Author: Sarah Meyer & Renée Shen
If you would like to understand trauma bonding and how to break a trauma bond, you’re in the right place.
Let’s start with the basics.
A trauma bond is an unhealthy attachment that exists between an abusive person and a person they’ve abused (the abusee).
When we talk about trauma bonds in relationships, we’re usually talking about a situation where an abused person feels bound to their abuser by feelings of:
There might be periods of love and closeness in the relationship, but these periods will alternate with episodes of abuse - whether physical, sexual, psychological, or some combination of these.
One clear example of a trauma bond is Stockholm Syndrome, which describes a phenomenon where people taken as hostages end up having positive feelings towards their captors.
(This is not only very damaging to the victims, it’s likely to affect how they relate to others in the future as well).
So what kind of positive feelings could these people develop towards their captors?
These feelings can range from feelings of physical attraction, to romantic love, to compassion and even deep loyalty, developing over a short but intense period of time.
Sometimes, people experiencing Stockholm Syndrome may even:
Most of the time, though, trauma bonding occurs under less dramatic circumstances (and trauma bonding happens to a lot of everyday people who are unsuspecting).
The relationship might start out normally, and abuse might be introduced slowly and subtly.
As the relationship progresses, though, people can end up experiencing something very similar to Stockholm Syndrome - choosing to stay in a relationship that is physically or emotionally unsafe to them even when they could leave.
The person being abused might know they should leave the relationship, but they might struggle to separate from their partner emotionally, hoping that they will begin to treat them well again.
They might justify the act of staying through false narratives about the relationship or their partner, which could include:
Staying with an abusive partner might seem like an obvious poor decision from the outside, but the emotions evoked by a trauma bond can be incredibly powerful.
And while some individuals are more likely to find themselves in this kind of situation than others - especially individuals with insecure attachment patterns and a strong fear of abandonment - it’s probably fair to say that trauma bonding is something that could happen to anyone given the right conditions.
If you’re wondering whether you have insecure attachment patterns or not, it’s a good idea to find out for sure, and you can do that with our special quiz:
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(Why is this important? It is because your core attachment style largely dictates and influences what happens in your relationship. Thus it’s imperative you understand your core attachment style!)
Let’s look at some signs that you might be experiencing a trauma bond with someone, and then go through how to break a trauma bond in 7 steps.
We should also note that trauma bonding does not have to involve one-sided abuse.
There is often trauma bonding in relationships that are mutually abusive as well - and these might be even harder to break, because of the guilt each partner feels around their own actions.
Some signs of a trauma bond include:
…And to the powerful emotions around the abuse/loving reconciliation cycle.
…Usually because of your suffering in the relationship with them.
It may even feel like an unhealthy or twisted type of “reward” for you. And even more crippling is that thought that you may feel so excited by the rare but much needed kindness and love, that you become addicted to the uncertainty in the relationship.
He or she may be bigger than you, financially more successful than you, or more articulate and socially competent than you.
Some symptoms of feeling trapped in the relationship are:
Somewhere deep down inside, even the most trauma bonded people may come to suspect that they’re making excuses for their partner’s abusive behavior.
…And you might even blame yourself for not being “enough”.
This may not seem like a bad thing to some people, so let me explain.
There’s a difference between feeling like you always have more to do to “improve yourself” in order to be worthy of their love and approval, versus simply being highly attuned to the needs of your partner and trying to improve the way you add value to them (and to the relationship).
One of the ways abusive people keep a person chained to them is by making them feel like they have more work to do to make them happy or gain their approval.
(And then, perhaps everything will be ok…)
By definition, a trauma bond is hard to break.
The bond, or the relationship, is sustained by a cycle of abuse and reconciliation that can feel addictive.
It is also characterized by distorted thinking, where your view of yourself and your partner does not match up with reality, or with what other people perceive.
Typically when we are dealing with trauma bonding, we are dealing with a scenario where you are likely to under-value yourself and over-value your partner, both in terms of general mate value and in terms of moral character.
In other words, you may feel that your partner is a better “catch” than you are - that you’re lucky to have them, but also that she or he is a better person than you are, with better judgement and personal values.
If you think this might be you, or if you have a history of attracting abusive partners, you might resonate with the story of our Alison (and find a new technique to ensure you don’t repeat the cycle ever again):
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(...All because of one simple skill every woman should have.)
When we think about how to break a trauma bond, we need to address difficulties related to both addiction and distorted perception.
So let’s discuss how to break a trauma bond now.
As the old cliche goes, the first step is always the hardest.
In order to escape a trauma bond, we first need to understand that we are in a harmful situation and that we need to do something about it.
Unfortunately, it can be really hard to acknowledge that you’re being abused.
We tend to think of abuse in terms of physical violence or rape, and to ignore other kinds of abuse that aren’t talked about as much, such as emotional or verbal abuse.
Equally important to recognise is the fact that verbal, emotional and psychological abuse can be subtle and perhaps seemingly harmless.
