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How to Break a Trauma Bond

Healthy relationships are an essential part of life and well-being. The right relationships built on mutually loving, respect, and trust can help individuals thrive in their lives. However, toxic or abusive relationships can damage self-esteem, mental health, and overall well-being.

Relationships play a vital role in our everyday lives and are essential to our wellbeing. When relationships turn toxic or abusive, it is imperative to seek assistance and break free of the abuse. However, leaving an unhealthy situation is often easier said than done for many.

Trauma bonding is a significant reason individuals may feel compelled to remain in an abusive relationship even if there is a substantial threat to their overall health, safety, and security.[1] When individuals feel the need to stay in a toxic or abusive situation, they can feel trapped or even hopeless.

Trauma bonds occur as a psychological response to abuse and create an unhealthy bond between an abused person and their abuser. It is essential to understand what trauma bonds are and the stages and signs of trauma bonding. How to break a trauma bond – through understanding, individuals can free themselves from abusive relationships and identify any red flags early on in future relationships.

Through learning the traits of a healthy and functional relationship, individuals can build appropriate relationships moving forward. While it may seem nearly impossible to exit a situation where a trauma bond is present, there is hope with the proper support and healthy boundaries. Individuals who find themselves in a toxic relationship can break a trauma bond and lead healthy lives with healthy relationships.

What is a Trauma Bond?

As mentioned previously, trauma bonds occur as a psychological response to an abusive or toxic relationship. In these cases, the individual being abused typically forms a bond with their abuser that is unhealthy.[1] Trauma bonding can often be misunderstood as creating a bond between two or more individuals who have experienced the same traumatic event.

However, this is not an accurate description of a trauma bond, and it is important to understand the difference.[1] Typically, trauma bonds are formed when the abused individual forms some type of sympathy or affection towards their abuser – when feelings are involved, these bonds can become stronger between the abused and the abuser. The back-and-forth toxicity of the relationship can become addictive for all parties in the relationship – including the individual being abused.

In some cases, experts believe that the toxicity of a trauma bonded relationship becomes an ongoing cycle in the lives of people involved.[2] The cycle of abuse in a trauma bonded relationship may include different types and degrees of abuse. In some instances, trauma bonds can blur the lines of abuse itself.

Common Types of Abuse

Individuals experiencing an abusive relationship may start to question if they are truly being abused.[3] As a result, it is important to also understand the types of abuse that can occur in a relationship.
Common types of abuse include:[3]:

In a trauma bonded relationship, any or all forms of abuse may be present and at varying degrees. Additionally, trauma bonded relationships can vary in terms of composition. Relationships with a romantic partner, friend, or parent can somehow be trauma bonded.

Although, when discussing trauma bonds in relationships, romantic relationships are referred to most often. Trauma bonding can ultimately occur in any situation where one individual is abusing or exploiting another person.[4] After having a sense of what a trauma bond is, it is imperative to recognize some of the signs that indicate the presence of a trauma bond.

Signs of a Trauma Bond

A range of signs can indicate a relationship is a trauma bonded. Depending on the nature of the relationship, some of the signs may look different. For example, red flags in romantic relationships may be other warning signs in a parent-child dynamic.[5]

Typically, an individual can identify the red flags for trauma bonds in their life based on general patterns of behavior and feelings associated with the conduct in question. While each relationship may have a unique set of circumstances, generally, trauma bonds have two key indicators.

As mentioned previously, trauma bonds are cyclical – they appear like the cycle of abuse. Because these toxic relationships act in a process from periods of peace and happiness to periods of active abuse and distress, individuals may feel compelled to stay because of the good times in the relationship.[5] In a trauma bonded relationship, the abuser may have periods of being extremely loving and compassionate, followed eventually by abusive behavior.

Ultimately, the toxic cycle becomes more negative, and the positive qualities become overshadowed by the negative behavior or the bad times. The second key indicator in a trauma bonded relationship is an imbalance of power. An imbalance of power can occur in many ways.

However, power imbalances generally require some form of control that holds power over the abused individual. Under conditions where an individual feels that their abuser has some power or control over an aspect of their life, it may feel impossible to leave the relationship.

Common Symptoms

In addition to recognizing the critical indicators of a trauma bond, there are also common signs that are more specific. Taken alone, these signs may not automatically serve as evidence of a trauma bond. However, the patterns of behavior and feelings overall should be considered to identify a trauma bond.

Symptoms of a trauma bond commonly include:[6]


Reviewing the warning signs and patterns of behavior in a trauma bonded relationship can help individuals understand their relationship and serve as a deciding factor on how to move forward. Individuals who identify with these behavior patterns in their relationships may be in a trauma bonded relationship.

Stages of Trauma Bonding

Relationships that are trauma bonded seemingly do not always start as toxic. Instead, relationships may begin in the positive spectrum of the cycle of abuse. Over time, the relationship’s toxicity will move through different stages and can often repeat itself.

