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If you've ever been involved in a toxic relationship that you can't (or don't want to) break free from—or if you've watched a loved one suffer in one and wondered, "why don't they just leave?"—you may find that the concept of "trauma bonding" explains a lot.
A trauma bond is a deep emotional attachment that develops in a relationship characterized by abuse that's emotional, physical, or both. In this lopsided power dynamic, the abuser maintains control through a variety of tactics that ultimately make the abused person believe that ending the relationship is a terrifying, or even impossible, prospect.
"Exploitive relationships create trauma bonds. These occur when a victim bonds with someone who is destructive to them," wrote Patrick J. Carnes, PhD, founder of the International Institute for Trauma and Addiction Professionals (IITAP), who defined the term as mental health professionals know it today. "To be loyal to that which does not work—or worse, to a person who is toxic, exploitive, or destructive to the client, is a form of insanity."
While it may be irrational, falling prey to a trauma bond definitely doesn't mean that you're weak, says Terri Cole, therapist and author of Boundary Boss. "A lot of times, at least in my practice, the women in trauma-bonded experiences were highly capable, and this was something embarrassing and humiliating. So, it's doubly isolating when you don't identify as someone who needs help in any other part of your life."
Here, experts share signs of trauma bonding, and tips on how to cope, as well as finally break a trauma bond for good.
Trauma bonding can happen between a parent and child.
While trauma-bonded romances can be particularly intoxicating because of the sexual aspect, "it can happen in all relationships," says New York-based therapist Imani Wilform, MHC-LP. "Families, friends, cults." Stockholm syndrome is a type of trauma bond too, Wilform says. "In the days of U.S. slavery, there was sometimes trauma bonding between enslaved people and their 'masters'," she adds. "Even some who were freed didn't know how to truly escape, because this was their narrative."
The signs can sneak up on you.
"We hear about it all the time with narcissists, but the nature of a trauma bond is usually that it's fast and furious," Cole says. In romances, it begins with an intense attraction and love bombing (more on that below). Regardless of whether a trauma-bonded relationship is romantic in nature, Cole and Wilform both point to common red flags to watch out for.
The abusive person might:
Outwardly seem very charming
Veer unpredictably between emotions
Blame you for their shifting moods
Find ways to isolate you from friends and family
Fail to follow through on promises, including vows to treat you better
You might find yourself:
Making excuses to minimize or deny things the abuser does
Using mood-altering substances to cope, such as alcohol
Growing numb to the emotional or physical abuse, effectively normalizing it
Changing behavior to avoid setting off the abuser
Lying to loved ones about aspects of your relationship
Beware of love bombing.
In a trauma bond, "there's abuse, devaluation, and then positive reinforcement. But of course, it doesn't start that way," Cole says. At first, she explains, the abuser usually employs a manipulation tactic known as love bombing, overwhelming you with gifts, excessive praise, and/or constant communication. They may even call you their soulmate early on, planting the belief that your connection is fated.
"It feels so good, and now your brain is flowing out oxytocin, the bonding hormone," Cole continues. "But once that initial love bonding phase is over, the devaluing begins." From then on, "the person who's had the script flipped on them is always seeking the initial high, trying to get back to when things were amazing."
This reward-punishment-reward cycle of abuse recurs with slight variations, cementing the trauma bond. Often, she says, "there's this dysfunctional attempt at repair where the other person will apologize, shower love and praise, say they won't ever do it again." And so it begins again.
If you're wondering whether it's love or trauma bonding...
Wilform and Cole agree that if you have to ask, it's likely love has very little to do with your situation. And the fact is, a trauma bond will not transform into a healthy relationship, no matter how much the person being abused hopes so or tries to fix it. “It’s often mistaken for love,” Wilform says. “But love doesn’t consist of you having to be in a cycle of being mentally diminished or physically hurt.”
Cole asks clients, "'If someone you loved was in this situation, would you want them to experience the kind of relationship you’re in right now?' If the answer is no, that’s revealing something."
It's not as easy as "just break up."
It can be hard to understand why someone would just accept the trauma bond as their reality, regardless of how terrible things get. "Usually, a person in a trauma-bonded situation is unhappy," Cole says. "They may not even like their person anymore, but they still can't seem to actually end things." Keeping the darker parts of the bond secret from loved ones further minimizes it in their own minds too, she adds, and the "selective memory" of good times stokes the belief that it's a livable situation that might improve (it will not).
Fear also plays a large role in why they can't. In a physically abusive situation, they may legitimately fear for their life. Additionally, says Cole, "if you identify this experience as love, it would be the same fear that you would have of losing your love. Intellectually, it makes no sense; love and pain don't have to go together. But for people who are trauma bonded, they do."
You can break a trauma bond, with help.
Breaking the cycle of a trauma bond is extremely difficult, and requires a multi-pronged action plan. "The bottom line is that you have to really want to," says Cole. "I've known clients who do this dance of breaking apart and coming together again."
Make a safe exit plan.
Prioritize your safety first, which includes making a safe plan for how to leave, and where you are going. Execute that plan the minute you can financially afford to. "Don't tell anybody except one close friend," Cole says. Sharing your plan with your abuser is a dangerous risk, and the impulse to do so is a sign you're not quite prepared to leave. "If someone can really do this and keep it to themselves, I always see that as a sign of readiness."
Break your silence.
Open up to trusted, nonjudgmental loved ones who understand that you're in a bad situation. "The abuser may try to contact them through a family member or mutual friend," Wilform warns. The National Domestic Violence Hotline is another excellent resource, and Wilform stresses that the hotline isn't just for those who aren't being physically abused. It's important to clear your browser and call history after reaching out if you have reason to suspect your communications are being monitored.
Make an "ok" and "not ok" list.
Identify how your next relationship will be different by looking back at what you won't allow again. "When you've used denial as a psychological defense to not take action, it's really important that we see in black and white, what's actually happening," Cole says, "so that your mind can't keep going back to when it was good 12 years ago."
No-contact is the rule. Period.
If you're co-parenting, Cole says to involve a therapist, social worker, or mediator to put boundaries in place. In that one exception, "you may have to communicate through email, but you have to block this person. Even a little contact is poison."
Figure out what drew you to this dynamic.
"No contact is one of the ultimate goals, but you also have to find yourself again," Wilform says. Work on rebuilding your eroded self-esteem. Your next chapter requires learning the answers to questions like: What drew you to this relationship? What am I not going to accept in the next relationship? How can I set boundaries moving forward?
This work is crucial because, Wilform says that whether they realize it or not, "the abuser has prepared the abused person to perpetuate this, and potentially become an abuser as well. If they don't seek professional help, it's just going to be a generational cycle."
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