Because we are talking about patterns where one person exercises power over another, pretty much any behavior could become abusive if it carries a certain intent with it (and certain circumstances).
This is where we need to trust our gut and our body to tell us when we are feeling chronically threatened, confused, or distressed in a relationship.
But the challenge is that our gut feeling is easily drowned out if we have experienced enough abuse.
Not to mention the fact that if we’ve been through abuse, our self esteem, confidence and inner compass can be non-existent, causing us to drown out the power of our own voice.
One good way to overcome this is to develop what we call “High Value Mindsets”, and we have an entire online study course on this.
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I once lived in a situation where I witnessed domestic violence for quite a long time. I became numb to it, and I stopped reacting when the abusive behavior would start.
But when I reflect on those times, I remember the following signs that I was feeling unsafe and wanting to get out of the situation, even though I was able to keep my voice calm and act like nothing was bothering me:
Gaslighting is the cornerstone of abusive relationships, as the abuser must be able to reframe his abusive behavior as either benevolent or at least inevitable in order to keep control of the situation.
Meanwhile, the person being abused may tend to dissociate during the abuse (this fits with my experience described above in terms of feeling distant or far away and disconnecting from my emotions).
Dissociation may be protective in the short term, but it often ends up meaning that the gaslighting is ultimately harder to break through, because the clarity of your memory and the degree to which you felt like the incident was really happening to you will be compromised.
If you tend to dissociate, you might need to spend some time piecing together what you can remember, and trying to re-sensitize yourself to what happened during some key episodes in your relationship.
You could resensitize yourself to what happened with:
Yes, this is effortful and yes it’s hard and painful, but nothing worth doing is easy, true?
Having said that, it is important to be careful with this process, and to take things at a pace that you feel you can handle.
It will never be totally comfortable (it’s not meant to be), but it is worth going through the discomfort in order to gain clarity, especially if you have the support of other people around you.
Once you can acknowledge the abuse that has occurred, and the powerful, unhealthy attachment that has formed around it, you can begin to break the trauma bond and move on with your life.
One of the worst things that happens when you experience a trauma bond is that you can lose your sense of self.
Because of the cognitive dissonance required to stay in the relationship (trying to reconcile abuse with love), you begin to doubt and distort your perceptions, rejecting some of the feedback that your mind and body are giving you.
This can result in a loss of connection and trust in yourself, and you may find it difficult to make decisions or to mobilize yourself when you need to.
You might also doubt your ability to escape or resist a situation, even when you are in fact strong enough, smart enough, and capable enough to do something about it.
This pattern of responding goes along with learned helplessness, which I will discuss later.
(But remember: you wouldn’t be here if you weren’t smart and strong enough to do something about it!)
In order to break the pattern, you need to build up your sense of self away from the relationship.
If you are experiencing a trauma bond, it’s likely that your feelings of helplessness and inadequacy are reinforced by the roles you and your partner act out within your relationship.
For example, your partner might do everything for you or make all the decisions for the two of you, denying you the opportunity to feel your own agency and autonomy.
Or, they may criticize and devalue the things you do, which might break down your confidence and make you feel less and less capable as time goes by.
If you spend time with other people, or simply with yourself, particularly in a different setting, you may begin to feel your sense of capability restored.
Some of the ways you could build up your identity could include:
Banter? Yes, banter. Specifically, High Value Banter.
Because bantering actually assists you infinitely in repelling the toxic, narcissistic and low value men right from the start.
Typically, toxic men, as well as men who feel small inside and lack esteem react badly to attuned, high value banter.
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In order to tolerate the abuse you’ve experienced and to sustain the trauma bond with your abuser, you will have had to suppress and numb a lot of your own feelings and sensations.
Whether you recognised your partner’s behavior as abusive or not, you will know that you did not like what was happening to you.
You will know that you experienced a lot of fear and confusion, and that beyond those feelings, which may dominate your memory of those events, you also felt a lot of conflicting emotions (that you may have suppressed), such as:
Sometimes, these feelings can seem even more scary than the abuse itself.
They are, to some degree, fundamental, existential feelings that everyone must contend with at some point in their lives, as we all face the ultimate helplessness of death.
Regarding abusive situations, we have to contend with them in a unique and direct way, and this can sometimes result in lifelong changes to our brain and the way we experience stress.
We can also, however, gain some sense of power in being able to live with these kinds of feelings, and to know that we can not only survive them, but struggle with them and grow stronger for it.
This power does not come from being tough and invincible and never letting anything get to us.
It comes from our desire, despite pain and suffering, to live.
It comes from our knowledge that humans are vulnerable, including ourselves.
It also comes from our recognition that we can fight back, that we can make decisions, that we don’t have to succumb to the first predator that comes our way, and that we can say “not this time”.
I am not saying that abuse makes us stronger. Perhaps it does in some sense, but it also makes everything harder.
What I am saying is that the only way out is to face the difficult emotions.
The ugly truth is that abuse is not love. And we need to be able to discern the difference love and abuse, because too many of us let ourselves be abused.
