A trauma bond is a form of attachment where a person can be in extreme loyalty, love, and fear to an abuser or in a toxic relationship. I’ll be using the term “abuser” as a trauma bond happens in abusive relationships, whether that is emotional, physical, or sexual abuse. The emotional connection between a person and the abuser is so strong that this loyalty can also be mistaken for love and the victim starts believing that this type of relationship is normal. A trauma bond usually occurs in a narcissistic or toxic relationships, where there are emotional, physical, or sexual abuse present. A trauma bond ends up being a cycle that keeps the victim in the relationship because of the occasional rewards and punishments that happens.
Let’s take a look at the trauma bonding cycle
Here’s what’s going on in your relationship and brain chemistry during trauma bonding.
A trauma bond starts with love bombing. During this stage, the abuser will make you feel loved. Things will be fast and intense. The flowers, late-night phone calls and messages, the early “I love yous”, over sharing of information, the sweet words you always wanted to hear, you will experience it all.
Things are amazing at this stage and your brain is releasing all the feel-good-hormones: dopamine (reward, craving, seeking, and wanting), endorphins (relieve pain, reduce stress, improve mood), oxytocin (bonding) and serotonin (mood-happiness, sex, sleep, bowel movements).
Once they have hooked you in the relationship and you start trusting and being dependent on them, the love bombing stops and the devaluing starts to happen. They will start making comments and criticisms about you and people in your life. You will start wondering what happened and how you can get their love and affection again as it was in the beginning. You will start trying to get close to them in the hopes of them showing they love you again. Breadcrumbing will also happen. There will be lower level of affection to keep you hooked.
At this stage, you are stressed and anxious. Your body is releasing the stress hormones which are cortisol and adrenaline. When stress hormones are produced, we enter a fight, flight, freeze or fawn state. This also translate how you behave in the relationship, either you decide to fight back and not give up or you decide nothing is working so you give up, or become numb, or you try to please and appease the abuser to avoid the conflict.
You will try everything, but nothing is working, so you give up and you make up your mind to leave the relationship. You tell the abuser you want to break up, separate, or end the relationship, but instead they change 180, and hoover you back in the relationship. They make you feel guilty or shower you with love and they suck you back in the relationship. At this stage, they can also use threats to keep you in the relationship.
The stress hormones are very high at the moment. You are desperate for the love and affection again. So once the abuser comes back with an apology, it’s easy to get you hooked back in the relationship with the love bombing. Again, your brain is releasing the feel-good hormones and the cycle starts again. The relationship feels like an emotional roller coaster that you cannot walk away from. With the good times being really good and the bad times being really bad. Each time you are going through this cycle, you are strengthening the trauma bond.
How to heal from trauma bonding?
The first step in breaking the trauma bond is being able to recognize it. Take a look at the cycle above. Does this seem familiar in your relationship? Do you feel like you are going through this cycle and unable to break free from it? If yes, that is a trauma bond. It is important to recognize and learn the pattern of trauma bonding. Once you are aware of it, you will realize what is happening in the relationship and know that this is a pattern of the narcissistic abuser.
Recognize that this is also your brain that is releasing all these hormones. Remind yourself to not get fooled by the hormones. You can also keep a journal and document the patterns you are seeing. This will help prevent you from getting sucked back into the relationship.
What happens in a narcissistic relationship is that the abuser tends to alienate the victim from other people they care about. Overtime, they have turned you against all the people in your life. The second step is to reconnect with others in your life. By reconnecting with friends, families, and social group, it makes you feel like you are no longer alone. You will get the validation and empowerment that was taken from you. Most of the time, people outside your relationship can objectively see things how they are and are not blinded by the love and the good time that you have experienced.
Working on your self-esteem is so important when trying to break the trauma bond. The abuser have crushed your self-esteem and confidence and made you feel like you can only depend on them. That without them, there is no one for you. During this step, you also want to do things to regain your autonomy and independence. This includes slowly start doing things for yourself. Are there anything you enjoyed doing that you gave up on? What are the things you always wanted to do or learn that you never had the opportunity to? This is the time to start doing them.
It is also important to create a safety and exit plan. One reason you may have not been able to leave your relationship is because whenever you have told the abuser you want to leave, they make you feel guilty, or they promise you that they will change and that they will give you what you are asking for, and love bomb you and tell you how much you mean to them, or they use a threat or violence to keep you in the relationship.
You might have heard of things like:
“You’re gonna give up on our 3 year relationship? What about all the promises we made to each other?”
“I want to marry you, I was planning on proposing to you next month.”
“If you leave, I’m gonna take the kids away from you and make sure you end up on the streets”.
When you decide to leave a relationship and break the bond, it is best to do so without any communication to the abuser. Make sure you prepare the things you need in advance- money, important documents, knowing where you will go, even making sure to take pets with you.
Keep low to no contact. It is best to limit your contact with the abuser so they don’t get the chance to reel you back in the relationship or try to threaten you. If you have children, it is hard to go no-contact. But keeping your communication limited and by setting strict boundaries can help you from getting hooked again in this toxic cycle.
With the end of every relationship, it’s important to allow time to heal. With time, you’ll start to see things objectively too. You will be outside the “trauma bond cycle bubble” and you will start to realize what was actually happening. This is the time to also start speaking with a therapist to comprehend what was actually happening. A lot of people find it hard to believe that this was their life. As with any relationship that comes to an end, you will go through hard times. You might start bargaining with yourself that the relationship was not so bad. But as days goes on, you will be able to look at the relationship as a distant memory. While some people are more susceptible to trauma bonding, no one is immune to trauma bonding. If you have decided to leave a toxic relationship, being safe is the first step in doing so.