What Is Trauma Bonding & 7 Steps To Break A Trauma Bond

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: 

  • Sympathy
  • Responsibility
  • Love
  • Compassion; and 
  • Guilt

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:

  • Decline to escape captivity when given the opportunity
  • Defend their captors from harm; and 
  • Put themselves in danger for a person who has hurt them and taken them hostage

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: 

  • Blaming themselves (“if only I didn’t keep messing everything up”)
  • Seeing themselves as a hero (“I’m the only one that can help him”)
  • Making excuses (“he had such a horrible childhood”)
  • Gaslighting themselves (‘that didn’t really happen’)
  • Catastrophizing (“what if he can’t live without me?”)

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:

QUIZ TIME: Do I have secure or insecure attachment patterns? CLICK HERE to find out with our specially crafted women-specific 10 Question Quiz!

(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!) 

7 Signs Of Trauma Bonding

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:

Sign #1: You Feel Addicted to the Emotional Rollercoaster of Your Relationship

…And to the powerful emotions around the abuse/loving reconciliation cycle. 

Sign #2: When your Partner Does Show You Love and Kindness, It Feels More Intense

…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.

Sign #3: You are Relatively Powerless Compared to Your Partner

He or she may be bigger than you, financially more successful than you, or more articulate and socially competent than you.

Sign #4: You Feel Trapped In the Relationship 

Some symptoms of feeling trapped in the relationship are:

  • You can’t afford to leave
  • Your partner might threaten suicide or self-harm if you leave
  • You worry for the safety of children or pets that you share with your partner if you leave

Sign #5: You’re Making Excuses for Abusive Behavior

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.

Sign #6: You Constantly Feel Ashamed and Inadequate

…And you might even blame yourself for not being “enough”.

Sign #7: You Are Always Trying to Be A Better Partner

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…)

Are Trauma Bonds Hard To Break?

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):

CLICK here to Discover how Alison ended her cycle of abusive relationships by learning to quickly weed out the "wrong types of men", inspiring deep devotion from her chosen man and passing the hardest test of them all - an accidental pregnancy after a month of dating!  

(...All because of one simple skill every woman should have.)

How To Break a Trauma Bond

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.

Step #1: Recognize the Abuse

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.

CLICK here to find out about High Value Mindsets. (The promise of this program is to give you the ability to “trade in” your anxiety and insecurities for self esteem, self worth and intrinsic confidence, so that no one will ever take you for granted & high value men will recognise you as an indispensable “keeper”.)

Some Pointers On Sensing & Recognising Abuse:

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: 

  • I felt mildly sick to my stomach and didn’t want to eat
  • I felt disconnected from my surroundings, as though I wasn’t really there, or like I was in a dream
  • I spoke in scripts and said rehearsed things
  • My voice sounded like it was coming from far away
  • When I was out of the situation, I’d suddenly notice that I felt weak and my heart was racing
  • I didn’t want anyone to notice me getting upset
  • I felt that if I did get upset, that would be very dangerous, so I was deliberately apathetic
  • I felt like any request I made was unreasonable and selfish
  • I couldn’t get words out easily and stumbled over my point/constantly rephrased what I was saying

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:

  • Music
  • Old photos 
  • Writing down as much of a conversation as you can remember
  • Watching movies with themes of abuse

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.

Step #2: Build Up Your Identity Outside of the Relationship 

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:

  • Experiencing validation from other people for the things you do and feel
  • Connecting with other people in similar situations (support groups- online or in person etc)
  • Practicing a new skill that your partner does not know about 
  • Learning a language that your partner does not speak
  • Practicing control over your body through exercise
  • Practicing control over your mind through meditation
  • Spending time away from the site of your abuse (e.g., away from your home)
  • Doing things that tend to make you feel uncomfortable (but are not otherwise harmful). One thing I always recommend to women especially, is to learn to banter with the men they date online and in person (but especially online). 

Banter? Yes, banter. Specifically, High Value Banter.

Why 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.

