Understanding the Narcissistic Abuse Cycle and How a Trauma Bond Forms

Today, we're diving into the cycle of narcissistic abuse and how a trauma bond forms, which is what keeps you stuck in narcissistic relationships. This is an important conversation if you find yourself stuck in a relationship that you perceive to be potentially unhealthy or where you're questioning whether or not your partner is a narcissist. I hope that by walking you through this, you'll better understand the dynamics of these relationships and the cycles and patterns that keep repeating.

The first thing we're going to discuss is what the cycle of narcissistic abuse looks like. There are different ways in which people talk about this cycle. Some say there are three phases, some four, and I've even heard some say five. I'll explain it in a way that I hope is clear, and it's how I explain it to my clients so they can understand what the cycle is like and have awareness when experiencing it. You've probably heard of "love bombing." This is the idealization phase, the first phase of the narcissistic abuse cycle. It involves someone wanting to spend a lot of time with you, excessive flattery, and appearing very generous. They might buy extravagant gifts or little things to let you know they're thinking of you, take you on fancy dates, and make you the center of attention.

The approach differs with a covert narcissist, who won't be as grandiose as an overt narcissist. If you're unfamiliar with these terms, I encourage you to check out last week's podcast episode, where I dived into the ten different types of narcissists. A covert narcissist might offer excessive praise, a lot of validation, and express approval of who you are or your achievements. They might check in on you often, perform little acts of kindness, or, in the case of a more grandiose narcissist, give excessive expressions of affection like beautiful love notes or messages that make you feel very loved and recognized. This feels good, especially if you've experienced bad relationships before. The narcissist's love bombing can feel like it's filling holes in your soul, and it can become addictive.

The narcissist may say "I love you" early in the relationship or indicate that you're the one they've been searching for. This stage can be very much over the top, with the narcissist making you feel special and comparing you to their exes. You may feel as though you've found your soulmate and they may even pretend that they've had similar experiences as you in order to further strengthen the feelings familiarity. The point is to create emotional euphoria to impress you. You'll experience a rush of happy hormones like oxytocin, dopamine, and serotonin, keeping you in the relationship until something happens, and the tides turn. In a narcissistic relationship, this transition might be triggered by you setting a boundary, calling the narcissist out on hurtful behavior, speaking up for yourself, sharing a differing opinion or belief, or exerting your power or sovereignty.

Narcissists feel threatened and insecure when they perceive a loss of power or control in a relationship. They will do whatever they can to regain that power and control, even at the cost of your self-worth, sense of self, or well-being. The next phase I'm talking about, triggered in this transition, is the devaluation phase. Here, instead of being complimentary and affectionate, the narcissist becomes critical, belittling, undermining, and diminishing. You'll see sudden mood swings, emotional dysregulation, and manipulation. Techniques like gaslighting, triangulation, silent treatment, or withholding affection are common. They might deprive you of sleep or other basic needs to assert dominance. The motive with these tactics is to stir up self-doubt and confusion in you. You might receive praise one moment and demeaning remarks the next, leaving you feeling bewildered and uncertain.

The transition to the devaluation phase may also begin if the narcissist has found someone new to provide them with narcissistic supply. In this phase, stress hormones like cortisol, norepinephrine, and epinephrine cause fear, especially the fear of abandonment, which is a core wound for many. These hormones make you wonder how to fix the situation to keep the narcissist from leaving. You might be led to believe that it's your fault or that you are the solution to fixing the problem by changing yourself. Narcissists are skilled at blame-shifting, and if you have a pattern of people-pleasing or taking responsibility for others' emotions or happiness, you're feeding into this dynamic and hurting yourself more.

As the cycle progresses, you either enter the discard phase, where the narcissist might abruptly end the relationship, triggering fear of abandonment and leading you to take actions against your values to keep them, or you enter the hoovering phase. In the hoovering phase, the narcissist tries to suck you back in with shallow or manipulative apologies, promises to change, and efforts to rekindle the romance. They may apologize without genuine remorse or accountability, often shifting blame back onto you. Narcissists know that promising change can hold you in the relationship longer because it gives hope. This cycle repeats over and over until either they find a new supply, you start setting boundaries, or you decide to end the relationship. If you choose to end the relationship and they haven't found a replacement, they will try to hoover you back in. If that doesn't work, they will cycle back to devaluation.

For a while, until the relationship is officially over, you will cycle between devaluation, discard, and hoovering. It's important to be aware of this, especially in situations like marriages with children, where there is a propensity towards experiencing post-separation abuse. The process of ending the relationship and moving out can be lengthy, with the narcissist trying to hoover you back in or resorting to devaluation and discard tactics.

