If you’re trauma bonded with a manipulative narcissist or a psychopath, you feel inextricably attached to them as a survival mechanism and unable to leave the relationship. You may even develop a biochemical and psychological addiction to the abuse cycle.
Trauma bonds can be powerful – but as difficult and painful as they may be, they are capable of being broken. Some of the ways they can be broken can appear counterintuitive and may surprise you. Here are ten ways you can begin to break the trauma bond with a narcissistic or psychopathic individual:
1. Get in touch with your authentic outrage and anger at being violated in the first place – and with the reality of the abuse.
The real reason narcissistic and psychopathic individuals are threatened by your anger is because they know what a powerful tool it can be to detach from them. That is why they demonize any valid anger you express toward them to depict you as “unstable” or “bitter,” framing it as you “not letting things go” rather than the more accurate perspective of you having legitimate reactions to their inhumane cruelty. After all, if they didn’t want you to bring up the past, they shouldn’t have repeated it in the first place.
The narcissist has used gaslighting and projection throughout the relationship to subdue and silence your authentic anger toward them because they know if you got in touch with it, you would be more likely to ground yourself in the reality of the abuse that is occurring and be able to leave them with more confidence.
The key to accepting the real anger you feel toward the narcissist isn’t necessarily about confronting them with it, but rather harnessing this anger strategically to detach from them. You can use anger to fuel you toward cutting ties with them, going No Contact, and to stand up for yourself, protect and defend yourself in healthy ways. It can help to keep a list of abusive incidents to document what has occurred so you can validate yourself and connect with the valid anger of what they have subjected you to.
2. Interrupt your usual patterns. Trauma bonds cause victims to develop certain patterns – patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving that are used to cope with the trauma of the relationship. It’s important to begin interrupting these patterns which center the abuser as the focus of your existence and create “periods of peace” away from your abuser so you can learn to live life without them.
For example, if the narcissist is giving you the silent treatment or devaluing you and you have a pattern of chasing them, use these silent treatments as an opportunity to detach from them and return back to yourself by engaging in a new or old hobby or working toward one of your goals. You can also use this time period to engage in “reality checking” about their abusive patterns.
If you have a pattern of always trying to defend yourself or explain yourself in response to their gaslighting, you might start to break that pattern by walking away from arguments before they escalate and spending that time journaling about the incident and how it made you feel. This has the double benefit of resisting their gaslighting attempts.
If you always have a habit of checking up on your abusive partner because you suspect they’re being deceptive, you can interrupt that pattern by using that time to engage in some form of self-care that will replenish you (whether it be taking a walk in nature, meditating, yoga, or anything else that centers and grounds you). If you have a pattern of texting them every morning or constantly throughout the day, you might break that pattern by texting them later in the day and using that extra time to jog, read, or connect with a supportive friend. You may also find reading resources on narcissism and visiting online support forums or pages centered around abuse recovery helpful in further grounding yourself in the reality of their manipulation and abuse.
These small steps can train you to take the bigger steps to exit the relationship later on when you feel safe and ready to do so.
3. Take your abuser off the pedestal and “devalue” them accordingly in your mind. In the beginning, the abuser may have been charming and used tactics such as love bombing – excessive contact, flattery, attention and affection to make you value them in your life. This is because they knew they could not win you over with their authentic self. Likely, they also knew you had more options than them and viewed you as “out of their league.” Many narcissists are attracted to partners they deem “special and unique,” that they can show off like trophies and benefit from being associated with. In fact, this need to associate with “special and unique” people is literally part of the DSM-5 diagnostic criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
As the abuse cycle continues, however, the abuser slowly but surely erodes your sense of self-confidence and self-respect through manipulation, degradation and devaluation to maintain control over you and isolate you so you begin to see them as the “prize” to be won over.
In order to break the trauma bond, you have to break the narcissist’s illusion of false desirability, created by the biochemical and psychological addiction that is created by the abuse cycle. Their abuse has trained you to see yourself as “below” them when in reality you surpass them in many ways. That is why they targeted you in the first place.
Instead of engaging in the self-criticism and self-blame they have conditioned you to engage in, start identifying the negative qualities (both internal and external) that make them an undesirable partner for you and for other empathic people. What turns you off about them? What did you initially dislike about their personality, appearance, interests, hobbies and demeanor? What will you not miss about the narcissist once they’re gone? What can you do once you’re free of them, that you couldn’t do before? What will you be free to do, feel, and think? How confident will you be? What burdens can you now let go of? What thoughts and triggers will you no longer be haunted by on a daily basis? What special occasions will no longer be sabotaged or tainted by their presence?
Remember, this is an abuser who has violated and betrayed you on many levels – do not agonize over or shy away from being ruthless when thinking about their negative traits and the negative impact their behavior has had on your life. After all, they did not think twice about disparaging you with falsehoods – the least you can do is center yourself in the truth about them. This exercise will help you to see them accurately rather than through the rose-colored lenses of the love bombing and devaluation cycle. It will ultimately remind you that being free from them is a blessing and will give you more of an incentive to cut ties.
