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  • Writer's pictureDove

Trauma Bonds - The Ties That Bind

Updated: Feb 17

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.  It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.  It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. - 1 Corinthians 13:4-7

In my post, Sympathy for the Devil - Trauma Bonding Explained  I addressed the origin of trauma bonds in childhood, how they affect attachment and the brain, and why adults who were abused as children are more likely to get into them. This article will focus on identifying trauma bonds and how to break them.

Is it Love or a Trauma Bond?

Are you in a healthy relationship with normal ups and downs or in a relationship that resembles love but is actually a trauma bond?

While no relationship is perfect, healthy relationships involve respect, honesty, trust, affection and communication. They are stable and dependable, and trust is established when partners treat each other well.

Healthy partners take responsibility when they have done something wrong and are able to apologize, acknowledging shortcomings while avoiding making excuses.

In a healthy partnership, one person's needs don't dominate the relationship. There isn't an unhealthy imbalance of power requiring you to give in and do things your partner's way just to keep the peace or to avoid arguments.

When each person does their best to make their partner feel loved and respected, that's generally a sign the relationship is healthy.

Cycles of Love/Cycles of Abuse

Trauma bonds are characterized by cycles of emotional or physical abuse followed by positive reinforcement. Leaving these relationships can be very hard, as it is difficult and confusing to process both the trauma and the abusers acts of love or kindness that follow afterward.

Most relationships start out with feelings of love, compassion and hope. In a trauma bonded relationship, abusive behaviors begin while the abusive partner continues to exhibit "good" behaviors too. This is known as Intermittent Reinforcement.

These "positive" behaviors can be affection, gifts, compliments or kind words. This pattern of cruel treatment mixed in with bursts of "good" behavior makes it hard to honor the impulse to leave when the abuse occurs.

Just like a gambler at a slot machine, victims are hooked to to play the relationship game for a "win" in the hopes the abuser may return to the honeymoon phase of the relationship.

These acts of "small kindnesses" are seen as a sign of hope that the abuser is not all bad and that change may be possible.

Symptoms of a Trauma Bond

The term trauma bond was coined by Patrick Carnes PhD, the author of the book The Betrayal Bond : Breaking Free of Exploitive Relationships . According to Dr. Carnes the following are symptoms of being in a trauma bonded relationship:

· When you obsess about people who have hurt you and they are long gone (obsess means to be preoccupied, fantasize about, and wonder about even though you do not want to)

· When you continue to seek contact with people whom you know will cause you further pain

· When you go “overboard” to help people who have been destructive to you

· When you continue being a “team” member when obviously things are becoming destructive

· When you continue attempts to get people to like you who are clearly using you

· When you trust people again and again who are proven to be unreliable

· When you are unable to retreat from unhealthy relationships

· When you want to be understood by those who clearly do not care

· When you choose to stay in conflict with others when it would cost you nothing to walk away

· When you persist in trying to convince people there is a problem and they won’t listen

· When you are loyal to people who have betrayed you

· When you are attracted to untrustworthy people

· When you keep damaging secrets about exploitation or abuse

· When you continue contact with an abuser who acknowledges no responsibility

How to Heal from a Trauma Bond

At the heart of a trauma bond lies power, control and a specific abuse cycle which oscillates between harm and acts of kindness.

Because people go to great lengths to reduce inconsistencies between their beliefs and experiences, victims choose to believe the kind version of the abuser is the authentic one.

As the abuse cycle continues, victims feel trapped in the relationship and experience complex and confusing emotions which can even include sympathy, affection and concern for the abuser.

The cycle of abuse/non-abuse is what fosters the trauma bond and makes it difficult, but not impossible to get away.

Recognize the Signs of Abuse

It's important to recognize the signs of abuse and understand how and why the abuser employs them in order to break free and begin to restore your own sense of self.

Stop Blaming Yourself

The abuse is not your fault. No matter what your partner tells you, you do not deserve it.

Get Support

Work with a mental health professional who specializes in abuse/trauma, or look for virtual or in-person groups for trauma bonding to get guidance and support.

Reduce or Cut off Contact

If possible reduce or cut off contact with the abuser. If you have children in common, you will likely need to have some contact. A therapist can help provide support and further skills in establishing and maintaining healthy boundaries.

Grieve the Loss

Allow yourself to grieve the loss of something important to you. Giving yourself the time to work through the hurt will help to process the pain of letting go of the future you imagined you would have together, and the good times that you did.

Resources for Help

If you need help recognizing abuse, leaving an abusive partner or healing from an abusive relationship these resources are a place to start:

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