How do you know if you are in a trauma bond? If you can’t identify it, it is impossible to start the journey towards the exit.
Last week on the ‘gram and the blog, I shared a story that described a quick situation where endorphins, cortisol, and adrenaline spiked then were followed by an intense rush of relief, safety, oxytocin, and “love.” In that situation, and the ones guaranteed to follow, the victim grows accustomed to having their neuropathways flooded with copious amounts of hormones. When trying to escape a toxic relationship based on abuse-and-reward, a victim must be prepared. This bond is addicting (you just read about endorphins, cortisol, oxytocin). And like any addiction (alcohol, drugs, cigarettes), giving up that vice and addiction means going through a withdrawal period. It’s important to identify toxicity and the trauma bond, to know that’s what you’re in…because it’s one epic battle to fight. And nearly impossible if you don’t actually identify it.
Here are some questions to ask yourself 👇🏼
1. When you are in the relationship do you constantly feel yourself wanting to leave?
When you do take a step back, do you then find yourself in an intense panic – even with clear and logical reasons to walk away? Like, physical waves of anxiety. And then, maybe you start romanticizing what it was and go back? Often people mistake this strong urge to go back as a sign of deep love. In all actuality, it’s a trauma bond. That desire + waiting + wondering when the next “hit” (text message, phone call, them begging you back) is gonna come – that’s called dopamine: the anticipation of getting the reward and having the serotonin release. When the text comes in…does the panic stop? Is there now a sense of calmness?
2. This was THE most powerful question ever asked to me: Would you want your daughter in this relationship? Your sister, brother, best friend? It’s easy to identify others in toxic relationships but when it’s you in a trauma bond you will go to the ends of the earth to convince yourself that no one understands how deep your feelings and connection are. Studies show that even hostages over time form intense bonds to their captors. It’s all part of the abuse and reward pattern.
3. Do you constantly find yourself reminiscing about the past? No one just wakes up and says, “Hey, I’m gonna dive into a toxic relationship today!” All trauma bonds start with an initial love-bombing period. The red flags are few and far between (or completely undetectable) and instead you experience romancing, amazing conversations, thrilling dates and forming new memories. Through this, abusers are amazing at identifying someone’s struggles, insecurities, and fears. They provide protection and a safe haven, and their verbal affirmations dissipate all of those insecurities. The victim FINALLY feels loved, heard, and seen. We all just want to be known right? But then the love bombing stops. It reappears in the initial reconciliations after trying to flee, but the key question here is- are you reminiscing on what used to be? Are you just waiting on them to be that man again? Are you trying to save and help her and stay with her so hopefully y’all can go back to what it was like in the beginning?
So your answers to these questions are eye-opening. Once you identify you are in a trauma bond and you are determined to leave – like you’ve had your come-to-Jesus moment and it’s going to happen – you have to understand that being able to leave is completely dependent on the measures you take to actually do it.
Ultimately the goal now is to calm and restore your nervous system…’cause it’s really messed up. (Remember, I’m just blogging and sharing what I’ve learned. If you’re serious about healing, seek out a professional.) I doubt anyone can truly do this on their own. I can only speak from my own research, what I’ve learned, and what I’ve done.
Here are some non-negotiables:
1. Cut all contact. Block. If you leave the door cracked open, I guarantee you’ll eventually go back. You have to think brain and chemicals, NOT love and feeling. By leaving communication lines open, you’re creating more dopamine because you know sooner or later that message will come. You HAVE to cut that drip off. Your brain can’t anticipate or wonder when the next hit is coming. And checking their social media is contact. Everytime you get on their page or hear their name, it’s like walking around with a drip IV in your arm. Eventually, you’ll need more because you haven’t actually stopped the drug. This process isn’t easy. You may end up having to move, or change numbers or emails. If you want out, you have to fight.
2. Focus on fixing relationships. After a period of time with a toxic person, it’s likely that you wake up one day and have no friends and find a huge distance between you and your family and society in general. This is because not only did the two of you cause scenes in public, but for a trauma bond to grow deep it has to stay hidden. If people who loved you knew how bad it was, you’d have felt pressure to leave…which to you feels like dying. Also, abusers are possessive and jealous. They want you all to themselves, so you neglect everyone else to appease them.
