Tag Archives: trauma bonds

Breaking the Codependency Myth: The Power of the Trauma Bond

Breaking the Codependency Myth: The Power of The Trauma Bond by Shahida Arabi

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“Free” by Alice Popkorn via Flickr. Creative Commons License.
Ever had a victim-blamer claim you were “codependent”? That you in some way deserved the abuse, or that it was your fault? Let them know: codependency was a term historically used to describe interactions between addicts and their loved ones, not victims and abusers. Dr. Clare Murphy asserts that abuse victims can actually exhibit codependent traits as a result of trauma, not because they are codependent.
Contrary to popular myth, anyone can be victimized by an abuser – even one with strong boundaries initially, because covert abuse is insidious and unbelievably traumatic, resulting in symptoms of PTSD, Complex PTSD or, if they were abused by a malignant narcissist, what is known as Narcissistic Victim Syndrome. Remember that abuse involves a slow erosion of boundaries over time. The abuser first idealizes the victim, then begins to test and push the boundaries of the victim once he or she has already been conned into the sham of a relationship. Meanwhile, the survivor of abuse is like a frog in slowly boiling water, gaslit into believing that it is all their fault, not knowing the danger they’re in until it’s too late.

In some contexts, it may be helpful to pinpoint codependent traits and behaviors, but when the label codependent is used to shame, stigmatize or blame abuse survivors, it becomes very problematic and harmful. We need to be able to take into account the idea that emotional and psychological abuse, much like assault or any other form of physical violence, is not our fault. We can own our agency and heal without having to blame ourselves in the process. The fault lies with the perpetrator, not with the victim.

It is not the victim’s fault for ‘choosing’ the abuser either, because victims rarely consciously choose an abuser.  They choose someone who appears rather kind, caring and compassionate at the onset. The victim falls in love and invests in the false mask an abuser portrays, and rarely the true self. It is only when they are invested in the relationship that the mask begins to slip and the terror begins.

Once someone has been traumatized, again and again by someone who claimed to love them, once an abuser has warped the victim’s reality and caused him or to mistrust their perceptions through gaslighting, once a victim has been made to believe he or she is worthless, they are already traumatically bonded to their abusers. It takes a great deal of professional support, validation and resources in order for victims to detach from their abusers and begin to heal.

There is only one person who can “control” the abuse, and that is the abuser alone. There is a great deal of variety within the survivor group and we have to acknowledge that there are many survivors who come into the abusive relationship very independent, strong-willed, and empathic, but their strengths are exploited, manipulated and slowly broken down by the abuser over time. It doesn’t matter how codependent or how independent we are, because abusers will abuse their victims regardless – that is their nature. In fact, they would probably enjoy the challenge if a victim was independent, as sick as they are.

When it comes to living in a perpetual war zone of intermittent kindness and chronic cruelty, there is no ‘enabling’ of the abuse, merely a need to survive in a hostile environment. There is a clear power imbalance between abuser and victim as the abuser ‘manages down’ the victim’s expectations, threatens, controls, coerces, blameshifts and projects onto the victim his or her own vile attributes. As the victim is verbally abused, psychologically terrorized and emotionally assaulted, he or she has to find ways to minimize, rationalize, deny and ‘bond’ with the abuser in an effort to survive.

This is a survival mechanism known as ‘trauma bonding,’ and victim-blamers ought to educate themselves on it, because anyone can be made to ‘act’ or ‘appear’ codependent simply by being traumatized in the first place. As you learned in my article, Your Brain on Love, Sex and the Narcissist as well as my book, Becoming the Narcissist’s Nightmare, abuse has traumatic effects on the brain, tying us psychologically, biochemically and psychologically with our abusers.  This bond has very little to do with codependency, and everything to do with the traumatic effects of abuse. Even a highly independent victim who is strong-willed at the beginning of the relationship can begin to demonstrate symptoms of the trauma bond, PTSD or Complex PTSD – because it doesn’t have anything to do with the traits of the victim when it comes to trauma. No one is immune to the effects of severe, life-changing trauma and chronic abuse – no one.

Even if you feel you have codependent traits or were ‘primed’ by childhood abuse, the abuse you’ve experienced in any stage of your life is still not your fault.  You are not an “enabler” of the abuser. You are a victim who has been traumatically bonded to an abuser as an effort to survive. Understand the trauma bond, and you will understand how it is different from your actual feelings of disgust, anger and pain towards your abuser. Your authentic feelings about your abuser are buried beneath the apparently inextricable bond. In order to extricate yourself, you must develop a separation between the bond and your actual reality of the abuse. Write about the abuse when you feel safe to do so; consult a trauma-informed, validating mental health professional; speak with other survivors to validate the manipulation and mistreatment you’ve endured.

Holding onto the reality of the abuse, as well as your true feelings about it, is one of the most important things you can do in order to resist the gaslighting effect, release self-blame and begin to break the chains of the trauma bond. The bond may keep you attached to your abuser, but it is possible to sever it and regain your power.

CROSS-POSTED AT THE HUFFINGTON POST.

Copyright © 2016 by Shahida Arabi. 

