In narcissistic abuse the victim experiences extreme terror over and over again, often over many years. The behavior follows a sequence of events; first the tension gradually builds, the victim is then caught in an explosive exchange with the narcissist, this is then followed by calmness and feelings of being loved. Each time the process follows the same path of submission and reconciliation, which further consolidates the attachment between victim and victimizer.
Faced with such madness, unable to take flight or fight, the victim is rendered helpless, and goes into a freeze/fright response. They are then apt to follow a typical post-traumatic response where they dissociate emotionally. They block out the pain (numbing), and they build a fantasy of fusion and symbiosis. This is Stockholm syndrome in action.
When a person has been subjected to narcissistic abuse, in effect they display many of the symptoms of Stockholm Syndrome that is also found in hostages or prisoners of war. Narcissists subject their victims to mental, emotional, and physical terror, a terror that must be denied if the individual is to survive the unrelenting onslaught of abuse. Trying to survive under these conditions, the victim is reduced to becoming pretty much like an infant that first comes into the world; that is, helpless and dependent on its survival from a main caregiver, which usually the infant’s mother.
So in the face of extreme danger, not just infants (but anybody in danger), turn to their nearest available source of comfort in order to regain a state of both psychological and physiologic rebalance. But, what happens when there is no source of comfort available, but only a cruel narcissistic abuser who threatens and beats their victim into the ground? Nature kicks in, that’s what happens, and the individual turns to inbuilt unconscious survival defense mechanisms, because if they did not, they would be annihilated by their own levels of negative arousal.
The victim of abuse unconsciously goes into a state of infantile regression. Where once they became obedient and clung on to the care-giver (mother), they repeat this behavior by surrendering themselves obediently to their captor (trauma bonding, as seen in Stockholm syndrome) and organize their life completely around pleasing the captor. That way they survive in the war zone. This behavior of negative reinforcement has been seen universally whereever people are held captive.
Part of the process of recovery comes from education and understanding narcissistic behavior, and being able to spot a narcissist when you meet them. It's a little difficult to avoid them entirely (family, boss, ex with children, etc); well, that is almost impossible because they are everywhere. They are usually very exciting in the beginning, the trick is to know what to look for so that you do not get sucked in as their Narcissistic Supply.
Learn about your own process, recognize where your vulnerabilities lie in regard to any narcissist. It is my experience that victims have been groomed early, usually in childhood; this is not always by a parent, it could be a grandparent, teacher, sibling, friend, anybody in fact.
How amazing is the human being, nature wills us to survive in all its mysterious ways. When the time is right the individual will choose to deal with the abuse, and clear out the unconscious for recovery. Some have to wait until their abuser is dead, while others need to wait until they are safe and secure within a supportive setting. When the time is right, that is the time to start the journey back towards wholeness.
For further reading on trauma bonds and betrayal bonds, here's a good book:
Read an excerpt from Betrayal Bonds here.