Verified by Psychology Today

Attachment

3 Ways to Break the Cycle of Trauma Bonding

Is it bonding over love or is it trauma bonding? Here’s how to tell.

Key points

  • A trauma bond is an intense emotional attachment formed between a perpetrator of abuse and the victim.
  • Trauma bonding can make leaving an abusive relationship feel confusing and overwhelming.
  • Self-care and self-compassion reinforce the idea that one doesn’t need to be dependent on others to be happy.
Source: Susan Wilkinson/Unsplash

A trauma bond is an intense emotional attachment formed between a perpetrator of abuse and the victim. Trauma bonding is one example of an unhealthy, abusive relationship. The bond is created primarily as a result of a cycle of abuse and reinforcement where, after every instance of abuse, the abuser professes love for the victim and attempts to make the victim feel safe and needed.

Trauma bonding can make leaving an abusive relationship feel confusing and overwhelming, especially when the victim struggles with separation anxiety or has an insecure attachment style.

Here are three things to know to identify and break away from trauma-bonded relationships.

1. Familiarize yourself with the signs, sometimes known as the seven stages of trauma bonding.

Often, a trauma-bonded relationship can start off as a normal relationship. Here are seven ways you can catch the signs early:

  • Love bombing. Love bombing typically manifests as sudden and overwhelming displays of affection. One easy way to detect this is when you notice the other person is taking the relationship too fast by saying that they love you very early on in the relationship. One study found that people with narcissistic personality tendencies were more likely to engage in love bombing to win a victim’s trust.
  • Gaining trust. An abuser often tries to test the victim’s trust and dependency by testing the relationship’s boundaries. When the victim doesn’t reciprocate the perpetrator’s requests, they are made to feel guilty.
  • Criticizing the victim. In this stage, there is a sudden burst of criticism, especially noticeable during arguments, in which the blame is put on the victim. As a result, the victim ends up apologizing for things that weren’t even their fault.
  • Manipulation. Abusers defend their behavior by using manipulative tactics. When a victim tries to speak out against the oppression, the abuser might gaslight them, making them question their sense of reality and identity to the point that the victim either gets convinced that there is nothing wrong with the abusive behavior or may resort to reactive abuse toward the perpetrator.
  • Resignation. When dealing with trauma, the victim often tries to avoid further conflict. This is also known as the “fawn response” to trauma or “people-pleasing” behavior. The victim often resigns to go along with the abusive behavior with the idea that this will help restore some semblance of stability.
  • A sense of identity loss. The abusive nature of the relationship leaves the victim in a state of severe psychological distress. They may feel emotionally numb, feeling as though they’ve lost who they are. They may socially withdraw themselves and even exhibit suicidal ideation.
  • Compulsive continuation of the cycle. The abusive nature of trauma bonds is cyclical. After an abusive incident, an abuser goes back to stage one, only to start it all over again. The victim may try to hide the abuser’s behaviors by making it seem like normalcy has returned, until another incident of abuse strikes.

This type of bond can profoundly impact a victim’s worldview. But the cycle of abuse is not unbreakable. Once you have identified the signs of trauma bonding, here is what you can do next.

2. Focus on self-care and self-compassion.

Abusive situations can lower your self-esteem. Instead of being harsh on yourself and resorting to self-blame, you can practice self-compassion.

One study suggests that self-compassion not only feels better than self-criticism, but it also helps us rise to life’s inevitable challenges. The authors of the study break down self-compassion into three components:

  • Noticing when we are in pain, without detaching from or getting caught up in our feelings
  • Realizing that experiencing distress or making mistakes is part of being human, as opposed to feeling isolated by these experiences
  • Offering ourselves kindness, as opposed to being harshly self-critical

Try to engage in at least a few of these proven self-care techniques:

  • Speak positively. Find more ways to offer a genuine compliment. Memorize an inspirational text or saying.
  • Move dynamically. Do 30 minutes of moderate exercise or 10,000 steps. Try 20 minutes of guided resistance exercises.
  • Immerse in an uplifting natural environment. Spend 30 minutes in an uplifting natural environment. Wake up early and experience a sunrise.
  • Eat nutritiously. Eat eight servings of plant-based food. Prepare a high-fiber, plant-based meal with one or more friends.

Engaging in actions that make you feel good can reinforce the idea that you don’t need to be dependent on others to make you feel happy or good about yourself. The more you remind yourself of your own agency, the easier it will be to walk away from unhealthy relationship dynamics for good.

3. Lean on your support and peer groups.

Therapy is an incredible tool for helping move past the experiences of past trauma. It can not only help you exit a dangerous situation, but it also equips you with tools that can come in handy when making important life choices in the future.

Moreover, communicating with others who have gone through something similar can be very helpful. Sharing experiences of trauma can lead to posttraumatic growth. If you don’t feel ready to join a support group, lean on the people in your life that you feel close to and whom you trust deeply.

Conclusion

Trauma bonding is a relationship dynamic, not a character flaw. It can occur to anyone. Identifying the signs early and taking steps to overcome it can help prevent disastrous consequences. Remember that it’s always possible to end a cycle of abuse and find safety in healthy relationships.

More from Mark Travers Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today
Most Popular