What Is Trauma-Bonding & How You Can Recover From It

Annie Gurton

Relationship Therapist

So, your partner turned out to be a sh*t …..

Abusive relationships look a lot different from the inside. Outsiders may see someone being humiliated and degraded, but when you’re the abused partner it feels like you are getting what you deserve, and you’re lucky to have anyone. This effect is called ‘trauma bonding’ and happens when someone who had an abusive or in some ways difficult childhood meets someone who feels a need to be in control and powerful.

We are all seeking a connected relationship, and people who have mental health issues such as sociopaths and narcissists are doing the best they know how to maintain connection with the person that has come into their world. They are often intuitively seeking out someone who is vulnerable, and are excellent at offering exactly what is needed by that person. But because the abusers are deeply damaged they are incapable of having a normal secure relationship and tolerating routine tussles and ups and downs. Their fear of being alone turns them into secret -monsters, able to disguise themselves so that they can lure their next victim into their web.

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At first the relationship is wonderful, in fact, is almost too good to be true, which, of course, it is. Your new partner seems to meet all your needs and wishes, and appears charming, worldly and wise. They are kind, thoughtful, and almost uncannily good at anticipating your needs. Before you know it you are sucked into a dependency that appears to be serving you but actually is toxic.

The toxicity becomes clear when the abuse begins, however subtle that may be. Financial abuse, emotional abuse and physical abuse can gradually creep up on you – in fact many people are currently in abusive relationships without realising it. The perpetrators are clever, mixing up humiliation with flattery, emotional pain with intimacy and periods of calm.

If you are lucky you wake up from the trance before too much damage is done. But some people are lured along for years, all the time getting more damaged themselves. Feelings that are called love keep the victims from leaving, believing the lies and half-truths and ignoring that they are not flourishing or growing.

After the end, and if they are lucky to get out before they are completely destroyed, you will hear them say, ‘I don’t know what I was thinking,’ or, ‘I thought he/she loved me, but they only really loved themselves.’

If this has happened to you, don’t feel bad. Firstly, you are not alone – this happens to many people and can be regarded as part of your journey towards understanding yourself better. Secondly, these abusers are often not aware of what they are doing, they are sad, damaged souls only trying to stay connected. But now is not the time for pity for them.

Once you realise that you are bonded into a relationship, which is not serving you, getting out gracefully and without creating an enemy can be tricky. Its important not to hurt or humiliate them or you may find yourself being stalked.

Once out, distance is important. Make sure that you are not going to bump into them, and avoid contact with any shared friends. Keep busy so you don’t think about them and get tempted to resume the relationship. You deserve better. Keep telling yourself that, and something better will come along.

Carry out a spring-clean of your contacts and activities. Now is the time to resume contact with old friends you haven’t seen for a while, especially those you know make you feel good.

It’s important to get real. While you are living in an abusive trauma bonded relationship you can tell yourself all kinds of untruths such as you are lucky to have this person, and fantasise about how good the relationship is going to be one day. If it’s bad now, it’s not going to get any better.

Do a self-appraisal on how you are really feeling.

Don’t allow your hopes and dreams for this relationship overshadow the truth of how low your self-esteem has sunk, and how unloved you really feel. When we compromise our values and self-respect for someone who is, essentially, treating you badly and undermining you, there is a long term drip-drip effect which wears away at us. A good relationship will constantly be building you up, encouraging you to reveal more of yourself, and rewarding you with mutual intimacy. It will give you a constant warm glow, not intermittent good feelings interspersed with self-loathing and self-criticism.

Invest and build your self-care.

One you become aware of the negative power and accept the toxicity of this relationship, start to reach out to people who are good for you, do things you know make you feel better and avoid those that are damaging. Treat yourself kindly – there is no sense in giving yourself a hard time for the choice you made, it was done with the best of intentions and in innocence. Ensure that your self-talk is compassionate and not harsh, kind and not critical. We all make mistakes, and with luck you will learn from this one. Make sure you get enough sleep and be gentle with yourself – no self-harm from over-exercise.

Letting go of a toxic relationship can be surprisingly hard.

Even if you know its bad for you, it can still hold you close and want you to boomerang back time and again. You will need to let go of the aspects that were positive for you. This can be hard, but you need to hold firm. Letting go of the good aspects can lead to grieving, but time will do its work and as there is more distance between you, it will become easier.

See a therapist.

This relationship may be a great opportunity for self-understanding and a good time to start with a mature therapist who can help you self-examine. Expect the work to take 6 – 12 months, but persevere with the painful soul-searching so that the toxic relationship can turn into something of value. The best therapist to choose is one who is easy to get to.

Rebuilding yourself will take time and don’t beat yourself up if you get blue and lonely. These feelings are part of the process, but if you have found a good therapist they will help you make sense of it all.

Set out to rebuild your life the way you want it to be.

Choose healthy activities, seek out new friends, find new activities. I know that sounds hugely easier than it is, but if this is your intention, and you know that you have a lot to offer as a friend and a lover, good things will start to come your way.

Good luck.


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