Narcissists Use Trauma Bonding and Intermittent Reinforcement To Get You Addicted To Them: Why Abuse Survivors Stay

Narcissists Use Trauma Bonding and Intermittent Reinforcement To Get You Addicted To Them: Why Abuse Survivors Stay

Exploitive relationships create betrayal bonds. These occur when a victim bonds with someone who is destructive to him or her. Thus the hostage becomes the champion of the hostage taker, the incest victim covers for the parent and the exploited employee fails to expose the wrongdoing of the boss. – Dr. Patrick Carnes

“Why didn’t he or she just leave?” is a question that makes many victims of abuse cringe, and for good reason. Even after years of research about the effects of trauma and abuse and the fact that abuse victims often go back to their abusers an average of seven times before they finally leave, society still does not seem to understand the powerful effects of trauma bonding and intermittent reinforcement in an abusive relationship.

According to Dr. Logan (2018), “Trauma bonding is evidenced in any relationship which the connection defies logic and is very hard to break. The components necessary for a trauma bond to form are a power differential, intermittent good and bad treatment, {as well as} high arousal and bonding periods.”

Trauma bonding is a bond that develops when two people undergo intense, risky emotional experiences together. In the context of an abusive relationship, this bond is strengthened due to the heightened intimacy and danger. Similar to the way Stockholm Syndrome manifests, the abuse victim bonds with his or her abuser as both the source of terror and comfort in an attempt to survive the tumultuous relationship. As a result, abuse victims feel a misplaced, unshakeable sense of loyalty and devotion to their abusers, which to an outsider may appear nonsensical.

As Dr. Patrick writes in his book, The Betrayal Bond, trauma bonding is especially fierce in situations where there are repetitive cycles of abuse, a desire to rescue the abuser, as well as the presence of both seduction and betrayal. He writes:

“Those standing outside see the obvious. All these relationships are about some insane loyalty or attachment. They share exploitation, fear, and danger. They also have elements of kindness, nobility, and righteousness. These are all people who stay involved or wish to stay involved with people who betray them. Emotional pain, severe consequences and even the prospect of death do not stop their caring or commitment. Clinicians call this traumatic bonding. This means that the victims have a certain dysfunctional attachment that occurs in the presence of danger, shame or exploitation. There often is seduction, deception or betrayal. There is always some form of danger or risk.”

The Role of Intermittent Reinforcement in Trauma Bonding

Intermittent reinforcement (in the context of psychological abuse) is a pattern of cruel, callous treatment mixed in with random bursts of affection. The abuser hands out “rewards” such as affection, a compliment, or gifts sporadically and unpredictably throughout the abuse cycle. Think of the violent husband who gives his wife flowers after assaulting her, or the kind words an abusive mother gives to her child after a particularly harsh silent treatment.

Intermittent reinforcement causes the victim to perpetually seek the abuser’s approval while settling for the crumbs of their occasional positive behavior, in the hopes that the abuser will return to the honeymoon phase of the relationship. Like a gambler at a slot machine, victims are unwittingly “hooked” to play the game for a potential win, despite the massive losses.

This manipulation tactic also causes us to perceive their rare positive behaviors in an amplified manner. Dr. Carver describes this as the “small kindness perception.” As he notes in his article, “Love and Stockholm Syndrome”:

“In threatening and survival situations, we look for evidence of hope – a small sign that the situation may improve. When an abuser/controller shows the victim some small kindness, even though it is to the abusers benefit as well, the victim interprets that small kindness as a positive trait of the captor…In relationships with abusers, a birthday card, a gift (usually provided after a period of abuse), or a special treat are interpreted as not only positive, but evidence that the abuser is not “all bad” and may at some time correct his/her behavior. Abusers and controllers are often given positive credit for not abusing their partner, when the partner would have normally been subjected to verbal or physical abuse in a certain situation.”

The Biochemical Element

As I discuss more in-depth in my books on narcissistic abuse, there is also a biochemical addiction involved when it comes to intermittent reinforcement and trauma bonding. As Helen Fisher (2016) explores, love activates the same areas of the brain responsible for cocaine addiction. In adversity-ridden relationships, the effects of biochemical addiction can be even more powerful. When oxytocin, serotonin, dopamine, cortisol, and adrenaline are involved, the abusive nature of the relationship can actually strengthen, rather than dampen, the bond of the relationship in the brain.

For example, dopamine is a neurotransmitter which plays a key role in the pleasure center of our brains. It creates reward circuits and generates associations in our brain which link our romantic partners with pleasure and even survival. The catch? Dopamine flows more readily in the brain when there is an intermittent reinforcement schedule of affection and attention, rather than a consistent one (Carnell, 2012). The hot and cold behaviors of a toxic relationship actually exacerbate our dangerous attachment to our abusers rather than deterring it – creating an addiction that is not unlike drug addiction.