Now, let's talk about how the trauma bond forms, making it hard to leave these relationships. First, you likely are addicted to the highs and lows of the relationship. This addiction occurs on a chemical level, where you chase the next high of oxytocin, serotonin, and dopamine. For the high to feel good, you need to hit the low, where your body floods with cortisol, norepinephrine, and epinephrine. You crave the chaos, feeling alive when your body is on high alert, flooded with stress hormones and adrenaline. This cycle of pain and pleasure is addictive and takes people multiple attempts to escape abusive relationships. The heightened stress response during the devaluation phase creates emotional turmoil and activates fear of abandonment, leading you to chase after the narcissist. When reinforced through the hoovering phase with attention, affection, and heartfelt messages, it triggers a release of end

orphins, providing temporary relief from the pain experienced during the discard or devaluation phase. You get stuck in this loop, even though the relationship is harmful.

These pain-pleasure cycles are often familiar from childhood, with the narcissist reenacting our version of love: that love is hard, hurts, and requires sacrifice. As children, you may have learned that you can't be loved for who you are and that you have to change to get validation, love, and acceptance. This dynamic may have been present in your childhood home, with a critical parent who constantly criticized and belittled you, combined with emotional neglect. You may have learned that the only way to overcome rejection and abuse was by being the "good child," behaving in a way that met your parents' approval and validation. The narcissistic relationship dynamics are just your version of what love is, feeling familiar, comfortable, and safe.

In order for a trauma bond to form, there needs to be a power imbalance, and the abuse must be sporadic and intermittent. If the abuse were obvious, ongoing, and escalating, you'd likely recognize it as abusive and leave the relationship. The infrequency and irregularity of abuse in these relationships make it addictive, as you constantly seek to return to the good memories and the person they once were. Over time, the highs become less frequent, and the abuse picks up, reinforcing the belief that love and abuse or love and rejection go hand in hand.

The truth is that the narcissist is toxic and abusive, but there's a distortion that this is normal and how relationships are supposed to be. It's a distortion that you are worthy of only breadcrumbs, not the whole cake. If you keep attracting narcissists, it's not because there's anything wrong with you. It's because they give you love in a way that's familiar to how you received love as a child. For example, a child experiencing emotional neglect and criticism internalizes rejection and believes they are too much, their feelings are too much, and it's not safe to express emotions other than happiness and joy. The parent might be affectionate and full of praise at times, but also critical and belittling. The child's experience of love becomes love plus abuse plus rejection. The child grows up reenacting this in adult relationships, finding partners who reject and criticize them, shutting down their feelings, self-sacrificing, self-blaming, and internalizing that love hurts. They make excuses for their partner's bad behavior, as they did for their parents, subconsciously seeking approval from their parents and reenacting that with a narcissistic partner.

In the relationship, nothing is ever good enough, keeping you striving and chasing love, attention, validation, and safety. The narcissistic partner reinforces an anxious attachment, going back and forth between kind acts and acts of rejection. The adult in the relationship makes excuses for the partner's behavior, trying to feel good enough and gain approval from their parents, reenacted in the relationship with the narcissist. So, understanding the abuse cycle and recognizing what a trauma bond is clarifies why it's hard to leave a narcissistic relationship. The way to break out of a trauma bond is to do deep inner work on yourself, learn to love yourself, and give yourself validation and approval. It's about creating a sense of safety within, healing wounds of not feeling enough, and cultivating self-love, empathy, and rebuilding self-worth.

These are things we'll be doing in my new group program, StrongHER, a narcissistic trauma recovery group. I'm offering membership to this program for an astounding price of only $29 a month. This program is jampacked with value, including access to me, group coaching calls, connection calls for Q&A and hot seat coaching, guest experts, somatic breath work facilitators, meditation teachers, and advice on preparing for divorce. This low founding member price is to get the group off the ground and recognize the need for support among women who've tried therapy but haven't found understanding of the dynamics in a narcissistic relationship. StrongHER is built upon a strong community, and I'm offering it at this price only to those who are a good fit.

If you think StrongHER is right for you, reach out to me. I'd love to support you in recovering from narcissistic abuse, breaking free from old stories and trauma loops, and helping you regain freedom, rebuild confidence, and find the courage to move forward.  You can find more information on StrongHER here:  https://corissa-stepp.mykajabi.com/strongher-narcissistic-trauma-recovery-group

Please feel free to reach out with any questions, comments or feedback!

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