So if you want to learn to throw a curveball to disrupt an abusive man’s game in the future (and create emotional attraction with only the best of men), take our free class on high value banter:

CLICK here to discover why you as a woman need to use the dark art of “High Value Banter” in order to quickly weed out the wrong types of men and create emotional attraction with the "BEST of MEN"! (...Even if no man has ever given you any love and all you've encountered so far are pen pals, ghosts, booty calls, and incredible duds!)

Step #3: Face the Difficult Emotions

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:

  • Anger
  • Violation 
  • Shock
  • Pain
  • Hatred 
  • Helplessness

Sometimes, these feelings can seem even more scary than the abuse itself. 

However:

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:

  • A new friend
  • A romantic partner
  • A family member; or
  • Their government

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: 

  • Listening to music 
  • Watching movies with themes of malevolence, evil, or abuse
  • Doing things that scare you (so you can practice managing your stress response)
  • Thinking of times your abuser could have treated you with love, but chose not to (how easy would it have been to show you love instead?)
  • Thinking of or writing down things you want to say to your abuser 

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. 

CLICK HERE to LEARN the One Specific Emotional Trigger Within Every Masculine Man That Inspires Him to Want to Take Care of You, Worship You and Deeply Commit to You.

Step #4: Appreciate Healthy Men (And Women)

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:

  • Has habits that hurt others
  • Cannot see or acknowledge his or her own faults, and requires others to cover them up for them
  • Uses anger and intimidation to get what they want
  • Lies to themselves and to us
  • Does one thing and says another; and
  • Constantly shifts blame onto other people

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: 

  • Your father
  • Your brother
  • A teacher you once had
  • A work colleague; or 
  • Even someone in a book or a movie

The key thing we want to observe is the energy and the intent they bring to their interactions. So we can consider things like:

  • Is he or she someone that, instead of wanting to keep all the attention for themselves, someone who actually encourages and admires other people, bringing to light the things that are special or worthy about them?
  • Does he or she actually care, and actually do things for other people to make their lives easier?
  • Does he (or she) have genuine ambition and passion, rather than wanting to put in the least amount of work possible for only a short-term reward?
  • Can they take constructive criticism gracefully, without throwing it back at the person who said it?
  • Does he or she listen to others?
  • Do others listen to them?
  • Are they willing to be honest with you, even when you don’t like it? (This can be a difficult one to figure out if you have just come out of an abusive relationship, but it feels very different when someone is giving you honest feedback that is intended to help you, rather than simply saying a whole lot of hurtful things to manipulate you or let off steam). 

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.

On the topic of healthy people (and if you’re a woman looking for healthy men), would you like to learn more about how to become more attractive to the right men? CLICK here to Learn How to Become the World’s Most Attractive & Feminine Goddess (Even if you have no self esteem or no man has ever paid you any attention…)

Step #5: Practice Your Response to Your Abuser 

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.

Attachment style quiz

Step #6: Break Out of the “Freeze” Response

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: 

  • Experimenting with a “fight” or “flight” response instead, just to break the pattern. (It may not be safe to do this in the abuse context, but you could try it in a different context where the stakes are lower)
  • Using a planned response or a script to establish a boundary (as in the previous step)
  • Saying and acting out “no”, by leaving a situation that is resulting in repeated harm
  • Rapidly changing your physiological state by focusing on your breathing or on the environment around you
  • Changing your physiological state by exercising, jumping around, dancing to music, etc.

Step #7: Understand that You are Breaking An Addiction 

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.

MORE: When To Walk Away From A Relationship: 7 Glaring Signs To Look For.

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. 

Ending with Some Advice that Will Make Walking Away Easier

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. 

Wrapping Up…

Breaking a trauma bond is not easy, and it may not happen in a linear or organized way. 

That’s ok.

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 Meyer
Renee Shen

Sarah 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.

Sarah Meyer

Author For National Council for Research on Women

Renée Shen

Author & Editor For National Council for Research on Women. Founder of the popular women's dating & relationship advice website, The Feminine Woman.


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