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Frustrated black parents arguing behind their daughter at home.

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All of us know at least one person who has been in a bad relationship. Perhaps we have had bad experiences ourselves in the love department. Part of recovery and healing from a bad breakup is understanding why you were drawn to that individual in the first place. In addition, exploring how your personal history influences your romantic relationships is a necessary self-examination. 

“Many survivors have such profound deficiencies in self-protection that they can barely imagine themselves in a position of agency or choice,” Judith Lewis Herman, the author of the book “Trauma And Recovery: The Aftermath Of Violence,” wrote. 

“The idea of saying no to the emotional demands of a parent, spouse, lover or authority figure may be practically inconceivable. Thus, it is not uncommon to find adult survivors who continue to minister to the needs of those who once abused them and who continue to permit major intrusions without boundaries or limits.”

I think it’s hard for people to look at their parents, their friends, and admit that some of these relationships were not healthy. Some of these relationships may have influenced you negatively and the extent of the damage wasn’t realized until adulthood.

Some of ya’ll have been walking around with the weight of pain that you cannot speak about. Those burdens bleed into your relationships as you struggle to figure out how and where it all started.

Let’s unpack the term trauma bonds. What are trauma bonds?

Traumatic bonding occurs as the result of ongoing cycles of abuse in which the intermittent reinforcement of reward and punishment creates powerful emotional bonds that are resistant to change.

It’s important to note that trauma bonds can occur in romantic relationships, friendships, work place environments, in addition to familial relationships.

I was particularly struck by the workplace example. As someone in the helping profession, I talk a lot with my fellow social workers about the effects of working in a toxic and dangerous work environment. One gets used to working in crisis, so much so that the absence of it can be just as jarring. It’s very similar to being in a bad relationship. When you’re in a healthy situation, it can be difficult to accept.

The question is, why do trauma bonds happen?

To ensure survival, the victim subconsciously focuses on the positive attributes of their abuser, not their negative ones.

When we suffer traumatic experiences, we emotionally shut ourselves off and don’t allow ourselves to take action. We become numb, and thus resort to our primitive instincts to cope.

What’s the Difference between Trauma Bonding and Codependency?

Codependency focuses more on the addiction. Trauma bonding and codependency only come together “when the addict is also an abusive perpetrator” (Carnes, 1997). The person who tends to be codependent likely was involved with some form of addiction through family members, friends, etc.  Therefore, the person is triggered by others who have addiction. Codependency is also not “frightening” but more about caring for others needs instead of their own (Beattie, 2011).

How do we deal with being in a traumatic bond or a codependent relationship? lists the following suggestions:

  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.
  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.
  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.
  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. 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; 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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