How you break a trauma bond depends entirely on your personal circumstances as there are so many relational contexts in which they can present.
Trauma bonds are incredibly difficult to navigate as they can hold the individual as an emotional hostage far beyond the time when they should have left a relationship.
They can keep one or more victims locked in a cycle of continued abuse and codependency in a heightened and extreme expression of an insecure attachment style.
It can prevent the victim of abuse in the situation from ever truly moving on and create even deeper levels of hurt, which, over time, can lead to complex trauma.
Because such a strong emotional connection has been developed between the abuser and victim, through positive reinforcement after the episodes of abuse, it creates a distorted version of reality.
This emotional connection can make breaking the trauma bond extremely challenging, especially in cases with excessive manipulation.
What are the 3 Signs of a Trauma Bond?
Trauma bonds can be difficult to recognise because, at their core, there is still an emotional exchange play; albeit, one that’s rooted in an unhealthy attachment to the other person. Here are some of the common signs that may indicate you’re experiencing trauma bond:
1. The Relationship Is Built On Suppressing Your Needs: Any time you try and assert a reasonable amount of agency or independence in a relationship, your needs are dismissed as selfish and/or demanding. There may also be a sense of reversal, obligating you to meet their needs more often.
2. There Is A Constant State Of Ideation And Devaluation: This and be the case in relationships with individuals who suffer from borderline personality disorder (BPD). There may be moments of strong emotional highs followed by crushing lows when you don’t measure up to expectations.
3. You Are Constantly In A Hyper-Vigilant State: In a healthy connection, there will be mutual support. But when there is the constant threat of a sudden change in the dynamic, it can lead to constantly walking on eggshells and an insecure attachment through hyper-vigilance.
What Are The 7 Stages Of Trauma Bonding?
Part of the difficulty in understanding a trauma bond relationship is being able to recognise the stages and how they play out. Trauma bonds can be complex psychological processes with very nuanced dynamics. Here is an example of a model to help bring clarity:
1. Ideation (Charm Stage): At the outset of the relationship, the abuser with often lavish their partner with praise, drawing the victim into a strong emotional bond, creating dependency and loyalty.
2. Devaluation: (Abuse Stage): After the honeymoon period, the abuser will begin to exhibit abusive behaviours, often leaving the victim shocked and confused but willing to “work things out.”
3. Gaslighting (Guilt Stage): Following the abusive episode, the abuser may attempt to alleviate themselves of guilt by projecting onto their victim through shame, blame and guilt.
4. Justification (Excuse Stage): Both the abuser and the victim may attempt to rationalise the behaviour in order to preserve the emotional – trauma – bond by each blaming themselves.
5. Normalisation (Reset Stage): There may be another period of calm, and perhaps another honeymoon stage, as the victim may feel their way back into the emotional bond of ideation.
6. Romanticism (Fantasy Stage): There may now be a perception that the abuse is over and this is the start of a new beginning or a normal and healthy relationship.
7. Repetition (Reset Stage): The abuser may then revert back to their toxic behaviours, causing the cycle to repeat itself, reinforcing the trauma bond.
How to Break a Trauma Bond
Breaking a trauma bond can be difficult because of the way love is weaponised and used as a carrot to push the victim into lowering their standards. But it is possible. Here’s a step-by-step guide that will help you navigate the process:
Recognise The Trauma Bond: You can’t work with or overcome what you can’t yet see. And so, the first step in any form of recovery from a trauma bond is the recognition that you are in fact being abused. There can be a lot of ego resistance here because no one likes to feel like they’ve been taken advantage of, but it’s only through recognition that true independence can be reclaimed.
Rationalise The Trauma Bond: One of the biggest parts of any trauma bond relationship is the shame, blame and guilt of gaslighting, understanding that you were, in fact, a victim is core-vital. Despite the presence of self-shame, blame, and guilt, it’s important to recognise that these are programs that were projected onto you but do not reflect who you are in reality.
