by Andrea M. Darcy
Traumatic bonding happens when we are in an abusive relationship but feel unable to leave.
We hold onto a promised better future, focus on the positives and ignore the rest, and feel a sense of loyalty to the person everyone else says we must leave.
(Not sure you are or aren’t in a relationship with trauma bonds? Read our connected article, “What is Trauma Bonding?“).
9 Ways to break traumatic bonding
So how can you break free of a trauma bond when it feels easier to stay?
1. Stop the secret self-blame.
Is there a secret voice in your head that says you are to stupid or weak to leave, that you deserve this, that it’s the best you’ll get?
What if it’s not your fault that you can’t leave? What if, actually, your brain is programmed to be loyal to an abuser and see the best in an abusive situation?
The truth is that most of us who end up in this sort of relationship suffered abuse as a child, whether that was sexual abuse, emotional abuse, verbal abuse, and/or physical abuse. As a child, making the best of the abusive situation was the only option.
Unless you did therapy to process your beliefs and experiences, your brain will still believe this is the best survival tactic – to put up with abuse.
If the person who abused you was a parent or family member, you might even have a deep-rooted unconscious core belief that abuse is love.
[Know you need to leave an abusive help, and want help ASAP? Book an affordable online or therapy counsellor today on our sister site harleytherapy.com .]
2. Start reality training.
A defence mechanism we use to stay trapped by a trauma bond is denial. We block out, quickly forget, and/or rewrite the reality of the abuse and focus on the things he or she promised – that future marriage that never comes, that day he or she quits drinking.
Making a record of everything that happens is a great start to ‘getting real’. But of course this must be something your abuser can never find. Leave the list at work, or in an email draft of an account he or she does not and will never have the pass code to.
Each day write down key points of what happened between you. What he or she said and did. Be as factual as possible. And sure, write down the good things, too. Start to see if there are patterns.
You might even want to write your entire relationship out like a story that happened to someone else. “One day, he was walking into a bar, and he met her…..”. When we remove ourselves like this, our unconscious allows forgotten things to surface.
3. Ask good questions.
Questions can shift our perspective, reveal our true feelings and give us clarity.
The secret is to learn how to ask good questions. Avoid ‘why’ questions, which send you on a spiral and can leave you depressed (learn more in our article on “the Power of the Right Questions to Move Your Life Forward”.)
How long ago did your partner start making promises? What has he or she done exactly to fulfil those promises? What is your ideal relationship? How does this relationship differ? What changes do you want your partner to make? What proof do you have they can make such changes?
4. Shift perspective.
A shift in perspective gives you all new clarity. You can try out the perspective of anyone, real or fictional, dead or alive, and even different versions of yourself.
How would your 80 year-old self feel looking back at your life? What would your 5 year old self tell you about what you are doing right now? If you bumped into Lady Gaga with your partner, what would she have to say? What about Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz? If you suddenly won the lottery, what would you do about this situation?
5. Start a long put-off project with all of your might.
The thing about trauma bonds is that we lose ourselves to them. Our entire life becomes about the intense highs and lows of the relationship. Putting our focus on a long put off goal is about remembering who we are. Make sure it is nothing to do with your partner. Whether it’s learning ballet, writing a novel, or finally finishing high school, this is your lifeline back to yourself.
6. Put your focus on feeling.
Abuse is numbing. It leads to dissociation, where you feel you are floating out of your body. Or emotional dysregulation, where you have wild fluctuating big emotions, but through the storm don’t know which ones are your real feelings.
Starting to feel what we have been repressing gives us a clearer picture of what we are really going through.
Set your alarm to go off several times a day then sit for a minute trying to notice what you feel.
Can you name the emotion? (Bored isn’t an emotion. What is beneath the emotion? Sadness? Grief?). Check in with your body next. How I am feeling in my skin? Do I feel tension, unease, fatigue? Where in my body do I feel unwell or tense?
These tips come from mindfulness (read our free Guide to Mindfulness if you are curious).
7. Stop the games.
One of the ways a trauma bond thrives is through intensity and conflict. So one of the ways to dampen the bond is to stop your side of the battle.
- Stop the blame. Start noticing each time you say ‘you make me feel this when you do that’. Replace ‘you’ sentences by making them ‘I’ ones which stops the blame. “I feel this when you do that’.
- Stop demanding they explain things. Each time you hear yourself wanting to force them to explain try to step away and timeout. An abuser will never tell you the truth anyway.
- Make a list of all the ways you expect then to change. You cannot change someone else. Try to stop pushing for any of those changes (this will also help you see them more clearly).
- Have a friend you can call instead when you are upset. Use a timer so you only rant for 5 minutes. Enough time to break your need for intensity but not destroy your friendship.
8. Tap into something bigger than you.
This does not mean you have to become religious, or believe in God.
For some, spirituality means getting out in nature, for others it is meditating and feeling a higher power. For others, it’s simply taking a quiet moment to think of all the other people in the world going through a similar situation and doing their best.
The point is to realise you are not alone. That there might be bigger reasons for you to be here, and it’s time to move forward.
9. Seek unbiased support.
If there is only one thing on this list you do, make it this one. Breaking a trauma bond is hard to do alone, and support is vital.
Unbiased support means support from someone outside the situation, who isn’t part of your life or invested in your choices. This might at first be a support group, or an online forum of other women who are going through something similar.
Do your best to find some professional support, too. Remember most trauma bonding happens because we already went through trauma in the past. So there is a lot going on, and it can be truly overwhelming to navigate alone. A professional is trained in helping you have clarity of thought and to find your inner resources. They are a willing ear, too, when you just need to rant or cry in ways you never usually let yourself.
If budget is an issue, read our article on low cost counselling, or check out our new sister site, which offers online and phone counselling at reasonable rates.
Ready to work with an experienced and kind therapist in central London who can help you finally break a trauma bond? Visit our main site. For therapy outside of London, or reasonably priced online and phone therapy from wherever you are in the world, visit harleytherapy.com.
Andrea M. Darcy is an established health and lifestyles writer who loves writing about trauma, relationships, and ADHD. Find her on Instagram @am_darcy