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.
What causes someone to violate a person they claimed to love?
There are many reasons, for example, substance or alcohol abuse, a neurological condition impacting behaviour, or a disorder of character such as antisocial personality/ psychopathy, borderline personality disorder, or narcissistic personality disorder.
Although the reasons may vary, the painful reality and outcome for many victims are the same. He or she will suffer. And to make matters worse many of those individuals will find it nearly impossible to walk away. The neurochemistry of love and attachment, particularly in the presence of abuse, can seal a victim to a grim future with a malignant partner.
You might think, they should simply walk away — leave immediately. They do not have to stay with someone who frightens, controls, or intimidates them. That solution is the logical and best approach to an abusive situation. However, the natural functioning of our brain can prevent that from happening. Let's look at why.
Common Reactions of the Brain to an Abuser
A few important ingredients that contribute to someone's "addiction" (link is external) to their abuser are oxytocin (bonding), endogenous opioids (pleasure, pain, withdrawal, dependence), corticotropin-releasing factor (withdrawal, stress), and dopamine (craving, seeking, wanting). With such strong neurochemistry in dysregulated states, it will be extremely difficult to manage emotions or make logical decisions.
Toxic versus Normal Relationships
The neurobiological changes that take place for victims of abuse are likely similar to those within the breakup phase of a non-abusive relationship. (link is external) When any of us fall in love and connect with someone new, the neurochemistry of the reward system responds to establish this bond. In circumstances of abuse, the brain likely has the same attachment that anyone would have toward someone they love. (link is external)However, for victims of abuse, the one they love is not safe and the relationship is not stable.
What happens neurobiologically in a toxic union is not much different from what happens in a normal relationship. The main difference is that given that our brain is extremely responsive to what is happening in our environment, it releases chemistry in reaction to the toxic partner's behaviour. If he/she pulls away or behaves poorly, oxytocin responds in ways that someone in a "normal relationship" would not experience. This is also true of neurochemistry such as endogenous opioids, dopamine, and corticotropin releasing factor.
Trauma Bond and Cognitive Dissonance
This brings us to two psychological states that are vital for victims of emotional and physical abuse to be aware of:
The Trauma Bond
Both override proper reasoning that could help a victim gain freedom from toxicity. These processes happen automatically within the brain and are the result of the neurochemical storm ignited by the abusive partner.
How the Brain Works Against Abuse Victims
A person involved in a toxic relationship can become anchored to a partner that could cause him or her grave harm.
In addition to changes that occur with neurochemistry, the neuropeptide oxytocin packs a double punch for women. (Per the findings of Dr. Taylor, vasopressin, rather than oxytocin signals relationship distress for men. (link is external)) Oxytocin is very responsive to our social environment – it is contextual (link is external). Therefore, psychological or physical stressors can result in the release of oxytocin (link is external).
High levels of this neuropeptide can have two completely opposing meanings (link is external) – it can calm anxiety, as well as heighten it. The oxytocin receptors involved seem to depend on the social context.
Heightened levels of oxytocin (link is external) can reduce and calm stress. This is associated with oxytocin receptors located in the amygdala (link is external). However,
High levels of oxytocin is a sign of social distress (link is external). This is associated with oxytocin receptors located in the lateral septum (link is external).
Letting Go is a Multi-layered Process
Letting go of a relationship in which a trauma bond has evolved is a multi-layered process because the attachment exists on many levels—physical, mental, emotional and perhaps sexual and financial, for example. Letting go requires detachment in all such realms that two people are connected. It is important first and foremost that letting go is done safely in all ways. Victims of violence need a safe exit strategy. Here are some types of letting go that may have to occur:
Physical letting go—Sometimes the relationship itself is difficult to end. An abuse victim may not want to live alone, for example, and chooses to stay in the relationship even though it is abusive. In order to begin separation, the victim must be prepared to endure being alone for the sake of recovery. It is also very common that victims of abuse are entrapped and feel they cannot leave for various reasons. They may fear escalated violence or even believe their lives are in danger.
Mental letting go—All our attachments are supported by thoughts and beliefs about ourselves, others and the world at large. Victims of abuse have to let go of the cognitive patterns that support them staying in an abusive relationship. Some of these thoughts and beliefs are: I need him or her. The abuse isn’t so bad. He or she didn’t mean to hurt me. Every relationship has occasional abuse.
How to Help the Brain
One of many ways victims can help their brain break a trauma bond is by facilitating the release of calming oxytocin (from the amygdala) (link is external). Igniting oxytocin receptors of this type can reduce cravings, ease withdrawal, and lessen pain.
How is this done? With good, quality social contact — connection.
(The connection cannot be with the toxic partner, or else the bond will be deepened — with them. This is one of the reasons that I feel the 'no-contact' approach is often so helpful. The brain does not have the chance to automatically release attachment chemistry in response to the partner — particularly if he is demonstrating good behaviour.)
Sadly, many people who are with toxic, controlling, or personality disordered partners (e.g., narcissists, psychopaths) are isolated. Many abusers chase away one of the most important resources a victim has: people.
Maintaining social connections is not only good from a safety standpoint (because other eyes should be watching when there is an abuser around), but compassionate, genuine, loving people help our brain to function optimally.
NOTE: Do not try to heal alone. You need supportive healing partners to navigate the journey of recovery.
Stage One: Acknowledging
Stage Two: Mourning
Stage Three: Healing
Healing from Abuse - Stages & Steps
Deep wounding requires deep healing.
Stage One: Acknowledging
Step 1. I am in a breakthrough crisis, having gained some sense of my abuse. I am breaking out of denial.
Step 2. I have determined that I was physically, sexually or emotionally abused or neglected as a child and/or I have been or am in an abusive relationship.
Step 3. I have made a commitment to recovery from my abuse, which means I live in reality at all costs.
Step 4. I shall re-experience each set of memories as they surface in my mind.
Step 5. I accept that I was powerless over my abusers’ actions. I no longer take any responsibility for their actions; I hold them responsible.
Step 6. I can respect my shame and anger and rage as a consequence of my abuse, but shall try not to turn it against myself or others.
Step 7. I can sense my inner child whose efforts to survive now can be appreciated. I am committed to being a compassionate source of healing for my inner child.
Stage Two: Mourning
Step 8. I have made an inventory of the problem areas in my adult life.
Step 9. I have identified the parts of myself connected to self-sabotage.
Step 10. I can control my anger and find healthy outlets for my rage.
Step 11. I can identify faulty beliefs and distorted perceptions in myself and others.
Step 12. I am facing my shame and developing self-compassion.
Step 13. I accept that I have the right to be who I want to be and live the way I want to live.
Step 14. I am able to grieve my childhood and mourn the loss of those who failed me.
Stage Three: Healing
Step 15. I am entitled to take the initiative to share in life’s riches.
Step 16. I am strengthening the healthy parts of myself, adding to my self-esteem.
Step 17. I can make necessary changes in my behavior and relationships at home, work and all areas of my life.
Step 18. I have resolved the abuse with my offenders to the extent that is acceptable to me.
Step 19. I hold my own meaning about the abuse that releases me from the legacy of the past.
Step 20. I see myself living in victory in all aspects of life – love, work, parenting, and play.
Step 21. I am surrendering to the universe and accepting myself.
Your Thoughts: what have found the hardest aspect of breaking the trauma bonds? What has stopped you from leaving? Why did it take so much time?