Relationships can be a source of immense joy and fulfillment, but there are times when they can shift into a painful and destructive experience. One such toxic dynamic is a trauma bond, a complex attachment formed in abusive or emotionally manipulative relationships.
Healing from a trauma bond is a challenging and deeply personal journey, but with time and support, it is possible to break free and regain control of your life.
In this article, we’ll define trauma bonding and explore some key steps towards healing from a trauma bond and rediscovering your sense of self.
Understanding the trauma bond
The term “trauma bond” was first coined by Patrick Carnes, PhD, CAS in 1997. He defined it as: “… dysfunctional attachments that occur in the presence of danger, shame, or exploitation.”
A trauma bond is a powerful connection that forms between an abuser and a victim. It is a psychological phenomenon where the victim develops a deep emotional attachment to their abuser through a destructive cycle of intermittent reinforcement and manipulation.
The abuser alternates between love, kindness, and affection patterns, followed by periods of devaluation, control, and abuse. This inconsistent and unpredictable pattern creates a dependency, as victims cling to the hope that the abuser will change and provide the love they crave.
Trauma bonds often form in various settings, including romantic relationships, family connections, friendships, or even professional environments. These bonds are characterized by cycles of abuse, intermittent reinforcement, and a deep emotional attachment (Dutton & Painter, 1993).
Effects of a trauma bond
Trauma bonds are incredibly powerful and have a profound impact on the people involved.
Here are some common effects experienced by those trapped in trauma bonds:
The rollercoaster of emotions experienced within a trauma bond can be overwhelming. Feelings of love, fear, loyalty, and confusion interweave, leading to constant emotional turmoil.
Trauma bonds often lead to cognitive dissonance, where individuals struggle to reconcile the contradictions of the relationship—both the positive experiences and toxic behaviors with the abuser. This internal conflict complicates the difficulty of breaking free from the bond.
Trauma bonds often create a sense of dependency, where one person becomes reliant on the other for validation, self-worth, or a sense of identity. This dependency further reinforces the bond and makes it difficult to break free.
Those trapped in a trauma bond may find themselves isolated from friends and family because the abuser often manipulates and controls their access to others. This isolation exacerbates the emotional hold the abuser has over the victim.
Recognizing the signs of a trauma bond
The first step in healing from a trauma bond is recognizing the signs and acknowledging the unhealthy nature of the relationship.
Some common signs of a trauma bond include:
- Extreme emotional highs and lows
- Feeling trapped or unable to leave
- Justifying or rationalizing the abuser’s behavior
- Experiencing intense fear or anxiety when thinking about leaving the relationship
- Isolation from friends and family
- Self-blame – believing the abuse is your own fault
Trusting your instincts and listening to your inner voice can guide you toward recognizing the unhealthy patterns that have kept you trapped.
Who is most at risk for trauma bonding?
Trauma bonding can occur in any relationship, but there are a few factors that make some people more vulnerable. Here are some groups that may be at higher risk:
- Abuse survivors
- Those with histories of trauma
- Individuals with low self-esteem
- Codependent individuals
- Those with insecure attachment styles
- Those who lack social support
While these groups may be more susceptible to trauma bonding, it’s important to note that anyone can potentially develop a trauma bond from an abusive relationship. Trauma bonding can affect people regardless of their age, gender, or background.
Healing from a trauma bond relationship
Healing from a trauma bond relationship is possible with plenty of self-compassion and support.
Healing from this type of unhealthy attachment often requires professional help. Therapists and counselors who specialize in trauma and abuse can guide in the recovery process. (Courtois & Ford, 2014).
Here are some essential steps to healing from a trauma bond relationship:
Recognizing the bond
The first step towards healing is acknowledging the presence of a trauma bond. This requires self-examination and an honest evaluation of the relationship dynamics. Stepping back and understanding the patterns of abuse, manipulation, and trauma is essential for true healing.
Breaking free from a trauma bond requires support and understanding from others. Reach out to trusted friends, family members, or a therapist who can provide a safe space for you to heal. These people can help validate your feelings and help you navigate your healing journey.
Additionally, connecting with support groups or online communities for trauma survivors can also be incredibly helpful, since you’ll find others who have gone through similar experiences.
