Trauma Bonding 101: Why Is It So Hard to Leave a Narcissist?

Trauma bonding can be such a difficult thing to explain. It goes against our rational thinking that a person can become addicted to a toxic or abusive relationship with a narcissist. The option to leave seems so simple and often has people wondering “How did this happen to me? How did I end up here?” Those experiencing trauma bonds not only struggle with their own push/pull feelings of wanting to stay or leave, but also others not understanding why leaving is so hard. My intent here is to shed some light on the formation of trauma bonds and to demystify why it is so hard to leave a narcissist.

I ran across a helpful analogy for trauma bonding while reading “Where the Red Fern Grows” to my son. This is one of those 4th grade classroom must read books about wilderness that I remember reading at that age. When we got to the part about trapping raccoons (which I know nothing about), I was struck by similarities to trauma bonding being described in the book. You see, according to the book, once a raccoon grabs hold of an object it will not let go, even if this mean his paw is stuck and he will suffer by staying caught in the trap. All the raccoon has to do is let go and remove his paw to be free from the danger. The book goes on to say that this is coded into the raccoon and no matter how easy it would be to let go and save themselves, they just will not do it.

I paused as I read this and thought, this is exactly what happens to people caught in a toxic relationship cycle. Like the raccoon, it would make sense for the person to cut ties and never look back, but that’s not what happens due to physiological changes in our bodies that happen when you are in a relationship with a narcissist.

So what does all of this mean? Well, let’s take a look at how trauma bonds work. A relationship with a narcissist does not start off as overtly toxic. If they began the relationship with the hurtful tactics to come, a person would have no vested interest to stay. Instead, they will turn on the charm and often be very charismatic. They will lay it on very thick and appear to be the perfect boy/girlfriend. They may shower you with gifts and compliments, want to spend every moment with you, and tell you how in love with you they are. The whole relationship may feel like a whirlwind of intense affection. This is called love bombing. The narcissist bombards you with love and and affection to seal the relationship deal quickly.

Love bombing feels great! Who doesn’t love constant compliments and large doses of affection? This releases all the feel good chemicals in our brain such as dopamine and serotonin. That flood of chemicals taps into our feelings of happiness, reward, and motivation. This keeps us coming back for more!

Now that the narcissist has set this foundation, they know they can start to slowly chip away at you and still maintain control in the relationship. To keep the dominance, which feeds their narcissistic supply, they will start a slow drip of toxic behavior that often causes you to second guess yourself and your reality. They may say things like “You are being so dramatic about this”, “I never said/did that”, “You are crazy- that never happened”, “You are so sensitive- you know I didn’t mean that”. These are all forms of gaslighting behaviors. This sets off another type of chemical reaction in our brains. Our bodies get flooded with cortisol, which keeps us hypervigilant and in the fight or flight state of mind. This does not feel good and we want to get out of this state a quickly as possible.

At this point, you are strapped in for the roller coaster ride. They typically will start to sprinkle in just enough of the previous loving behavior to thoroughly confuse you and your chemical make up. The intense highs and lows of the various chemical floods to our system become the new normal and the new comfort zone. Life starts to feel out of control if you are not experiencing the intense peaks and valleys, very similar to a drug addict chasing their next high.

This does not happen overnight. The process is slow and continuous. By this point your brain has changed and you are addicted to these spikes. Even when you make the cognitive choice (or the narcissist may make the choice for you) to leave the relationship, the chemical pull continues. You may think about giving them another chance or get caught up again in their twisted lies. You may feel like you are so much a part of them that you can’t live without them. You may try to convince yourself to stay in the cycle because it’s familiar and now is the supply to your altered brain chemistry. This is trauma bonding. It is the very reason why leaving a narcissist or going no contact feels like a withdrawal to your system. On a physiological level- it is.

This a very basic, but also straightforward and concise look at the intricate development of trauma bonding. I will save the steps for successfully leaving a narcissist for another post, but I wanted to provide you with the educational framework as to why it is so hard to break free from this type of relationship. You are now armed with the language to speak kindly to yourself and use self talk to walk yourself through what is happening. You also have language to explain what you are experiencing when others say “Just ignore them” or “Just leave”. You are not going crazy. You are not a glutton for punishment. You are not weak. With the right tools and supports, you can reverse this process and break free from the trauma bonds of the narcissist.