How to Break Trauma Bonds & Move on From Abusive Relationships

Updated on December 6, 2017
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The Little Shaman is a spiritual counselor, hypnotherapist, and a specialist in Cluster B personality disorders.

Trauma bonds are exactly what they sound like: bonds that are formed between people by trauma. And they are strong. Unlike love, bonding is both a biological and emotional process. Bonds don't fade over time. You can't "fall out of bond" the way you can fall out of love. Bonding survives, even when you don't love the person anymore, or even like them. These bonds have to be broken in order to move on and heal. It is very difficult to stay away from a person you have bonded with, which is why people stay in abusive relationships even after they know they should leave, and even after they actually want to leave. It's a dirty trick, really. Love is easier to release than a trauma bond, and, an even dirtier trick, the longer a relationship involving a trauma bond goes on, the harder it is to leave. This is especially true when enmeshment occurs, which is the break down of boundaries between people. Enmeshment is when boundaries are so poor, people cannot tell where they end and the other person begins.

Why are Trauma Bonds So Strong?

Trauma bonds are caused by inconsistency in relationships. Love bombing followed by abuse, followed by more love bombing, for example. That's inconsistency. It keeps people off-kilter and continuously looking for a way to get back the good feelings. This type of dynamic occurs in relationships with narcissists, with alcoholics and drug addicts, and in abusive relationships in general. People who have grown up in an abusive environment are especialy susceptible to this type of thing. It may be that along with, or in the place of, the natural bonds that occur between parent and child, abused children develop trauma bonds with parents and as adults, without a trauma bond to their partner, they are unable to feel satisfied by the relationship. It doesn't feel like love without abuse, in other words. There's no understanding of peace without war. That's likely why we often see people who have narcissistic parents that then go on to marry a narcissistic person. They've been conditioned that this is how relationships should feel, and this is not just a cognitive thing. It's not just a learned behavior.

Trauma and upset cause hormones to be released in the body, like cortisol. The honeymoon part of the relationship - where everything is nice - causes more hormones to be released, like dopamine. After years of being exposed to this pattern, your body starts to think that this is how it's supposed to be, and so does your mind. It doesn't really know anything else. You become, for all intents and purposes, addicted to the chemical dump, the excitement, the drama. This cycle is sometimes called an arousal-jag. "Regular" relationships feel less intense, and are therefore often experienced as boring, uninteresting or shallow. It feels like only the abusive person can fill that need, which is why it's so hard to stay away. The excitement and intensity of this arousal-jag is often mistaken for love. It isn't. It's a chemical and emotional pattern your body became accustomed to and then dependent on as a result of abuse and inconsistency. It's about the cycle, not the person. This is one reason why being discarded by the narcissist is so painful. You're stuck in the war with no peace. There's no comedown into good feelings, and after years of conditioning, your body and mind believe they cannot get along without it. Again, it's about addiction to the cycle, not the person themselves.

There is often a lot of denial or misunderstanding involved in trauma bonds, but people can prove the reality to themselves by examining how they truly feel. A lot of times, upon examining their feelings honestly, realistically and objectively, people find that they don't actually love the person. They find that because of the abuse they don't respect them, don't trust them, don't like very many things about them, have nothing in common, find their personality obnoxious or unpleasant, don't like the way this person behaves... It isn't possible to love someone you don't respect or trust, and many people find that what they thought was love actually isn't. They realize that it is only trauma bonds and conditioning keeping them in the relationship. This can be a very liberating realization. Once this is acknowledged, it is easier to address the problem of staying in the relationship even when you know it is unhealthy. And yes, that is a problem.

It's interesting that we always hear people in abusive relationships of all kinds think the abusive person will change. While that may be true sometimes, or at first, I think most people know inside that it isn't true. They know the person isn't going to change. They may have fantasies or hopes of that, but realistically they know it isn't going to happen. They stay anyway though, because their mind and body are addicted to that next honeymoon phase when everything feels good. The fantasies of change are often just a justification for staying, they are not the reason. Once that truth is confronted, it is a lot easier to be honest with yourself about what's going on and why.

This is important because it is absolutely necessary to break through the denial and the conditioning involved here if a trauma bond is going to be broken. If someone is harming you, if they are hitting you, if they are manipulating you, if they are setting you up to be embarrassed or attacking you without provocation, if they are destroying your peace, if they are undermining your confidence, if they are gaslighting you, if they are saying terrible things about you to your children or your friends and family, if they are accusing you day and night of crazy things... they are abusing you. This needs to be faced, truly faced, if you are going to be able to understand the situation. Yes, it is abuse. Yes, it is as bad as it seems. There is no excuse for it and nothing that makes it OK or acceptable. It doesn't matter if this person is nice sometimes. Ted Bundy worked at a suicide hotline, saving lives. You probably wouldn't recommend anyone go on a date with him.

