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How to Break a Trauma Bond

by Kayla McCullough | Download the Branndet App this Fall

Maybe you’ve seen it or maybe you’ve personally experienced it: the relationship that’s dramatic, explosive, unhealthy… but completely and irrevocably irresistible. That guy who is beyond gorgeous and knows just what buttons to push to get your mind spinning and body aching for his touch. That relationship that has so many downfalls, but at the same time, has the most intoxicating highs. Why did you stay for so long? If he was so terrible all the time, why did you not leave sooner? Is a question that weighs heavy on someone’s mind once they finally split from a trauma bond. And the answer? Probably not one that most want to hear, because in all honesty there really isn’t one. And that’s exactly it; it’s normally not bad all the time. No one willingly sticks around for bad-all-the-time. Sometimes the relationship is great, and when it is, that guy is just plain wonderful. And therein lies the problem.

When you’re dating someone that is physically or emotionally abusive, they don’t come out of the gate swinging and calling you a whore. Make no mistake about it; the narcissist might be mean, but they’re usually intelligent to boot. While they may be energy vampires feasting on your soul, they’re normally damn charming, even seductive, and will leave you begging for more. Welcome to the irresistible allure of the narcissist, or if you’re oh so lucky to have fallen for one, the sociopath!

Now, before you start thinking that you or someone you know is a total masochist, there’s a deep psychological reason that we become attached to damaging relationships. When you understand that dynamic better it can only help you and others who are stuck in the grasp of one of these beasts.

TRAUMA BONDING is a process through which you begin to confuse abusive behavior for love. It is a bond that forms due to intense, emotional experiences, usually with a toxic person. Like Stockholm Syndrome, it holds us emotionally captive to a manipulator who keeps us “hostage” – whether that be through physical or emotional abuse. These types of bonds are rampant in unhealthy, abusive or otherwise toxic relationships. They are usually strengthened by intermittent reinforcement, the periodic love-bombing, false promises or “small kindnesses” that a manipulator throws our way to keep us ensnared in the relationship. They can also be exacerbated by our abandonment wounds.

Today, women are generally seen as strong and independent, which ultimately baffles people to hear about why we “let that happen to us”. But, if you are, or have been, in a similar relationship, you know that the answer to that is multifaceted. Picture this, two years ago I was entering my Senior year of college and I thought that I found the man of my dreams. He was charming, kind, and diligent with his promises. Even though he graduated a year before me and moved halfway across the country, our relationship took off. We would plan frequent visits and before I knew it, I was flying across the country three times a month (because he couldn’t). My grades started slipping and the degrees that I worked so hard for years prior were becoming more of a dream than a reality. But, ill stricken with love, I continued to see him. He would call and tell me how much he missed me and that if we ever wanted this thing to work out between us, then I would have to submit to a few bad grades here and there.

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And before you go off and tell me that I should have seen the ending from the beginning, I thought this person was it – that one person the Universe molded specifically for me, and who was I to turn away from that? During my time with him, I never once doubted my worthiness or happiness. But during our fights—because every relationship has them—I certainly didn’t kneel and ‘take it’. I fought for us, and for myself, with all that I had—until I accepted that fighting was futile. I loved this person. I loved the crap out of him actually – with a burning passion. I would fly home after my visits imagining how I would tell him with tears in my eyes, that I loved him (that’s how clouded I was). And I didn’t understand until much later, that he never loved me back, which has been the most tragic and heartbreaking realization of all.

He didn’t love me, because the narcissist is incapable of really loving anyone.

I’ve never viewed myself as a victim, and I never will. I was simply someone who hadn’t seen the full picture yet. I couldn’t make out the contents of the possessive, crazy life that was being constructed before my eyes because I was the one in it. I was blinded by the beautiful pulls of his narcissistic ways. And it makes sense that when we recount our experiences, we highlight the reasons why we stayed—not why we left. Our stories paint the narcissist as a full-time God, making it hard for people to understand what we endured for so long, but when they do, we get asked: “What’s wrong with you?” “Why did you stay?”

