What Are Trauma Bonds? (& how to break them)

What are trauma bonds? I am sure many of you have heard the term before, but do you know how much they can affect your life- and, more importantly, how to break them?

Those of us who had a traumatic childhood or who have been in abusive relationships in adulthood often experience trauma bonding- forming strong emotional attachments to abusive partners. These trauma bonds can be extraordinarily strong and pervasive, and hard for the neurotypical person to understand. “Why does she keep going back to him if he beats her?” they wonder. “Why does he take her back every time she cheats on him?”. Or “why are those two even together when they clearly hate each other?”.

When we are persistently abused by someone we love, especially early on in life, that becomes our template for love. Abuse, to us, feels like love. And real love- being cherished, cared for, nurtured- feels alien to us. We feel the other must be being disingenuous, must have some nefarious ulterior motive. This springs from our core belief of unworthiness. Deep, deep down we do not deem ourselves worthy of adoration. And so we return, again and again, to the familiar. The ones who reinforce our beliefs. The ones who hit us, insult us, ignore us. We return to the familiar, for many reasons.

I will talk about some of those reasons below, and then give you a few ways to heal from trauma-bonded relationships.

So why do we stay in these situations?

1. Changing core beliefs is scary.

Let’s face it. It is easier to stay stuck in your old patterns. Situations that challenge our beliefs create cognitive dissonance– the uneasy feeling when something conflicts with your ‘mental map’. This feeling causes a lot of stress and people tend to cling desperately to their ingrained way of thinking, even to a ridiculous degree- as seen for example in the mother of a serial killer who refuses to believe in his guilt even in the face of overwhelming evidence.

But what if I disappear?

There is a fear of the unknown in letting go of old habits, patterns and beliefs. A fear of losing the self, of somehow becoming nothing, as if those beliefs are so fundamental to who we are, we will cease to exist without them.

But there is another side to that coin. If we let go of who we think we are, we are completely free to reinvent ourselves. If we take a deep breath and face our shadow, admit to ourselves what we have been doing that hasn’t worked for us and why, we can move forward in a healthier way and take major steps towards becoming the person we want to be.

Who is it you want to be?

I would bet the person you want to be is not someone who is in an abusive or toxic relationship. I would bet that person enjoys healthy and happy relationships, both with themselves and other people. There is nothing stopping you from being that person- in fact you already are that person- you just have to get out of your own way. You deserve to be loved and cherished, not belittled and abused. You deserve to be with someone that sees your worth, and more importantly, you deserve to see your own worth. When you accept ill treatment from others you are telling yourself you’re unworthy of better.

Ask yourself, would you want your best friend to be treated badly? To be put down, used, ignored, hurt over and over? There is only one person in this life who is guaranteed to be there for you through it all, and that is you. So be your own best friend. Be kind to yourself.

2. We focus all our healing efforts on them.

When we are trapped in trauma bonds, we are preoccupied with the idea that we can change them, we can help them heal. The truth is- and you know this already- we can only heal ourselves. You won’t stop him cheating. You won’t stop her drinking. You can stop yourself wanting to be with people who hurt you. You can heal your own issues and move forward in a relationship with someone who is also working on their own instead of projecting them onto you.

By focusing our healing efforts on others, we neglect ourselves. It is much harder to take a good long look at our own faults, our own contribution to these unhealthy bonds than it is to focus on another. But that is what we must do to find wholeness.

That is not to say we can’t have compassion for others- just that we must realise it is not our place to “fix” them. There is a huge difference between someone who is aware of their issues and working on them and someone who is blindly projecting them onto other people. There is a very good reason people in recovery from addiction are advised not to get into relationships for at least a year into their recovery- it is so they can focus on their own healing.

Get honest with yourself.

Have you ever taken time to focus on your healing, or do you go from one unhealthy relationship to the next? Even if you have been single for a while, have you ever really been single, or have you spent the time looking for a partner to fill the gap, a “project” to fix?

Do you feel if you can manage to solve someone else’s problems you will have “won”? Even if you magically could (and you can’t)- you would still have your own issues to deal with and the person you had so gallantly healed would skip off into the sunset with someone else who has their shit together. It is a lose-lose situation. The only way to win is to heal yourself first.

3. Trauma bonds and the cycle of abuse.

Trauma bonds rely on the cycle of abuse. This is a hugely addictive and drama-filled cycle, where there is a honeymoon phase followed by an escalation of tension, an episode of abuse (physical/emotional/verbal) followed by reconciliation, leading back to another honeymoon phase, and so on. We can get strongly addicted to the highs and lows of this cycle and the intermittent reinforcement provided by it, which is similar to any other addiction. Eventually, the honeymoon phase disappears entirely, but by then the trauma bonding is strong enough to keep us hooked, and our self esteem is lowered sufficiently to keep us with an abuser despite there being no “payoff”.

