“When you get out of it, you realize how toxic it actually was.” ― Steve Maraboli
A toxic relationship can be romantic as well as platonic. In this blog, I will focus on something called a Trauma Bond (Source: How to Recognize and Break Traumatic Bonds ). Before I proceed, let me acknowledge that recognizing and leaving an abusive relationship is not easy. Every logical and emotional part of us fights with every other part of us that’s screaming for us to be free. It’s especially difficult for people who are in that relationship but might be easier for people around them to see the relationship for what it truly is. The reason is simple – we tend to love our tormentors. Along with concerns about finding a safe place, support system, or the fear of being alone, we feel tied to our partners/friends/family members, unable to break away.
This emotional attachment is called a trauma bond. It develops out of a repeated cycle of abuse, devaluation, and positive reinforcement. When we love and adore someone, we tend to overlook the red flags. It does not help that the red flags are accompanied by cycles of romance, kindness, love, or motivation.
Trigger Warning – If you have been in an abusive relationship in the past, the contents of this post might bring up some unwanted memories. Use your discretion before proceeding.
P.S. – If you’ve not been in an abusive relationship in the past but this post triggers unexplainable anger or feelings, I request you to read this post. You might find something helpful.
Signs of a Trauma Bond
- It’s cyclical in nature – Every abusive cycle (words/actions) is followed with periods of encouragement and reinforcements. No stones are left unturned and no words are left unsaid when the abuser becomes abusive. This is the angry phase. The victim in this cycle believes that they deserve the anger because whatever triggered the anger is their fault. This is, next, followed by a series of apologies and forgiveness, and a phase of love and appreciation. The cycle keeps continuing until the victim starts to abuse the abuser out of suppressed anger, hides details to not face their wrath, or becomes completely passive and “used to” the abuse.
- A power imbalance – These bonds also rest on an underlying imbalance of power. In this dynamic, the victim might feel as if they are controlled by the abuser. This might not be that obvious to the naked eye but an easy way to recognize this might be to see if every decision that the victim makes requires a stamp of approval from the abuser. E.g., “Want to follow your passion? This is the only way”, “Want to take that vacation? You can only do that if…”, “You want to be with your friends? I don’t like your friends”.
- Inability to end the relationship – Even when the victim knows that they’re not happy in the relationship or when they don’t like or love their abuser, they continue to be in that relationship. Here, childhood trauma of guilt and abandonment plays a major role which leads to low self-esteem and makes the victim believe that they don’t deserve to be loved. Maybe the victim grew up in a household where the parents constantly fought, had a cheating partner, were bullied as a kid, or was constantly told that they were not worthy of being loved for who they are. At some point, they started to believe these words. So when the abuser follows the cycle of love and abuse, the victim justifies these actions because they believe they don’t deserve a loving relationship.
- Cutting off the support system – In any abusive relationship, the one thing that the abuser will make sure to do is to cut off the support system of the victim. The victim will be made to believe that any other individual with whom they share a relationship has some hidden motive because how can someone love the victim for who they are? This would also apply to relationships that the victim has held close for years where the words and actions of the loved ones would be distorted to reflect how “unhealthy” or “wrong” that relationship is. This is done, unconsciously or consciously, by the abuser to remove any “threat” that could show the victim what a positive loving relationship could look like. It is also done to ensure that the victim does not have anyone to discuss the challenges that they are facing in the relationship and to make the victim become dependent on the abuser.
- Victim will make excuses and defend the behavior of the abuser when others express concern – All healthy relationships are based on trust and mutual respect. However, in trauma bonding relationships, the abuse is sometimes so obvious to the people close to the victim that they would sometimes raise concerns. In a healthy relationship, the partners would clarify the doubts that their loved ones have because they know that their loved ones have their best interests at heart. In a trauma-bonding relationship, even a hint of others expressing their concerns would be taken as a threat to the relationship. The victim, in this case, would go to any extent to protect the relationship even if that means cutting off everyone they hold dear as long as it makes the abuser happy.
