The Trauma Bond: How Psychopaths Use Fear
The first time I met the Psychopath, I froze. I was so alarmed I couldn’t speak. In the next few seconds, I experienced a trauma bond.
He wore faded jeans, and a tan, sheepskin, bomber jacket unzipped halfway — and no shirt — on that cold, blustery, November afternoon. I noticed the curly hair on his broad chest blended into the jacket’s brown wool lining. Fine, shoulder-length, blonde hair and wispy bangs failed to minimize the large brow ridge of his sizable forehead. I thought, Wow, I’ve never seen a brow ridge so pronounced except in pictures of Neanderthals; he looks German. I knew from his penetrating gaze that he was there for me.
He placed a glass vase with a single red rose on my desk and dramatically announced, “By unanimous decision, this is for the loneliest secretary on Broadway.”
Then he walked out. A white German Shepherd had been waiting outside the gallery window. It followed him obediently.
I felt a rush of relief that he was gone and I chastised myself, The man was harmless. There had been no cause for alarm. But what a strange thing to say.
Psychopaths have a trick for numbing us to danger. Like a parasite before it injects its venom, psychopaths use an anesthetic to make the host more pliable. I call it the danger-safe trick. It’s also known as a trauma bond or Stockholm Syndrome. It’s part of the whipsaw on your emotions. First they create a danger and then they save you. There are a myriad of ways to do this.
It can happen like it did with me. This pure psychopath, knowing that some people can sense a predator, was already prepared with props: a single flower and the loyal dog at his heels. Most of all, he made me feel safe by leaving quickly. If you think this has never happened to you, think again. It can be an event as innocuous as bumping into you and then apologizing.
As usual, a trauma bond always involves crossing boundaries. First they enter your space to give you a feeling of danger. It might be so fleeting that you don’t notice it. Perhaps they touch you, bump in to you, or comment on something personal. Immediately afterward they’ll retreat to make you feel safe. They might apologize or flatter or they could feign some vulnerability of their own.
The trauma bond happens so quickly you wouldn’t be aware of it until later when you notice that the person is still on your mind. The psychopath gave you a hit of endorphins and you’re primed to want more. Then you write it off, unaware that you’ve been contaminated.
Those are some simple examples. The boundary-crossing can be any of a million behaviors. They can range from rude to mildly alarming to hair-raising.
- It could be a joke that you thought was real before the prankster laughs and reassures you.
- It could be an obscene remark and a wink.
- He might dangle you off a bridge before pulling you back to safety.
- He might threaten to take away your health insurance before approving the bill in the next legislative session.
All of these are examples of ways that a psychopath exerts power over you –not necessarily physically, but over your emotions. Once they’ve done that, they have space in your head. They have your attention, which is what they wanted all along. Psychopaths will even tell you that they can’t get enough attention, they crave it. When someone tells you that, believe them.
How the Instant Trauma Bond Works
This quick foray through your boundaries followed by retreat, is meant to instill that they have the power to make you feel safe. They want you to feel that you need them – like a drug. They become the poison and the anti-dote. As Rene Girard explains, the god is both malevolent and benevolent. They giveth and they taketh away.
You aren’t supposed to notice that they created the fear in the first place. You only notice how they made you feel when they quelled your fears: happy and blessed in their presence.
If we could examine the sequence of events in slow motion it might look like this: The psychopath makes an offensive comment or movement, for a split second you feel a twinge of alarm and some adrenalin. Next, he innocently retreats and you feel safe again, then you laugh to expel your anxiety. Rather than acknowledge that you were afraid, you feel the opposite: this person just made you laugh or smile. He relieved your anxiety, which you blame on yourself. You interpret the offender’s boundary-crossing as familiarity and then as a charming audacity. You might even find the psychopath fascinating.
If you do notice your fear, you never blame the psychopath for your feelings, you blame yourself for misinterpreting his intentions, for being too sensitive or too quick to judge. You convince yourself that there’s nothing to be afraid of.
The adrenalin coursing through your body adds a dimension of excitement to the encounter with the psychopath. Not only is he perfectly safe, he’s exciting to watch and to be with. Never a dull moment.
This process is how the psychopath trains you to numb yourself to fear. The more times it happens, the easier it becomes for you to go numb when you experience fear. You’re learning to become like the psychopath himself, fearless and out of touch with reality. He wants you to mirror him so you’ll follow him to his 2-dimensional cartoon hell where the truth bends to his lies.