This is just one of the ways the brain is affected by abuse, so imagine how difficult it can be for a traumatized individual to break the bond.

Signs of a Trauma Bond

You might be suffering from a trauma bond if you exhibit the following behaviors:

You know they are abusive and manipulative, but you can’t seem to let go. You ruminate over the incidents of abuse, engage in self-blame, and the abuser becomes the sole arbiter of your self-esteem and self-worth.

You walk on eggshells trying to please your abuser, even though they give you little in return except for crumbs of affection and more pain.

You feel addicted to them without understanding why. You “need” their validation and approval, looking to them as the source of comfort after incidents of abuse. This is evidence of a strong biochemical and psychological attachment to them.

You defend your abuser and keep their transgressions a secret. You might refuse to press charges against your abuser or defend them against family members or friends who try to tell you that they are toxic. You may even present your relationship as a happy one to the public eye, attempting to minimize their abusive behavior and romanticizing and exaggerating any positive behaviors they dole out occasionally.

Even when you attempt to leave the abuser, you give into the abuser’s faux remorse, crocodile tears and claims to change for the future. The pattern of abuse and its cycle may be evident, but you hold onto the false hope that things can get better.

You develop self-sabotaging behaviors and might engage in some form of self-harm or addictions to dissociate from the pain of the abuse and the acute sense of shame caused by the abuse.

You are willing to lower your standards time and time again for this toxic person, accepting what you previously believed was unacceptable.

You change your own behaviors, appearance and/or personality in an attempt to meet the abuser’s moving goal posts, although the abuser rarely changes their own behavior to please you.

The Big Picture

If you are experiencing a trauma bond with an emotional or physical abuser, the first step is awareness. Know that it is the addictive nature of the trauma bond and the effects of intermittent reinforcement which contribute to the source of your bond, not the merits of the abuser or the relationship itself. This will help you to distance yourself from seeing your relationship as a “special” one just in need of more of your time, energy, or patience. Malignant narcissistic abusers follow hardwired behaviors and will not change for you or anyone else.

Get distance from your abuser, even if you feel you cannot leave yet. Work with a trauma-informed counselor to process the trauma, examine the cycle of abuse, reconnect with the reality of the abusive relationship, and place responsibility where it truly belongs. The abuse you endured was not your fault and neither was the trauma bond that formed. You deserve a life free of abuse and mistreatment. You deserve healthy relationships and friendships which nourish you, not deplete and exploit you. You deserve to break the bonds which tether you to your abuser.


Carnes, P., & Phillips, B. (2019). The betrayal bond: Breaking free of exploitive relationships. Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications.

Carnell, S. (2012, May 14). Bad Boys, Bad Brains. Retrieved April 01, 2019, from

Carver, J. M. (2011). Love and Stockholm Syndrome: The mystery of loving an abuser. Retrieved July 31, 2017, from

Fisher, H. (2016, February 04). Love Is Like Cocaine – Issue 33: Attraction. Retrieved April 01, 2019, from

Logan, M. H. (2018). Stockholm Syndrome: Held Hostage by the One You Love. Violence and Gender,5(2), 67-69. doi:10.1089/vio.2017.0076

Narcissists Use Trauma Bonding and Intermittent Reinforcement To Get You Addicted To Them: Why Abuse Survivors Stay


  • Annette

    Thank you for that explanation – a friend recommended your blog to me, and it helped me a lot to understand why I put up with so much abuse for so long, living on hope….but looking at it from the outside it is completely insane to even tolerate it for a day….Even though I understand it intellectually I do not understand it emotionally, in the sense that emotionally I still don’t understand how it could happen. I only know that I did research on Narcissism over a year ago, and I still somehow could not believe that this was happening to me. I consulted a Psychotherapist who explained that what I was describing looked like a combination of Narcissism and Borderline Personality disorder – you are talking about a man who does not remember that he ever said this to me, denies it and seems to believe his own ‘truth’. I would like to share that this particular person figured out eventually that his manipulations did not work anymore, and started to step it up, got louder, more aggressive, talked about how he would like to kill people, how he could physically hurt me and how lucky I am that he didn’t. He started to laugh when I got upset – my pain seemed to amuse him tremendously. He said that yelling at people makes him feel better, and that he knows he is like that, and that he can’t help it. I would propose to step carefully here, because depending how far up the spectrum somebody actually is, the person can get quite dangerous, and I think it is better to leave them in the illusion that they can manipulate and upset you with words and make a good escape plan and then vanish, rather than let the situation escalate too far. Stay safe and love yourself! You need to be your own best friend to scramble out of this kind of situation emotionally, and you may have forgotten what it is like to have a really true good friend, but it is a good way to restore a sense of self-worth and eventually a sense of normality…Being with a Narcissist means being brainwashed until you believe you are a terrible person and completely worthless, and only his generous forgiveness gives you a chance to be loved at all – you end up thinking a completely crazy situation is normality, and the other normality is an island you can never reach, no matter how long you swim. Convince yourself that you deserve the best, and keep that truth to yourself until you are out of the abusers reach. x

