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Trauma bonding (and how to break it)

Introduction

Those unfamiliar with the term ‘trauma bonding’ might think it a strange turn of phrase, but it’s actually an incredibly accurate description. Not only does it perfectly reflect the seriousness of the physical and emotional dependency that occurs during such a bond, it also explains why it feels like a trauma to both the body and mind when it is broken. As such, trauma bonding is the reason that many people stay in unhappy, abusive and toxic relationships.

In this post we’ll explore what trauma bonding is, why it happens and what it looks like in practice. We’ll finish with advice on how to break a trauma bond. 

What is a trauma bond?

As relationships develop over time, a biological and emotional process happens causing people to bond to one another; this is perfectly normal and without it out relationships would lack depth.  However, this bonding process isn’t exclusive to healthy relationships and also manifests in toxic ones. And unfortunately, in this case, once bonded it can be incredibly difficult to leave a relationship.

A trauma bond is often created out of, and characterised by, periods of lows, such as emotional and/or physical abuse, and interspersed with periods of highs. As such, some experts have likened it to an addictive drug. Much like a powerful drug, the relationship can feel like the best thing in the world one minute, before swiftly feeling like the worst ever catastrophe the next. This cycle continues until the trauma bond is broken.

Unfortunately, many people in such a relationship mistakenly think things will improve. This is not illogical; as established above these relationships are not without their joyous moments. At such times, it is easy for the victim to convince themselves that things have finally improved once and for all.  

Not sure if you’re in a trauma bond?

Here are some concrete examples which might help you discover if you might be in a trauma bond with your partner:

  • They continually let you down or exhibit bad behaviour but you continue to believe things will be change for the better

  • Your friends, family or co-workers repeatedly act disturbed by their behaviour but you can’t see the issue

  • Your self-esteem is much lower than it used to be

  • You frequently make excuses for your partner’s behaviour

  • There are recurrent destructive arguments that never come to a satisfactory conclusion

  • You believe you are the only one who understands and can help them

  • You feel you cannot leave them even though you don’t trust them and often don’t even like them

Breaking trauma bonding

Recognising a trauma bond is only half the battle - it then has to be broken. The good news is there are several steps you can take to start this process - please remember to treat yourself with compassion and kindness throughout.

1.       Get the right help

This process will be difficult at times and you’ll benefit from having a good support system in place. A trusted friend or family member may be a good place to start. You might also benefit from being in a professional support setting, such as counselling. You don’t have to decide to do this right now, but it’s worth bearing in mind as a place of non-judgemental help for the future.

2.       Live in the present

One of the characteristics of a trauma bond is that the victim tends to truly believe the relationship will improve despite evidence to the contrary. Instead you’ll need to concentrate on the here and now and what is really happening moment to moment. Do you feel you are being treated with respect? Do you feel loved and valued? Do you feel in an equal partnership?  You need to effectively lean into those feelings and accept that this is your current reality. Only by doing that – by unmasking the fantasy of tomorrow – will you see that your situation is unacceptable.  

3.       Feel your feelings

Victims in a trauma bond often shy away from feeling their own emotions, but you need to get back in touch with them. This could be as simple as mindfully paying attention to how you feel when you have a negative interaction with your partner. You might also like to try writing in a journal as it can help many people unjumble their thoughts. This will help you live in the present and see things for what they really are.

4.       Develop self-compassion

Learn to act in a compassionate way towards yourself. If you are used to being put down and belittled you will start to treat yourself like that too. Every time you feel weak or sad or hurt, instead of being cross and angry with yourself be kind to yourself instead.  

5.       Decide what is unacceptable

When you feel ready, think about the behaviours you will no longer tolerate. It might be helpful to write it out as a list. This will be individual to your situation but an example could be: I will walk away from any disagreement where the other person does not treat me respectfully e.g. calls me names, shouts or acts aggressively.

6.       Grieve

When you decide you have had enough and want to leave, accept that it will be challenging and that you are allowed to grieve the relationship. You have put time and effort into this and it is likely that there will be many aspects of it that you will miss. It is possible to accept that you will no longer put up with the unacceptable while also admitting to yourself that you are sad. It is perfectly healthy to grieve.  

7.       Design your life

Once the bond has been broken, you are free to create your own life. Think about what you want to do with your time and what will create meaning and fulfilment for you. You might like to start a new exercise programme, volunteer or travel somewhere you’ve always wanted to go. Whatever you decide, you will need to learn the skills necessary to regain control and live life on your terms, not anyone else’s.

8.       Nurture other relationships

One way to move on from an unhealthy relationship is to spend time nurturing and developing healthy ones. Perhaps this means becoming closer with pre-established relationships, such as your friends and family. Or maybe it means making new connections. Slowly build up a support network of people who respect you and make you feel good. 

Getting the right help

Often a trauma bond is created within an emotionally abusive relationship. If you think you might be in an emotionally abusive relationship you can contact a specialist organisation, such as The Freephone 24 Hour National Domestic Violence Helpline, for immediate support.

For more localised advice you can click on your district on the Kent and Medway Domestic Abuse Strategy Group map.

In conjunction, you may like to consider regular, ongoing therapeutic support. Check out the British Association of Counselling & Psychotherapy directory to help you find a qualified therapist near you.

Written By: Claire Daplyn, Therapist, Inner Space Counselling Ltd.

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