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How to Recognize and Break Free From Trauma Bonds

Danielle Dahl, Lead Contributor

You can do it, and your life will be infinitely better when you do.

Trauma bonding refers to the attachment bond that is created through repeated abusive or traumatic childhood experiences with the caregiver, whereby this relationship pattern becomes internalized as a learned pattern of behavior for attachment (Carbone, 2019).

How to recognize the signs of toxic relationships

Trauma bonds form in any relationship and are hard to understand. It is much easier to see them happening from the outside looking in:

You start dating this AMAZING man. Like over the top amazing. It’s your third date, and he brings you flowers and takes you out to the most fantastic restaurant in town. The compliments abound, “how well you look together” or that “you are exactly what he has been searching for.” At the end of the night, you kiss him goodbye and say thanks for a romantic evening. 

How to Recognize and Break Free From Trauma Bonds

Your date leaves and doesn’t answer any texts from you for a week. You are left wondering what happened, was it something you said, something you did? You are about to give up when suddenly he texts you that he has missed you and he has just been busy with work and his friends all week. That was why he wanted to come back to your place, but you didn’t ask him too. 

Prince Charming’s lack of response was because he was in a meeting or doing something that he makes sound paramount to your feelings of confusion. It just so happens that he scored two tickets to that opera you mentioned you were dying to see, and it’s for tonight, so get dressed up. He shows up in a limo, and off you go for a beautiful night.

Fast forward a few years… You are married now, and your husband comes home with flowers and wine, but chastises you that dinner isn’t what he wanted, and you should know that. Why haven’t you been able to figure out to cook his weird favorite dish yet? Using his fists, he begs you to try harder, and he wouldn’t have to do this. When the bruises are gone, he whisks you off to Paris for a cooking class.

You haven’t noticed how everything he complimented you on or praised you for had something to do with HIM. He is always so incredible, and the times when he isn’t, well, they don’t happen all the time. And if you could just be better than they might not happen at all.

After all, he isn’t asking too much, is he? He loves you so much; your brain will remind you of everything he does for you, including how much attention and gifts you receive. Why can’t you just manage to be the person he asks? It is because you are stupid or worthless or incapable of doing things. And you can’t fault him for trying to help you be better. And the good times are just so damn good…

I hope you aren’t living that life, but if you are, please know that there are ways you can start freeing yourself. You might find yourself struggling to learn this because this scenario also sounds too familiar:

I am a little girl of about eight or so. My mom left me here with my grandma, and it’s been years since I saw my father. He didn’t have custody and took me away, and then didn’t give us back. Grandma filed kidnapping charges, and I was shuffled around different houses until the feds found me.

The kidnapping happened when I was five, and she tells me all the time how I came back, not trusting her, and treating her differently. Her rhetoric consistently illustrates what a terrible man my father was, and then almost immediately after, rattles off some reason I remind her of him. But then she hugs me and tells me how much she loves me.

Then its cleaning day and I’m supposed to help, but I didn’t make the bed right (she likes hospital corners), and the sink was still dirty. Why am I so lazy? If I “would pay attention,” she wouldn’t have to yell at me for doing a lousy job. I said something about how I did the best I could, and she backhanded me, cutting my lip in the process, for “talking back.” To this day, I remember those damn balloon sheets…because they symbolized how worthless I was at all the things. 

I was stupid and couldn’t do anything well enough for people to love me. I was useless and lazy; it was my fault that I couldn’t please her. I would be incapable of living in a clean house someday because I was a slob. But then we would go to Disney and have a magical day. She would show up to all my swim meets, and she never abandoned me, so I owe her my love and eternal gratitude. She stayed despite how inept and terrible a child I was.

Also check out these toxic relationship quotes that will encourage you to love yourself.

Recognizing trauma bonds is only half the battle

The definition given by Carbone is an excellent basis for understanding what a trauma bond is, but it makes “repeated abusive and traumatic childhood experiences” sound so clinical and cold. I am lucky that my husband is not like the man in the first scenario, and I’m grateful that I have never lived that in reality. 

However, the second scenario is just a snippet of my truth. Recognition was the more natural part of this process for me, but breaking free from the chafing ropes of this kind of love has been the challenge of a lifetime. I still, to this day, believe that interactions with my grandma can have a positive outcome. Today might be the day she understands, or apologizes, or doesn’t try to pile on the guilt. 

I cling to that glimmer of hope with the same white-knuckled grip that my brain uses to hold onto those Disney trip memories, all the while encouraging me to ignore all the rest of the memories trying to break free. The underlying reminder that she loved me when no one else could be bothered and that I should be thankful for it all, has me questioning my loyalty and ability to forgive. People tell me: “You don’t owe her and explanation” or “Just ignore her,” but they don’t understand why I can’t. It just isn’t that easy.

Break the ties that bind

It isn’t easy, but it is possible with these tools:

1. Please stop the self-blame. Your brain has been programmed this way and will believe what you continue to tell it. Deborah Horton, a licensed clinical professional counselor, shares that repetition and reinforcement are the keys to teaching your brain how to believe that you are not at fault.

2. Shift your perspective. According to Sheri Jacobsen, at Harley Counseling, “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.” I recently wrote a letter to my 40-year-old self and found it very enlightening. I think I might have to consider what eight year old me would say in these moments of doubt.

3. Make decisions that have your best interest at heart. This one is the most challenging for me because I like everyone to be happy with me. I don’t want to inconvenience anyone or cause them angst, so I put my own needs on the back burner and try and please others. Asking myself, “if this decision I am going to make is good for ME,” would likely help me navigate situations differently. 

4. Permit yourself to grieve. You are losing a person that you loved, and a person that loved you in their way, when you leave the shackles of trauma bonds behind. It is ok to be sad. It is more than ok; it’s critical, to grieve for the loss of the relationship. Sharie Stines, PsyD., acknowledges that this might be one of the hardest things you will ever do.

5. Feel your emotions and give them a name. This type of abuse can lead to emotional dysregulation, which leaves the survivor adrift in the sea of emotions, sometimes not even aware of which feeling they are experiencing. Just one more challenge to overcome, but mindfulness can help. Identifying your moods throughout the day will help you learn to feel what you are feeling and then handle it appropriately. 

“You can recognize survivors of abuse by their courage. When silence is so very inviting, they step forward and share their truth, so others know they aren’t alone.”–Jeanne McElvaney 

Please understand that you aren’t alone. You have people who love you and see your struggle and want to help you break free. Accept their help, create distance from your abuser, regardless of whether they are your spouse, parent, or sibling, and take care of you.

There are those of us who don’t know you personally, but we know you. And we will applaud your courage and add your voice to ours, drowning out anyone else’s who would encourage you to stay silent.

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