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What Are Trauma Bonds?

woman upset with man in background

Trauma bonds are formed when a person feels affection and trust for their partner when they are in a dysfunctional or abusive relationship. This can occur in a variety of different relationships. Common toxic relationships include domestic violence, dysfunctional marriages, and relationships with a narcissist or a person with an addiction. 

Trauma bonds can also occur in cult-like religious organizations, hostage situations and kidnappings, and relationships that involve child abuse or incest. 

Most of the time trauma bonds form in romantic relationships, but they can also happen with family members, friends, or colleagues. 

How do Trauma Bonds Manifest?

Trauma bonding involves loyalty to a destructive person and is an unhealthy type of relationship. They are very manipulative, and the partner who is the victim is given a promise of hope. These relationships are always intense, complex, and inconsistent. The abused partner will tolerate anything because whatever is promised will fulfill a deep personal need. It is hard for them to see that the relationship is unhealthy until they step away from it.

In a relationship where a trauma bond forms, the partner first makes them feel loved and cared for. Over time this changes and the relationship becomes abusive. The abused partner often thinks they can fix the relationship if they can figure out what they are doing wrong. To keep them from leaving, the abusive partner will go back to the courtship phase to win them back. The cycle repeats over and over again.

A narcissistic person will manipulate their partner over and over again until they begin to believe the toxic behaviors are normal. The person being abused feels like they need validation from their partner, which gives them more power. 

Abuse is alternated with positive experiences, and this leads to trauma bonds, which are strengthened over time. Positive reinforcement is used to ensure the person will stay, and it becomes difficult for them to recognize clear signs of physical or emotional abuse. 

Even when the person is aware they are in an abusive relationship, they may have been manipulated to continue forgiving the abusive partner. 

This is part of why people stay in toxic relationships. It is difficult to see the other person clearly when they alternate love and abuse and often use techniques like gaslighting to make the person feel like it is all in their head.

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Trauma Bonds: Common Risk Factors

There are a number of risk factors that make trauma bonds more likely, although it can happen to anyone.

  • Poor mental health
  • Low self-esteem
  • Past trauma
  • Lack of personal identity
  • No social support system
  • History of being bullied
  • Financial issues

A person experiencing financial difficulties will have a harder time breaking away from the abusive partner because they depend on them for financial support. 

If they don’t have a social support network, they also view the person as their only source of companionship, love, and understanding. 

They may feel as if they have no one else to talk to about their problems or their issues with the partner. 

When they lack a personal sense of identity, it is easier for the abusive partner to control them, essentially telling them what they should do, what to like, who to spend time with, and more.

How to Recognize the Signs of Trauma Bonding

Knowing the many signs of a trauma bond can help you recognize them in your own relationships or in your loved ones. The signs include but are not limited to:

  • Continuing to believe promises even though past promises were not kept
  • Others are concerned/disturbed by something that happened with your partner, but you are not
  • You feel like there is nothing you can do about your partner’s destructive behavior
  • Trying to change your partner’s destructive behaviors
  • You have repeated fights that damage your relationship and no one ever wins
  • You feel attached to them even if you can’t trust them and don’t like them
  • If you try to leave, you long for them in ways that feel unbearable
  • You make excuses for their behavior or shift the blame to yourself
  • You feel indebted to the abusive partner and feel you must make up for mistakes that happened a long time ago
  • If the abusive person has mental health issues you may feel the need to care for and protect them, and may push away anyone who doesn’t support the relationship
  • You try to hide your negative emotions from them so they won’t try to make you feel guilty for having them
  • Your friends and family are not supportive of the relationship
  • You take on multiple roles for the abusive partner, like a lover, best friend, therapist, or parent, which strengthens the trauma bond and weakens your personal identity

Breaking Trauma Bonds

There are ways to break trauma bonds if you find yourself in one of these unhealthy relationships.

  • Separation from the abusive partner, both physically and emotionally
  • Acknowledging your own choice, and learning to see the emotional manipulation, gaslighting, criticism, and control for what it is with the help of a therapist
  • Developing a social support network of family and friends that understand your goals and will support you as you work on them
  • Setting clear boundaries and saying no, then sticking to it
  • Looking for feelings of pressure and control which are red flags of an abusive relationship
  • Be careful to not confuse trauma bonding with love. Love is not conditional upon pleasing your partner but should be given freely for being yourself

How to Heal From Trauma Bonds

There are several ways to begin healing from a trauma bond. A therapist can help guide you through the healing process. Here are a few things to work on at home and in therapy.

1. Live in the Present

When you find yourself having fantasies about what could be-  stop and think about what is happening right now in the relationship. 

Shift your focus to how unloved and trapped you feel. Pay close attention to the emotions you are feeling now and how it affects you.

2. Focus on One Day at a Time

Saying things like “I have to never talk to them again” is all-or-nothing thinking. It is similar to telling yourself you can never eat sweets again when starting a diet. This sort of thinking often has the effect of making you want to talk to them even more.

Make one decision at a time as you work through the healing process.

3. Practice Self-Care

Don’t put yourself down if you make a mistake. Mistakes happen to everyone and there is always a new chance to make a different decision. 

Speak to yourself with compassion. Think about how you would speak to a friend going through a similar situation. You would be caring, understanding, and help them reflect instead of berating them over their decisions. Practice self-compassion, be mindful of every decision you make, and put your best interests first.

man focuses on his journal

4. Allow Yourself to Feel

Instead of turning to the abusive person, feel whatever you are feeling. Write it down in a journal. The feelings you have for someone you aretrauma bonded with can feel obsessive. It’s okay to feel your emotions. They may begin to subside once you allow yourself to feel them fully.

5. Allow Yourself to Grieve

When you end a toxic relationship, you experience a loss. Give yourself permission to mourn. 

6. Set Clear Boundaries

Decide which things you will and will not allow yourself to do in a relationship. It may be deciding to not argue with someone who has been drinking or to be responsible for your own finances. 

Whatever it is, set the boundary and maintain it

7. Build a Healthy Social Support System

Work on forming relationships with people who don’t bring drama to your life and will support you. Start living your life by spending time with people who make you feel respected and cared about. 

You can do this by participating in activities that you enjoy, joining clubs, and doing things that support your dreams. 

Working with a therapist can be beneficial to healing from trauma and the bonds that can be associated with traumatic relationships. A therapist can help you identify your feelings and recognize the unhealthy cycle that keeps repeating in your toxic relationship. A therapist can also help you determine obsessive thoughts and work on breaking them. 

A therapeutic technique that is commonly used with trauma is Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). A therapist trained in EMDR can help you work through traumatic experiences using bilateral eye movements that are similar to REM sleep. The memory is then stored in the past where it belongs. The person then feels less distress when they think about it.

Another type of therapy useful when healing from a trauma bond is Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), which uses a variety of skills including emotion regulation and mindfulness.

One of its core tenets is radical acceptance, which can allow a person to accept themself and the situations they find themself in without judgment. This can help them to accept that the toxic relationship and resulting bond has happened without placing blame on themself and to move towards a life filled with healthier relationships. 

If you believe that you or a loved one are in an abusive relationship, please reach out. At Integrative Life Center, we can help you discover treatment modalities that can help you heal the trauma you may have experienced in your personal relationships. 

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