If you find yourself entangled in an unhealthy relationship that seems impossible to escape, it’s likely that you’re experiencing a phenomenon referred to as trauma bonding. Trauma bonding is a psychological reaction that occurs when a victim forms an unhealthy attachment to their abuser. This phenomenon is not exclusive to romantic relationships and can manifest in any situation where one person exploits another. If you want to know how to break a trauma bond, read on.
Trauma bonds go beyond the complexities of a difficult relationship; they are deeply ingrained in our fundamental need for attachment and security. The abuser exerts significant power and control, exacerbating feelings of shame and embarrassment, thereby making it incredibly challenging for the victim to break free.
If you find yourself caught in a trauma bond or are grappling with moving forward after ending such a relationship, there are steps you can take to liberate yourself and embark on a healing journey. It is possible to unlearn the survival mechanisms you’ve adopted, acquire new coping strategies, recover from the trauma, and sever the bonds that have kept you captive.
What is a trauma bond?
Any unhealthy link between an abuser and their victim can become a trauma bond. Trauma bonds don’t necessarily have to be romantic in nature, and can occur at home, within a family system, at your job, or even in religious groups. Often, we associate trauma bonds with toxic romantic relationships. The development of a trauma bond stems from a psychological response to prolonged abuse, wherein the abused person gradually forms feelings of sympathy or even affection toward their abuser.
Trauma bonds are thought to stem from unhealthy attachments. As humans, we are instinctively driven to form connections with those we perceive as protectors, defenders, or caregivers for survival. During childhood, attachments form with parents or caregivers, and as adults, we establish bonds with individuals who serve as sources of support, comfort, and security. The emotional intensity to remain in the relationship becomes heightened when the abuser also plays the role of a comforter or caregiver, such as in a romantic partnership. This intertwining makes it challenging to distinguish genuine love from the grip of a trauma bond.
Some signs you might be caught in a trauma bond
When you’re in a trauma bond, it can feel really overwhelming. You may not even realize what’s going on because you’re so focused on the person you’re in a trauma bond with. Here are some signs you might be caught in a trauma bond:
- Emotional whirlwind: You find yourself on an emotional rollercoaster, swinging between extreme highs and lows in response to that person or situation.
- Groundhog day, anyone? The relationship follows a predictable pattern – abuse, remorse, temporary affection – and then it repeats. It’s like déjà vu.
- Lone Wolf Syndrome: You start isolating yourself from friends and family who express concern about the relationship. It’s like building a fortress to protect your secret.
- Fear of the Abyss: The fear of being alone or abandoned keeps you clinging to the toxic connection, even when you know it’s harmful.
- Rose-Colored Glasses: Despite the damage, you find yourself idealizing the person or situation, holding onto the hope that things will magically get better.
How to break the trauma bond
1. Seek out resources
There is absolutely no shame in seeking help when you are in an abusive relationship. There are loads of resources available to you, from therapy, to friends and family, to the Domestic Abuse hotline. If your relationship is volatile, you will want the aid of trusted friends and family to help you get out. Remember that an abusive partner can and will attempt to cut you off from people who might notice your abuse, so it may be hard to reach out, but it is important that you do so.
Several domestic violence shelters and organizations also give victims access to legal support, therapy, childcare, health care, employment support, educational services, and financial assistance. Your information will always remain protected, because these shelters understand that abusers may seek out their victims.
Here are some other helpful resources for anyone going through abuse:
2. Clearly communicate your needs
Understanding the art of setting clear and assertive boundaries is a key skill in any relationship. Boundaries serve as your personal guidelines, allowing you to communicate your needs effectively. They play a vital role in maintaining healthy connections with others. Keep in mind that boundaries vary from person to person, covering a wide range of aspects in life. In relationships entangled in trauma bonds, establishing and enforcing boundaries becomes even more crucial.