- Abuse is kept a secret – To prevent their close ones from raising a concern, the victim tends to hide all the abuse that they face in a relationship. This is done because deep down they know that what they’re experiencing is not healthy but they don’t want others to point out the obvious. The common justification that the victim gives themselves in such a situation is that the others wouldn’t understand their situation because they don’t “know” the abuser.
- Fixating on the good days, and hoping the abuser will change – The cyclical nature of the abuse lets the victim believe that the abuser can change and make the good times last longer. Anytime the victim will want to leave the abuser or when things get too messy, the victim will remind themselves of all the good times that they have shared with the abuser and believe that the abuse will stop.
Some other characteristics of an abusive relationship are:
- Criticizing and ridiculing – attacking personal characteristics that the victim cannot change, like looks, style, victim’s family and friends
- Passive-aggressive behavior
- Blaming the victim for the problems of the abuser
- Unwilling to forgive for small mistakes
- Verbal abuse
- Physical, sexual, and financial abuse
- Narcissistic and controlling behavior – not allowing the victim to go out without their approval, not allowing the victim to see friends or family without their “Yes”
- Threatening to leave if the victim does not do as the abuser says
- Threatening to expose information or images of the victim
- Little or no trust – checking victim’s phone, needing to know where the victim is all the time
- Jealousy and blame – excessive jealousy and blaming the victim for everything that goes wrong
Why do people continue to be in a trauma bond?
People don’t choose abuse. They also can’t help the development of trauma bonds, which are driven by some pretty strong biological processes. Some reasons are listed below:
Freeze response – When the abuse gets too much to handle, the victim’s brain recognizes the impending distress and sends a warning to the rest of the body. Adrenaline and cortisol (the stress hormones) flood in, jump-starting your survival instinct and triggering emotional and physical tension. Here’s where the power imbalance comes into play:
- If the victim does not feel as if they can safely escape or stand up to the person abusing them, freezing might seem like the best option, so they stay.
- When thoughts of the abuse become too painful or difficult to bear, the victim chooses to focus on the positive parts of the relationship and ignore or block the rest. This might show up as emotional numbness.
- They might make excuses for their abusers and justify their behavior to rationalize their need to stay.
- Every time they end the relationship, they will go back to the abuser, reinforcing this sense of powerlessness.
- Victims believe the false reality that they have created in their heads – “I need them. They need me. I am nothing without them. No one else cares. I have already invested so much time into this relationship. I won’t find someone else. “. The lack of a support system and cutting off of those close to the victim further justifies these statements.
Hormones – Apologies, gifts, or physical affection offered by the abusive person serve as rewards that help reinforce the rush of relief and trigger the release of Dopamine. Since dopamine creates feelings of pleasure, it can strengthen the victim’s connection with the abuser. Since the victim, and basically all of us, wants the dopamine boost, they continue trying to make their abusers happy to earn their affection. Physical affection or intimacy also prompts the release of oxytocin, another feel-good hormone that can further strengthen bonds. Not only does oxytocin promote connection and positive feelings, but it can also ease fear.
What to do if you or someone you love is in an abusive relationship
For the person in an abusive relationship
- Journal – Writing down things that happened each day can help you begin to identify patterns and notice problems with behavior that may not have seemed abusive at the moment. When abuse does happen, note what happened and whether your partner said anything afterward to excuse it.
- Consider what you’d tell your best friend – Ask yourself what you’d tell your best friend if they were in a similar relationship. It’s often easier to examine negative events when you have some level of detachment. Pay attention to the small details that make you uncomfortable or make you pause. Do they feel healthy to you?
- Talk to loved ones – It’s not easy to open up about abuse. Maybe you got angry or brushed off friends and family when they expressed concern in the past. Yet loved ones can offer essential perspectives. Challenge yourself to listen and make a real effort to consider the accuracy of their observations. Try not to get defensive when they speak their truth and realize that they are only trying to help you help yourself.
- Get Professional Help – Another pattern in an abusive relationship is the urge to run away from getting professional help. This might be because the victim is scared of facing the truth or because the abuser dismisses the need for professional help. Therapy helps us identify our thought patterns and forces us to see patterns that we are not ready to see. A therapist can teach you more about the patterns of abuse that drive trauma bonding, and this insight can often provide a lot of clarity, and what you can do to stop the abuse.
