Living with Toxicity: Lies & Trauma Bonding


As the Mueller investigation continues to tighten its grip around the president's inner circle this week, he demonstrated an unfortunate (for him) phenomenon that befalls many narcissists (and others who find themselves in the cluster B club). A year ago, he characterized a meeting between his son and other members of the Trump campaign and Russian officials as primarily having to do with adoption. What a difference a year makes.

One of his lawyers at the time, Jay Sekulow, has had to grapple with this about face by saying that he was operating on "bad information" last year and that "over time, facts develop." To be sure, I do not envy those who must work with our current president, for whether they believe him or the causes he supports, they are faced with the unenviable task of trying to weave a coherent narrative out of mismatched and patently false threads of word salad thoughts. Who can forget Sean Spicer's uncomfortable first press conference when he tried to convince the American public that Trump's inauguration was the largest in history or Kellyanne Conway's absurd political spin that such a claim was corroborated by the existence of "alternative facts?"

Facts do not develop.

There are not alternative facts.

Unless one is compromised in some way psychologically. If that is the case, all bets are off. In the emotional abuse literature, there is a phrase that is often used about the reasoning of toxic persons called "feelings create facts." One can see how easily this could be taken advantage of in politics, for if the GOP administration feels like the murder rate is higher than it's been in nearly 50 years they will simply say so, even when the facts demonstrate that it has decreased steadily over the last 25 years. If a president wins an election by virtue of less than 80,000 votes across three states, but he feels like he won in a landslide, you will hear the alternative facts version that better fits with his feelings. Contrary to Mike Birbiglia's humorous take on his wife's ability to win arguments by simply saying, "That's how I feel," that approach to running a country or developing policies runs perilously close to authoritarianism. How else are we to make sense of one of his latest Orwellian speeches to veterans in Kansas City, wherein he implored, "Stick with us. Don't believe the crap you see from these people, the fake news. ... What you're seeing and what you're reading is not what's happening." If this sounds crazy, you're not alone. It is completely disconnected from reality, intentionally provocative, and emotionally saturated reasoning. As I have mentioned before, being with persons in toxic relationships is a lot like slowly boiling a frog. They begin small. A little lie here, an exaggeration there. It's usually imperceptible in the beginning. Then they increase the temperature of the water. The bizarre phenomenon in our country is that Trump moved from simmer to high, going so far as to say that he could shoot someone on 5th Avenue in New York City and still get elected. The preposterousness of the statement was profound, but we also found that it was uncannily accurate. Of his base, 9 in 10 trust him more than they trust their own families! Let that sink in. There is a concept in the emotional abuse literature that describes this well: trauma bonding.

Trauma bonding refers to the addictive quality of abusive relationships through a toxic partner's use of intermittent reinforcement. One minute we are told we're going to be winning so much we're not going to know how to handle so much winning. The next minute we're told that a man who donated millions of dollars to create educational opportunities in his home town is dumb or that immigrants are murderers. Through these inconsistent reinforcement schedules, persons begin to develop a tolerance for the rollercoaster-like emotional experience of the relationship. At this point, in addition to the fact that each new crisis or diplomatic flash point serves to distract from the reality of his behavior, the president's obsession with shifting the conversation to the next shiny object has the effect of causing the American public to anticipate—in an almost Pavlovian fashion—his next idiocratic move. In a sick way, it is as if we need him. And we will put up with increasingly bizarre behaviors as long as he can do something that passes for normal every once in a while. Such is the tragic way that trauma bonding keeps victim and abuser tethered to one another.

Colton and Belinda were both coming out of difficult previous relationships when they met through a mutual friend. About three months into their budding romance, Belinda and Colton had agreed to meet for dinner at a local restaurant. The night before, however, Colton's boss asked him to work on a special project that would get in the way of his scheduled dinner. Colton sent Belinda a text to let her know of the conflict the evening before. The next day, while he was working on the project, he received an angry text from Belinda wanting to know where he was and why he had stood her up. He reminded her he had let her know the night before, but she lashed out at him saying, "Well, I didn't receive it, and I don't think you sent it." Colton calmly took a screen shot of the text from the night before and sent it to her. She replied, "You know my phone is broken! You are such a jerk!" Colton had no idea that her phone was broken, and she was clearly receiving the texts that they were sharing in that moment. Colton was scared to see her later that evening after he got off work. When he got home, however, Belinda appeared happy to see him and had seemingly forgotten about their argument earlier that day. They shared an abbreviated but nice evening together. When he woke up, however, Belinda was furious with him and picked up the argument from the previous day from which he thought she had already moved on. Colton's head was spinning. He couldn't tell whether she liked him or not, but for some reason he couldn't seem to find enough perspective to see that he would do anything to keep her from being upset with him, even if it resulted in losing all self-respect. Soon after, she stopped talking to him for a week but eventually returned wanting to work things out. The confusing interactions and circular arguments continued with periods of stability that made him hopeful, only to be filled with despair during the next crazy making disagreement. Colton was exhausted and didn't know whether he could trust anything Belinda said. At the same time, the thought of losing her filled him with fear of abandonment.

For persons in intimate relationships with toxic persons like this, the dynamics are difficult because toxic partners know how to manipulate the truth and exploit others' trust. As discussed in a previous post, emotional manipulators' success depends on the target's level of differentiation. I say differentiation (as opposed to weakness/instability) because—as Shannon Thomas argues—toxic persons are often attracted to the strengths of others rather than their vulnerabilities. More often than not, targets embody qualities that are either missing in the narcissist or that will be useful to her/him in her/his desire for greater status and/or admiration. At the same time, targets are often highly empathic and display many codependent characteristics. I will discuss empathy and codependence more fully in another post, but in summary they encompass the ways one's ability to communicate compassion, to over-function, to take responsibility for others' behavior, and to be vulnerable to other forms of abusive dynamics makes some people especially susceptible to the kinds of situations described in the short vignette above.

It sounds counterintuitive to argue that our society might be just as likely to find themselves in an addictive relationship with someone who so flagrantly flaunts his fictive approach to life. Yet here we are in early August of 2018 with a president who averages nearly eight public lies a day. Of course, he has a nearly 42% approval rating(?!). How is it possible that over 4 in 10 of us approve of this kind of behavior? At some level, I believe we are a codependent nation that finds itself traumatically bound to a man who we think will save us and make America great again. That messianic, codependent hope that something outside of us will save us from ourselves is a tragic misapplication of our trust. We don't know how (or whether) to differentiate and operate from a place of principle because, well, the economy is booming right now. A little (or copious amounts of) lying and casual fascism is a small price to pay for the financial success of the current economy, no? The problem with narcissists is that the discard is always around the corner, just as nearly every economic boom is followed by a recession. Lies, like wreckless economic policies, eventually come back around to expose the shell game in which we've been involved. As hard as we try, we cannot seem to choose the right shell. In our naïveté, we never considered that the game was rigged all along.