How to Break a Trauma Bond?
Have you ever been in a toxic relationship from which you find difficult to break free? You may find that the concept of a trauma bond illuminates your experience. A trauma bond is an intense, unhealthy emotional attachment that forms in response to a relationship’s emotional and/or physical abuse. Trauma bonding is situated in the nervous system, in which your brain makes a connection between “love” and abuse.
Why Does Trauma Bonding Occur?
Trauma bonding occurs when repeated abuse is cycled with instances of “love” every once in a while. The concept of intermittent reinforcement can explain this cycle. You are conditioned to stay in a toxic relationship as you are awaiting the inevitable time when you will feel loved again by your partner. When this occasion happens, you may think this is a sign that your partner will change.
You become addicted to this cycle as a person may to any drug, because this cycle of abuse and love mimics the brain mechanisms of other addictions. To understand this, you only have to look at dopamine’s role in addiction, which has a similar function in trauma bonding. After an occurrence of abuse, the period of calm that often follows might settle your stress and fear. Your partner may give you apologies, gifts, or physical affection, which serve as rewards that trigger dopamine release in your brain. Dopamine induces pleasant feelings, which can strengthen your bond with the abuser, and you wind up seeking this dopamine boost during phases where they are not treating you well.
Trauma bonding on a broader level may occur as you become dependent on the abuser to fulfill your emotional needs. Your relational pattern may form at an early age and continue throughout your life unless you recognize the abusive aspect of it and make efforts to change it. For example, as a child, you relied on your parent for love and support. If your parent was abusive when you were young, you might begin to associate love with abuse, and the experience became normalized to you. You might blame yourself for the abuse to protect your relationship with your parent because you were fully dependent on your parent for survival, which allowed the parent to continue being seen as “good” in your eyes to fulfill your needs.
Signs of Trauma Bonding
The signs of trauma bonding may not be apparent early on in the relationship, and they can sneak up on you. According to therapist and author of Boundary Boss, Terri Cole, in romantic relationships, a trauma bond typically starts with an intense attraction and love bombing, a manipulation tactic in which the abuser overwhelms you with gifts, excessive praise, and/or constant communication. They may even call you their soulmate soon after meeting you. Other signs of trauma bonding are listed below.
The abuser might:
- Appear very charming
- Shift moods unpredictably
- Blame you for their mood changes
- Find ways to distance you from your friends and family
- Fail to follow through on promises, including telling you they will change
You might find yourself:
- Making excuses to minimize or deny the abuse perpetrated by your partner
- Using alcohol to cope
- Becoming numb to the emotional or physical abuse
- Changing your behavior and walking on eggshells to prevent upsetting the abuser
- Lying or withholding about your relationship with loved ones
How to Break the Traumatic Bond?
It can be extremely difficult to leave the abuser you are in love with, especially if you experienced abuse in childhood and are drawn to relationships that feel familiar to you. However, you can break this cycle of abuse. The following tips can help you to get out of the trauma-bonded relationship.
Keep a journal.
Writing down things that happen each day may help you notice patterns and behavior problems that you may not have picked up on in the moment. When abuse occurs, write down what happened and whether your abuser excused or justified their actions afterward.
Talk to trusted loved ones.
It can be hard to open up about abuse. However, your loved ones can provide important perspectives. Challenge yourself to listen and consider the validity of their observations.
If you believe you brought the abuse on yourself, this can make it harder for you to feel like you should leave. Remind yourself that abuse is never your fault, regardless of what you said or did.
Make a safe exit plan.
It is crucial to prioritize your safety and make a safe plan for what you will do when you leave the abuser. Find a safe place to go. Do not share your plan with your abuser.
Cut off contact with the abuser entirely.
Of course, if you are co-parenting with your abuser, it can be complicated. Cole suggests involving a therapist or mediator to put boundaries in place.
Healing from Trauma
Healing from a trauma bond involves reflecting on what drew you to this dynamic. See a therapist and work toward rebuilding your sense of safety and self-esteem. Your healing process requires finding the answers to questions such as: What drew you to this relationship? What are you not going to accept in your next relationship? How can you set boundaries moving forward?
Frequently Ask Questions
Traumatic bonds have a cyclical nature, relying on intermittent reinforcement. In abusive relationships, the abuser occasionally does treat you well. It can be confusing when they do, and you might think things will change. You may suppress memories of their past behavior until the cycle restarts.
A traumatic bond has an underlying power imbalance. You might feel your partner controls you where you no longer have autonomy. You may feel lost or incomplete without them as they have manipulated you to depend on them.
Here are some other common features that can help you recognize a traumatic bond:
- You feel unhappy and may not even like your partner anymore, but you still can’t bring yourself to end things
- When you do try to leave, you feel physically and emotionally distressed
- When you say you want to leave, the abuser promises to change and then makes no effort
- You focus on the “good” times, using them as proof that the abuser truly cares
- You make excuses for the abuser and defend their behavior when others express concern
- You continue to trust them and hope you can change them
- You protect them by keeping their abusive behavior a secret
It can be hard to understand why a person would accept abuse in their relationship if you haven’t been in such a relationship yourself. The person in a trauma bond usually keeps the darker parts of the relationship a secret and further pushes it down in their minds. They typically think of the good times and hope that things will go back to that. Also, fear plays a role in why they can’t leave. In a physically abusive relationship, the person may fear for their life.
If you relate to this article and think you may be in a trauma bond or know someone who is, help is available to you. Many organizations provide emotional support and advice about staying safe, both during and after the abuse. Even if you are in a new relationship, it is important to watch for the signs of abuse and seek help early on. Some organizations you may contact include:
- The National Domestic Violence Hotline
- The Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline
- Elder abuse hotlines in each state
- The Office on Women’s Health
- The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence
The information on this page, or elsewhere on this site, is not intended to take the place of diagnosis, treatment or informed advice from a qualified mental health professional. You should not take or avoid any action without consultation with the latter.
If you would like to talk to a counselor, please click here.
Clayton, I. (2021, September 16). What is trauma bonding? Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/emotional-sobriety/202109/what-is-trauma-bonding
Raypole, C. (2020, November 24). How to recognize and break traumatic bonds. Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/health/mental-health/trauma-bonding
Vincenty, S. (2021, June 23). How to break an abusive trauma bond. Oprah Daily. https://www.oprahdaily.com/life/relationships-love/a36788688/what-is-trauma-bonding/
Zoppi, Lois. (2020, November 26). What is trauma bonding? Medical News Today. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/trauma-bonding