It’s common for individuals in such relationships to test or challenge these limits. If someone reacts to your established boundaries with disrespect, anger, or threats to leave, it may indicate a deeper issue within the relationship. These reactions should serve as red flags, prompting you to take a closer look at the dynamics at play.
In some instances, what begins as a dialogue about expressing your needs can escalate, particularly if your partner displays signs of potential violence. If you find yourself in such a situation, it’s imperative to create a safety plan. This plan acts as a precautionary measure, ensuring that, in a worst-case scenario, you have a clear path to safety. Your well-being should always be the top priority, and having a safety plan in place is a proactive step toward protecting yourself in challenging situations.
3. Remove yourself emotionally from the situation
This may seem counterproductive when faced with a problem, but there is value in stepping back and disengaging, especially if the situation has the potential to escalate into something dangerous. Taking a step back and creating distance between yourself and the abuser may prove beneficial in the long run, helping to alleviate the intense emotions often tied to a trauma bond. If you feel the urge to soothe your partner in these moments, it could be an indication of a trauma bond or a dependent relationship. It’s vital to permit both you and your partner the space to self-soothe in these instances.
4. Deal with your feelings
When you’re caught up in a dependent or trauma-bonded relationship, it often becomes the norm to shove those negative feelings aside just to keep the peace with your partner. Instead of dodging or running away from those emotions, try spotting them in the moment and taking a moment to deal with them then and there. It’s not about sweeping things under the rug but acknowledging your feelings, showing that you’re aware of how this trauma bond is affecting your mood.
Once you’ve identified and accepted your feelings, it opens the door to move forward on your terms. Breaking free from a trauma bond isn’t an overnight change, but letting yourself genuinely feel those emotions provides a clearer picture of how this relationship is impacting you. And It might just spark the motivation you need to prioritize yourself in the equation.
5. Give yourself validation
Giving yourself a thumbs-up is a crucial step in boosting your self-confidence and fortifying your reliance on your own feelings. Once you’ve pinpointed those emotions, it’s equally crucial to give them a nod of approval.
The ultimate trick in this emotional validation game is practicing positive self-talk. Treating yourself with kindness and pep talks, just like you’d cheer on someone you care deeply about, is the golden ticket to self-validation. It works like a charm in the moment and serves as a solid long-term coping strategy. There are also other ways to give your emotions a virtual high-five – whether it’s through a creative outlet or leaning on a robust social support system. Bottom line: make sure you’re firmly on your own team.
6. Talk to a professional
Therapy works wonders in handling the stress that often accompanies relationship issues, guiding you on a path toward healing. Having a secure space to dive into relationship conflicts and unearth their deeper meanings can be incredibly empowering. The first stride towards recovery and breaking free from a trauma bond is identifying the root cause of the issue.
Finding a therapist who specializes in trauma-bonded relationships is as simple as browsing an online therapist directory. Checking out clinician bios and reviews can provide insight into their expertise, helping you gauge if their experience aligns with your situation. Many therapists offer free phone consultations and virtual/teletherapy visits, providing accessible help.
Another effective way to connect with a therapist is through a referral, often from a physician or a trusted friend or family member. Healthcare providers typically have an extensive network of professionals, making it beneficial to loop in your physician or specialist. This not only keeps them informed about potential treatment options but also ensures they are aware of any trauma experienced in the relationship.
7. Keep a journal
Journaling provides a valuable space for recognizing, expressing, and working through the stressors in your life without judgment. It’s a place where you can spill your emotions onto a blank page, releasing fears, anxieties, or depression from your mind and heart. Using journaling as a tool for mental well-being enables you to track your responses and healing journey. It lets you reflect on the stages of trauma bonding and pinpoint opportunities for emotional growth over time.
If you’re not sure whether you’re involved in a trauma bond or not, journaling can be a great way to begin to see patterns in your thoughts and your abuser’s behaviors toward you. Noticing these things on a macro scale can show you what is actually going on.
