People in relationships come to trust and believe in the other person in the relationship. Narcissists use this trust in a destructive way when they feel that the partner is doing anything that may potentially be harmful to them. However, given that the narcissist sees everything from a very distorted lens, even helpful behavior from the partner can trigger the narcissist to betray the partner in many different ways.
The Cycle Continues
Often adults who are narcissists had a very dysfunctional relationship with their own loved ones. This is often a parent caregiver, typically a mother, who was not there to support the child and who caused damage and harm in that mother-child relationship. The child may experience his or her betrayal trauma in the dysfunctional relationship. Over time, the child may decide that the best way to protect themselves is to leave immediately, attack, distance themselves, or stay emotionally unavailable.
The new adult partner does not realize this dynamic is in play. Instead, they often see a confident, loving, and almost doting partner, at least in the first stages of the relationship. Then, slowly, the exploitive nature of the narcissist begins to come to the surface, often through controlling, verbally, mentally, and emotionally abusive behaviors. In some cases, physical abuse may also be present.
The Power of Intermittent Reinforcement
To avoid the partner leaving, the narcissist often uses a process known as intermittent reinforcement. It is a process that uses random, unpredictable rewards and positive experiences to motivate people to stay through negative experiences. A prime example of the power of intermittent rewards is gambling, particularly for those with gambling addictions. Even though gamblers only win randomly and infrequently, the positive feelings associated with that win keep them at the tables against all odds.
The same is true for many people in relationships with narcissists. Although there is more negative than positive, when the positives occur, they draw the partner back into the relationship. Unfortunately, this sets up the risk of another betrayal trauma as the narcissist reverts to ghosting, abuse, or a combination of damaging behaviors. In this way, the narcissist becomes both the source of the pain (emotional or other) and the solution (brief moments of intense connection).
Typical Signs of Trauma Bonding and Betrayal Trauma
The following signs are indicators of trauma bonding in the relationship or betrayal trauma after the relationship:
• A sense of connection exists – you continue to feel a strong connection to the narcissist despite the overwhelming negativity, control, and abuse.
• Need their validation – not only is there a sense of wanting to connect, but you may also want their approval or that brief period of time when you have hope there has been a real change.
• Accepting the unacceptable – you may find you accept the bad behavior and even minimize it or attempt to rationalize why it occurred, often blaming yourself for their issues.
• You feel sorry for them – the narcissist often creates a sense of being the victim and playing upon your sympathy and empathy.
• Defending the indefensible – you defend his or her behaviors to friends and family, even after they have betrayed and emotionally wounded you over and over again.
Most people find that betrayal trauma is made worse by accepting the narcissist back after being discarded. Often the narcissist comes back with a grand gesture, including stating he or she will go to counseling, only to set you up for another betrayal when they revert to their typical bad behavior.
Tips For Healing
It is essential to recognize that betrayal trauma is likely to occur in a relationship with a narcissist. They create a trauma bond and make themselves vital to your life, and then they leave.
To begin healing from betrayal trauma, it is important to:
Seek therapy – a trained therapist can help you to process the betrayal and reduce the impact of trauma on your life. As a licensed psychotherapist
, I help clients through somatic experiencing, poly vagal exercises, tapping and other trauma modalities to heal the attachment trauma that occurs after a narcissistic relationship.
• Talk about the truth – it is essential to talk about your reality and experiences in the relationship in an honest way. Do not gloss over, rationalize, or make excuses for their bad behavior.
• Set goals – setting personal goals and working to be the best you is one of the most effective ways to work through trauma.
Joining a support group such as my online group coaching program Wake Up Recovery
. There is nothing more powerful that not feeling alone after a toxic relationship.
Betrayal can damage your trust in others. Working through the thoughts and emotions around betrayal by a narcissist helps you to process these issues and move forward in your life.