Why it Works: Fear Creates Willful Blindness
There are times when willful blindness is a survival mechanism. We learn to be willfully blind as children when we’re vulnerable to the adults in our lives. We trauma bond to ensure that we are pleasing to the abuser and we survive our childhood.
Even as adults, we don’t always have control over our environment. A predator can cut off all escape and the only way to survive is to pretend you don’t notice. If he suspects that you might escape, even for an instant, your life is in danger. The only option is to become willfully blind. The error occurs if we default into this mode when we could have chosen to safely escape.
People of the Lie
Soon after meeting him, I noticed that the Psychopath lied constantly and blatantly. Naively, I asked him point-blank, “Why do you lie so much?”
I still remember the liar’s exact words and how he raged in response, “I AM NOT A LIAR! DON’T EVER CALL ME A LIAR! I AM NOT A LIAR! AND I AM NOT A THIEF!”
WTF? Moment. The rage had a familiarity. It reminded me of my father, in my childhood, when he’d been disobeyed. Again, I was speechless.
I never questioned the Psychopath’s lies again but I still wanted to understand why he lied. It was before the age of the internet, so I went to the library to research why people lie. The only book on the subject was People of the Lie, The Hope for Healing Human Evil. I checked it out and kept it hidden between my box spring and my mattress where the Psychopath wouldn’t see it.
It was too late, I had already become willfully blind. I read the book but I couldn’t understand it. Subconsciously, I was working at cross purposes: to understand without knowing that I knew. In order to fool the Psychopath, I had to fool myself into believing that I was safe.
It was also during those weeks that I took my diary, which I’d kept since I was 15 years old, and ripped it to shreds. Then I found a dumpster across town and threw it away. Inexplicably, I felt terrified that he would read it and know my vulnerabilities.
My cognitive dissonance began to dissipate twenty-five years later when the stranger in the sushi bar said, “There’s a book you have to read.” and even though I hadn’t thought of the book for twenty-five years, I immediately responded, “I know the book, People of the Lie”.
How did you know?” the man asked incredulously.
Twenty-five years after I’d read the book, I was free from my willful blindness. It was safe to see evil because I’d left the Psychopath.
A psychopath knows that we use our feelings to trust we are perceiving reality. Fear is the numbing agent he uses to separate us from our feelings. When the truth is too terrifying and we’re too frightened, we sometimes prefer to numb them.
It’s ironic that a victim is even more controlled when they can’t feel the fear. That’s because when we refuse to feel danger, we can’t see it either. Whatever we deny has the most power over us. Blind, deaf and dumb we become disconnected from reality. Disconnected is exactly how a psychopath wants his victims. It makes it easier to insert his false reality if we already don’t trust our senses, if we lack grounding. When we don’t know what to believe, he’s there to tell us.
I’m reading People of the Lie again, for the third or fourth time, and I’m astounded by how much more information I’m learning from it. I literally do not remember having read entire chapters. It’s as if I was unable to comprehend and remember what I had read before, until I could give up my willful blindness and accept the pain of the truth. The book describes my family, my upbringing, several people I’ve known. Yet, I don’t remember having read those passages or having that revelation before.
Dr. Peck states,
“As I defined it in The Road Less Traveled, “Mental health is an ongoing process of dedication to reality at all costs.” “
― People of the Lie, the Hope for Healing Human Evil, page 162
Reading this book and failing to understand it, has made that statement fundamentally clear to me. Dedication to reality is an ongoing process. The book is so revealing that I couldn’t — I wouldn’t — accept it, or even remember it until I was ready to face my fears.
I highly recommend the book and I also recommend to anyone who hopes to survive an encounter with evil, to commit themselves to the higher power of reality. It’s not easy when everything in our culture conspires with us, to blind us. Willful blindness is a deal with the devil.
How does one commit to reality? Be on the alert for fear. The following quote may help:
“Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the assessment that something else is more important than fear.”
Thank you, this is enlightening. I always thought the trauma bond started 10 months after I met him, when he threw a tantrum at me and I couldn’t walk away. but from what you describe, it sounds like he figured out a subtle way to start that bond from the very beginning, and I can’t remember how he did it but it must have been in conversation. then the tantrum was just a test of the bond to make sure it was securely in place.