  • elle

    After reading this I believe I’m experiencing trauma bonding but I keep asking myself what if i am wrong about him? I know him to be really insecure (i know with that diagnosis underneath they are all insecure) but he claims to still be madly in love with me and says he’ll never leave me. i’ve read soo many articles on narcissists that i can relate to. To make matters worse, he is extremely intelligent and as if he knows what i am thinking he’ll say the right thing to throw me off and fool everyone into thinking he’s not insane but just a troubled man who doesnt know how to deal with anxiety.

  • Sue F

    “…or the kind words an abusive mother gives to her child after a particularly harsh silent treatment.” I have only in the past few years realised that this was emotional abuse by my mother, my sister and then finally my brother. There was never an apology for this mistreatment, only the stony cold silent treatment from people who were in some way displeased or disapproved of some perceived slight from me. It was the withdrawal of all love and acceptance and is probably one of the most insidious forms of emotional abuse I have ever encountered. The victim thinks they are at fault or just aren’t good enough to receive the love and attention from people who are their family. They think in some way they are flawed. Not only was this behaviour deemed “normal” in our household, nobody did a thing about it. Thank goodness I’ve finally become aware that it was never my fault and now have the tools to process what has been done to me.

  • Mary

    Thank you for your article,I understanding now why I am having a hard time letting the past go and move on.I have been married 56 years now,my husband is in a nursing home that is when I was able to get away ,my body but not my mind.He is causing me and our kids really bad now ,I don’t talk to him his calls go to voice mail.He was diagnosed with dementia, I got p.o.a. and guardianship on him,yes so now I am in control and he is in a locked place.Yes I am in pain and trying to find a way to heal.He does understand a lot and now I believe he knows I have control over him where all these years he had control,it is a real change,I am sure real hard for him but I have suffered much as our kids have also.Thank you,mary

  • Judy65

    Doesn’t help when you describe your life in the toxic relationship, thinking at last I can talk about this, your therapist grills you on why you stayed and tells you you wasted you life. No duh. I had to pay for that. Will keep it to myself from now on and spend the money on something I enjoy.

  • Erin

    These words help so much to explain why my brain doesn’t match up. I am starved for the poison that was killing me. Even though I know now not to trust his perspective, I just want to gain his approval. Deep down I still have the hope that he will decide that I’m good enough. I write to help ground me in what is truth, but there still are roots deep down that confuse me. Over time it will diminish, but I don’t know if it will ever fully go away. I will just continue on, each day. Each day hurting that he doesn’t love me. Each day learning that many others, including myself, love me.

  • Kristine Kasir

    My sister is going through this right now. Can anyone recommend a doctor or specialist in the chicago land area that she could possibly see that specializes in trauma bonding?

  • Carmen E

    Such excellent information, and very well-described. If I were a person currently involved in an abusive relationship, it is Shahida’s writing, books and YouTube channel that I would hope to find first. You have helped so many Shahida. Thank you

  • Kate

    This article was probably one of the most accurate depictions of narcissistic abuse that I have ever read. I have watched this play out for years in someone’s life. The pure evilness that a narcissist is made up of is so disturbing. It is so sad to watch codependents spend years of their lives in this vicious traumatic cycle.

  • Mary

    I agree with the article, it describes what I endured and how I feel,even today I wish to have a loving husband that stays faithful,doesn’t life to me or about me.As for leaving I had no where to go,no one to help me,not even the women’s center would help me.My mom an alcoholic had my husband’s baby and she hit me and called me names when I told her I was pregnant, that is when I found out she was carrying my husband’s kid.I am in pain ever day and I want to go back to my husband but I can be thankful that he got diagnosed with Dementia and tried to kill the Nurse at the Hospital.Now I read all i can and am trying to heal but i don’t think i will have a full healings i have been abused all my life.I am reading Power by Shahida Arabi,a truly good book and explained everything so well.Thank you,mary

  • Don

    I presently know a woman who suffered from PTSD, OCD, is Biploar as well as narcissistic. She also suffers from Stockholm syndrome. I know this is a toxic relationship, but, I can’t help but feelmsorry for her. I know I need to distance myself from her before I get too sucked in, but I’m having trouble because I dont want to burt her feelings, even though I know she will personalize this and blame me as she already has. I feel powerless.

  • Ryan

    This article is wonderful after being abused by my wife physically emotionally and financially for 5 years I’m just now able to accept why I continued to stay or come back despite being stabbed hit beat repeatedly for years

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