Breaking Free from Trauma Bonds

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While it’s becoming the norm in society to hide our inner demons, everyone has trauma at varying degrees. It’s in your refusal to heal your trauma that forces you to attract what you’re running away from & repeat your toxic cycles until you finally learn from your past, do your inner shadow work, & heal from your suffering. Personally, it took me a long time to heal from my childhood trauma of my mom & sister “abandoning” me & giving all of their attention & love to my younger brother. That’s why I have a history of attracting emotionally unavailable men & being a bully to their new love interests in hopes of ruining the connection as well as taking back the love that was originally mine. Trauma bonding is created through intense emotional ups & downs that cause an overexposure of hormones in a victim’s brain similar to addiction, bonding them to their abuser. Today, I’m going to reflect on my past trauma bonds & share some advice to help set you free.

Trauma bonds can be created with anyone in your life. It could be through emotional abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, or even threats of abandonment. It involves feeling emotionally attached & unable to walk away from individuals who can hinder your livelihood, including your ability to find a place to live, support yourself, & prevent you from seeing your children, pets, or other loved ones. In the past, I was addicted to men who would abandon me then suddenly come back into my life promising to stay, not cheat on me, & give me the love & attention that I deserved. It’s through repeated cycles of abuse & devaluation followed by love bombing with positive reinforcement that this type of emotional attachment is created.

Over time, victims grow to associate love with abuse. In the past, I looked for validation to prove that I was worthy & deserving of love. I convinced myself that if I could make an emotionally unavailable man commit & fall in love with me then I’d finally be happy. The trauma from abuse creates powerful feelings that you may struggle to make sense of throughout your lifetime, especially since the abuse is followed by a period of compassion, kindness, intimacy, & adoration. While it’s natural to develop a bond with someone who treats you with care & kindness, even abusive relationships can begin with an endless shower of affection & promises of unconditional love. Then once you’re already committed & devoted to this person, they show their true colors. The key indicator that you’re actually trauma bonded to someone is that no matter how long you’ve been together & tried to work through your issues, abuse still consistently exists within your relationship dynamic. Even if your loved one no longer hits you or cheats on you, they may have altered their abusive tactics over time to more affective & less obvious forms of abuse, such as manipulation, guilt tripping, or putting you down.

My exes would ghost me for days, weeks, or months, or they’d vaguely break up with me so that they could sleep with whomever they wanted without feeling guilty. Because they knew that no matter how terribly they treated me, I would always still be there, waiting for them to come back with my arms wide open & my heart on a silver platter. Deep down, you know that you’re being mentally abused & manipulated when you’re given empty apologies without thorough changed behavior. When you’re so accustomed to this cycle of abuse & intimacy, you fool yourself into thinking that this is what love is supposed to feel like. Instead of recognizing the red flags, victims grow to expect unhealthy relationship behaviors, thinking “my partner never cheats on me, hits me, verbally puts me down, or threatens to break up with me, so that must mean that they don’t love me.”

Unconditional love involves loving & accepting a person for being exactly who they are & the choices that they make, but that does not involve tolerating abuse, disrespect, or neglect. Someone who truly loves you would not allow anyone to hurt you, & they especially wouldn’t proactively choose to hurt you themselves. Learn to recognize when someone you love is abusive then decide to walk away for good for your own mental health & safety.

It’s in the endless cycles of apologies, gifts, & love-fueled promises that confuses victims in hopes that their partner has made a permanent change of behavior until it starts all over again. Hormones play a huge role in trauma bonding too. Gifts, apologies, & physical intimacy produce adrenaline, cortisol, dopamine, & oxytocin. These feel-good hormones create a false sense of excitement, love, passion, & pleasure. This causes you to want to keep making your abuser happy so that you continue to get that rush of dopamine, oxytocin, etc. because you’ve become so accustomed & addicted to it. 

It’s as if this individual controls you to the point where you don’t know how to resist or break free anymore. And if you do manage to leave, you may feel incomplete or lost without them. Victims often choose to go back, because this abusive cycle is the only type of love they’ve ever known. It feels comfortable & familiar, so despite their better judgment, they don’t know how to live without it.

Other signs of trauma bonding include:

  • Being unhappy & not liking your partner anymore, but still staying, because you’re unable to end things.
  • When you try to leave or consider leaving, you feel physically & emotionally sick.
  • When expressing that you want to leave, your abuser cries & promises to change without actually changing.
  • You only remember the “good” days, & use them as proof that they do truly care about you, blocking out the rest.
  • You make excuses & defend their abusive behaviors when others express concern for your well-being.
  • You continue to trust them & hope to change them with no progress.
  • You willingly protect them by keeping their abusive behavior toward you or others a secret.

If you or someone you know is in a relationship bonded by trauma, here’s how to help & break free:

  • Keep a journal
    • If you need evidence of the cycle of abuse, write down things that happen each day to help you identify patterns & notice abusive behavior that may have not seemed abusive at the moment.
    • When you’ve confirmed that abuse did occur, note what happened & whether your partner said anything afterward to excuse their behavior.
  • Consider the relationship from a different perspective
    • If someone else you know & love were in your shoes, what advice would you give them? Would you tell them to leave that relationship? If so, you’re probably trauma bonded to your partner.
  • Talk to loved ones that you trust
    • While it’s not easy to open up about abuse & you may have gotten angry or brushed off friends & family when they expressed concern in the past, your loved ones can offer a unique perspective. Listen & make an effort to consider the accuracy of an outside perspective.
  • Avoid self-blame
    • Regardless of the past, the abuse was NEVER your fault. Despite what you may or may not have done, how deeply you fear loneliness or a life without them, or how many times you’ve gone back to them, you do deserve better.
  • Cut off contact completely
    • Once you decide to leave, stop repeating the toxic cycle of abuse by stopping all communication.
    • If you co-parent or have shared pets, establish a plan to maintain only necessary contact.
    • Create physical distance by finding a new safe place to stay, if you live together.
    • Block them on social media, & consider changing your phone number, email address, etc., if necessary.
    • If they continue to insist that they’ll change, by going to therapy or doing anything you need, as long as you just come back, remind yourself of how many times they’ve already promised to change without actually changing. If you’ve already repeated a toxic cycle with them three or more times, don’t fool yourself into thinking, the “umpteenth” time is the charm.
  • If you have no resources, call a Domestic Violence Hotline, especially if your relationship is violent. If you’re not in the United States, feel free to google a local hotline that you can reach out to for help.

I personally hate the saying “If you can’t handle me at my worst, then you don’t deserve me at my best.” The truth of the matter is that if someone can’t handle you at your worst, it’s because they have strong, healthy boundaries. The bottom line is you need to love yourself more than anyone else, because abuse & manipulation is not unconditional love. Don’t let someone discard you as if you & your feelings don’t matter – stand up & protect yourself, even when it feels impossible & you relapse. I will never repeat my toxic cycles with emotionally unavailable men again. An emotionally unavailable man is actually just a boy who refuses to take accountability for his actions, grow up, & keep his promises to someone that he cares about. I need & want a man who will give me the unconditional love that I deserve, without all the drama. Learn from your past makes, recognize when you’re trauma bonded to someone abusive, & move on for your own mental health & safety.

XO Denise



Dr. Carmen Bryant

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