I had a very similar experience while I was willfully blind with a different book: “Why Does He DO That?” Our therapist had recommended it to me, clearly in retrospect trying to tell me something without telling me, probably because she was afraid of him. I had barely started reading it, he saw it and threw a fit and insisted I not read it. that should have been a huge clue. I hid it in my closet and never read it until after he moved out. 6 months after he moved out, reality came crystal clear to me and I was terrified. If I had seen it when he was still there, I would have been paralyzed with fear.
Oh yes, I love that book. Why Does He Do That? Inside the Minds of Angry and Pathetic –whoops, I mean — Controlling Men
I had to hide that book too, when I was with another abuser a few years ago. I kept it in my car and had to go on “trips to the grocery store”, just to have time to read it. It was very enlightening especially about their sense of entitlement.
You might want to go over your memories of how you met and see if there were any surprise elements. Most importantly, go over your emotions at the time, for what they were trying to tell you.
For the longest time, I remembered my encounter with my ex as being romantic. He brought me a flower, after all. I remembered being afraid but I didn’t blame him, because he didn’t DO anything to make me fear him. He didn’t have to, his predatory presence was enough.
well that could have been it. my ex was 6’6″ and a huge guy. I’m only 5’3″. I have been over and over the initial interactions in my head, and there wasn’t anything I recognized as even remotely threatening for at least 5 months. but everyone else seemed boring compared to him. so from what you described, I think he must have already trauma bonded me somehow. perhaps in the same way you could say Bella was trauma bonded to Edward in the beginning, from Twilight. He didn’t do anything to threaten HER, directly, except exist.
but the one strange thing is that the moment I first saw his face, I recognized him. I thought I must have seen him in a different place, but then found out he had just moved to my state a few weeks before, so that was impossible. so I do suspect there was something deeper at work in why he was in my life, on a more spooky level.
That is interesting because the first time I saw my spath was not the first time he saw me. He had been stalking me for weeks. I know this because my car was disabled and nobody could fix it. I had several mechanics out there, good mechanics, to no avail. But spath shows up and fixes it in less than 5 minutes. I wasn’t there when he fixed it, I gave him the keys and he brought the car to my office.
Knowing that sabotaging machines is part of his M.O. I figured out that he had stalked me, seen where I parked it and set it up. Part of the trauma bond is to create chaos and then be the one with the solution.
I’m pretty sure that no psychopath approaches their victims straight on. Like any good hunter, they wait and watche the prey to learn their habits. Then they have the knowledge they need to manipulate and coerce.
It’s possible that your spath was watching you for a while before he approached you and you recognized him because you’d seen him before but hadn’t paid attention.
I don’t know how that could be, given that we lived an hour away from each other, and there was no other way for him to have met me other than the social group in which we met. truly I think he stalked me through hundreds of lifetimes. this is the first life in which I escaped him. it’s truly spooky because the first part of my life was dominated by my mother’s evil. I divorced her literally weeks before I hooked up with him, just 2 months after I met him. it was like they passed me off from one to the other, as if some evil force was guiding them. (they did not meet until 7 years later and instantly hated each other.) I had no idea that I was going from the frying pan into the fire. These people are truly malicious and diabolical. with some their behavior is randomly evil, but with others it is entirely calculating, intentional, and planned out over the course of years. kind of like plotting to become president and then undoing everything your predecessor created, and fashioning a new Axis of evil.
so, you completely called it and Trump played it out just like you said. the Danger-Safe trick. he put all those children in peril, and then he was their savior to stop the separations. what does this do psychologically to our country?
That’s a good question.
I would think that the people who know what he is, are immune to the trauma bond, but only if they are aware of how it works and the danger/safe component of the bond.
If someone is completely blind to the fact that he has a dangerous personality disorder, then they wouldn’t know what hit them. They will believe whatever he wants them to believe.
Then there are those who are just like him. They think this is great and they want to see more of it. Those people are the most blind of all. They believe that if it happens to someone else, it won’t happen to them. They are so wrong. The most important thing to understand about psychopaths is that they are betrayers. They betray everyone. They love the look of shock and awe on your face when you realize you’ve been played. That’s what they live for. THAT is winning for them.
Those people who love and trust him are the ones he is most likely to betray because they’ve climbed up the pedestal and he can’t resist toppling them. Just look at all the EX-employees he’s had. They were all flying high before they drew the short stick for who was going to be the sacrificial victim.
In the end, no one is safe. The moment you think you can’t be fooled again, is when he’ll do a 180 degree turn. This is precisely because fooling people is what gives him the greatest rush. It’s when the victim receives the unexpected that the look on their face is the most priceless to him.