Experts have identified seven stages of trauma bonding. Understanding these stages can assist individuals with taking steps to break the cycle and ultimately break free of the trauma bond. However, in a trauma bonded relationship, it can be challenging to connect the stages and signs and admit that the relationship in question is abusive – the red flags will likely be more apparent to outsiders.

The Seven Stages of Trauma Bonding include:[7]

  1.  Love Bombing – The abuser showers the abusee with excess love, flattery, and appreciation to gain your affection.
  2. Trust and Dependency – After the abuser has gained some affection from the abusee, they will attempt to win over the abusee’s trust and manipulate situations so that the abusee depends on the abuser for love and validation.
  3. Criticism – Eventually, the abuser will gradually criticize the abusee. They will blame the abusee for things and become increasingly demanding.
  4. Gaslighting – the abuser begins to blame the abusee when things go wrong. The abuser will make the abused person doubt their perceptions and manipulate them into believing their narrative.
  5. Resigning to Control – The abusee will no longer know what to think, and the only way to experience the positive feelings from Stage 1 is by giving in and doing things the abuser’s way.
  6. Loss of Self – When the abusee begins to fight back, things worsen. The abused person will settle for anything to have some feeling of peace and make the fighting stop. At this stage, the abusee will begin to lose all confidence.
  7. Addiction – Individuals caught in the cycle will become addicted to the highs and lows of the relationship. This ultimately creates a cycle of dependency that feels similar to drug addiction.

The stages of trauma bonding can take a heavy toll on the person receiving abuse. Over time, the cycle will negatively impact self-esteem and mental wellbeing. Individuals who recognize these patterns in their relationships may consider breaking the trauma bond and leaving the relationship.

How to Leave a Trauma Bonded Relationship

Due to the toxic nature of a trauma bonded relationship, individuals suffering abuse will find it difficult to leave the relationship. Loved ones may have difficulty understanding why the person experiencing abuse does not just end the relationship. However, breaking free of a trauma bond often takes time and support.

Leaving a toxic situation is not easy, but individuals can free themselves of a trauma bonded relationship with the appropriate support and understanding. After being caught in the vicious relationship cycle, individuals will likely need internal work to build back up without the connection. There are various ways individuals can prepare themselves to exit a trauma bonded relationship.

Overall, breaking a trauma bond requires taking time to foster healthy relationships and connections in your life. Shifting actions to take time for personal hobbies or spending more time with friends and family members who are not toxic is essential for rebuilding self-esteem and feel supported. Healthy support systems are necessary for healing and long-term change in relationship choices.[8] Some individuals may also seek more intensive treatment, such as staying in a facility specializing in relationship disorders or codependency.

Long-Term Healing

There is hope for individuals in a trauma bonded relationship or with toxic relationship patterns. By committing to live in reality and recognizing the cycle of abuse in a relationship, you are taking the first step in healing. While healing may take a while, all recovery comes in small steps.

Learning to make decisions that will ultimately support your self-care can help build self-esteem and a feeling of worthiness in any relationship. You can create your life with healthy habits and people and break free of your trauma bond by taking small steps.[8]

If you or a loved one are struggling with trauma, reach out to SoCal Mental Health today. Our team can answer any questions you may have and give you a better understanding of our program. 

Sources
  1. Wright, R. (January 2022). What is trauma bonding in a relationship?. Shape Magazine. Retrieved from https://www.shape.com/lifestyle/mind-and-body/mental-health/what-is-trauma-bonding

  2.  Dr. Mann, J. (March 2021). The warning signs of a trauma bonding relationship that you need to know about. InStyle Magazine Online. Retrieved from https://www.instyle.com/lifestyle/hump-day/trauma-bonding

  3. Hall, K.M. (February 2022). What is trauma bonding? How abusive relationships keep people together. Retrieved from https://www.goodrx.com/health-topic/mental-health/what-trauma-bonding-abusive-relationships

  4. Medical News Today. (n.d.). What is trauma bonding?. Retrieved from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/trauma-bonding

  5. Raypole, C. (November 2020). How to recognize and break traumatic bonds. Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/health/mental-health/trauma-bonding

  6. Fellizar, K. (February 2019). 7 signs you have an intense emotional bond with a toxic person. Retrieved from https://www.bustle.com/p/7-signs-you-have-intense-emotional-bond-with-a-toxic-person-15967386

  7. Punjaabi, D. (September 2020). The 7 stages of trauma bonding. Retrieved from https://themighty.com/2020/09/trauma-bonding-signs/

  8. Stines, S. (January 2017). 10 steps to recovering from a toxic trauma bond. Retrieved from https://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/10-steps-to-recovering-from-toxic-trauma-bond-0110175