- Break the bond – Once you decide to leave, disrupt the cycle completely by stopping all communications. At this point, there would be a part of you that will criticize you for giving up or for running away. Permit yourself to recognize that you’re not running away from the relationship, you’re accepting the truth and protecting yourself. When you decide to leave, create physical distance by finding a safe place to stay, such as with a relative or friend. Also consider changing your phone number and email address, if possible.
When you decided to leave, the abuser might insist they’ll change, go to therapy, do anything, as long as you’ll just come back. These promises can seem pretty tempting. But remind yourself of just how many times they’ve already promised to change and how many times they have not. Abuse is never the victim’s fault. It may take some time to regain a sense of balance and feel as if you’ve finally broken free, but support from a trained professional can make all the difference.
For the person whose love one is in an abusive relationship
- Listen – Let your loved ones talk and let them know that you’re there for them, both now and in the future regardless of their decisions. Do not put pressure on them to drop the relationship. Being aggressive or providing ultimatums could just push your loved one farther away and they may feel like they cannot talk to you even if you’re coming from a good place. Recognize that they’re not doing this intentionally and are struggling to understand their situation.
- Share unhealthy relationship experiences of your own or ones you have heard of – During conversations where an opportunity arises, confide any personal experiences of toxic relationships you have had or heard of with your loved one. This might help your loved one realize something that they thought was normal in their relationship isn’t normal. This might fall on deaf ears if they have not recognized the toxicity yet but might help them when they start to see the truth.
- Build up their self-image – Most people in toxic relationships start to believe that they are not good enough for any healthy relationship. They start to believe that there is something wrong with them which is why they are treated the way they are. Consistently reminding your loved ones of how amazing they are can build up their self-image, giving them the strength they might need to accept the truth. Challenge what their partner tells them about them. E.g., if the partner calls them weak, stupid, or constantly slut-shames them, remind them of their worth because you know that they are anything but weak.
- Accept that your relationship might change – Before you try and help your loved one, it might be helpful to ask yourself what’s more important to you – your relationship with your loved one or your loved one’s happiness. Perhaps the most difficult thing to accept in this situation is that a time might come when your loved one might choose to drop you and consider you a threat to their relationship. Even if you are careful enough to not say anything negative about the relationship, the abuser-victim bond might see you as the one driving a drift in that relationship. You can choose to not take any action and hope your loved one sees the truth someday or you can choose to take a risk and do everything you can to support your loved one. Whatever you decide, don’t blame yourself for what your loved one chooses to do. In the end, it’s their life and they will have to be the ones to open their eyes and take an action.
Unfortunately, in many cases, victims tend to pull away from their loved ones — a little or completely. In such a situation, the loved one is left with two choices – accept the decision and move on, or deal with the painful emotions and stay if they want to maintain a relationship with the victim. Whatever happens, recognize that if you were in your loved one’s place, they would have done the same for you. Never lose hope and never lose your love for them. Also, try and not do the following:
- Tell them you always hated their abuser.
- Tell them “I told you so.”
- Ask them how they could let the abuse happen.
- Begin with a mindset of doubt that closes them off to you.
- Become angry.
- Accuse or blame them.
- Tell them what their next steps, emotions, or long-term decisions should be.
- Tell them to leave the abuser immediately.
- Tell them you plan to call the cops.
- Tell them you’re going to confront the abuser.
Though it might be difficult, the best time for you to process the situation is after the victim is in a safer and healthier place. You have every right to be hurt, angry, and sad for them. You have every right to set boundaries — and you should. But the initial conversation with the victim is not the time to do so. Instead, focus on connecting with the heart and emotions of your loved one. Give them your support in a way that you can without disrupting your inner peace. If you believe in a God, pray for them. If you believe in good vibes, send your love and support to them. If, nothing else, hope that they will sooner or later recognize their self-worth and start to believe in themselves.
I hope this article helps you or your loved one deal with an abusive relationship and come out on the other side. Never lose hope or doubt yourself for what influence and change you can make to a situation. At the end of the day, your happiness matters more than anything else.