Trauma Bonds

January 25, 2021 O'Connor Family Law Newsletter

It Hurts

Toxic relationships are always some of the hardest to resolve because it’s never as simple as just leaving. It’s addictive. Reinforced by intermittent positive reinforcement, codependency is easily established. You become reliant on the relationship – the moments of calm and affection promise so much, but the abuse of it comes crashing in on you and eats away at the very being of who you are. You might even be aware of this, told daily of the obvious, but you can’t find the way to get out. This isn’t your fault. It’s not a personal failing, a character flaw, or a lack of strength or will. It’s the result of something that you can give a name to. And when you can give a name to it, when you are empowered with the language to describe what is happening to you, you give yourself the power to overcome it.

This burden that keeps you bound in a toxic relationship is called a Trauma Bond.

Trauma bonds occur in relationships where there is a high emotional cost or an extreme amount of stress. The technical definition of it is “the misuse of fear, excitement, sexual feelings and physiology to entangle another person.” Practically speaking, this means that there is an abuser and an abused person, and the abuser manipulates the other person into a strong emotional attachment that repeats in a cycle. That cycle of abuse triggers chemical responses in the brain the create the same types of dependency as drug addictions.

In order to break your trauma bond, you need to first recognize the signs of it. These are plastered everywhere on the internet, so we’re going to just review them quickly for you here:

  • You feel like you’re stuck in the relationship and cannot get out of it.
  • You feel like you have to “walk on eggshells” to avoid upsetting your partner.
  • The person you’re with is doing things that hurt you, but you’re afraid they will hurt themselves if you leave or pushback.
  • Other people in your life say that you should leave or get out of your relationship.
  • When you try to leave, you feel longing to see your partner or you miss them.
  • You are punished for doing something your partner considers wrong.
  • Other people in your life are disturbed, bothered, and upset by something that happened in your relationship that you did not think was a big deal.

There are a lot more warning signs, but these are some of the biggest ones. Some of them may not even make sense – such as the feeling of longing for your abuser when you leave or try to leave. This is normal, and is a result of the conditioning you’ve experienced in your relationship. The good news is that you can break that bond and begin to heal.

First, make a commitment to living in a world you know is, or can be, real. Don’t let yourself be consumed with a fantasy about what you want to happen. Live your truth, even if it is uncomfortable. This doesn’t mean you have to leave your relationship immediately, but it does mean that you need to come to terms with your situation. Recognize the abuse for what it is and take back the reality of your own experience, and not the one that your abuser has gaslighted you into.

Second, live your life in real-time. This is strongly related to the idea that you may have been holding onto a hope or a fantasy about what could happen in the future. Focus on how you feel in your relationship today. Identify what’s causing adverse feelings and experiences and acknowledge them as something that is real. If your partner acts in a way that undermines your self-worth and self-respect, pay attention to that.

Third, move one step at a time. Don’t overwhelm yourself by all-or-nothing thinking. The slide into a toxic relationship where a trauma bond forms is done in baby steps that desensitize you. Each successive action is only a little bit worse than the last one, and by the time the trauma bond is fully formed, you have taken hundreds of little tiny steps that actually moved you a great distance. You can get out of the toxic relationship in the same way. For some people, simply jumping out all at once works, but for others, getting out takes great effort. You don’t have to scare yourself and do it all at once.

Fourth, you need to change your language and focus on decisions that improve self-care. The language that we use is, for better or worse, frequently associated with the way we view ourselves and our psychology. Do not berate yourself in moments of weakness or if you’re having an emotional relapse, but instead, speak gently about yourself. Take the time to identify the negative words or phrases you use to describe yourself and make an active effort to change them. Make active choices in your best interests and commit to following through on them

Fifth, grieve. Breaking any kind of bond is a difficult and emotional experience, even when that bond is with someone you’re in a toxic relationship with. What your grief looks like will be up to you, but you can’t be afraid to express your emotion. Trying to stuff that feeling down can inhibit your healing and make it more difficult to move on. If it helps, find someone you can trust and express your grief to them, if for nothing else than to vocalize your feelings. Just like having a name for what keeps you in a toxic relationship can help you get out of it, having words to express your grief can help you work through it.

Sixth, draw your lines in the sand and stick to them. I will not have sex with someone who calls me names. I will not fight with someone who has been drinking. I will not date someone because I feel desperate. Your lines in the sand are non-negotiable. No one has the right to undermine your morals, and identifying these behaviors can help you determine what you need to change to avoid approaching them.

Seventh, invest in healthy connections. There are people in your life who love you and want you to get through this. Reach out and use their strength while you build your own.