Anyone who abuses you doesn't love you, and you probably don't love them. Abuse destroys love, and it doesn't take that long either. You may have once loved them, but likely don't anymore if the abuse has gone on for a while. You may be locked in a trauma bond with them, and they are just as addicted to the abusive cycle as you are. This is one reason they are constantly pulling at you with their siren songs of hope and change and love. It's not just their desire to control and their fear, though those things are part of it. It's their addiction to the cycle. That's also why the abused person gives in and stays. It isn't that they believe the abusive person's proclamations of change and remorse. It's the cycle. It's that feeling when the madness is over. It's the return of what feels like love. It's like a guy beating his head into the wall. Someone comes up to him and says, "Why are you doing that?" and the guy says, "Because it feels so good when I stop." That's the cycle.

What are Some Signs That You are Experiencing a Trauma Bond?

Some signs you may have a trauma bond would be that denial we talked about, where the person has failed to keep their promises or do what they've said yet you continue to believe them, you feel stuck in the relationship and unable to detach from this person even though you don't want to be in it anymore or don't love or even like the person anymore, you have stayed in the relationship past the point where you consciously know you shouldn't have, and the desire to reunite with this person feels irresistible when you do leave. It's so painful it's like an amputation. Ending relationships is often painful but if it is so painful that it feels like it's going to destroy you and you cannot bear it, something is wrong with that. Let me say right here that, although there are some similarities, trauma bonds are not codependency. They are a different dynamic.

Breaking a Trauma Bond

The way to break a trauma bond is by consciously deciding to live in reality. It's about confronting your own denials and illusions. That means facing the truth of the situation, whatever that is. This person is abusive and they are not going to change. It doesn't matter if you hope they will or fantasize that they might. They are not going to. Their motives, reasons, intentions and excuses don't matter. It isn't about them. It's about the truth, and the simple truth is that it isn't going to change. Another truth you need to face may be the truth that you don't love this person anymore. It's almost certainly the truth that they don't love you and cannot be the person you need. It's OK to grieve these things; they need to be acknowledged and they are going to hurt because you are losing something valuable to yourself. But you can't let that stop you from facing these things down. It's only temporary.

It's time to stop waiting and stop living on hope. Try to make an effort to live in real time. Feel how you feel now. This is affecting you now. It is hurting you now. Don't let your mind just brush that off or deny it in favor of hopeful thoughts for the future. This is the future. This is the outcome of those same hopeful thoughts you had last week or last month or last year. How did that work out? Is it any different?

In the same way, don't overburden yourself with thoughts of tomorrow. Just get through now. The idea of what you have to do or face tomorrow can be scary, so live intentionally and focus the present for now. It really is like breaking a drug addiction or an obsession, and the best way to do that is to live one day at a time, making choices that only work in your best interest. Is it in your best interest to talk to this person? Regardless of how you feel, what does reality say? In another parallel to drug addiction, it's important to learn that the thing that makes you feel better temporarily is hurting you in the long run. Feelings are not permanent. They will change, and you will feel better. Is giving in worth all the work you've done just for temporary relief? Relief that isn't even real and won't last? Evaluating things this way and practicing self control go a long way toward helping you stay on track and break away from the cycle. Because enmeshment often occurs with trauma bonds, it is very important to create and enforce strong boundaries. Boundaries are how we teach other people to respect us, and how we respect ourselves.

Examples of boundaries are:

  • "I will not deal with people who are disrespectful to me,"
  • "If my partner hits me, I will end the relationship."

You can also create boundaries to reinforce self-respect and self-care, such as:

  • "I will remember that no one is perfect."
  • "I will not blame others for things I am responsible for because I take ownership of my life. I am not helpless."

Breaking habits and changing patterns is hard, especially when there is a biological chemical component in the situation, but it is very possible. Using a journal can help, and writing your feelings down. It's important to acknowledge them. Yes, you may want to see this person or speak to them. That's normal in this situation, even if it doesn't seem to make sense. So acknowledge all of your feelings and get them out. You can also write down the fantasies and illusions you had about the relationship, and then write down the reality.

Fantasy: I thought we were going to get married.

Reality: This person was a serial cheater and cannot commit to one relationship.

Fantasy: I thought if they loved me enough, they would stop abusing me.

Reality: This person is abusive and does not understand love.

Fantasy: I thought my mother would care more about me if I always did what she wanted.

Reality: My mother is a person who does not understand how to care about somebody or appreciate when they care about her.

In this way, you drive the reality home to yourself so that denial and rationalizations cannot get a foothold in your thoughts. This is often painful, but many times when you acknowledge and state these things, the hope and illusions you have carried around no longer have the power over you that they once did.

Trauma bonds take time to break, as they took time to form, but don't get discouraged. Every day you can console yourself with the knowledge that what you are doing is right and healthy. The chemical component also takes time to break, but in time it can be repaired as well, when you learn to see these things for what they are so that you don't equate the intensity of trauma with the feeling of love anymore. It is up to you to break the cycle in your life so that you can stop engaging in relationships that are hurting you, destroying your peace and undermining your self-worth. Once you've broken the trauma bond and begun to heal, you can look forward to the future and start building a healthier life with healthier focus and connections. The cycle of trauma bonding becomes so ingrained in a person's life partly because of their inability to recognize what love is. That's not your fault, so it's time to fix it and stop using outdated programming that you don't need anymore. Start showing love to yourself and stop accepting less from others. You really do deserve better.

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