Trauma Bonding: What It is and How To Move On

Trauma Bonding: What It is and How To Move OnLearn what trauma bonding is and how to move on with strategies from a bestselling behavioral change expert.

Have you ever been in a relationship where your partner’s behavior swings unpredictably. One day, they shower you with love and affection, making you feel cherished. Then, suddenly, they turn cold, critical, or even hurtful, leaving you feeling small and unworthy. Just as you’re about to give up, they switch back to being loving, trapping you in a cycle of highs and lows.

Basically, trauma bonding is when you find yourself tied to someone who hurts you, then plays nice, then hurts you again.

And in case you were wondering…

Trauma Bonding isn’t just a “romantic relationship thing.”

It can also sneak into all sorts of connections, touching lives regardless of age or background.

For instance…

  • Workplace: You might be a young professional who regularly excuses your boss’s harsh criticism because of the occasional compliment or praise.
  • Friendships: Or perhaps you’re a college student clinging to a friend who swings between support and ridicule.
  • Family Settings: Consider an older person enduring verbal abuse from a caregiver, yet remaining because of sporadic acts of kindness.
  • Parent-Child Dynamics: Even a busy parent can unintentionally create a trauma bond. One minute you might be an attentive parent, and the next, you’re so busy with work that your child feels rejected and invisible. If there’s frequent inconsistent emotional availability, your child might end up feeling unsure about when the next round of “attentive parent” is going to show up. And that can create an accidental trauma bond.

Understanding what trauma bonding is – and recognizing it in various forms – are the first steps to breaking free. And I’m here to guide you through this process.

I’m writing this article because I’m the bestselling relationship author of the Oprah recommended book Prince Harming Syndrome.

Plus I’m the founder of the therapist recommended online program: The Broken Heart Recovery Course.

I’m committed to helping people to heal from past pain and find a way forward to happier futures. So, let’s get started.

Why Do We Get Stuck in Trauma Bonding?

First I’ll share a quick metaphor to explain why we get stuck in a trauma bond. Then I will share 4 researched based reasons.

  • Quick Metaphor: It’s like eating a chocolate cake that’s delicious – yet laced with something that makes you ill. The good chocolate parts are so enticing – that you’re tempted to overlook the harm the cake also brings – leading you back for more poisonous cake.

Now for those 4 lengthier, research related explanations of why people get stuck in a trauma bond.

1. The Cycle of Abuse Keeps You Hoping and Hooked

At the heart of trauma bonding is the cycle of abuse.

  • It starts with a “honeymoon phase” – which is peaceful and loving.
  • Then at some point the cycle heads into the “tension-building” phase, where the abuser’s criticisms and anger start escalating.
  • This is followed by the “explosive” phase, where the actual abuse occurs.
  • Then, like a summer rain on parched land, comes the “honeymoon” phase again. Here, the abuser may apologize, shower love, and promise change.

All of this keeps you hoping and hooked for more better days, even if they’re few and far between.

2. The Power of Intermittent Reinforcement

trauma bondsThe intermittent reinforcement found in trauma bonding keeps you hooked in the same way as gambling might.

You get addicted to the “what ifs.”

In trauma bonding, the sporadic positive moments amidst the abuse act like a potential “jackpot.”  And those rare wins make all the losses seem worth it.

In fact, a study in the “Journal of Psychology” found that people stuck in trauma bonds have brain patterns that look a lot like those of someone addicted to substances. Meaning? The intermittent kindness you experience in a trauma bond taps into your brain much like an addictive drug.

This striking similarity explains why stepping away from a trauma bond can be incredibly difficult.  It’s not just an emotional struggle – but also a neurological one. Your brain gets caught in a cycle of seeking the “reward” of those positive moments, despite the pain.

3. The Echo of Childhood Wounds

Have you ever noticed how sometimes we end up in situations that feel oddly familiar, even if they’re not good for us? This happens a lot with trauma bonds, especially for those who had a tough time in childhood.

If your childhood was full of abuse, neglect, and emotional ups and downs, you might unknowingly find yourself drawn to similar kinds of relationships as an adult.

It’s not because you want to be unhappy. It is just what you know. It’s like having a compass that’s always pointing you back to what you’ve known, even if that place wasn’t great.

Now, you might wonder, “Why can’t you just choose better relationships?”

Well, according to research in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence, experiencing trauma can really scramble your decision-making skills. It’s like trying to choose the right path in a thick fog. This doesn’t mean you’re making these choices on purpose. It’s just really hard to see things clearly and make healthy decisions when your past experiences are clouding your judgment.

4. The Power of Stockholm Syndrome

Have you ever heard of Stockholm Syndrome? It’s a psychological response where hostages or abuse victims develop a bond with their captors or abusers. This might sound bizarre, but psychologists believe it happens as a survival strategy.

In the most extreme situations, like kidnappings, the victim may perceive kindness in small acts from their captor, despite the danger they are in. This creates a sense of gratitude or empathy towards the captor, blurring the lines between fear and affection.

