Why is it so hard to leave something behind that causes you so much pain? You may be wondering why you keep going back to a person who is seemingly incapable of changing into someone who treats you with the love and respect you deserve. If this is ringing a bell, you may have experienced what’s called a trauma bond.
What is a Trauma Bond?
If you’ve never heard of the concept of a trauma bond, you may be more familiar with the term Stockholm Syndrome. Stockholm Syndrome is a psychological survival response in which a hostage or someone in an abusive relationship begins to sympathize with or develop positive feelings for an abusive person.
The intense emotional attachment people in abusive relationships often experience is the foundation of traumatic bonds.According to Dr. Patrick Carnes, trauma bonds thrive in any relationship where trust and fears of abandonment are exploited. It’s important to note that not every survivor of relationship abuse will develop or identify with a trauma bond, however, many do. Trauma bonds can show up in every kind of unhealthy relationship. Although trauma bonds are a form of emotional abuse, it can occur in sexually, financially, spiritually, and physically abusive relationships.
Why Do Trauma Bonds Occur?
It’s not because survivors are weak, damaged, or unworthy of healthy love. It’s because of trauma bonds.
Traumatically bonded relationships do not form overnight. An emotional abuser covertly creates this dynamic over a long time using tactics such as gaslighting, manipulation, love bombing, positive reinforcement, and intermittent reinforcement. Intermittent reinforcement refers to the way a person will randomly mix abusive behavior with adoration, without any rhyme or reason. In the mind of a survivor, even when they are suffering, there is a part of the brain that is telling them to just wait out the abusive period because the partner will eventually be kind and loving again.
Breaking Trauma Bonds + The Cycle of Abuse
Trauma bonds are an integral part of what’s called the cycle of abuse. The cycle of abuse includes three stages: buildup, abuse, and the honeymoon phase. This cycle can occur in family, platonic, and romantic relationships.
The buildup: During this first stage tension is rising in the relationship. An abusive partner might be irritable, short-tempered, and edgy. The survivor feels as if they are walking on eggshells and avoiding conflict at all costs.
They might start engaging in people pleasing, which can look like a trauma response also referred to as fawning. They’ll likely go above and beyond accommodating their partner to mitigate any chance triggering escalation.
The abuse: You’ll know you’re in this stage when your partner is at their most vicious and cruel. During this stage, an abusive partner can become physically violent, increase psychologically destructive tactics, engage in verbal abuse, and act out in ways that can cause severe stress, panic, powerlessness, and feelings of unsafety.
The honeymoon phase: When the abuse stage has calmed down, a toxic partner will be on their best behavior in order to make amends for all the pain they caused. The abusive partner might employ grand gestures such as over the top gift giving or organizing lavish date nights.
They might swarm a partner with copious amounts of apologies, claiming they lost their cool, will work on themselves and perhaps even finally start therapy, and overall promise to be a better partner. During this phase, an abusive partner will likely engage in love bombing, or demonstrate an overwhelming amount of intense adoration, affection, compliments, and praise towards a partner.
Love bombing can be incredibly intoxicating to someone who has just experienced days or weeks of abuse. The function of love bombing is to make a survivor forget how much pain they suffered during the abuse stage. To the survivor, love bombing can feel as if an abusive partner has genuine remorse for what they did and will never put them through intentional pain again.
However, the abusive partner is simply using this strategy to keep the survivor in the relationship. As long as the abusive partner provides the illusion of love and a false sense of wanting to change, a survivor can learn to appreciate mere crumbs of conditional affection and fleeting glimpses of an adoring partner.
Breaking Trauma Bonds: Notice the Red Flags
Trauma bonds are such an insidious form of trauma that many survivors have no idea they are even experiencing it. Knowing common red flags can hopefully provide some insight and signs to look out for.
You Notice a Toxic Pattern in Your Relationship
As previously mentioned, trauma bonds are a component of the cycle of abuse that is present in most abusive relationships. Have you noticed any cyclical patterns in your relationship? Maybe your anxiety spikes after a few days or weeks without conflict or when the relationship feels “too good for too long.”
Perhaps you’re always walking on eggshells, waiting for the other shoe to inevitably drop. If this is the case, your brain and body might be picking up on problematic patterns in your relationship.
