10 Steps to Recovering from a Toxic Trauma Bond

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A young woman is standing in the doorway of her kitchen and is looking at the garden at sunrise

Trauma bonds occur in very toxic relationships, and tend to be strengthened by inconsistent positive reinforcement—or at least the hope of something better to come. Trauma bonds occur in extreme situations such as abusive relationships, hostage situations, and incestuous relationships, but also in any ongoing attached relationship in which there is a great deal of pain interspersed with times of calm (or maybe just less pain). I liken it to a heroin addiction—the relationship promises much, gives fleeting feelings of utopia, and then it sucks away your very soul.

If you or someone you know has been in an abusive relationship, you have witnessed the strength of this type of connection. Maybe you or someone you know is trying to get out, but seems incapable of leaving.

Well, there is hope. Here is some advice on how to break free from this type of stronghold:

  1. Make a commitment to live in reality. If you find yourself wanting to fantasize about what could be or what you hope will be, stop. Remind yourself that you have made a commitment to live in truth. Even if you don’t choose to leave the relationship immediately, in the meantime you can at least remind yourself that you will stop fantasizing about what is not happening.
  2. Live in real time. That means stop holding on to what “could” or “will” happen tomorrow. Notice what is happening in the moment. Notice how trapped you feel. Notice how unloved you feel and how you have compromised your self-respect and self-worth for this relationship. Pay attention to your emotions. Stop hoping and waiting, and start noticing in real time what is happening and how it is affecting you.
  3. Live one decision at a time and one day at a time. Sometimes people scare themselves with all-or-nothing thinking. Don’t tell yourself things like, “I have to never talk to the toxic person again or else”; this is akin to trying to lose weight by telling yourself you can never eat chocolate again. While it is true that your relationship is an unhealthy one, you don’t need to make every encounter a do-or-die situation. Don’t scare yourself.
  4. Make decisions that only support your self-care. That is, do not make any decision that hurts you. This goes for emotional “relapses” as well. If you find yourself feeling weak, don’t mentally berate yourself, but rather talk to yourself in compassionate, understanding, and reflective ways. Remind yourself that you are a work in process and life is a journey. Do not make the uncaring decision to mentally beat yourself up. In every encounter you have with the object of your obsession, stop and think about each choice you make. Make choices that are only in your best interest.
    If you find yourself feeling weak, don’t mentally berate yourself, but rather talk to yourself in compassionate, understanding, and reflective ways. Remind yourself that you are a work in process and life is a journey.
  5. Start feeling your emotions. Whenever you are away from the toxic person in your life and feel tempted to reach out to them for reassurance, stop. Consider writing your feelings down instead. Write whatever comes to you. For example, “I feel ____. I miss ____. I wish I could be with ____ right now, but I am going to sit and write my feelings down instead. I am going to teach myself how to feel my way through the obsession, rather than turning to ____.” This may help you to build inner strength. Learn to simply be with your emotions. You don’t need to run from them, hide from them, avoid them, or make them go away. Once you fully feel them, they may begin to subside. Remember: the only way out is through.
  6. Learn to grieve. Letting go of a toxic relationship and breaking a traumatic bond may be one of the hardest things you ever have to do. You cannot do it without honoring the reality you are losing something very valuable to you.
  7. Understand the “hook.” Identify what, exactly, you are losing. It may be a fantasy, a dream, an illusion. Perhaps your partner had convinced you into believing they were going to fulfill some deep, unmet need. Once you can identify what this need (or hook) is, you can get down to the business of grieving. Grieving means (figuratively) holding your hands open and letting it go. You say goodbye to the notion the need you have may never be met. At minimum, it will not be met by this relationship.
  8. Write a list of bottom-line behaviors for yourself. Possible examples: “(1) I will not sleep with someone who calls me names. (2) I will not argue with someone who has been drinking. (3) I will take care of my own finances. (4) I will not have conversations with anyone when I feel desperate (or defensive, or obsessive, etc.).” Whatever your areas of concern, determine what you need to do to change and make those your bottom-line behaviors.
  9. Build your life. Little by little, start dreaming about your future for yourself (and your children, if you have them); in other words, make dreams that don’t involve your traumatic partner. Maybe you want to go to school, start a hobby, go to church, or join a club. Start making life-affirming choices for yourself that take you away from the toxic interactions that have been destroying your peace of mind.
  10. Build healthy connections. The only way to really free yourself from unhealthy connections is to start investing in healthy ones. Develop other close, connected, and bonded relationships that are not centered on drama. Make these your “go-to” people. It is extremely difficult to heal without support. Notice the people in your life who show you loving concern, and care and hang around with them as often as you can. Reach out for professional help as needed.

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