confuse the sensibilities. They are cruel, but also kind. They appear more human, more vulnerable. As the captive person, you will want to see the good in them, and respond to this kindness, even while that gun is trained on you, and you might even start to make excuses for them in your mind; “They are only doing this because they have to. They don’t really mean it.”
“They don’t really mean it…”
The term Stockholm Syndrome, if you’ve never heard of it, comes from an actual event that took place in Stockholm in 1973, where four hostages were taken during a bank robbery and held for five days. After this experience, rather than feeling relief at being rescued, they felt affinity for their captors, and fear of the police who came to get them.
This is the power of the trauma bond.
“I would never do that”
You might think to yourself, “That would never be me. If I were in that situation, it would be totally different.” But how do you know, really? How can you be sure? You have the same basic equipment — brains, fear, intelligence, a sense of self-preservation, bonding hormones. These are the prerequisites to living a normal, healthy life. But they also make it possible to develop a Trauma Bond with someone who is simultaneously hurting you. How do you know that you would fight or flee, and not fawn? You might.
And this doesn’t take place only in large-scale public crimes where people are abducted or imprisoned or held hostage. It can take place in everyday life. It is the reason that a battered wife, or man, will go back to, stay with, and even defend the spouse or partner that is physically harming them. From outside of that situation, it seems nonsensical. But for those inside it, it is their best coping strategy. It may be the only way that they can psychologically survive. And in this way, they keep themselves in the middle of the abuse, rather than move away from it.
But it is important to remember that it is NOT their fault. The captor or the abuser knows exactly what this person is going through. They know exactly how much fear to exploit. They know their capacity for love and compassion, and so they give them just enough kindness to keep them from leaving — and hurt them just enough so that they will feel even worse about themselves if they do leave. They capitalize on their guilt, their shame, their love. And while they understand these emotions in others, typically speaking, they do not experience them in the same way. This is how they are able to be so calculating. And this is what puts many if not most of these types of people into the narcissistic or sociopathic personality spectrum. They may be sociopaths or psychopaths, or the hybrid term, “Narcopath.”
Yes, Even Women
And while our minds might automatically assign a male persona to the NPD or sociopathic individual, these can just as likely be women. I have met several in my life.
Sometimes I wonder to myself, “Is this me? Am I actually a narcissist, and don’t know it?” It’s helpful to remember that all of us can be narcissistic *at times*. It’s part of the human condition. But is a different bag of worms from being a narcissistic personality individual all the time. For one thing, a true narcissist will never question whether they are a narcissist — the very idea is anathema to them, and they are incapable of considering it. And if you’ve every tried to tell and NPD person that they are narcissistic — well, you can guess how well that goes. (Not well.)
Anytime anyone has ever called me “selfish,” I’ve practically spun out of control, doing everything I can to understand why they said that, what about me was so selfish, and what can I do to own up to it, apologize, and earn forgiveness? But no. None of those things can be done. Because what I’ve realized after each time this has happened is that the person making the accusation was themselves behaving selfishly. And in fact, they must have known on some level that I tend to actively try to not be selfish, and so they identified this as a weak spot and crafted this little “dig” to hurt me in a specific way that they know would cause me to question myself. And it *worked*.
Those techniques are all part of gaslighting — a thing that narcissistic abusers do frequently. While putting me into a tailspin where I am ripping myself apart thinking that I am the selfish one, they mosey off, unscathed, never having to take responsibility for their actions or behaviors. And by the time I understand what’s happened, the moment has passed.
So Much Trauma
The reason that I’ve been thinking about trauma bonds so much is because, clearly, I’ve experienced a few. I’ve known for a long time that the idyllic childhood I thought I had was in fact not so idyllic. When my adult life started crashing down around me, and I did not know why, I had to dig deep and look into myself and my family history, and I realized it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows. I remembered it well, but I must have been choosing to remember only the highlights. Because once I removed that facade, I found a wasteland of emotional neglect and abuse that’s been hard to face, even as I know the truth of it. Because of trauma bonding. And because it’s your parents. You naturally want to think that your parents are great. You don’t want to ascribe anything negative to them, because you know that they also ARE you, and that you’ve learned how to be yourself, at least partly, from them. But what happened is real, and it continues to be true, and it continues to have echoes and reverberations throughout my life.
“Once I removed that facade, I found a wasteland of emotional neglect and abuse that’s been hard to face.”
So when I found out about trauma bonds, I looked back through most of my relationships, and I started to wonder if I ever had a real bond with anyone, or if I only ever had “trauma bonds” in my romantic relationships. I began to question if it is even possible for me to “fall in love,” or does that “love” feeling require me to also feel super crappy and insulted and disrespected by the other person, so that I can always be trying to improve myself (or them), and therefore “heal” and perfect either that specific relationship, or the brokenness I felt from the past, or both in one fell swoop. Even as I know, consciously, that was not likely to work, unconsciously, my heart wanted it to work so badly. It never has, up until now. It’s not likely to. And I’ve made myself miserable trying.
So I’ve taken a hiatus from dating — a “guyatus,” if you will (I didn’t make it up, but you can use it as well). And I plan to keep not-dating for a few more months, until I feel ready to dip my toes in and try something different. It’s so difficult, because after unwittingly following old patterns and thinking that you *are* in love, you start doubting yourself more. You start to question the very nature of love, and whether or not you can even recognize it when it does show up at your door. But I am continuing to hold out some form of hope for myself, and this possibility: that it does exist.
It’s not all bad
There was one other thing that occurred to me about Trauma Bonds. They are not all bad. They can’t be. Hold on. Stay with me for a second. Because if they show up in this unhealthy way, that must be because there is a healthy way that they exist. So I started to think about soldiers in battle, and how they often feel connected to those they have fought with for the rest of their lives. They have been through a traumatic experience together, and that shared experience has solidified their bond. This is not bad at all. There has to be come good, evolutionary reason for this. And it doesn’t have to be war, either— going through any kind of difficult experience with others can be a socially bonding experience.
Then there is the original trauma bond: birth. The process of birth is inherently traumatic for both the mother and the baby. No one emerges from that experience uninjured, unscathed, untransformed. Yet it is the ultimate bond. It is the height of oxytocin release. No matter what kind of mother you have, or if you never see her again, it is a permanent bond.
And that is how G-d/the Universe/Evolution has created us. Yes, intense joy and pleasure, like an orgasm, will bond us to others. But perhaps counterintuitively, our deepest bonding is through the kind of pain and trauma that rends us, that tears us apart, that thrusts us into breathing, gasping for air; that changes us in such a way that we can never be the same — this is how we connect most powerfully with others.
And this kind of Trauma Bond is something I can live with.