Engaging in self-compassion and self-care
Healing from a trauma bond requires plenty of self-compassion and self-care. Engaging in activities that bring joy, practicing self-compassion, and challenging negative beliefs are essential steps toward breaking free from the cycle of abuse. (Van der Kolk, 2015).
Engage in activities that bring you joy and help you feel nurtured. Prioritize self-care routines, such as:
- Regular exercise
- Healthy eating
- Sufficient rest
Celebrate your small victories along the way and acknowledge the strength it takes to heal from such a traumatic experience. Above all, treat yourself with kindness and patience as you steer the challenging emotions that arise.
Gaining knowledge about trauma bonds, abusive behaviors, and healthy relationships is an essential aspect of the healing process. Educate yourself about the dynamics of trauma bonds, the tactics abusers use, and the impact on mental and emotional well-being.
Understanding the patterns that kept you trapped can empower you to break free and make healthier choices in the future.
Seeking professional help
Working with a qualified therapist who specializes in trauma recovery can be a transformative part of healing from a trauma bond.
Therapy provides a safe and confidential space to explore your feelings, process your experiences, and develop healthy coping mechanisms. A professional therapist can be invaluable in guiding you through the healing process, helping you rebuild your self-esteem, and aiding you in creating new, healthier relationship patterns.
Setting boundaries and reinforcing self-worth
Recovering from a trauma bond requires setting clear boundaries and reclaiming your sense of self-worth. Recognize that you deserve to be treated with respect, kindness, and love.
Remember to set boundaries and say no to things that do not serve your healing process. Practice assertiveness by communicating your needs and boundaries in your relationships.
Finally, surround yourself with those who uplift and support you. Part of setting boundaries is removing those who threaten your peace and recovery.
Rewriting your narrative
Challenge the negative beliefs and narratives that the trauma bond has instilled within you. Replace them with positive affirmations and remind yourself of your worth, strength, and resilience. Using journaling or other creative outlets to explore your emotions and reframe your experiences is helpful in rewriting your narrative.
Forgiving and letting go
Often, victims of trauma bond relationships feel as though they are to blame. Forgiving yourself for being in a trauma bond relationship and letting go of any self-blame or guilt is crucial to the healing process. Understand that you were manipulated and that the responsibility lies with the abuser, not you.
Holding onto resentment and anger only prolongs your pain. By forgiving yourself and the abuser, you can free yourself from the emotional shackles and create space for healing and growth.
The bottom line
Healing from a trauma bond is a journey that requires strength, self-compassion, and support from others. While challenging, it is also a priceless process of self-discovery, setting new boundaries, and prioritizing self-care.
Remember that you are not alone, and seeking help is a sign of resilience, not weakness.
With time and commitment to your healing, you can break free from the trauma bond and regain your life. You can also cultivate healthy, loving relationships, and you may even be helping others in the future with your story of self-recovery (and discovery).
How can Tikvah Lake help?
At Tikvah Lake, we are professionals in providing skilled, compassionate treatment that empowers clients to move past trauma.
Our team of mental health experts at Tikvah Lake Recovery helps people overcome mental health struggles and negative behavioral patterns. Our personalized treatment program provides you with instrumental knowledge and the life skills and coping strategies you need to create a healthy fulfilling life.
If you’d like to talk to us about healing from a trauma bond relationship and find out how we can help you or a loved one, please contact us.
- Carnes, P. (2015). The betrayal bond: Breaking free of exploitive relationships. Health Communications, Incorporated.
- Courtois, C. A., & Ford, J. D. (2014). Treating complex traumatic stress disorders: An evidence-based guide. Guilford Press.
- Courtois, C. A. (2004). Complex trauma, complex reactions: Assessment and treatment. Psychotherapy: Theory, research, practice, training, 41(4), 412.
- Dutton, D. G., & Painter, S. L. (1993). Traumatic bonding: The development of emotional attachments in battered women and other relationships of intermittent abuse. Victimology: An International Journal, 18(1-4), 71-82.
- Dutton, D. G., & Painter, S. (1993). Emotional attachments in abusive relationships: A test of traumatic bonding theory. Violence and Victims, 8(2), 105-20.
- The Duluth Model: Domestic Abuse Intervention Programs.
- Van der Kolk, B. (2015). The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. Penguin Books.