Addicted to love..

We become trauma bonded because we are literally addicts- slaves to the powerful chemicals released in our brains by this cycle. We come to believe that the person who is abusing us is the only one who can make us feel better, when in reality they are the source of a great deal of our misery. Healthy relationships feel “boring” or stale because they do not contain the same highs and lows but rather remain consistent.

4. Our subconscious wants us to heal.

Trauma bonds are the result of repeating the same abusive relationships we may have experienced with primary caregivers in our childhoods. This is our subconscious desperately trying to lead us towards healing by putting us in the same situation over and over again. To your subconscious, these issues remain unresolved, even if they happened years and decades ago.

We heal only when we focus fully on the pain, acknowledge it and release it. If we are carrying unacknowledged pain, we will return to the source of that pain repeatedly until we face the root cause and release it.

If you do the hard work and heal, you will find you are no longer attracted to people who remind you of abusers from the past.

So how do I break trauma bonds?

Breaking trauma bonds is not easy, as I am sure you know. It takes time and dedication- dedication to yourself, above all. You must be ready to put yourself first, to be on your own side. To give yourself love, and tough love at times.

Like any other addiction, trauma bonds need time to fade. Addictions create very strong pathways in our brains that become our default- it is so easy to return to these pathways instead of forging new, healthier ones. You must be prepared to resist your cravings to return to that person when you are feeling low. You must keep your distance for long enough for the addiction to fade. Implement the No Contact rule if at all possible.

Block, block, block!

Some people think it is immature to block someone’s number or social media, but in cases of trauma bonding, once you have escaped the relationship it is much better to block (if there are no children involved). The less you see of this person and the less tempted you are to contact them the better. Remove them from your phone. When thoughts of them come up, accept it and release it. If you feel cravings to contact them, sit with the feeling. Tell yourself that if you still want to contact them in an hour, you can. You will find that allowing yourself permission in this way will often take your mind right off them, and in an hour’s time you will usually be glad you didn’t put your hand back into that fire.

Write down your reasons.

It is a very good idea to make a list of reasons you left them, or reasons you don’t want them to come back if they left you. Be blunt and honest about their character, the times they hurt you, the way they made you feel. Keep this list somewhere you can read it often, and read it whenever you feel like going back to them.

Write down your affirmations, too.

Make another list of affirmations- for example you could write “I am beautiful”, “I deserve to be loved and cherished”, “I am worthy”, “I give my love to myself first”. Read this often, read it out loud to yourself in the mirror if you feel comfortable doing that. This will help to rewire those limiting beliefs.

Be kind to yourself.

This is a vital part of healing. Be your own best friend- pamper and spoil yourself a little. Do things that make you feel joyful. Work on your own healing- put all the focus back onto yourself. I have written about great ways to heal here and here – try a few, they have helped me a lot.

Get some exercise!

Exercise is a fantastic way to beat addictions because it also releases those wonderful endorphins, dopamine and serotonin we crave but in a much healthier manner. Swim, bike, walk, dance- whatever you like. Get moving and you will boost your confidence and feel great.

Time is your friend.

It’s a cliche, but time really is a great healer. If you can keep yourself away from unhealthy relationships for long enough, and do the work on yourself instead, you will find you no longer feel trauma bonded to those people, and in fact you will feel turned off by them. Their treatment of you will no longer reflect how you feel about yourself, and you will naturally gravitate towards people who treat you well, and learn to enjoy that feeling of being cherished. Cherish yourself first! Give yourself the gift of time.

Don’t rush into anything new.

It can be tempting to jump into bed with the first person who looks our way after leaving a trauma bonded situation, because our brains are still crying out for those happy chemicals. This is a bad idea because unless you have healed sufficiently you will attract and be attracted to abusers. Don’t repeat the same mistakes thinking the result will be different!

You deserve love, not more trauma.

Don’t keep piling trauma on top of trauma. Make the decision to stop the cycle of trauma bonds and do the work of healing yourself. Only you can make that decision. You are worthy and you deserve to be with someone who can see your worth, someone who will be a sanctuary for you. Someone who lights up like a Christmas tree every time they see you because they are so full of love.

You have been through enough! You deserve love, your own and other people’s. I hope this article has helped you to remember that, and given you some ways to break those bonds for good.

Thank you so much for reading. If you enjoyed, please feel free to like, share or comment. I appreciate you very much!

More articles from artoftrauma:

Ten Ways to Heal Trauma Part OnePart Two
Survivor’s Guide to Self Soothing
Trauma bonds (and how to break them)
Emotional Flashbacks- and how to cope.
Understanding the Freeze Response to Trauma
5 Symptoms of Childhood Trauma in Adults
Trauma Symptoms you didn’t know were symptoms
5 Journal Prompts for Trauma Healing

With Love and in Love, always. ?

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