All rights reserved. This article is derived from copyrighted excerpts from my book, Becoming the Narcissist’s Nightmare: How to Devalue and Discard the Narcissist While Supplying YourselfNo part of this entry may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the author. This includes adaptations in all forms of media.


Interested in learning more about narcissistic abuse? Order my #1 Amazon bestselling book on narcissistic abuse, Becoming the Narcissist’s Nightmare: How to Devalue and Discard the Narcissist While Supplying Yourself

Available for purchase on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, NOOK, iBooks and other major online retailers. It is available in paperback, as an e-book and as an Audible book.

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About the Author

Shahida Arabi is a graduate of Columbia University graduate school where she studied the effects of bullying across the life-course trajectory. She is the #1 Amazon bestselling author of The Smart Girl’s Guide to Self-Care and  Becoming the Narcissist’s Nightmare: How to Devalue, and Discard the Narcissist While Supplying Yourself, featured as a #1 Amazon Bestseller in three categories and in personality disorders for six consecutive months after its release. She studied Psychology and English Literature as an undergraduate at NYU, where she graduated summa cum laude. Her interests include psychology, sociology, education, gender studies and mental health advocacy. Her writing has been featured on The Huffington Post, MOGUL, Thought Catalog, and Harvard-trained psychologist Dr. Monica O’Neal’s website. Her blog, Self-Care Haven, has had millions of views from all over the world and her work has been shared by numerous mental health professionals, award-winning bloggers and bestselling authors.

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Your Brain on Love, Sex and the Narcissist: The Addiction to Bonding with Our Abusers

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Your Brain on Love, Sex and the Narcissist: The Addiction to Bonding with our Abusers  

by Shahida Arabi 

*If you enjoy this post, please consider supporting Self-Care Haven by purchasing the e-book version of this article, which is an extended and more in-depth look into these biochemical bonds. All proceeds will go towards services for survivors. If you were inspired by this article and would like to write about about this perspective, please be sure to link back to the article. Thank you!

 April 27, 2015 

Many survivors of narcissistic abuse are confounded by the addiction they feel to the narcissist, long after the abusive relationship took a toll on their physical, mental, and emotional well-being. Make no mistake: recovery from an abusive relationship can be very similar to withdrawal from drug addiction due to the biochemical bonds we may develop with our toxic ex-partners.

Understanding why we are addicted permits us recognize that our addiction is not about the merits of the narcissist, but rather the nature and severity of the trauma we’ve experienced. It enables us to detach and move forward with powerful knowledge that can propel us towards greater agency and healthier relationships than the ones we’ve experienced in the past. In addition, it challenges the victim-blaming discourse in society that prevents many abuse survivors from gaining support and validation for the traumas they’ve experienced – validation that would actually help, not hinder, these survivors in leaving their abusive relationships.

Survivors struggle with No Contact and may suffer many relapses on the road to recovery from the psychological trauma of the relationship. Aside from the reasons I’ve proposed in this blog post on why abuse survivors stay in abusive relationships, I thought I’d explore how our own brain chemistry can lock us into this addiction to the narcissist or sociopathic partner.  Some of these same biochemical bonds also make it difficult for us to detach from non-narcissistic partners as well.

1) Oxytocin. This hormone, known famously as the “cuddle” or “love hormone,” is released during touching, orgasm and sexual intercourse; it promotes attachment and trust. It is the same hormone released by the hypothalamus that enables bonding between mother and child. During “lovebombing” and mirroring in the idealization phases with our abusive partners, it’s likely that our bond to them is quite strong as a result of this hormone. Intermittent reinforcement of positive behaviors dispersed throughout the abuse cycle (e.g. gifts, flowers, compliments, sex) ensures that we still release oxytocin even after experiencing incidents of abuse.

I’ve heard from many survivors who reminisce about the great sexual relationship they had with the narcissist, containing an electrifying sexual chemistry they feel unable to achieve with future partners. This is because charming emotional predators such as narcissists are able to mirror our deepest sexual and emotional desires, which leads to a strong sexual bond, which then, of course, releases oxytocin, and promotes even more trust and attachment. Meanwhile, the narcissist, who is usually devoid of empathy and does not form these types of close attachments, is able to move onto his or her next source of supply without much thought or remorse.

The addictive nature of oxytocin is also gendered according to Susan Kuchinskas, author of the book, The Chemistry of Connection: How the Oxytocin Response Can Help You Find Trust, Intimacy and Love. The unfortunate fact is that estrogen promotes the effects of oxytocin bonding whereas testosterone discourages it. This makes it more difficult for females in any type of relationship to detach from the bond as quickly as men.

2) Dopamine. The same neurotransmitter that is responsible for cocaine addiction is the same one responsible for addiction to dangerous romantic partners. According to Harvard Health, both drugs and intense, pleasurable memories trigger dopamine and create reward circuits in the brain, essentially telling the brain to “do it again.”

Do you remember recalling the pleasurable, beautiful first moments with your narcissistic partner? The romantic dates, the sweet compliments and praise, the incredible sex – long after you two had broken up? Yeah – it’s releasing the dopamine in your brain that’s telling you to “do it again.”

