SWISS MEDICAL EXPERTISE: ZURICH, MALLORCA, LONDON, NEW YORK

10 Minutes

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When you are in an abusive relationship, leaving your partner may seem like the only sane choice. Yet, many victims find it impossible to extricate themselves from a toxic union. Why does it happen that they can’t seem to end an abusive relationship or keep coming back repeatedly?

If you have ever wondered why people do not leave painful partnerships despite the trauma it’s causing them; it is essential to familiarise yourself with the concept of trauma bonding. This article will shed light on trauma bonding, its common symptoms, and how to get out of it with professional and self-help measures.

To better understand the trauma bond meaning, imagine a distressing and abusive relationship with short moments of positive reinforcement. This type of relationship includes a close attachment between the perpetrator of abuse or the abuser and the individual they perpetuate against or the victim. Characterised by frequent dramatic ups and downs, trauma-bonded relationships are complicated and challenging to continue. To survive them, the victim often develops a keen awareness of everything their abuser says, wants, or does. Due to the prolonged and intense focus on the perpetrator, many trauma survivors eventually disconnect from their self, values, and needs.

To keep the trauma bond intact and gain control of the victim, an abuser may use any one or more of the following tactics:

Intimidation

This means doing or saying things that instigate fear in the victim, such as destroying things or showing weapons.

Emotional Abuse

This includes name-calling, humiliation, criticising, gaslighting, and playing mind games. An example includes manipulating words or facts to make the victim doubt their perception and memories.

Isolation

This includes cutting off the victim from their family, friends, and other support means.

Blaming, Minimisation, and Denial

The abuser dismisses, minimises, or denies the perceptions and feelings of the survivor and constantly tells them that they deserved the abuse.

Decision Making

The perpetrator solely makes all critical decisions without taking any input from the victim.

Financial Abuse

All financial matters are in the perpetrator’s control with no monetary freedom on the trauma survivor’s end.

Coercion and Threats

The perpetrator constantly makes threats of violence against the victim and their loved ones. They may also threaten suicide to control the victim into doing what they want.

It is usually tricky for trauma survivors to identify the signs of trauma bonding. The victim’s loved ones are usually the first ones to notice these symptoms and inform the survivors about them.

Following are some of the most common trauma bond symptoms:

  • Experiencing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Denying the abuse or rationalising it by believing that they deserve it
  • Agreeing with accepting the abuser’s point of view
  • Developing a solid emotional bond with the perpetrator despite the trauma they are inflicting
  • Being hyper-focused on the needs and wants of the perpetrator
  • Feeling gratitude for minor acts of kindness of the abuser
  • Perceiving anyone who encourages you to leave the relationship as an enemy
  • Acting in a way that is contrary to your own values only to appease the abusive partner
  • Facing difficulties in leaving the trauma bonded relationship due to the fear of retaliation from the perpetrator

If you or anyone around you is showing the signs mentioned above, it is crucial to encourage them to seek professional help.

Trauma bonding does not happen overnight. Instead, the process is gradual and slow and passes through multiple stages before the abuser can get full control over the victim and their relationship. These stages of trauma bonding include:

Stage One: Love Bombing

In this stage, the narcissist showers their partner with validation and love.

Stage Two: Trust and Dependency

The victim gradually begins to trust the narcissist and believe they will love them forever, making them dependent on the abuser for love and validation.

Stage Three: The Beginning of Criticism

By stage three, the abuser gradually begins withdrawing the amount of validation and love they give to their partner. They start criticising them, become demanding, and blame them for things.

Stage Four: Gaslighting

The perpetrator tells their partner that all the problems they encounter are their fault. They make the victim doubt their own perceptions and accept the abuser’s version of reality.

Stage Five: Establishment of Control

The confused victim does not know what to believe and thinks that the only way to feel happy is by following what their partner is telling them.

Stage Six: Resignation and Loss of Self

The victims try to fight back as things get worse, but this usually backfires, and the abuse only worsens. Eventually, they stop fighting and settle for peace.

