Why do you keep returning to the people who hurt you? Why do you keep wanting them to love and accept you? Why do you find it difficult to walk away from these types of relationships? You know that this person isn’t good for us and even make plans to leave, so why does it seem that some powerful force keeps pulling you back?
Often, those with Complex PTSD were raised in homes with some kind of abuse, neglect, or other form of trauma. This then makes you “wired” to get into similar abusive relationships as adults and/or not be able to extricate yourself from the familial abusive relationships, even to the point of participating in the abuse of yourself. Our nervous systems are already wired to respond to the up-down cycle of intermittent reinforcement that is so characteristic of toxic and abusive relationships.
What is a trauma bond?
The term trauma bond was created by Patrick Carnes, who developed it to describe how the “misuse of fear, excitement, and sexual feelings,” can be used to trap or entangle another person. In other words, trauma bonds occur when we go through periods of intense love and excitement with a person followed by periods of abuse, neglect, and mistreatment. The cycle of being devalued and then rewarded over and over works overtime to create a strong chemical and hormonal bond between a victim and her or her abuser. This is why victims of abuse often describe feeling more deeply bonded to their abuser than they do to people who consistently treat them well.
Anyone who is in an abusive relationship can become trauma bonded to their abuser, but people who experienced traumatic relationships as children may be more susceptible to these types of bonds. The nervous system is already wired in that direction.
Signs You are in a Trauma-Bond
So, how can you tell if you are trapped in a trauma bond? Here are a few of the warning signs:
You want to leave someone, but you simply cannot bring yourself to cut them out of your life.
This is one of the biggest warning signs that you are in a trauma bond. You may find yourself deciding to leave your abuser, but then feeling a drawback to them that is so powerful that you lose your resolve. You may not even enjoy their company any longer, but when you are away from them, you feel a sense of primal panic. This feeling is so strong that you cannot focus on anything else other than reconnecting with the toxic person. When victims don’t understand trauma-bonding, they often mistake these powerful feelings of attachment for love. But these feelings are not love. They are symptoms of the trauma bond and likely of attachment trauma going back to childhood.
You’re in a relationship that you would never want any of your loved ones to be in.
If you’re in a relationship that you would never want to see your sibling, child, friend, or other loved one in, that is a red flag that you are in an abusive relationship and are likely trauma bonded to your abuser. The strength of the trauma bond keeps us in situations that we would immediately see as toxic if someone else was in them. But we convince ourselves that the strength of our feelings for our abusers makes our situation somehow different. We tell ourselves that others just don’t understand the strength of the bond that we have with the toxic person.
The person has some characteristics that remind you of a toxic parent or another caregiver.
Most people in abusive relationships are in a relationship that mirrors some sort of toxic pattern they had with a parent or other caregiver. If we suffer from attachment trauma as children, we will generally date people who trigger the same attachment trauma in us as adults, because we are trying to heal our past wounds. We subconsciously decide that if we can make it work with this person who reminds us so much of our toxic parent, that we can finally heal our trauma around our relationship with that parent. If you find yourself in a deep and toxic bond with someone, think about how your relationship might be mimicking one you had with a toxic parent or caregiver.
You find yourself trying to get back to the past.
Most abusive relationships start with the abuser love-bombing their victim. The abuser will figure out the victim’s vulnerabilities and weaknesses, and then make him or her feel safe, beautiful, seen, or whatever other feeling the victim is craving. However, once the love-bombing phase ends, the abuser will begin to devalue their victim, and the episodes of abuse will start. The victim then works harder and harder to please the abuser, often to the point of utter physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion. The victim becomes consumed with getting back the “wonderful” person they met by any means necessary. If you find yourself jumping through hoops to try to get back to the way things were at the beginning of your relationship, you may be in a trauma bond.
You’re justifying behavior that you know is wrong.
If you find yourself justifying behavior that you know for a fact is wrong or abusive, you are likely in a trauma bond. For example, your partner may rage at you and call you names, but you explain it away to yourself by thinking: He/she just had a bad childhood. That’s why they can’t help raging at me. In extreme cases, this sort of justifying can lead people to stay in physically abusive relationships that endanger their lives. If you find yourself justifying unacceptable behavior because of your strong feelings for a person, this is a huge warning sign that you are in a toxic relationship and are likely trauma-bonded.
Breaking the Trauma-Bond.
So, what can you do if you suspect that you’re trauma-bonded to someone who is abusive or toxic? Here are a few steps to get you started on the path to breaking the bond and healing yourself.
The more you understand trauma-bonding and abusive relationships, the more you will be able to see your toxic relationship clearly. Educate yourself as much as you can on the topic.
Get a therapist.
Getting a therapist who understands abuse, trauma-bonding, attachment trauma, etc. can be extremely helpful as you pull away from an abusive relationship and focus on healing. A good therapist will not only help you leave the toxic relationship, he or she will also help you understand and heal the original traumas that made you vulnerable to an abuser in the first place.
Go no contact.
Going no contact is one of the quickest ways to help break a trauma bond. When you cut off your abuser entirely, you end the up-down cycle that created the trauma bond in the first place. At first, going no-contact can feel incredibly difficult, as your body is dealing with the drop of hormones associated with that person. But after a few months of no-contact, you will likely find yourself starting to feel more stable and calm. If you cannot go completely no-contact because of children, shared property, etc, you can go minimal contact.
Focus on healthy bonds.
If you suffer from attachment trauma, you may have a long history of unstable relationships. In order to learn to attach in a healthy way, you need to focus on creating safe and healthy bonds with others. This can be anything from seeing a therapist regularly to attending a support group for survivors to joining a religious community, to making healthy friendships, etc. If you are having a hard time relating to others after a traumatic relationship, you can start small by going to therapy, getting a pet, volunteering, or some other activity that creates a connection in a low-pressure environment.
Challenge yourself to do new things.
When you are breaking a trauma bond, you are fighting obsessive thoughts about your abuser. A great way to help yourself break out of this pattern is to start doing new things. Take a class, go on a trip, join a meetup group, or do anything else that interests you. This will help you build self-confidence, help your brain create new neural pathways, and help you stop obsessing about your abuser while your body and mind are detoxing from the relationship.
Take a break from dating.
While you may feel debilitating loneliness after leaving a toxic relationship, it is not a good idea to jump back into dating. You will be in a more vulnerable state while you are healing and are likely to attract another abuser. Don’t start downloading dating apps, but do start doing things to make you feel more connected to others. Go and volunteer, take a class, go out with friends, or anything else that creates a feeling of safe connection. Save the dating for when you are feeling strong and healed.
Breaking a trauma bond can be one of the most difficult things you ever do. However, the freedom on the other side is worth it. Use this time of healing to delve into and heal your childhood wounds.
Healing yourself is the best protection against falling into another abusive relationship in the future.