The average unsuspecting person is reasonably vulnerable to abuse from:
So - we need to feel. We need to grieve our hopes for the relationships we badly wanted to work out, and the love we thought we had in that relationship!
We need to feel the loss of control.
Worst of all maybe, we need to accept the malevolence and the evil that we may have encountered in our abuser, knowing that it exists in the world and maybe inside ourselves too.
Some things that you could do to bring out these feelings include:
Again, this process will be uncomfortable. The key is to approach it gradually, slowly increasing your comfort level with the things that have scared you and held power over you.
It is important to do this in as safe an environment as possible, with the support of someone you trust, such as a good friend, a new healthy partner or a therapist.
When we form a trauma bond with someone, it can destroy our sense of what a healthy relationship looks like.
Relationships that are characterized by an abusive dynamic typically involve the abusive partner being put on a pedestal, while the other partner plays a more submissive role, often experiencing low self-esteem.
Here’s what I mean: when we practice respecting and admiring a person who:
This has a powerful impact on our ability to attune to others and to know whether they have good or bad intent for us.
In order to break the trauma bond, we have to work hard to restore this capacity for attunement.
And in the context of romantic relationships, this means we need to find emotionally healthy men (or women) whom we can appreciate for the way they treat us and others.
These don’t have to be romantic partners. These can be people like:
The key thing we want to observe is the energy and the intent they bring to their interactions. So we can consider things like:
If you can find partners like this, or if you can remember some people you once knew who were like this, have a think about the ways their actions are different to the person you are trauma bonded with.
Think about the way you feel when you’re around them, and the way your body might respond to their energy.
For example: you might feel more open and relaxed around them.
If you can keep them in mind as you deal with your abuser, you may have an easier time breaking the trauma bond and making way for a healthier relationship.
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As you prepare to leave your abusive relationship, it can be helpful to practice the things you would like to say to them.
There’s a really powerful moment in the Johnny Depp/Amber Heard recordings where Amber Heard apologizes (again) for hitting him in the head, and says that she loves him, and Johnny Depp replies:
“No. I don’t love you that much. I don’t love you enough to give up myself.”
A line like this can help you orient yourself when things start to get murky, and your abuser starts to try to draw you back into the relationship after abusing you.
Victims of ongoing abuse will typically display a “freeze” response to frightening events, shutting down the body and, to some extent, “playing dead”.
This is also known as learned helplessness, and it results from long-term conditioning where an abuse victim has learned that trying to escape or to fight back against the abuser is useless or results in even more pain.
The “freeze” response is one of the biggest barriers we face when we think about how to break a trauma bond.
In long-term abusive relationships, it can become almost automatic, so it can be difficult to “just stop” doing it.
Instead, we can try the following things:
When we think about how to break a trauma bond, we are thinking about an addiction.
The power of a trauma bond largely comes from intermittent reinforcement, or the fact that it is unpredictably rewarding - a pattern that has been shown to be highly addictive in both animal and human studies.
Intense love, affection, and attention often follow an abusive episode.
They will also be dished out at unpredictable intervals throughout the relationship, keeping you hooked.
Because of the otherwise low quality of the relationship, these displays of affection can be especially dramatic or powerful - and they need to be, because they are the only reason you keep coming back to a person that hurts you.
Over time, the cycle of abuse followed by intensely loving behavior can become addictive.
So it will be very difficult for you, at least at first, to break your dependency on the (unpredictable) love and attention of your abusive partner.
When leaving an abusive relationship, you should expect to go through a period of withdrawal and depression, not only as you process the trauma of the relationship, but also as your brain and your body get used to a more ordinary dynamic, without such extreme highs and lows.
Know this: the love and affection they showed towards you weren’t really aimed at YOU.
It can help to be aware that despite the intensity of your memories and your emotions, the love and affection you received from the trauma bond were not real - they were not directed at the person you truly are.
They were, at best, aimed at the “you” your partner projected, the person or role they made up for you to fill in their life.
At worst, they may have just been reflections of their own mood and feelings about what was happening at the time.
For example, they were very loving and happy with you because they were feeling euphoric about something in their own life, and you happened to be there at the right time.
Breaking a trauma bond is not easy, and it may not happen in a linear or organized way.
You may go back and forth a few times, and you may find that things get worse before they get better, and then maybe worse again before getting better again.
We all heal at our own pace, and many people never manage to completely escape, because they are continually drawn back into the relationship.
In order to break the trauma bond, you need to be truly committed to it.
So here’s my question to you: is the long term damage done to you and your soul worth the short-term and unpredictable highs you get from the trauma bond?
Sarah is a Shen Wade Media Certified Coach.
She has a Masters in psychology and works as a special education advisor in early childhood. She lives in Auckland, New Zealand, with her partner and two children.
She has a passion for evolutionary psychology, attachment theory, and personality psychology.
Author & Editor For National Council for Research on Women. Founder of the popular women's dating & relationship advice website, The Feminine Woman and co-founder of NCRW.
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