8. Grieve your losses
Realizing that someone in your life has been abusing you can not only hurt to discover, but it can also hurt when you realize you’ll have to let this person go. After all, you care about them. Grief and loss are integral parts of the human journey, especially when you’re saying goodbye to something significant. It’s crucial to take the time to process your emotions as they surface. If you’re mourning the end of a trauma-bonded relationship, it might delve into the more intricate realm of traumatic grief. Yet, granting yourself the space to grieve and navigate these emotions can offer a fresh perspective, along with the strength and determination to tackle any lingering negative feelings.
9. Focus on other things
Investing energy into projects, causes, or activities that genuinely light us up can be a fantastic way to kickstart the release of oxytocin, that neurotransmitter linked with positive, happy vibes—even if the effects aren’t immediate. Reconnecting with and engaging in activities that bring you joy is a solid move to nudge those positive emotions back into the frame. Plus, this approach works wonders in fostering a more robust sense of identity, self-esteem, and self-worth.
10. Focus on yourself
Keep your attention on yourself and your feelings when facing challenging situations and emotions. In a trauma bond, it’s common for the survivor of abuse to put aside their own feelings to comfort their partner. However, it’s vital to acknowledge that your feelings hold just as much significance and deserve priority.
If you find yourself overwhelmed or struggling to prioritize your own needs as you navigate the process of moving forward, cut yourself some slack and be patient in the moment. Staying focused on your well-being and what you can control will foster a sense of empowerment.
11. Try yoga
Yoga gets a big nod as a go-to relaxation technique for anxiety. It wraps up the perks of physical movement with mindfulness, guided meditations, and breathwork. The aim of yoga is all about striking that sweet internal and external balance. When your mental focus zeroes in on finding that equilibrium, it makes navigating stressful emotions a smoother journey toward your goal.
Plenty of guided yoga meditations, books, and resources, along with assisted classes, are out there to lend a hand in restoring that missing balance.
12. Don’t blame yourself
Although it’s crucial to embrace your emotions, don’t beat yourself up for finding yourself in a trauma bond, especially if there’s been abuse in the relationship. Ditch the negative self-talk and talk to yourself with the same kindness you’d reserve for a loved one in a similar situation. Self-blaming only deepens feelings of guilt and shame, potentially slowing down your journey to move forward. It also plays into the harmful dynamic of victim-blaming in abusive situations.
Understanding that trauma bonds often stem from complex situations like manipulation and power imbalances can provide a better perspective. Recognizing that it’s not your fault that this happened to you is so important, and can empower you to let go of self-blame, which will create a better environment for you to grow and thrive in.
13. Stop thinking about what “could have happened”
Thinking about what might have happened if you had approached your trauma bond or abuse differently is very common, but it runs counter to the mindset you need to have in order to move forward.
In abusive relationships, victims often grapple with self-blame, questioning whether they should have left sooner or fought back. While some argue that these options are always within reach, the reality is different, especially for victims of emotional or physical abuse. Thinking about or dwelling on what could have happened if you had acted differently or stayed longer in the relationship becomes counterproductive. Going back in time to change things is not possible, so there is no reason to dwell.
A more constructive approach is redirecting your thoughts to the present and the actions you can take now to propel yourself forward. Although the past is unchangeable, focusing on living intentionally and surrounding yourself with individuals genuinely concerned about your well-being is a proactive step toward reclaiming control over your life.
If you suspect you might be involved in a trauma bond, it’s important to seek help, whether that be from trusted friends or family, or from a professional. Wondering how to break a trauma bond isn’t an easy place to be, but with support it can be done.
A professional is often recommended because trauma bonds tend to come with abuse, and recovering from those experiences can be hard without intervention.
If you or a loved one have experienced trauma and need help navigating life now, Modern Era Counseling is here to help. Our team of therapists specialize in trauma-informed therapy techniques and can help you build a life that makes you feel confident and empowered. You can take back your life. Give us a call at (704)-800-4436 or shoot us an email to get started today.