The salience theory of dopamine suggests that our brain releases dopamine not just for pleasurable events but to important ones that are linked to survival. As Samantha Smithstein, Psy.d, puts it, “Dopamine is not just a messenger that dictates what feels good; it is also tells the brain what is important and what to pay attention to in order to survive. And the more powerful the experience is, the stronger the message is to the brain to repeat the activity for survival.”

Abuse survivors are unfortunately hijacked by dopamine. Abusive tactics like intermittent reinforcement works well with our dopamine system, because studies show that dopamine flows more readily when the rewards are given out on unpredictable schedule rather than predictably after conditioned cues.

So the random sweet nothings whispered to us after an incident of emotional abuse, the apologies, the pity ploys, the rare displays of tenderness during the devaluation phase, right before another incident of abuse – actually help cement this type of reward circuit rather than deter it. Combine this with powerful experiences of abuse which alert our brain to “pay attention” as well as pleasurable memories we recollect over and over again – and we’ve got ourselves a biochemical bond from hell.

3) Cortisol, Adrenaline and Norepinephrine. Cortisol is a stress hormone, and boy, does it get released during the traumatic highs and lows of an abusive relationship. It is released by the adrenal glands in response to fear as part of the “fight or flight” mechanism. Since we are unlikely to have a physical outlet of release when cortisol is triggered during cycles of emotional abuse, this often traps the stress within our bodies instead. As we ruminate over incidents of abuse, increased levels of cortisol lead to more and more health problems.  Christopher Bergland suggests numerous ways to counteract the effects of this hormone, which include physical activity, mindfulness, meditation, laughter, music and social connectivity.

Adrenaline and norepinephrine also prepare our body for the flight or fight response, and are also culprits in biochemical reactions to our abusers. Adrenaline promotes an antidepressant effect, triggering fear and anxiety which then releases dopamine – this can cause us to become “adrenaline junkies,” addicted to the rush of vacillating between bonding and betrayal. During No Contact, withdrawal from that “rush” can be incredibly painful.

4) Trauma bonding. All of these jolts of fear and anxiety in the face of danger can reenact past traumas and create trauma bonding. Trauma bonding occurs after intense, emotional experiences with our abusers and tethers us to them, creating subconscious patterns of attachment that are very difficult to detach from. It is part of the phenomenon known as Stockholm Syndrome, in which victims of hostage become attached to their perpetrators and even defend their captors.

Although survivors of narcissistic abuse come from many different backgrounds and anyone can be a victim of narcissistic abuse, trauma bonding is even more significant for those who grow up in violent or emotionally abusive homes, and/or have had a narcissistic parent in addition to their most recent experiences with trauma and abuse. Survivors of multiple incidents of abuse by various narcissistic individuals can further reinforce subconscious wounds they experienced in childhood in the trauma bond with their current abusers. If there has been victimization in the past, such as the experience of having to survive in an abusive household, this can lead to trauma repetition or reenactment, the root of which Gary Reece, Ph.D in his article, “The Trauma Bond,” calls “relational trauma”:

“The key to understanding behavior found in abusive relationships is to look at the very early years of childhood.  Relational trauma is at the root….There are several features these kinds of relationships have in common.   The first is, they are deeply ambivalent, reflective of the Trauma Bond:  fear, dependency, need, fear of abandonment, despair, the realization of helplessness, and rage.  This is an amalgam of very powerful emotions which drive and make the relationship so unstable…The second feature of this kind of relationship is that it is a compulsive reenactment. Allan Schore, an attachment expert put it this way.  “A further complication of unresolved trauma is narrative reenactment of the trauma wherein the victim unconsciously recreates the original traumatic event over and over.”  (Handbook for Treatment of Attachment Trauma, pg. 35)

For more information on trauma bonding, please see The Betrayal Bond: Breaking Free of Exploitative Relationships by Patrick Carnes.

It is important to understand the various types of biochemical and psychological bonds that often create attachments between abusers and their victims. Better understanding these bonds enables us to move past victim-blaming and move forward into greater understanding, compassion and support for survivors who struggle with leaving abusive relationships. We must not judge but continue to empower ourselves and others with this newfound knowledge.

Interested in learning more about narcissistic abuse? Pre-order my new book on narcissistic abuse, Becoming the Narcissist’s Nightmare: How to Devalue and Discard the Narcissist While Supplying Yourself.


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Copyright © 2015 by Shahida Arabi. 

All rights reserved. No part of this entry may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the author. This includes adaptations in all forms of media.

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About the Author

UntitledShahida Arabi is a graduate student at Columbia University, the author of The Smart Girl’s Guide to Self-Care, a bestselling Kindle book also available in print. She studied Psychology and English Literature as an undergraduate at NYU, where she graduated summa cum laude. Her interests include psychology, sociology, education, gender studies and mental health advocacy. You can check out her new blog, Self-Care Haven, for topics related to mindfulness, mental health, narcissistic abuse and recovery from emotional trauma, like her page on Facebook, and subscribe to her YouTube Channel.