Stage Seven: Addiction

During this final stage, the family and friends of the victim start expressing concerns about their safety. The victim can appreciate how things are going terribly for them but cannot leave because their abuser is now everything to them. All they can think of is different ways to win back their love.

Trauma bonds often lead to cycles of highs and lows but are universally problematic for everyone. It is crucial to avoid or end such bonds whenever possible to preserve your happiness and health.
Following are some steps you can consider taking to break a trauma bond and initiate healing on a physical and mental level:

Know what you are dealing with


It sometimes becomes challenging to identify a trauma bond, mainly when the perpetrator portrays it as a healthy, functioning relationship. It is critical to recognise the patterns of abuse and trauma and be direct and clear with yourself about the situation you are dealing with.

Talk to a loved one


Discussing the concept of a trauma bond with someone can be complicated. It is possible that others may not understand your perspective or concerns or struggle to understand how they can play a role in the situation. Nevertheless, try your best to seek feedback, assistance, and support from someone you trust. If it’s impossible to get support from a loved one, consider seeking professional assistance.

Plan for a safe exit


Once you identify the presence of a trauma bonding relationship and connect with support, the next step is to plan your exit. Instead of thinking that your abuser could be rehabilitated or changed, escaping is likely to be your best option. Get in touch with caring parties to find a safe and practical plan to break free from a traumatising bond.

Don’t blame yourself


An abuser in a trauma bond will likely convince their partner that the suffering and dysfunction they tolerate is their own fault. This constant shame, self-doubt, and feelings of guilt keep them in control and force the victim to stay. Remember to reassure yourself in such circumstances that you are doing the right thing by leaving. No one deserves mistreatment.

Cut off all lines of communication


Getting into a healthy relationship with someone who shared a trauma bond with you is extremely unlikely. Despite some positives in the relationship, the negatives can never be outweighed in most cases. Hence, the best way is to end the relationship entirely by cutting off all means of communication, including messaging, phone calls, and social media. This withdrawal will also help you more easily create a new, independent life.

Get professional help


Whether you have been in a trauma-bonded friendship or a romantic relationship, getting help from professional mental health services is likely to help. Professionals providing these services can assist in all stages of life with trauma bonding and help your recovery.

To address a trauma bond, the trauma survivor needs to get in touch with a therapist who understands the complexity of such relationships. Remember that a good therapist can provide a nonjudgmental and empathetic environment for the survivors to explore their emotional attachment with the abuser without shame.

The treatment programs focused on trauma bond recovery include the following two components:

Therapy

Trauma-informed therapies can be beneficial for survivors of trauma to address their attachment with an abuser. This therapy usually adopts a three-stage approach which includes:

  • Coming up with a safety plan, trauma education, management of any ongoing crisis, mobilisation of support, and establishment of the therapeutic relationship
  • Identification of strategies to process the trauma and grief, manage stress and explore trauma bonding relationships
  • Assisting the survivors to reconnect with their identity and needs, reclaiming their bodies and lives, and making decisions regardless of their relationships

While there is a lack of research that mainly focuses on managing trauma bonding, specific therapies have demonstrated benefits for recovery. These therapies include:

  • Cognitive behavioural therapy
  • Trauma-focused therapy
  • Narrative exposure therapy
  • Brief eclectic psychotherapy
  • Prolonged exposure therapy
  • Eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing therapy
  • Narrative exposure therapy

A trauma survivor decides the intended outcome of treatment. They also determine their goals for therapy and need to provide informed consent regarding how the therapy should proceed. Some people who have experienced trauma bonding may seek help from counselling to help flee a relationship. If escaping a trauma bond is their goal, the treatment typically involves distress management, stabilisation, safety planning, and mobilisation of relevant support and resources.

Support Groups

Many support groups are available to assist people stuck in trauma bonding and unhealthy relationships. One such group is Codependents Anonymous which uses a 12-step format established by Alcoholics Anonymous to extend help to trauma survivors. If you wish to seek a secular approach to support groups, consider joining specialised in-person and online sessions at dedicated treatment centres.

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