In Stockholm Sweden, in 1973 a man entered a bank and took 4 bank employees hostage. He forced the employees into the vault at gun point and gave his demands to police. After a siege of about 6 days, police fired tear gas into the bank, which allowed them to free the hostages and arrest the bank robber. It is alleged that one of the hostages continued a relationship with the bank robber and after he served his ten year sentence they became engaged.
Janet met Jeff in 2005. After a world wind courtship, they quickly moved in together. Almost immediately afterword, Janet noticed a change in Jeff. The man, who had once been so free with his compliments and kindness, was now obsessively cruel and critical. According to Janet, Jeff started a reign of terror, flying into rages when things didn’t go his way. He continued to demean, humiliate and verbally assault her at almost every turn. His verbal assault soon escalated into physical abuse. He isolated her from family and friends and blamed her for all the misery in his life. When the physical abuse first started she left him, but after repeated reassurances from him that it wouldn’t happen again and grandiose displays of remorse, she relented and moved back in with him. The pattern of abuse, followed by periods of remorse continued and Janet now has 2 children and remains in the relationship.
These two examples are what is now commonly referred to as a trauma bond. The first being the infamous story behind the term Stockholm Syndrome. According to Dr. Patrick Carnes, author of The Betrayal Bond: Breaking Free of Exploitive Relationships; a trauma bond is any relationship that seems to defy logic. He states that trauma bonds can happen to anybody, at any time. They can develop fairly quickly and are extremely difficult to sever.
According to Carnes, in order for a trauma bond to develop three elements must be present. There must be:
- A power differential (One person behaves in an oppressive, controlling and dominant manner).
- Intermittent rewards (Random moments of kindness and tenderness, mixed in with painful and hurtful treatment).
- Periods of high arousal (defined as intense feelings of fear, anxiety, excitement, or any emotion that puts your nervous system on high alert) followed by periods of intense bonding.
Trauma bonds do not only exist in extreme situations, where life and death are at stake. While they do most commonly develop in victims of kidnappings, incest survivors, prisoners of war and battered women, a parallel can be drawn to victims of Narcissistic abuse.
The most common theme I receive from my emails is that despite all of the pain their relationships have caused them, the overwhelming majority of individuals that have dated Narcissists are still in love with them and want them back after they have been discarded. Most refer to themselves as weak and pathetic, lacking in willpower, self-esteem and emotional strength, but there is a lot more going on than just a low self-esteem and a lack of will.
Carnes tells us that, “Logic would say that using fear and threats are not a good way to gain cooperation and loyalty. The irony is that in a perverse way it is. Fear immobilizes and deepens attachment.”
Oppression creates dependency. Anytime we give, or someone takes away our personal power, we become bound to their will. We become weak, needy, anxious and fearful. I discussed in a previous blog the effects of intermittent rewards – how experiments with primates playing with a fruit slot machine that paid out intermittently caused them to play with it all day, as opposed to the effects when fruit was given every time they pulled the lever, or when fruit never came out when they pulled the lever. When we cannot predict when a reward (kindness, affection) will be given, it causes us to intensify our focus and our efforts and it is the premise behind gambling addiction. In relationships these aspects cause a type of emotional addiction, where we develop a deep emotional attachment to the object of our abuse.
Consider for a moment, two combat veterans, who have both been witness to and participated in the atrocities of war. The depth of their attachment to each other forms from their shared and deeply troubling experiences. An experience that they know civilians could never understand.
The same can be said for the atrocities that go on in a relationship with a Narcissist. Many have said that they have never felt such a deep connection to anyone before. They call their abuser their best friend, or even their soul mate. But the connection does not come from reciprocal love, kindness and trust. It lies in the high emotional charge from the trauma. Shared trauma deepens connection.
This begs the question: How can you feel such a strong connection to the actual person that is responsible for the trauma and the pain? Along with what we’ve mentioned above there are two other reasons: disassociation and identification with the aggressor.
Disassociation is a big Psychology buzz word. A simple definition would be when we are in the midst of a trauma we let our minds go somewhere else. It’s a defense mechanism that allows us to escape from the reality that is going on around us. When we disassociate, those experiences do not integrate with our memory the way that normal thoughts and experiences do, it’s hidden in our subconscious and in some cases, can only be retrieved through hypnosis.
So when we ‘tune out’ the bad behavior of an abuser all that is available to our conscious mind are those intermittent moments of good behavior. This is why many of us, after we’ve been discarded, are only able to think about the few good times we’ve shared with them and why all the bad memories seem to be inaccessible. We know they’re there, but they are not sitting in the foreground of our conscious mind the way that the normal memories would be.
Identification with the Aggressor
If you said to your child every day, “You’re useless. You will always be good for nothing,” what do you think would happen to that child’s belief about themselves? When something is repeated and repeated to us, we start to internalize and accept that opinion as truth. This is the concept behind identification with the aggressor.
Narcissists like to spout off about a lot of things. They are extremely critical and their objective is to create obedience and dependence. When someone is telling us over and over and even showing us, that we don’t matter, that we are worthless, we will start to internalize those beliefs.
What happens is that we start to believe that we are deserving of the poor treatment we are receiving, that we are the cause our partner’s eruptions and any abuse that follows. It becomes all too easy for victims of this type of abuse to accept the responsibility for other people’s bad behavior and we come to believe that they are right about us. Heaven forbid that you even have a few negative beliefs about yourself to begin with, for with this type of onslaught, they will be able to convince you that you are the worst person that has ever lived.
Aside from all the emotional and psychological reasons that we continue to stay in, or even long for our abusive relationships once they’ve ended, there are biological components as well. When someone is flying off the handle at us, our nervous system is on high alert, preparing us to fight or take flight. When we are constantly in this high state of arousal our nervous system become accustomed to the high levels of stress hormones our bodies are producing. We create and cement neural pathways, which will in future make all ‘normal’ relationships seem boring and uninteresting. This happens because they cannot produce those same high arousal feelings that we have become accustomed to and that we have come to believe are deep love and connection.
The hormone Oxytocin (the bonding hormone) plays a role too. Carnes tells us that, “women tend to tend and mend, “when their partner is exhibiting outrageous behavior, rather than walk away and leave them to their own misery.
So the next time you are beating yourself up for feeling weak and pathetic about missing and even loving someone that caused you considerable harm, remember that trauma creates deep attachment bonds and there are a lot of emotional, psychological and even physiological factors at play, all of which are causing you to crave the very person that causes you the most harm.
You can physically walk away from your abuser – just like a heroin addict can stop abusing drugs – it will end the physiological addiction, but it doesn’t even touch the emotional and psychological aspects of the problem. Until you tackle those issues, just like the drug addict, you are bound to relapse – it may or may not be with the same individual, but you will seek out people that create those high arousal states in you.
Next week we will talk about breaking those bonds for good.
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