No Contact/Low-Contact: There needs to be space in order to heal. Ideally, there would be no contact with the abuser, as there is the potential for triggering and re-traumatising with continual contact in a recovery phase. However, this isn’t always possible in some dynamics. So limiting contact and creating firm boundaries will help create the emotional distancing necessary.
Develop A Support Network: Living within a trauma bond relationship can create a dissolution of trust. So it’s vital to have people in your community who will be able to help you rebuild that trust in healthy, secure relationships. Ones that honour your true value and recognise you for who you are without placing expectations are obligations on you.
Work On Rebuilding Self-Esteem: Because of the continual ideation and evaluation, there may be self-esteem issues that also need to be overcome. Engaging in activities you love, that ignite your passion and are reflective of your true personality will help you anchor back into your true sense of self. These may be things that you were denied or talked out of in your trauma bond relationship.
How to Break a Trauma Bond after a Romantic Breakup
The break up of relationships are always both hard mentally and emotionally – especially long-term. When there is a trauma bond involved, it only adds to the sense of confusion, resentment and grief that can be felt. Here are some steps you can take to help navigate the situation:
1. Establish New Routines: If you remain in the same/old routines as you did with your ex-partner, there is a chance that you may be triggered or traumatised by the relationship.
2. Seek Professional Help: If you’re having difficulty processing the emotional pain and withdrawal symptoms, seeking professional help can help make the transition easier.
3. Practice Self-Affirmations: Practising positive affirmations beginning with “I AM,” can be a powerful way to remind yourself of your self-worth and why you left the relationship.
4. Cultivate Independence: Ask yourself, “What do I actually want to do? What needs do I have that I’ve gone unmet in this relationship?” Challenge yourself to rediscover your “why” for living.
5. Rebuild Your Social Network: Focus on developing healthy relationships with those people who you may not have been spending as much time with due to your past relationship.
6. Open Up: You could share your experiences with trusted friends and family or support groups. Receiving validation of your experience can help alleviate any feelings of shame or guilt.
7. Acknowledge Your New Reality: It can be disorienting in the midst of a break-up rooted in a trauma bond. Let go of the old illusions and focus on living in the present moment.
How To Break A Trauma Bond With A Narcissist
Breaking a trauma bond with a narcissist can be especially challenging due to their manipulative behaviour. It might take several attempts to break the bond due to being lured back in with the promise of change. Here’s how you can see past their manipulation:
1. See Past the Gaslighting: The difficulty in breaking a trauma bond with a narcissist is rooted in the fact that you will be questioning your very reality. Your feelings will be weaponised against you. They are not your enemy. Trust yourself. Your feelings are valid.
2. See Beyond the Charm: The charm and charisma of the narcissist are really just a mechanic of manipulation as opposed to genuine affection. It’s a fundamental part of how they are able to continue their abusive behaviour. Keep this in mind when they try to sway you back.
3. Understand Intermittent Reinforcement: This is the delivery of a reward after irregular intervals. This can look like intense bouts of ideation followed by love bombing. Understanding this pattern will help you resist being drawn back into the relationship and narcissistic abuse.
4. Don’t Seek Closure from the Narcissist: Seeking any kind of validation or closure from a narcissist will open you up to more gaslighting and manipulative tactics. Seek closure from within yourself or with the help of a trusted friend or therapist.
5. Develop Defence Against Manipulation: It can help to educate yourself on various manipulation tactics by reading over personal anecdotes and accounts of people who have experienced narcissism online. You can help break the trauma bond by reading other people’s stories.
How To Break A Trauma Bond With Someone Who Is Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD)
Trauma bonds involving someone who has been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (BPD) can be uniquely challenging due to their emotional instability often rooted in complex trauma. This can lead to a push-and-pull dynamic that keeps a relationship going past the point at which it should’ve ended. Here are some practical steps to help navigate this type of trauma bond:
1. Understand Their Fear of Abandonment: Individuals with BPD often grow up in an environment where their emotional needs were never met. And so, this creates an intense fear of abandonment in adulthood. Understanding this can help you respond without guilt or obligation.