It’s so important to get intentional about building those relationships back, or to pray for healing and search for a new friends’ circle. Join a church, begin a new hobby, reach out to that woman you are FB friends with to go for coffee. You have to put yourself out there and create a new, healthy space. You’ve spent so much energy pushing everyone away, now it’s yours to fix. What can you do everyday to serve someone else? How can you be a friend? Daughter? brother? It’s time to form healthy bonds! Even a pet is great during this time.
3. Find a new…everything.
If you keep in mind the “drip IV” illustration and apply that, then you truly start recognizing all the drips around you. It’s time to get new music, new shows, new stores, new friends, new hang outs, new gym, new hobbies! You need a blank canvas to begin the new and beautiful life you are fighting to create. Clear out every reminder! It’s gonna be excruciating in the moment to delete those photos and trash those .gifs but I promise you, the other side is worth it.
The longer you’ve been in a trauma bond, the likelihood is that you will need to take more extreme measures like working with a professional on trauma bond abuse and toxic relationships. Trauma bonds literally lead to physical brain damage. The hippocampus shrinks while the amygdala grows. If you don’t understand that phrase, then that’s your cue to get professional help. To reverse this damage you have to make MAJOR life changes to re-program. You must take action to decrease cortisol releases. Things like shows, video games, caffeine, and work can all play a role. Diet, exercise, identifying stressors, and putting up huge boundaries in this time of healing are crucial.
Many people need to be solo for a while. This isn’t the time to find someone else to heal you. “If you don’t heal what hurt you, you’ll bleed on people that didn’t cut you.”
A new relationship is just a temporary lower-dose drip. It won’t fix you. It can’t. You’ll hurt this new person, they’ll hurt you, and then you’ll probably end up back in your dangerous and familiar hell…with the abuser.
There will be so much internal work to do. Your brain and your heart are suffering. Many people experience intense seasons of grief from things they missed or lost during the relationship that they weren’t present for; they didn’t grieve at the time because their brain couldn’t take it.
Have hope. The journey to healing in my own life, which was nowhere near what I’ve read or talked through with many of you, has been the most beautiful path I’ve ever taken. I’m thankful for every dark and lonely night. I’m thankful for tear-soaked pillows. I’m thankful for the days I couldn’t leave my house, or show my face, or fake a smile. I’m proud of the walls I built and the boundaries I set and the fight I fought to cut this bond. To win. I felt it all.
To get through this storm I had to completely surrender to God. I felt His power! He sent warriors alongside me! New friends, old friends, strong family members stepping in to hold me up. I felt His strength! I felt Him carry me! Now He whispers to me, “Forget the former things, do not dwell in the past. See I am doing a new thing. I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.” Isaiah 43:18-19
The couple drove back from a long day of hiking. She mentioned a work trip coming up that she’d be leaving for. It was the first time they would be away from each other since they began dating 3 months ago. Things were going so well. But he was SHOCKED she would spring this on him.
He drilled her with questions: Who was going to be there? Why do you have to go? The questions quickly became accusations, which turned into verbal attacks and name-calling. She was in shock! Who was this?!
She argued back, stood up for herself, obviously. In her mind, as soon as the drive was over, so was the relationship.
He continued to get louder. Blood rushed to his face. He was sweating, yelling, spitting. His hands turned to fists as he pounded the steering wheel. Then, she saw the speedometer… 126.96.36.199.90! She was terrified! She couldn’t run. She was trapped. She realized the fighting was escalating the danger their lives were in. He had lost all emotional control.
Think! Think! She knew freezing up into silence would not save them. So she retracted: “You’re so right, I’m sorry. I won’t go! That’s not fair to you. It’s my fault.” She yelled over his beratement, and she watched the speedometer through her tears. 90.85.75…
His breathing slowed. He stopped pounding the steering wheel. His color slowly returned to normal.
She did it! She saved them, she fixed it.
She had just learned the 4th coping mechanism in a trauma bond: Fawn – appease in a traumatic moment to stop the abuse.
