We probably all know of someone who is in a toxic relationship that we know just isn’t good for them.
We can see it, their friends or family may see it, but those in the relationship find it more difficult to recognize, and this makes it a sensitive subject for those of us on the outside, as well as being entirely unhealthy for those within it.
What exactly is trauma bonding and how does it happen?
Trauma bonding is created through a manipulative cycle of attachment, where the abuser creates a dependency in their victim, who has developed a need to be validated or cared for, after emotional or physical trauma, which is in turn reinforced by the abuser. Trauma bonds can be confused with love because they are driven by ‘trying’ in a relationship. But the effort is made from fear, not genuine love.
The most common scenario for trauma bonds to develop are between a narcissist and their ’prey’. It begins with a see-saw pattern of behaviour where the narcissist typically breaks down the confidence of the other person, manipulating them into believing that their toxic behaviour is normal. The person being abused will feel an increasing self-doubt and the need for validation from the abuser, giving the abuser more power, leading to continued manipulation. The narcissist requires admiration from, and control over, the victim, and will often reward them, showering them with love, praise, or gifts, enough to reassure them that they should stay. Then they repeat the cycle of abuse, emptying the ‘emotional tank’ of the victim, who learns to tolerate the toxic behaviour because they in turn need to be refueled by validation and love from their abuser. And so continues the cycle because of the co-dependency that develops.
Here are some reasons why the trauma bonding can develop in the first place and how to spot common warning signs.
Why does it happen?
The most common form of this type of abuse is between couples in a romantic relationship, but it can also happen between friends and colleagues and even family members, such as a parent and child.
The victim is usually someone who suffers from:
- Low self-esteem
- Poor mental health
- A lack of strong personal identity e.g. few friends or hobbies, no established career, undefined beliefs
- Financial dependency
- Previous experiences of trauma or bullying
- A distanced or lack of support system
The abuser is often a narcissist. Narcissists rely on attention admiration and approval of others and have an inflated sense of self-importance, are self-centered and arrogant and often have grandiose ideas. They usually lack empathy and genuine concern for the welfare of others.
An abuser can inflict emotional and physical abuse, but by repeating the cycle of positive reinforcement, they train the person to stay, to continue feeding their craving for power and adoration. Even when someone is cognizant that they are in a toxic and abusive relationship, the person can become so conditioned to the pattern of behaviour, that they forgive them for the manipulation and abuse. Sadly, they can find it incredibly difficult to leave and become trapped.
Unless you understand how this type of emotional or physical abuse works, and what the behaviors can look like, you may not even realize that you’re in one of these toxic relationships.
How to Recognize the Signs
Role Switching: Victims Protecting the Abuser
Abusers commonly have mental health issues of their own, such as depression which may lead the victim to be over-protective of their own abuser. Unfortunately, this can cause greater isolation for the victim, because the narcissist may have already tried to take ownership of them, distancing them from family or friends, whilst the victim perpetuates this by pushing critics away. Narcissists feed off this behavior, reinforcing it by showing affection after such acts of protectiveness and a vicious circle strengthens the trauma bond.
Keeping Negative Emotions Hidden
If you find yourself experiencing negative emotions and only displaying them if you’re alone because you don’t want anyone to know what’s going on in your life or your relationship, you’re possibly experiencing trauma bonding.
People suffering abuse will be likely to experience negative feelings, anxiety, anger, or despair – but they often try to hide these feelings because of the trauma, because of shame or guilt. They live in fear of the abuser discovering these emotions, as it usually leads to abusers manipulating the situation even further, switching roles and playing the victim as a way of control, to make the real victim recoil and feel guilty for their emotions.
Lack of Support for Your Relationship
As we said at the beginning, we probably all know of someone who is in a toxic relationship that we know just isn’t good for them. We can see it, their friends or family may see it, but those in the relationship may have blinkered vision.
Imagine how it feels when not just protective parents, but an entire network of friends and family are unsupportive of your relationship because they can see that it’s not good for you. But whilst you’re wearing those blinkers and in the trauma bond, you won’t be aware that your relationship has changed your behavior. The person who your friends and family love is clearly in pain and needs protection. So, whilst it feels like a lack of support, it’s really the most well-intentioned kind, through tough love. This is when you need to listen to them to remove the blinkers and see the abuse for real.
Feeling Guilty and Indebted
Abusers always want to hold the power in a relationship. A key way of doing this is through guilt, by making people feel as though they are indebted to them. Whether it’s through financial abuse, domestic violence, shaming over body image, or mental abuse, they all have the same effect – to induce guilt and a feeling of compensation – that the victim owes the abuser.
How to Recover from Trauma Bonding
So once you understand the signs, triggers and potential causes of trauma bonding, you’ll need to know how to recover form it and restore your self-confidence and esteem.
