I wrote about trauma bonding, and the complexity of those relationships, in an earlier post where I explained how trauma bonds are formed:
The deliberate inconsistency in affection makes the victim feel that they are to blame, and that their own behaviour and personality has to change in order to ‘earn’ that affection. There are brief, intense moments of joy scattered among more significant periods of hurt or abuse, but those joy moments are addictive; the intensity of love bombing is overwhelming. Victims of trauma bonding then often fall into familiar patterns with other relationships, finding themselves in similar situations even if they’ve escaped their initial abuser or trauma.
This is why so many people return to abusive relationships; those who haven’t experienced it say “why did you go back?” – but that gives the impression that an abuser is only abusive – when the reality is far more complex, and comes with the most intense highs and overwhelming shows of love and affection, which is what the victim is seeking, and may even think makes the painful abuse they experience worth it, because the high is so intense.
Escaping trauma bonding is as complex and multi-faceted as the traumatic relationship – but it is possible with the right steps and support. Here are some techniques I recommend when I’m working with clients who are moving away from abusive relationships and trauma bonding.
1: Be here, right now, truthfully. A significant part of what keeps you in that relationship or situation is the “if I just…” – the fantasy of how it could be more often, if you just…changed? Behaved differently? Got it right? All of those fantasy scenarios are so dependent on impossible goals and unrealistic reactions. Each time you slip into the daydreams of what could be, pause and take a critical assessment of what is, right now. The tiptoeing, the ball of anxiety, the “which version of them is coming home” that raises your heartrate when you hear their key in the door. That reality is far more consistent than the what if you imagine to survive it, so let yourself acknowledge the truth of where you are.
Don’t distract yourself with hoping or trying to somehow manage someone into a ‘good day’ – notice how you really feel, and how much you have to play a game or bite your tongue in order to get scraps of contentment amidst the anxiety of your day.
2: One day at a time (or even one minute at a time!) You don’t have to change everything at once – you don’t have to lose your entire life to escape a bad relationship. All or nothing is far too huge, and daunting, and it will imprison you because it’s too much to take on.
Instead, make one decision at a time, one action at a time, and one interaction at a time.
Finding yourself feeling stuck in an abusive relationship (be that with a partner, parent, friend or boss) took time; it wasn’t an overnight change. Nor is escaping it. You can set your own boundaries and implement small changes a little at a time, until you feel strong enough and ready to totally free yourself from this entanglement.
Key to this is remembering that putting your needs first is self preservation – not selfish. Each time you find yourself being self-critical, remember that isn’t your voice, and be compassionate and kind to yourself and your own needs.
3: Give yourself permission to feel. In this relationship you have learned to ignore your own feelings and needs, and to put those of the other person above yours. This makes it very difficult to find the edges of your emotions, and to accept that your feelings are important and valid. Re-learning those things is important – so rather than trying to squash them down for the sake of someone else, let yourself feel them and acknowledge them.
A great tool for this is keeping a journal, where you can write what you are feeling – including the negative and positive emotions tied to the abuser. This isn’t black and white – so let yourself acknowledge if you miss someone, but balance it with truthful awareness of how it felt to be near them.
It can be painful, healing from trauma and recovering from harmful relationships, but it’s only by acknowledging and moving through those complex emotions that you can understand yourself, and build resilience to protect against repeating this pattern in future relationships. Grief is one of the things you’ll feel – but remember that much of the grief is for how that relationship should have been, rather than for the reality of what you had.
4: Identify your needs. The biggest part of moving on is understanding what you were hoping to get from the relationship, and how they used that against you to keep you there.
By offering short, intense moments of joy or affection you were being given something powerful and addictive, which was then taken away or withheld, making you feel that you needed to ‘earn’ it. This is the ‘hook’ – the power that they held – and by identifying this hook you will be able to build a blueprint of what you need in other relationships, and how you can build that need into your own behaviour rather than being dependent on an external source to meet it.
5: Blueprint for the new life you deserve. Now that you’ve identified the most significant need you had (safety, affection, love, support) you can begin to set out the foundations of what you deserve in your life. The treatment you will – and will not – accept from others, and from yourself. Examples are things like “I will not stay in the company of someone who is insulting me”, “I will not sleep with anyone who is hurtful”, “I will manage my own income and spending”, “I will nourish my body with healthy food and avoid any alcohol or drugs that change my behaviour”.
Set small goals, things which matter to you. This could be getting a new job, moving to a new home, seeing friends or family that you’ve been separated from by your toxic partner, starting a new hobby or returning to one you quit because the relationship took all your energy. Small, life affirming choices which reinforce that you are capable and can enjoy things alone, and with chosen other people, on your own terms.
Invest time in a healthier relationship with yourself – allowing choices for things you want; start small with things like what you would like to eat, what you want to watch on TV, the colour of your bedding, how you dress today. All of these things have been whittled away by the choices and desires of your toxic relationship – so re-learning what you actually enjoy is an adventure. Each moment of enjoyment will reinforce that you are capable and that you make choices that bring you your own happiness – not that given to you as some kind of toxic reward, but simply by choosing for yourself.
Following that same pattern you can build healthy relationships with others by building on small, healthy interactions. Notice the people you have in your life – those you were forced to push away, those who overstepped your boundaries who you want to distance from. Pay attention to who is listening, and who is supportive; those are the people you deserve to keep in your life. It isn’t cruel or selfish to distance yourself from those who are harmful or overbearing.
Investing in those healthy interactions, and building on the relationships you have with people who aren’t toxic, is the only sure way to fully free yourself from unhealthy, toxic relationships, and from the possibility of repeating toxic patterns in future. It is tempting to slip into a familiar dynamic, where you’ve learned how to behave and squash your own needs down to suit others; that’s a difficult thing to un-learn – so keep reminding yourself that it took time to become the person they made you – and it can and will take time to build the new, happier, safer you. And you’re worth that time.
If you want to escape or move past trauma bonding, if this is something that feels very familiar and you know that you want and need a healthier, happier future free of those painful, heavy relationships, I can help. You can contact me through this website, through Facebook, LinkedIn or email on firstname.lastname@example.org, or call me on 07849 037095 – you can also message or call via WhatsApp on the same number, and I offer video sessions for those who are still unable to meet in person. I can help – you don’t have to struggle alone, and our work together is completely confidential.