When the ignition turned off she thought about bolting. But she glanced over and saw his face was stoic. He reached out to hold her hand, she flinched. Pain flooded his face as tears welled up in his eyes. Knowing his past, she felt sorry for him. As he begged for her forgiveness she began self-negotiating. “Should I run, or forgive him?”
She let him hug her. Relief washed over them. The fear, rage, and tension from just seconds before was replaced with trust, safety, and love. Weirdly enough, she felt closer to him.
That was the beginning of the drip. The addiction to the end of each episode would only grow stronger, even as the episodes continued to escalate.
How could she stay? It’s a NO brainer: RUN, woman!
But many of you know. You may not see it, but you’ve felt it. Maybe you are feeling it. Maybe it’s on a milder level. Maybe it’s becoming more impossible to not leave.
I have a gold ribbon I’m staring at outside on my tree as I write this. It’s there to remind me to pray for one of my best friend’s children who is feeling the loss of her mother. This friend was shot by her husband nearly 4 years ago. We saw lots of red flags, but we had no idea the gravity of the situation. I’ve also stared at this ribbon during a season of my life, knowing how stupid I was for walking this line. The shame was so deep because of what I was allowing to happen. I let addiction win.
I don’t know where your trauma bond is or how deep it goes…but I do know without help or without understanding what’s happening in your brain and not your heart….well, you’ll never be able to leave it. And if you do leave it…there has to be measures taken to not relapse. The waiting and anticipation of that next text, or the patterned reconciliation you know is coming a month from now is the EXACT reward and motivation hormone – dopamine – flooding the pathway. You have to identify the trauma bond, and learn what happens to your brain and how to change it.
If you’ve never been in a trauma bond but are seeing red flags…don’t ignore them. You are worthy. Don’t accept fleeting feelings of happiness and the addiction of oxytocin hits when you know where the road you’re on leads. When you see the first episode of anger, rage, manipulation or lies…understand what’s happening and leave. The longer you stay, the harder it is to walk away.
Research says that breaking away from a trauma bond is more difficult than cutting off a heroin addiction.
Over the last few weeks, it’s been unreal how many people have connected with this series and expressed their struggles in leaving a toxic relationship behind for good. People on the outside looking-in are absolutely clueless. They’re floored that their friend or family member is yo-yoing back and forth with an ex. Don’t think that the victim in this situation isn’t hugely embarrassed, or that they don’t understand how stupid they are.
The guilt and shame they feel will cause them to avoid. They will hide and lie and work even harder to avoid this public humiliation. Just like an addict does.
This bond can absolutely be reversed situations. Particularly with women who have experienced a lifetime of trauma: They have learned how to manipulate from being manipulated. They can pray on a man’s nature to save, and manipulate, coerce, damsel-in-distress-it to death and seduce their partner to do exactly what they need to miss the exit on their roller coaster.
I feel fortunate that I’m a researcher, as it helped get me out of my own situation. When I don’t understand something, I dive into rabbit hole after rabbit hole to find the answer.
This pursuit of knowledge was like oxygen to me. I learned how to save myself. I’ve also learned that most people aren’t wired like me. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve sent the very resources I’ve used to break away, and they wouldn’t even look at them. They’ve settled into victimhood and have lost the will to fight. To them, the good is too good and the bad is worth the good. For most, without intentional help, therapy, and a ton of ongoing work, they will never be able to escape.
Weaning off those chemicals and patterns is going to be a withdrawal! For a long time after, healthy will be dull! But with hope, things will heal. Time will heal. And the best is yet to come.
Don’t settle wasting away your life in an unhealthy and high risk relationship.
Statistically speaking, we have no idea the nightmares people live behind closed doors and perfectly-crafted social media lives. If you are already bound to that person in marriage, I’d advise you to be safe but take every measure of reconciliation. If you aren’t married, don’t settle.
Stay tuned as next week I’ll share with you the final piece to this series: How to begin the exit-process. And if you’re struggling to escape and you feel guilt, this information is freeing. Your brain is conditioned and wired to want to stay…and recognizing that THAT is where your fight begins makes a world of difference.