Forgiveness and Trauma Bonding
The good news is that forgiveness can be a powerful tool in healing from this type of abuse. In the context of trauma bonding, forgiveness is a personal choice to release oneself from the emotional burden and pain associated with the trauma that has occurred.
Traditional forgiveness does not mean condoning or excusing the abuser’s actions but depends entirely upon our own capacity to feel compassion. It’s therefore limited in this kind of situation, because once the victim has realized the abuser’s power, they are unlikely to find it easy to feel empathy, especially in the initial stage after discovery.
Radical Forgiveness, however, is based on a spiritual path and takes the view that there is no right or wrong, or good or bad. Only our thinking makes it so. Instead, it asks the abuser and to the abused somehow see that the situation was created by them, to learn a lesson at the soul level. But we cannot be expected to accept, in the moment, that the experience was something we wanted, representing the unfolding of a divine plan. We will not have the receptivity necessary to entertain that idea. It can only come later, in moments of quiet reflection, not in the heat of anger or in the immediate aftermath of trauma.
Ways Forgiveness Can Be Used to Overcome Trauma Bonding
Both traditional and Radical Forgiveness are a means of reclaiming personal power and finding peace within oneself. Some suggestions to help survive the abuse and move beyond trauma bonding include:
1. Understand forgiveness: Educate yourself about forgiveness and its potential benefits. Recognize that forgiveness is a voluntary act that can help you let go of resentment and anger and reclaim your emotional well-being. It is not about forgetting or minimizing the abuse but rather about freeing yourself from its grip.
2. Validate your emotions: Allow yourself to feel the range of emotions that arise from the trauma. It’s important to acknowledge your pain, anger, and any other emotions that surface. Validating your own experiences can create a foundation for forgiveness. ‘You cannot heal what you don’t feel’.
3. Seek help: Work with a professional who specializes in trauma to navigate the healing process. Our certified coaches offer one-on-one or group coaching to provide guidance and support in exploring forgiveness and help you address any unresolved emotions or trauma-related issues.
4. Practice self-compassion: Be kind and understanding towards yourself as you navigate the path of healing. Recognize that healing takes time and that it is normal to have ups and downs along the way. Treat yourself with patience, love, and self-care.
5. Explore forgiveness exercises or techniques: The Radical Forgiveness work offers worksheets, audios, guided lessons, and practical skills to help you to empower yourself with a coping toolkit that you can use in various scenarios. Understanding your negative beliefs, and breaking patterns of self-destructive thoughts and behavior are crucial to restoring your self-esteem.
The methodologies offered through the Radical Forgiveness body of work include writing a forgiveness letter (not to be sent), engaging in mindfulness or meditation practices focused on forgiveness, and following the Five Stages of Radical Forgiveness, to collapse the original story of your situation, and reframe that story to release us from victimhood.
6. Set boundaries: Forgiveness does not mean allowing the abuser back into your life or tolerating further abuse. Establish clear boundaries to protect yourself and ensure your safety. This may involve limiting or cutting off contact with the abuser and creating distance to facilitate your healing process.
7. Focus on personal growth: Use the experience as an opportunity for personal growth and empowerment. Engage in activities that nurture your self-esteem, explore your strengths, and build resilience. This can include pursuing new interests, setting goals, empowering yourself through Radical Forgiveness methodologies, and surrounding yourself with supportive and positive influences and people.
The most common scenario for trauma bonds to develop are between a narcissist and their ’prey’, who are often likely to have suffered past trauma or be lacking in self-confidence. It becomes a co-dependent relationship. The relationship is usually found between lovers, but it can also occur between family members, colleagues and even friends. The key is to recognize the signs and look at the relationship objectively to see if you can identify any of them.
The good news is that forgiveness can be a powerful tool in healing from this type of abuse. In the context of trauma bonding, forgiveness is a personal choice to release oneself from the emotional burden and pain associated with the trauma that has occurred and more especially, Radical Forgiveness can help you to release the pain assoicated with this type of trauma, through using the stages of Radical Forgiveness to acknowledge your feelings and practice self-compassion. Our worksheets, audios, guided lessons, and practical skills can help you to empower yourself with a coping toolkit
Remember, forgiveness is a personal journey, and there is no set timeline for when or how it should occur. It may not be necessary or appropriate for everyone, and that is okay. Focus on your own healing and well-being and make choices that align with your needs and values. Explore more about the Radical Forgiveness methodologies within our programs by visiting our Self-Development Courses or to learn how to help others, read more about our Coaching Programs. You can also read more about codependency in Chapter 8 of Colin Tipping’s book Radical Forgiveness: A Revolutionary Five-Stage Process to Heal Relationships and Let Go of Anger & Blame.
If you need immediate assistance or are in danger, reach out to local helplines or authorities specializing in domestic violence or abuse. (In the USA visit VictimConnect , in Europe WAVE , or the UK Refuge or mind.)