There’s a Clear Power Imbalance
Do you frequently feel physically, emotionally, sexually, spiritually, or financially controlled by a partner? Power imbalances can make it incredibly difficult for a survivor to physically and psychologically detach from an abusive relationship. When one partner has complete control in a relationship dynamic, it can be challenging for the other partner to advocate for themselves, potentially developing chronic feelings of helplessness, also known as learned helplessness.
You’ve Left Before, but Always Feel Pulled Back In
According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, on average, it takes a survivor seven times to successfully leave an abusive relationship for good. Trauma bonds are at the crux of this statistic. Toxic relationships are not easy to leave because survivors can develop deep emotional connections with a partner, despite the abuse they often suffer.
Additionally, many survivors are often told by an abusive partner that the connection they share is once in a lifetime. It can certainly feel that way to the survivor. Sometimes, abusive people can even convince a partner that no one will ever love them more than they do. For many survivors, when they are convinced that an abusive love is the only love they deserve, it can feel safer to choose an insufficient love than to be alone.
On the other hand, some survivors experience disdain or even hatred for their partner, but still feel physically and emotionally frozen when they attempt leaving or even think about leaving. The more times a survivor attempts to leave and gets sucked back in, the less possible it can start to feel that leaving is even in the realm of possibility.
The Good Times Overshadow the Terrible Times
Have you found yourself reminiscing about the good times with a partner when a toxic relationship is causing you pain? Many who have experienced abusive relationships can relate to the euphoria that comes with the honeymoon period after days or weeks of suffering. It can be tempting to just forget everything that happened in the past and enjoy the happiness of the honeymoon period while it lasts.
Making Excuses for an Abusive Partner
It’s often incredibly difficult to come to terms with the fact that someone you love is abusive. It can be an excruciating reality to grapple with. Many survivors understandably don’t want to believe the person they love is toxic and it’s not uncommon for them to make excuses for a partner’s problematic behavior.
Perhaps an abusive partner has a really traumatic past. A survivor might give the partner more leeway when it comes to their behavior, hoping that time will heal the abusive partner and relationship. It might also be tempting to blame toxic behavior on stress at work, family, or even yourself. That being said, survivors are never at fault for an abusive partner’s harmful actions or the way the partner chooses to handle their emotions.
Keeping the Abuse Secret
It can be incredibly hard for survivors to confide in others about an abusive partner. Maybe they are scared the partner will find out, they’re afraid the person they tell will get involved, or the survivor has tried so many times to leave already without success.
Many survivors keep the abuse they experience a secret because they know how their partner reacts when they try to set boundaries or leave altogether. They often know how their partner operates, and for many survivors, staying feels so much safer than leaving and dealing with the punishing consequences. Protecting an abusive partner is not a demand of a healthy relationship.
Breaking Trauma Bonds: Taking Action
Understanding what trauma bonds are and how they can play a role in unhealthy relationships is the first step to breaking free from the tight grip. There are measures you can take to free yourself and heal from the aftermath of an abusive relationship.
First and foremost, try to release any and all self-blame you have about the relationship. This can be much easier said than done for many survivors, but it can be freeing just to know that you did nothing to cause or deserve any abuse you’ve experienced. Trauma bonds happen so stealthily that it can be really difficult to detect any patterns until they’ve continued to happen over time or unless you know exactly what to look out for.
Trauma bonds and many toxic relationship dynamics rely on isolation to successfully function. The best way to combat this is garnering as much support as possible from friends or family. Breaking a trauma bond becomes much more possible when there are people aware of your situation who can provide empathy and help when it’s asked for and needed.
It can be difficult for survivors to open up to people in their inner circle because many fear they will be judged and blamed. If you are struggling to fully open up to your loved ones, support groups for healing from toxic relationships can be a way to connect with those who have gone through similar situations. Other survivors can typically comprehend the complicated dynamics those who have not experienced abusive relationships might struggle to understand.
Support groups can be cathartic and connective, but many survivors of toxic and abusive relationships find that they need some extra support which is where therapy can help. Therapy can be helpful for survivors as it can provide education and context of abuse and provide appropriate suggestions and strategies that can best aid in the healing process. Healing from relationship trauma can be a delicate and sensitive process. Finding a therapist who is trauma-informed and has experience working with survivors of abuse is often recommended.
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You have the strength to break the bond. Trauma bonds are strong, but you are so much stronger.