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Breaking Free: A Guide to Dissolving Trauma Bonds and Rediscovering Yourself

Updated: Jan 28

It’s fascinating to observe how trends influence everything nowadays. The world is so global and new media so powerful that an institution as old the Oxford University Press, the world’s second-oldest academic press and the publisher of the Oxford English Dictionary, gets influenced by social trends too. The word “rizz” for instance, won the word of the year in 2023. “Gaslighting” is already there, but “trauma bond” hasn’t made it yet. I wonder how long will it take.

Patrick J. Carnes seems to be the pioneer coining the term “trauma-bond” at the close of the 20th century when he identified nine predominant ways trauma lingers over time: Trauma-reaction; Trauma-arousal; Trauma-pleasure; Trauma-blocking; Trauma-splitting; Trauma-abstinence; Trauma-shame; Trauma-repetition; and Trauma-bonds. Among them, the “trauma bond” was described as a “dysfunctional attachment that forms in the presence of danger, shame, or exploitation.” Subsequently, various psychologists and researchers have explored this concept, leading to diverse applications.

In the absence of an official definition, interpretations of “trauma bond” vary. Some associate it with the bond that people with similar traumas develop. I like exploring the concept within the context of an abusive relationship, where the abused person, ignoring their own suffering, feels compelled to continue working on the relationship, on the betterment of the abuser, in all the reasons it’s worth staying connected and together.

You can read my article on differentiating trauma bonding from codependency, titled “The Telltale Signs of Codependency and Trauma Bonding.” Today, I aim to share insights on dissolving a trauma bond.

Often, those trapped in a trauma bond may not recognize the abusive and detrimental nature of their relationship. Hence, dissolving this dysfunctional bond might not be recognized as a need or a priority even when crucial. Recognizing markers like attempting to change the other person continuously, losing one’s identity within the relationship, and struggling to set healthy boundaries are crucial steps in this process.

Here’s a quote from a client, depicting the mindset of someone trapped in a trauma bond:

“When I would imagine leaving them or contemplate taking any action, I would be filled with thoughts of how what I was thinking about doing would affect them, as opposed to how it might satisfy a wish of my own.”

Once the recognition sets in, the need to dissolve the trauma bond becomes paramount both by definition and necessity. Many find themselves trapped due to a stubborn determination to make it work and an unwavering confidence they won’t be defeated. Committing to letting go of the relationship can help overcome the initial obstacle. You may not leave the relationship outright, but you need to release the reasons that have kept you in an unhealthy dynamic. These are some of the steps:

Educating yourself about this phenomenon could empower and help you to understand patterns, dynamics, and the abuse impact on your well-being. Professional therapy, if affordable, could provides a safe space for validation, insight, and guidance. However, if therapy is out of reach, alternative paths exist. Not reaching out for help using all sorts of excuses is often a sign of avoidance and lack of confidence, traits that were involved in the development of the trauma bond in the first place. So, remove those mental blockages and use your proven determination and resilience to start the process of moving on with your life.

Redirecting your attention from the abuser to yourself is crucial. It’s just too common to think and speak about them and not about oneself. “They say…. They never... If they knew…They always…” Catch yourself doing that and reflect instead on your personal needs, values, and identity independently of the trauma bond or the psychological influence that the abuser has had on you. Recovering oneself is challenging due to the blurred boundary between where they end and you begin, but it’s possible. It’s common for the abused to think and act based on the abuser’s thoughts, needs, wants, and mandates and that needs to change.

“For so long, I felt responsible for her emotional storms. Now, I’m realizing that I am not her emotional anchor. I am not the one who can ‘fix’ everything. And that’s okay. It’s not my burden to carry.”

For support, cultivating a network of friends, family, or support groups is vital. Not only can they understand your experiences, but they can also encourage your decisions during the healing process. You may need to find ways to recover independence, agency, stability, and means that could help you leave if that is what proceeds. Recovering independence and stability may require reclaiming autonomy, focusing on personal growth, and pursuing individual interests.

“I used to believe that this was the only way love could be — intense, chaotic, and all-consuming. But what I’m learning now is that love can be stable, comforting, and supportive. I deserve that. I don’t need to constantly sacrifice my own well-being for the sake of someone else’s emotional roller coaster.”

Testing distorted thoughts and beliefs arising from the trauma bond, the abuse, and the numbing of emotions and awareness, is a significant challenge. You may have become absent, distracted, unresponsive to provocations and insults, and many other actions which could indicate some level of dissociation. Regaining awareness of your body and emotions weakens the bond.

Drawing boundaries is an indispensable and laborious endeavor for trauma-bonded individuals, as understanding them may pose a significant challenge. Attempting to set boundaries can evoke feelings of guilt and anxiety, underscoring the difficulty of the task. This process may entail limiting or ending contact in cases where the relationship is toxic or harmful, or can include saying no to what you have always agreed on. I find useful to set reminders of dysfunctional dynamics, such as pictures, songs, or phrases, that can serve as anchors to a place of strength and the firm declaration of “no more” for the abused. I like this quote from a client that painted her emotions while drawing boundaries:

“Initially, establishing boundaries was like painting over chaos with clashing colors, disharmonious against the familiar din. Each line drawn was a defiant act, a declaration of my worth, yet laced with fear. But with each brushstroke, I came to realize I was crafting something extraordinary — a masterpiece of resilience, self-respect, and a resounding “no” to the toxic patterns that once held me captive.”

Re-evaluate your story. Often, individuals in such bonds take pride in their values, a significant factor in enduring the situation beyond the appropriate time. To break free, there’s a need to reassess and redefine these beliefs and values. For instance, kindness, which you may hold dear, should be acknowledged as an unhealthy tendency to endure more than neccesary. Redefine it as your natural inclination to tolerance and forgiveness. This doesn’t imply ceasing to be kind but understanding the limits and aligning it with self-preservation.

Recognizing losses associated with the bond is a crucial step in the healing process. Allow yourself to grieve unmet needs, shattered expectations, and the impact on your sense of self. This step is essential before you can achieve acceptance.

“I realize that I had to exercise so much self-control and filtering that it made me feel dead. Now I feel that coming back would be killing myself at a metaphorical level because staying had already killed part of who I used to be.”

Connect with your own heart and protect it rather than keeping it open indiscriminately or shutting it down. Living with your heart wide open may have become a norm, a way to sustain the bond, but it also exposes you to potential hurt and exploitation. Recognize the immense value that your heart and loving actions hold, and care for them without fear. Dissolving the bond to the abuser involves acknowledging your self-worth and transferring the care to yourself. If you value yourself, the process of breaking free gains strength and you can love yourself for once.

Dissolving the trauma bond will grant you newfound freedom and hope. The shadows will recede, allowing you to step into the light of self-discovery and envision a future free from the unpredictable emotional landscape you once endured.

If you want to learn more about the consequences of abuse, read chapter 6 of my book Traumatization and Its Aftermath

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