My guess is, that while there are vast individual differences, there is one underlying thing that all the stories with these relationships have in common—it often starts as magnetic, instantaneous “love.” Whereas real love is often a process during which you grow to care for a person over time. Toxic relationships are often immediately explosive and compelling. In them, you might think that you and this person are just “meant to be” through a series of abstract signs and preexisting beliefs you have. You might be confusing your initial physical attraction to one another for this type of electric “soulmate” partnership, but neither true attraction nor love functions this way. What’s really happening is that you and your partner are connecting over a shared wound. This is what draws you to one another, and then makes you commit compulsively. You are each meeting an unconscious need you aren’t aware of, filling a gap, helping to avoid fear, or enabling another damaging behavior.

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These relationships become the perfect storm of a neurochemical response and behavioral stimuli. So, to move on or heal from a trauma bond you need to first stop confusing traumatic bonding with true love. The best thing that you can do to ensure your relationship is healthy, safe and reliable is to have awareness and take your time. Healthy, sustainable relationships are a growing process. Despite what you might hear about the “honeymoon phase” and “love at first sight” and simply “knowing” you are meant to be with someone. All of that can exist alongside you taking time and space to get to know someone before you dive all the way in with them. Remember that someone genuinely interested in you would never rush you into a relationship.

Next, you need to have already assessed your wounds. If you have a history of painful or traumatic relationships, especially if they are dating back to childhood, take initiative to start working through those safely and healthily. Perhaps that means receiving professional help, or even just journaling and talking with friends. It depends on your situation and the severity of your experiences.

However, the most important thing you need to learn about a narcissist and a sociopath is that they both understand the importance of making a great first impression. They start by projecting the most picture-perfect version of themselves, which, after things start to crumble, you continue to recall as a reminder of how otherworldly they can be. When they court you, they’re the most amazing human being you’ve ever met—and you, theirs. Their attention and compliments lift you to heights you never imagined possible. To my ex, I was ‘perfect’. I was his princess; more special and exciting than any woman he’d ever laid eyes on. He bragged about me too. And I thought that meant that he must really see me. Which was not the case.

I wish I could end on a lighter note, but the reality of these relationships is rather dark: One out of every four women are victims of emotional and physical abuse. Long-term trauma inflicted by narcissistic abuse often leads to PTSD and has been shown to rewire the brain of the victims due to excessive exposure to stress from living in constant fear, causing cortisol levels to rise. When you make it out of the dark tunnel that hereditarily comes from one of these relationships, the best thing that you can do for yourself is to be kind and compassionate towards yourself. You cannot heal without having a compassionate inner voice and encouraging inner dialogue. You do not need any more abuse in your life – from others or yourself.

So, commit to self-care. And in the same way that you can’t break a substance addiction while continuing to administer it, you must go cold turkey. You can only break the attachment to the abuser—and your brain's addiction to cortisol, adrenaline, and other stress hormones—by leaving and cutting contact. Getting unhooked will take courage and hard work, and, like an addict, you’ll experience withdrawal, even long after the chemical addiction has been broken.

Trust me when I say that healing from a trauma bond will take time. It’s been a year since leaving my ex and I’ve discovered that I’m still in the process of breaking a biochemical dependency on trauma. As I continue to heal and find myself in a nurturing relationship where my needs are met by an empathetic and loving partner, there are still moments when my hijacked addict brain screams for the intensity of the extreme highs and lows that I was accustomed to.

The journey toward healing might be a lifelong process, but in the end, it is worthwhile. Why we stay in these relationships isn’t always a simple answer. It’s never black or white, and it’s never all bad. Often, it starts out sprinkled in magic, but it ultimately ends in shattered hearts. So, in the end, the answer to the question of why I stayed, and why I left, has the same answer: It was because he was a narcissist.


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