When Love is not the Strongest Bond

Verbal violence makes me feel: sad, disillusioned, discouraged, ashamed, angry, afraid, confused. It also makes me lose respect. This is how I interpret it: she must not love me very much if she is willing to hurt me like this. I feel like she doesn’t have my back, and I can’t trust her, because I never know when the next outburst will happen. At least I no longer go to, “there must be something wrong with me.” I know no matter what I did or said, I do not deserve it. Why do I continue to accept it when it makes me feel so bad? Is my self-esteem really this low? I need to start emotionally disengaging so that I can think more clearly. I was a strong woman when I entered into this relationship. Now I can feel myself becoming weaker. Today I didn’t even request an apology. Waited until she was calmer and asked  for a hug. I want to judge myself harshly for that. (Journal entry April 2015, 9 months into relationship with S)

My heart still breaks for the woman who wrote that journal entry. Yes, my self-esteem was that low, and I continued to accept verbal and emotional abuse from my partner for more than a year after that. On that April day, I knew  it was a mistake to ask for affection from the person who was mistreating me, which is why I experienced shame. What I didn’t know, was that I had been conditioned for this.

Narcissists use something called “Trauma Bonding”, to hook you into their ongoing cycle of emotional abuse. Emotional violence triggers powerful negative feelings in the victim. Shock, fear, extreme anxiety, even panic are common responses to intimate partner violence, that come with physical symptoms. Not only our psyche, but also our body is on maximum alert. First Adrenalin, the fight or flight hormone kicks in, and if the stressor is not reduced, Cortisol takes over.  Prolonged exposure to stress hormones can make us feel unwell. Headaches, jitteriness, trouble sleeping and an upset stomach can all be signs of stress overload. And because they make us so uncomfortable, once the stressor is removed, we feel instant relief. That’s why trauma bonding is such a powerful bond. That’s also why we are willing to do almost anything to make the horrible feelings stop, and have the calm return, even if it is just for a little while. We learn quickly, like Pavlovian dogs, that upsetting the Narcissist will unleash punishment in the form of emotional abuse, from which only our abuser can rescue us. Thus the trauma bond is created.

Trauma bonding occurs very quickly and is enduring. Once created, it becomes increasingly more difficult to break, which is why victims stay, even long after they have become aware of how detrimental it is. It flourishes in an environment of deception and lies, and is made stronger the more isolated the victim becomes from family and friends. It is in fact psychological warfare, with worsening effects the longer it is allowed to continue. Ultimately, trauma bonding, uninterrupted can lead to PTSD.

There are some ways to combat trauma bonding, even if you aren’t ready to end your relationship. If you have been isolated, reach out to others. Being around ‘normal’ people will give you a sense that another way of life is possible. In my case, outside connections were my lifeline when I was ready to leave. Tell at least one person the truth about what’s going on. This will make a huge difference when you start to see your relationship in a new light. In my case, I reconnected with my best friend of 30 years, who was rock solid support and was able to mirror the truth back to me when I thought I was going crazy. Start doing tiny, small things for yourself. I know you probably have forgotten all about self-care while taking exquisite care of the narcissist, but being such an excellent nurturer will help you rediscover ways to nourish yourself. I started putting daily walks back into my life, and stuck to them no matter what. Eventually I started hearing the still, small voice inside myself again. You might be worried that doing this will jeopardize your relationship, and I know how scary that feels. But believe me when I say, if the end comes, you will be much better prepared if you put a little bit of focus back on you.

Breaking the trauma bond for good is not easy. Because it is so strong, often the only effective way is to have no contact. Even then, expect some serious feelings of missing, pining, longing and extreme sadness, all of which can make it really hard to maintain no contact. There were times I asked my friend to change my passwords to social media, because the need to snoop felt so urgent, and I couldn’t trust myself. Until I found out about trauma bonding, I thought I was crazy for wanting to be with someone who hurt me so badly. Now when I have moments of wanting contact, I gently tell myself I’ve been infected with the trauma bonding virus, and I have to tolerate the discomfort until I’m free of it. Unfortunately, this takes time. One study I read, said that the symptoms of missing and longing abate  by 27% in the first six months after no contact. I know this is disheartening, but it should give you some idea of how serious what you experienced was.

Today, while I do not feel completely free, I can say with conviction that I am finding my way back to myself, which has been an incredible journey. If you find yourself in a similar situation as I did, please don’t give up on yourself. I know it’s scary to think of life without the narcissist, but believe me when I say, it gets soooo much better. You are worth it.

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