4. Acknowledge the positive qualities that make you special, unique and irreplaceable – and do more of what the narcissist tried to discourage in you. We know from research that narcissists provoke jealousy on purpose and manufacture love triangles. This gets us to compete or compare and lose sight of what makes us irreplaceable.
The trauma bond convinces you that the narcissist is irreplaceable. The truth is, the narcissist is the one who is replaceable – there are plenty of similar manipulators who all use the same tactics out there and can don a charming false mask for a while, only to reveal their true cold, callous selves.
You, however, are likely an empathic, kind, attractive, talented and supportive person who has the capacity to give healthy love. You have specific traits, internal and external qualities that can’t be replicated in anyone else. Get in touch with what makes you irreplaceable on a daily basis and you’ll slowly start to recognize that no matter what the narcissist does or doesn’t do, they don’t get to have access to you, your specific unique qualities, and all the benefits you bring to their life.
As you break the trauma bond, also remember what the narcissist claimed they disliked about you or tried to actively sabotage. Then, in the process of breaking the trauma bond or after you’ve safely exited the relationship, do more of that. What narcissists claim are your weaknesses are actually your strengths.
These are the same qualities and behaviors they feared in you and tried to discourage because these made you powerful and independent of them. Those were the assets they had to attack and minimize because they knew these made you powerful and independent of them. They disliked your self-confidence? It’s because your healthy pride threatened their ability to instill insecurities in you. They didn’t want you to pursue higher education or career goals? Your ability to attain knowledge and pursue your dreams made it harder for them to control you. They told you that you don’t “let things go”? Your ability to discern patterns and call out abusive behavior threatened their attempts to erode your boundaries.
Provided that these qualities and behaviors benefit you and do not cause harm to others, find ways to reclaim them in ways that empowers yourself and others.
5. Connect with your ego. It is not empathy, compassion, or forgiveness that breaks the trauma bond with a narcissist. Surprisingly, it is your anger, your ego and pride which have the potential to bring you back into a healthy state of self-defense and break through the mental fog with more clarity and certainty about how unacceptable the abuse you’re experiencing is.
The concept of the “ego” has been demonized in spiritual communities, but it is one that can save your life. This is especially true if you are a woman who has been socially conditioned to bask in humility and sacrifice in your relationships. You may have been taught that you shouldn’t be “cocky” about yourself or take pride in your appearance or achievements.
However, having a healthy ego is necessary to remembering who you are and what you deserve. Take time every day to connect with your ego and ask how it really feels about this relationship and how you feel about being mistreated – not just what your coping mechanisms have taught you to feel.
What you learn may surprise you – you may find yourself hearing an inner voice that expresses disgust and disdain for the abuser, a feeling of, “I can do so much better than this person,” and genuine anger at what you’re being put through. You may find yourself identifying the positive qualities and traits you are proud of which were dismissed or minimized by the abuser. You may even find yourself wanting revenge – this is actually a feeling you can channel into the healthier outlet of leaving the relationship altogether, because we all know the best “revenge” against a narcissist is freeing ourselves from them and becoming even more successful in the aftermath.
That’s because the ego has the healthy pride and survival instincts that is required to detach from toxic relationships.
Society may demonize the ego, but suppressing the ego only suppresses your natural defense system against predators. It’s all about using the ego strategically. Avoid using the ego to exhaust yourself arguing with the narcissist or to excessively prove your worth to them or to participate in their love triangles by trying to compete. Avoid allowing the narcissist to use love bombing to lure your ego back into the relationship. Use your ego to tap back into your natural survival, self-protective instincts and your authentic anger at being violated in order to detach and exit from the relationship instead.
When we have pride in who we are and connect to the authentic outrage of being violated, we are more likely to notice the disrespect of their transgressions, cut through the mental fog and resist mistreatment with more clarity and certainty because such an emotional state can put us into self-defense mode.
Even when self-love and self-respect have been eroded by the effects of trauma — anger and pride, as well as outrage at having your self-concept belittled — can still kick in to save your life when you need it the most, because the ego wants to defend you and protect your rights. Without anger or the ego, many victims of narcissists misuse empathy and compassion to sympathize with and rationalize the narcissist’s behavior – or to overexplain themselves and their feelings in hopes that the narcissist will change.
The narcissist or psychopath only uses your empathy against you to exploit you further and to have you stay in the relationship. Instead, the ego helps us use that same energy to detach from the relationship.
When you have enough healthy pride to know, “I am not going to let anyone take the self-concept I’ve created away from me,” abuse is much harder to rationalize and shockingly it’s this emotional state that often helps survivors break for good.
6. Lean into the disgust, disdain, and naturally intuitive fear you may feel toward your abuser. Recognize that they are missing out on you and you are freed by their absence. The intuitive fear and natural sense of repulsion you feel toward potential predators and manipulators is something that is discussed in international security expert Gavin de Becker’s book The Gift of Fear. From a young age, women especially are conditioned to excise this natural defense mechanism from their survival toolkit for the sake of social conditioning. They are taught to always be polite, demure and compliant to protect the feelings of others. You may find yourself rationalizing the red flags in your relationships and overriding the natural sense of disgust you feel around someone who turns you off with their actions or words – just to protect their feelings.
