A trauma bond is a strong, emotional attachment that develops between a survivor of prolonged abuse and the perpetrator of abuse. It can be hard to break a trauma bond due to the intensity of the attachment, but there are multiple ways to heal and move on from a trauma-bonded relationship.
Here are 13 steps from a therapist to help you break a trauma bond:
1. Find Resources Around You
If you are in an abusive situation and need help getting out, there is no shame in doing so. There are many resources available that can help you heal from trauma and move forward eventually, as well as therapy support. Connect with trusted friends and loved ones to help you escape the volatile relationship to safety.
Many domestic-violence shelters and organizations give victims access to legal support, therapy, childcare, healthcare, employment support, educational services, and financial assistance. Your information will remain private and protected, as shelters are aware that abusers oftentimes search for their escaped victims.
The following are helpful additional resources for anyone impacted by a cycle of abuse:
- US Dept. of Health and Human Services – Resources by State on Violence Against Women
- National Domestic Violence Hotline
- CDC: Support for People Experiencing Abuse
2. Communicate Your Needs Clearly & Assertively
It’s important to learn how to set firm boundaries in all relationships so that you can communicate your needs clearly and assertively in relationships. Remember that boundaries are there to help you keep people around in healthy ways. Boundaries can look different for everyone and can be about virtually anything, which can mean that the other person may push back and test these limits, especially in trauma bond relationships. However, if someone disrespects a boundary you have established to protect yourself, gets angry and attacks, or threatens to leave, it can be indicative of a deeper issue.
Sometimes, what starts as a conversation where you communicate your needs can become dangerous if your partner has the potential to become violent. If this is the case, make sure you create a safety plan to ensure that, if there is a worst-case scenario, you are able to make it to safety.
3. Disengage & Retract From the Situation
While it may seem counterintuitive to solving the problem, it may be useful for you to disengage and remove yourself from the situation, especially if it has the potential to become dangerous. In this situation, disengaging and retracting can be very helpful for you long-term to help mitigate the heightened emotions associated with a trauma bond. If you find yourself wanting to soothe your partner in this situation, it may be a sign that you are in a trauma bond or a dependent relationship, and you should allow your partner–and yourself–to self-soothe.
4. Face Your Feelings
When you are in a dependent or trauma bonded relationship, it can become normal for you to push your negative feelings aside to resolve conflicts and appease your partner. Don’t try to run or avoid your feelings, rather try to identify them in the moment and take steps to address them immediately. By acknowledging your feelings, you are showing that you recognize and care about the way the dynamics in your trauma bond impact your emotions and mood.
Once you identify your feelings and accept them, you can begin to work towards moving forward for yourself. It can be hard to move on from a trauma bond right away, but allowing yourself to feel your feelings will give a clearer picture of the impact of the relationship, and may motivate you to put yourself first.
5. Validate Yourself
Validating yourself is an important step to building your self-confidence and giving you the strength to rely on your own emotions.1 Once you’ve identified your feelings, it is equally as important that you validate them.
The most important way to validate your emotions is to develop positive self-talk. Talking to yourself with love and encouragement, as you would speak to someone you deeply care about, is the best way to validate yourself. This can work in the moment and as a long-term coping strategy. You can also develop other ways to validate your emotions–whether that is finding a creative outlet or a strong social support system, it’s important for you to make sure you are on your own side.
6. Talk to a Professional
Therapy is effective for dealing with the stress associated with relationship issues and moving towards healing. Having a safe space to explore relationship conflicts and uncover the deeper meaning behind them can be very empowering. Identifying the root cause of an issue or feeling is the first step towards recovery and moving forward from a trauma bond.
One simple way to find a therapist that specializes in trauma-bond relationships is by searching an online therapist directory. Reading reviews and looking at clinician bios to understand their scope of practice can give you an idea of whether their experience suits your situation. Many therapists offer a free phone consultation and virtual/teletherapy visits, both of which allow people an opportunity to get help during the pandemic.
Another way to locate a therapist is by referral, which typically comes from a physician or trusted loved one. Healthcare providers often have access to a network of other providers, so going through your physician or specialist is the best way to keep them in the loop about any treatment options or trauma experienced in the relationship.
7. Keep a Journal
Journaling allows you to identify, express, and process what and how you are feeling about the stressors in your life without any judgment. You can pour your emotions onto a blank page and unload your fear, anxiety, or depression from your mind and heart. Journaling for your mental health allows you to keep a record of your reactions and healing progress, reflect on the stages of trauma bonding, and find opportunities for emotional growth over time.
8. Take Time to Grieve What You Lost
Grief and loss are part of the human experience when you let something go, and it is important that you take time to process your emotions as they emerge. If you’re grieving the loss of a trauma bonded relationship, it can lead to the more complicated experience of traumatic grief. However, allowing yourself time to grieve and process these emotions may also give you a better perspective, as well as strength and drive to address any kind of negative feelings holding you back.
9. Put Your Energy Into a Passion Project
Putting energy into projects, causes, or activities that we love and care about can be a great way to stimulate the release of oxytocin, a neurotransmitter associated with positive, happy emotions–even if you don’t feel it right away. Remembering and partaking in the activities that bring you joy is a good way to attempt to feel positive emotions again. This strategy can also help you develop a stronger sense of identity, self-esteem and self-worth.
10. Prioritize Yourself
Try to stay focused on yourself and your feelings when you are dealing with heavy situations and emotions. When in a trauma bond, it can be easy for the survivor of abuse to set aside their feelings to comfort their partner, but it is important to recognize that your feelings are just as important and prioritize them.
If you are feeling overwhelmed, or if you have difficulties prioritizing yourself as you begin the process of moving on, allow yourself some grace and patience in the moment. Staying focused on your wellbeing and what you can control will help you feel more empowered.
11. Practice Yoga
Yoga is a widely recommended relaxation technique for anxiety, as it combines the benefits of moving your body with mindfulness, guided meditations, and breathing techniques. The goal with yoga is to find internal and external balance, and when finding equilibrium is at the center of your mind, it becomes much easier to process stressful emotions to get to that goal.
There are many guided yoga meditations, books and resources, and assisted classes that can help restore this missing balance.3
12. Don’t Blame Yourself
While it’s important to allow yourself to feel your feelings, you should not blame yourself for being in a trauma bond, or for having strong feelings towards your significant other in a trauma bond relationship, especially if there was abuse. Let go of the negative self-talk and speak to yourself the way you would to a loved one who went through the same thing. Blaming yourself can leave you feeling more guilt and shame, which can set back your progress in moving on, and perpetuates victim blaming in abusive situations.
13. Stop Thinking About What ‘Could Have Happened’
If you were on the other end of a trauma bond, or abuse of any kind, it can be normal to think about what “could have happened” if you had done things differently in the relationship, but this is actually counterintuitive to the mindset of moving on.
Most victims of abusive relationships can sometimes blame themselves for not leaving sooner or fighting back. While some people would say that these options are always available, this is not always the case when you are a victim of emotional or physical abuse. You cannot go back in time, so it can be counterproductive to spend your time thinking about what could have happened if you had acted differently sooner, or if you had stayed in the relationship longer.
Thinking about what you could do now, when you have power to take action to move forward, is a more helpful, positive way to reframe this thought. Although you cannot change your past, you can focus on living life with intentions and spending time with people who truly care for your wellbeing.
If you are dealing with issues or abuse in your relationship and think you may be in a trauma bond, know that it is possible to learn how to break out of it. Working with a therapist and reaching out to your support system can make a big difference in how you feel and what you can do next.