In a way, trauma bonding creates a Stockholm Syndrome of sorts.

When you’re in a relationship where love and hurt are intertwined, you might find yourself empathizing with the person hurting you. This is especially true if they show you affection or remorse in between the episodes of abuse. These kindnesses wind up strengthening your emotional attachment to them – and so you find yourself justifying their actions, holding onto the good moments, and hoping for change.

8 Strategies for How To Move On From Trauma Bonding

Strategies to Break Free From Trauma BondingBreaking free from a trauma bond isn’t easy, but it’s doable. You’re stronger than you think, and with the right tools, you can make it through to a brighter, healthier future.

1. Acknowledging the Reality

First things first, acknowledge the trauma bond. And become fully aware of any “magnetic pull towards the familiar” your past traumas might be creating. Realize that your attraction to familiar, yet unhealthy patterns, might be fueling this cycle of bittersweet pleasure and pain. By fully waking up to the dark reality of the situation, you will become more greatly committed to end the cycle.

Example in Action: Consider the analogy of being stuck in a maze. Each time you follow the same path, you hit a dead end, yet you keep choosing it because it’s familiar. Acknowledging the trauma bond is like realizing you need a new map to find a new way out.

Try using Solution-Focused Brief Therapy (SFBT).

This therapy concentrates on what you want to achieve – rather than overly focusing on the problem. For instance, instead of ruminating on the cycle of abuse and kindness, you’d shift your focus to envisioning and planning for a relationship dynamic that is consistently respectful and nurturing. SFBT encourages you to set small, achievable goals that steer you towards this vision, while helping you to gradually build the confidence and resilience needed to get there.

2. Do Mindfulness and Meditation Practices to Stay Grounded

Practicing mindfulness or meditation can help keep you anchored in the present moment, reducing anxiety and stress and boosting confidence and inner strength.

Example in Action: Mindfulness and Meditation are like tuning your favorite instrument. When you’re stressed, your mind is like an out-of-tune guitar. Practicing mindfulness is like carefully adjusting the strings, bringing harmony back to your thoughts and emotions. So, when you feel overwhelmed, focus on your breathing. Close your eyes, inhale deeply, and tune into self love and inner peace.

3. Journal or Make Art as an Emotional Outlet

Writing down your thoughts and feelings can be incredibly therapeutic. It’s a safe space to express yourself, sort through your emotions, and gain clarity. Or engage in creative activities like painting, drawing, or playing music. These artistic outlets can be a great non-verbal expression for complex emotions – and thereby  effective in accessing and healing deep-seated emotional wounds.

Example in Action: Write a diary entry after a tough day. Pour out your feelings onto the page. As you do, feel the weight on your chest lightens. Or, try painting, and feel how each stroke on the canvas helps you to release the emotions trapped inside, like venting to a trusted friend but through colors and shapes.

4. Establish Boundaries

Learn to set boundaries – and stick to them. This is about saying “no” to negative behavior and “yes” to self respect. Use Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) to help you to recognize that enduring pain in relationships isn’t worth sacrificing your self-worth. CBT helps you to reinforce your self-esteem and prioritize your well-being over unhealthy bonds.

Example in Action:  When you feel drawn back into a trauma bond, remind yourself of your worth and strength. Use this CBT tool: Replace thoughts like, “I need this relationship to feel complete,” with affirmations like, “I deserve a relationship that respects and nurtures me.” If you need extra support, explore these boundary training tools.

5. Rebuild Connections:

Reach out to friends, family, or support groups. Having people who care about you and support you is like having a safety net. They’re there to catch you when you fall and cheer you on as you climb.

Example in Action: Imagine your phone’s battery is dangerously low, symbolizing your emotional state in a trauma bond. Reaching out to friends and family is like plugging into a power source. Each conversation or shared experience recharges you a bit more, reminding you that you’re not alone and that support is just a call or a hug away.

6. Move Your Body The Mind-Body Connection

Exercise isn’t just good for your physical health. It’s a powerhouse for mental well-being. It releases endorphins, your body’s feel-good hormones, and can help shift your focus from negative thoughts.

Example in Action: Go for a brisk walk or a quick workout. This physical activity will releases built-up tension, and make you feel more capable and empowered.

7. Be Kind to Yourself

Healing takes time. Don’t rush it. Be gentle with yourself. Every small step forward is progress, even if there are setbacks.

Example in Action: Write down positive affirmations on post-it notes and put them around your home to re-read often.

8. Get Some Backup: Talk to a Pro

Walking this path alone is rough. A therapist or Mindset Mastery Coach (like myself) can be your guide, giving you the map and flashlight you need to find your way out.

Example in Action: I encourage you to explore 1 on 1 coaching sessions with me to strengthen your mindset.

Conclusion: Move On From Trauma Bonding

Moving on from a trauma bond is not just about escaping the clutches of an abuser. It is about rediscovering and reclaiming yourself. With determination, support, and the right tools, you can overcome the cycle and head down a new, healthier path.

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