However, when you “lean into” the natural disgust that the abuser makes you feel every day they mistreat you, you allow nature to guide you away from predators and back to safety. A good way to “reality check” with yourself about the narcissist’s true nature is to ask yourself, “How would I feel if someone I didn’t know was doing this to me?” This will help you take the more detached, curious perspective of the narcissist as a “stranger” and will give you a lens to see how their actions would look if you were not in a close relationship with them.
Many survivors of intimate partner violence find themselves stuck in a “fear, obligation, guilt” cycle where they fear they will “miss out” on the narcissist suddenly morphing into a great partner for them. In reality, they will only “miss out” on more abuse when they leave. It is the narcissist who loses someone who truly cared for them – you, on the other hand, regain your freedom and your life when you lose them.
7. Surround yourself with feedback from healthy, empathic people so you are regularly reminded of the difference between “normal” treatment and inhumane treatment.
Narcissistic individuals try to micromanage even our perception of the positive feedback we get from others. This means they will try to detract from the compliments and healthy praise others give you and try to instill in you the falsehood that you have no support system apart from them. That’s why it’s so important to maintain connections with empathic people who can give you the accurate feedback you deserve, that give you a mirror to the “true” reality of your identity that the narcissist tries to distort. If your narcissistic partner has isolated you from friends and family, you can begin to reconnect with these loved ones or seek community support in the form of safe, validating support groups.
It can also help to keep a list of some of the positive feedback you’ve received in the past and remind yourself that the real reason narcissists were so intent on undermining this feedback was because they knew it would give you a source of validation outside of them.
8. Seek professional trauma-informed support. Healing from a trauma bond also requires processing some of the trauma the narcissist has subjected you to. Seeing a mental health professional who is well-versed in domestic violence, narcissism, PTSD, and manipulation can help you identify the “hooks” that keep you tethered to your abuser and slowly dissipate them in a safe space.
Specialized therapies such as EMDR or Cognitive Processing Therapy may also help you to process the traumas you’ve experienced with your abuser so you no longer feel as attached to them and you are able to locate the maladaptive beliefs that have been instilled in you by the abuser.
9. Connect with your “inner parts” according to the Internal Family Systems theory. Therapist Dr. Richard Schwartz developed the Internal Family Systems model to better identify the patterns he saw among his clients who appeared to have discrete “subpersonalities” within their minds which battled for control. Although each person has a core, compassionate “Self,” the Internal Family Systems Theory posits that we develop these other disparate “inner parts” which can be different from this core “Self.” These inner parts can be shaped in part by our childhood experiences and traumas.
This can include the “exile” parts which represent the younger parts of ourselves that have been traumatized and contain the shame and fear of early childhood trauma. It also includes the “managers” which attempt to keep us in control of our relationships through activities like caretaking or lashing out at others. We also have inner parts known as “firefighters” which react when our exiles are particularly triggered by trying to numb the pain (such as through addictions).
In order to fully connect with all the emotions of this experience, integrate ourselves and unravel which inner parts may be dominant in your relationship with the narcissist and may be working against you, it’s important to recognize which inner parts may be “running the show” when it comes to your trauma bond. Perhaps you have a “manager” part that is overly fawning and people-pleasing which attempts to appease your partner in order to avoid abandonment, or rages back at the abuser in an attempt to stay in control. “Speaking” to that inner part, with the help of a therapist, could allow you to identify the behaviors of each inner part and better meet the needs of that inner part without engaging in self-destruction by staying attached to a toxic person.
Or maybe you’re prone to feeling fragile and abandoned when your “exile” inner part is triggered by the narcissist’s abuse, so a “firefighter” part comes to the rescue to douse out the fires by using self-numbing activities to dissociate from the real pain of the abuse. This avoidance of trauma can actually worsen symptoms of trauma, so you may want to identify which avoidance strategies you are using and instead start to adopt healthier ways of confronting your pain. This will permit you a way to process and heal past traumas without staying attached to the present trauma of an abusive relationship.
10. Go No Contact or Low Contact depending on your circumstances. One of the most important steps to breaking a trauma bond is getting substantial time and space away from an abuser. Research tells us that toxic love can be akin to a drug addiction. Detoxing from the trauma bond requires some level of no contact or low contact if you can’t go cold turkey yet because of your unique circumstances such as sharing children or a home with the narcissistic partner or because the trauma bond is too strong at the moment to break right away.
Even if you can’t go no contact yet, from now on, put the bare minimum effort and energy into the abuser and save the rest of the time and energy you usually spend trying to change the abuser or meeting their needs into fueling, nourishing, and loving yourself. Make sure you give the narcissist an excuse like being busy with a project or feeling ill to ward off their suspicions so they do not suspect anything is wrong and do not escalate into narcissistic rage as you prepare to leave them.
Rebuild your confidence, center your goals and hobbies, and take small steps toward these goals every day. By pouring into yourself daily, you acknowledge that you are someone worthy of being taken care of and deserving of the freedom, joy, peace and healing that awaits you after the trauma bond is broken.