In this article, you will learn more about trauma bonding, codependency, and narcissistic abuse. This information will help you identify if you are experiencing abuse in your relationship. It will help provide clarity if you may be trauma bonded to an narcissistic abusive partner as well.
These insights will help you heal as you must first name a problem to solve it.
Trauma Bonding, Codependency, and Narcissistic Abuse
It’s important to first define codependency, narcissistic abuse and trauma bonding.
Most simply, codependency is the consistent pattern of focusing on others’ approval and wellbeing over your own. Codependency is fundamentally an overall pattern of living from a place of people pleasing in which you deplete your own physical and mental health.
When a narcissistic partner is abusive, this is narcissistic abuse (more on this in a moment). Abuse may be emotional, verbal, sexual, physical and/or financial.
Finally, trauma bonding refers to the emotional attachment between a victim of abuse and the perpetrator of it.
Codependency and Narcissism
People experiencing codependency and people experiencing narcissism are often a perfect complement for one another’s emotional and behavioral symptoms. Ross Rosenberg (2019) calls this the “human magnet syndrome.”
The symptoms of codependency in a person are attractive to a narcissist. A person with codependency is fundamentally a people pleaser. This preoccupation with always trying to make others happy and comfortable stems from low self-worth and a fear of rejection. And a narcissist exploits these natural insecurities in the codependent person to obtain a partner who both is adoring, helpful, and unconditionally loyal.
Narcissistic abuse tends to be quite covert or hidden. Many clients I’ve worked with share it took them years to realize they were being abused by a narcissist.
There are a number of reasons for this. First, many people – myself included – were not taught about what constitutes as emotional or psychological abuse. This means that only the most overt abuse such as physical or sexual abuse is obvious to many people.
When you combine this lack of clarity as what defines abuse with the natural tendency of a narcissist to gaslight, a person is left questioning if they’re relationship is really that “bad.” A narcissist will reinforce this too perhaps by telling the other person they are “too sensitive” for not liking the abuse. Or they may tell them they are “crazy” for saying certain things happened which the narcissist adamantly denies (such as calling them a name, stealing, or cheating).
Codependency and Narcissistic Abuse
When you combine the often hidden nature of narcissistic abuse and codependency, it can be an especially problematic combination.
When a narcissist gaslights, they are already trying to manipulate the other person. They are trying to make them second guess themselves. This is especially damaging to a person with codependency who already struggles to believe themselves. This is related to the codependent symptom of having “issues with reality.” When a narcissist gaslights a person with codependency, they are quick to believe they are bad or wrong for ever questioning how the narcissist was treating them.
Getting Trapped In An Abusive Relationship With A Narcissist
A person with codependency often may feel “stuck” in an abusive relationship with a narcissist. Yet some of the symptoms of codependency make it especially hard to leave. (This is in addition to abuse that may make it scary or life-threatening to leave. This include threats to hurt the person, themselves or loved ones if they leave. It also includes financial dependency on the abuser.)
This is because a key symptom of codependency is that a person will prioritize a fantasy of their partner over reality. This fantasy creates a thought process for the codependent person that if they just work harder, or find the “perfect” thing to say, the narcissistic person will always treat them right. And a narcissist is all too happy to reinforce this too with their gaslighting i.e., “if only you complained less, we could be really happy.”
Furthermore, a narcissist will both affirm their partner and then devalue them. A codependent person is left wondering who the “real” version of their partner is – and be terrified of leaving them in case they are truly “good.” They don’t want the next person who is with their partner to reap all the benefits of their hard work so they stay.
People get stuck in abusive relationships at times because of a “trauma bond.” This emotional attachment to one’s abuser is a trauma bond. It makes it especially hard to leave an abusive relationship because trauma is confused with love.
The cycle of trauma bonding involves times where the narcissistic partner is abusive. Perhaps they call you names or criticize you. Maybe they openly cheat on you. Or they may demean you. Here, a person naturally feels deep wounding with their partner.
But then at some point, the abuser becomes kind and nurturing. The victim may feel “high” from this loving attention to the person who was hurting them. This is a classic trauma bond symptom.