2. Establish Clear Boundaries: Because of the tendency to lean into an anxious attachment style, it can be necessary to establish and maintain firm boundaries when breaking a BPD trauma bond. Even though it might feel mean-spirited, it’s necessary for creating space to heal.
3. Stay Calm Amidst Impulsive Behaviour: Being aware of the push and pull dynamic between yourself and the individual with BPD is important in understanding the nature of their impulsive behaviour. This can prevent you from being pulled back into the relationship through ideation.
4. Cultivate Your Identity Outside of the Relationship: As there can be so much demand placed on someone in a BPD relationship, there can be a loss of identity. This over-identification of the relationship can make it hard to break the trauma bond and fully move on.
5. Seek Help if Threats Occur: If the individual BPD threatens self-harm or suicide in order to bring you back, seek professional help. And you shouldn’t feel obligated to be with someone if it’s your choice not to be. And it can be dangerous to handle the situation alone without support.
How To Break A Trauma Bond With A Parent
Given how deeply ingrained relationships are with parents of primary caregivers, there is a unique set of challenges that comes with breaking these trauma bonds.
They can be the hardest to break because they are blood relations.
1. Recognise Why the Relationship Isn’t Working: There is a potential to remain in a trauma bond with a parental figure because of the fear of not having any parental figures in your life. It’s important to recognise the “why” of the situation and the cycle of abuse that’s taken root.
2. Challenge Societal Expectations: Another potential challenge is feeling obligated to remain attached to abusive parents simply because they are your parent. But the societal expectations do not take into account your own personal needs. You have a right to feel safe.
3. Manage Guilt and Fear: Because of the sense of obligation and societal/cultural expectations, there can be a huge grieving process to be moved through with potential guilt, also. This is entirely normal and shouldn’t interfere with what is the right choice for your long-term safety.
4. Work Toward Financial Independence: If there is a shared living situation involved which also includes financial dependency, it can help to start exploring options to become more independent. Finances should never be a consideration when looking after your own needs.
5. Find a Proper Support Network: There may be some scepticism from people who you reach out to due to the nature of the relationship. It’s important to find an appropriate and compassionate person or group who understands the complexity of the trauma bond you’re trying to break.
A Closer Look at Trauma Bond Withdrawal Symptoms
When trying to break a trauma bond, they can often be withdrawal symptoms that can affect the physical, mental and emotional states of being. Here’s how they might present:
- Changes in sleeping patterns, including insomnia.
- Changes in appetite, either loss of appetite or overeating.
- Physical discomfort or pain, similar to drug withdrawal symptoms.
- Restlessness or feelings of being on edge.
- Intense cravings for the toxic ex-partner,
- Feelings of guilt, confusion, and confliction.
- Experiencing loneliness and fear
- Feelings of emptiness and loss/grieving
- Compulsive thoughts about the relationship
- Increased anxiety and potential panic attacks.
- Episodes of depression or persistent low mood.
- Flashbacks to some of the worst moments of abuse
How to Break a Trauma Bond with Therapy
There are many evidence-based therapeutic approaches that have been proven to be highly effective in breaking trauma bonds. Each therapeutic model focuses on a distinct aspect of trauma bonding in recovery, catering to individual needs of circumstances. Here are some options you might consider:
Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT): CBT is extremely useful in helping individuals rationalise the trauma bond changing their dysfunctional patterns. Its effectiveness lies in the support it provides in addressing the status of perceptions and beliefs about the nature of the abuse.
Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT): DBT is beneficial in helping deal with the emotional dysfunction associated with trauma bonds. It teaches coping mechanisms such as mindfulness, emotional regulation, distress tolerance and interpersonal effectiveness.
Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR): EMDR is a unique therapy model designed to alleviate the distress associated with traumatic memories. It can be very effective in helping individuals dissociate painful emotions from traumatic events.
Exposure Therapy: The goal of exposure therapy is to encourage individuals to confront their trauma in a safe, controlled environment. This helps to reduce the fear and anxiety linked to the traumatic memories while still empowering them.
Group Therapy: Group therapy can provide a safe, structured and supportive environment for individuals who have faced similar challenges. This allows participants to provide support and feedback from different perspectives to one another.