It’s Still Trauma (Even if it Feels Good Sometimes)
When the relief of kindness comes, it’s coming from the perpetrator of your pain. The abuser is both the savior and the perpetrator which creates internal conflict. And since a person with codependency struggles with reality, it can reinforce a trauma bond.
They may have the illusion, for instance, that the person who is kind and nurturing after abuse is their “real” partner. And if they are just patient and loving enough, their partner will always be kind to them.
Yet in reality, the abusive partner is not the perpetrator and the savior. They are always the perpetrator. Even when they’re masking this behind apologies, compliments, or affection.
How to Break a Trauma Bond
The first step to breaking a trauma bond is to acknowledge the truth that this is a toxic attachment rather than true love.
True love – secure attachments – make us stronger, healthier, and happier. A trauma bond is literally the opposite of this. It depletes people leaving them exhausted, on edge, depressed. It makes you less of who you are – not more.
Just having the courage to name the trauma bond and toxic relationship is an important step to healing. You don’t need to be ready to leave.
Healing from the Trauma Bond
You may want to try to heal your relationship – and you have that right but to truly have a healthy relationship with a person who is abusing you, therapy is recommended. A narcissist will often give empty apologies but not actually do the work to be safe for you. If they are truly able and willing to be a safe person for you then your partner will likely want to go to therapy too.
Healing from narcissism – and narcissistic abuse – is a complex process. It’s essential to have the support of a trained licensed therapist to help guide you and your partner through this.
If you can’t do therapy with your partner – or they’re unwilling, you can still heal. The first step here is to focus on reclaiming yourself. When you are being abused – and have codependency – it’s common to feel like you “lost yourself.” This is actually a sign of going into the freeze state of the trauma response of fight-flight-freeze.
To move out of freeze, it’s important to do things that enliven you. These activities make you feel alive and connected to others, the world, yourself in a safe way. Getting into nature or being with a pet are examples of this. Deep breathing also helps here.
Working with a therapist is also advised to help you here. After all, being with a person who is abusing you and you’re bonded to is highly traumatic. And you deserve the support of a professional to guide you as clearly as possible to healing which you can do (whether you leave your partner or not).
You Can Heal
Please know you can heal from codependency, narcissistic abuse and trauma bonds.
The first step you are already doing which is honoring the truth of the abuse and trauma bond. You may next want to focus on trauma healing as discussed above.
Codependency recovery is also completely possible. There are many resources to do this including my books, The Codependency Recovery Plan: A 5-Step Guide to Understand, Accept, and Break Free from the Codependent Cycle, The Codependency Workbook: Simple Practices for Developing and Maintaining Your Independence and Setting Boundaries: 100 Ways to Protect Yourself, Strengthen Your Relationships and Build the Life You Want…Starting Now! (Therapy Within Reach).
Whatever step you take next, please know it is worth this work. You deserve true safety and respect!
About The Author
Krystal Mazzola Wood, LMFT is a practicing relationship therapist and author with over a decade of experience. Currently, Krystal sees clients at her private practice, The Healthy Relationship Foundation. She has dedicated her entire career to empowering people to find their voice, deepen their ability to self-love, and improve their relationships.
Her newest book, Setting Boundaries: 100 Ways to Protect Yourself, Strengthen Your Relationships and Build the Life You Want…Starting Now! (Therapy Within Reach), gives you the tools necessary to identify, set, and stay firm with your boundaries.
Her other books, The Codependency Recovery Plan: A 5-Step Guide to Understand, Accept, and Break Free from the Codependent Cycle and The Codependency Workbook: Simple Practices for Developing and Maintaining Your Independence have helped many overcome people pleasing, self-neglect, and resentment to have a healthier relationship with themselves and others.
If you have any personal dating or relationship questions, Krystal is happy to provide advice using her expertise and compassion. If you feel comfortable, feel free to leave any questions in the comments of this post. Otherwise, you may send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or DM her on Instagram. We will always keep your name and other identifying information confidential.