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“The only abnormality is the incapacity to love.” ~ Anais Nin
Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in “Revolutionary Road.”
Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford in “The Way We Were.”
Kate Winslet and Jim Carrey in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.”
Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper in “A Star is Born.”
What do all of these movies have in common? How are they all connected?
They all portray abusive, toxic, trauma-bonded relationships, and yet, we all rooted for them. We wanted them to succeed and true love to be found in the end. This is the nature of romanticizing a toxic relationship.
So, what is a trauma bond?
A trauma bond is a psychological response to an abusive relationship. In a relationship with a trauma bond, there is an abuser and a victim. The victim connects to their abuser in a way that keeps them tethered even when they know it is unhealthy. They may feel compelled to prioritize their relationship against all odds.
Stockholm Syndrome is common in this kind of connection.
He killed the part of me only he was able to bring to life.
I gave him what he needed every moment.
He held me in ecstasy and pain,
Left me to cry in bed alone—
Sorrow, happiness, and everything in between—
He took credit for all the emotions, as if he created them.
He left; I reached out.
He came to me; I was there.
He wanted; I gave.
He asked; I obliged.
He fought; I fought back.
He produced a victim of circumstance and trauma;
I loved with every empathetic feeling in my bones.
He left after promising me the world,
Called me needy and crazy when I hurt from his abandonment.
Left broken and crumpled in a heap of sorrow,
I was his greatest masterpiece.
Trauma bonding can exist within a religion, a friendship, a child/parent dynamic, an employer/employee connection, a romantic/sexual relationship, and everything in-between.
It is an emotional bond with someone or an organization that arises from recurring, cyclical patterns of abuse, secured by intermittent reinforcement through rewards and punishment.
Intermittent reinforcement involves intense highs and lows, mind-blowing ecstasy, and devastating abandonment in repeated cycles of pushing and pulling the victim into and out of the dynamic. The intermittent reinforcement secures the victim’s loyalty and obedience to an abusive, hurtful dynamic that robs their soul and leaves them empty, running on an eternal emotional hamster wheel that never ends.
Crumbs of validation are offered by the abuser to the victim on a whim, and punishment is served at will. The victim becomes addicted to their abuser, developing feelings of compassion and empathy for the pain their abuser is feeling and tries to work hard to help them.
They may feel intoxicated in the connection and unable to leave, even if they feel it is an unhealthy dynamic, thus creating difficulties with keeping healthy boundaries within the relationship. The roller-coaster of highs and lows secures them in a never-ending cycle of unhealthy attachment.
Trauma bonding is a seductive process.
Remember Bella and Edward in the movie “Twilight”?
“You’re like my own personal brand of heroine,” Edward told Bella. Their relationship portrayed an example of a toxic trauma bond. The vampire literally sucked the emotions and life out of his victim. She was hooked on him.
This intense bond can feel like an addiction. Abandonment and separation from this bond can feel like a devastating withdrawal from a drug.
How do you detach and heal from a trauma bond? This is the hard part.
A person within this toxic cycle may be fully aware how unhealthy it is, yet leaving is often difficult, thanks to the hook of the intermittent reinforcement which creates a chemical dependence within the brain.
Leaving is essential and difficult to do alone.
Once you are able to break free from the bond, staying detached and finding healing is a process. It will take a support system of friends, family, and a good trauma-trained therapist.
The aftermath of the trauma bond involves healing from the trauma, rediscovering yourself, and maintaining a renewed sense of who you are, undefined by the other person or organization.
Recovering feels like withdrawal from a drug.
The aftermath of the trauma bond can cause real, physical pain, like that produced from stopping an addictive drug. Preparing for that detachment with all the necessary supports in place is essential for the healing to be successful.
Nightmares, flashbacks of happy and unhappy memories, a crash in oxytocin, and even feelings of deep sadness and depression may arise. An intense longing for the good feelings, moments, and wanting to see, touch, feel, or hear the other person again may come in waves.
Fear, stress, adrenaline, and anxiety may keep your mind overthinking and remembering. It may even feel like recovering from an illness.
Let it happen. Feel it. As the feelings come, they are coming so they can leave. Let them come through you so they can go.
Here’s a list of things to keep in mind while recovering from a trauma bond:
1. It is a recovery process, so treat it like one.
Take hot baths, drink warm tea and soups, take walks, drink a lot of water, and sleep as much as you can. Sleep is healing and will help you to recover.
2. Prioritize yourself and your own needs.
Find out what those are. You may need to adjust your schedule to accommodate your new life.
3. Find a good, supportive friend.
You can vomit all your emotions to that friend as they come. Write them out in a journal to help you process.
4. Move your body.
When you feel ready to get the emotions out in a healthy way, do something to help your body move. Take up a yoga practice. Yoga is physically and mentally challenging and restorative for your mind. It will help you process and feel better physically.
5. Meditation or Yoga Nidra.
Meditation will help calm the chatter in your mind, restore a sense of peace and wellbeing, and can help you heal from the trauma on a deep level. It will change your subconscious mind and limiting beliefs.
6. Find a trauma-trained therapist.
Find a therapist who uses trauma-based modalities such as EMDR, DBT, Somatic Experiencing, Neurofeedback, and Biofeedback. Therapy is helpful in healing, relearning, processing, and finding a safe place to come home to yourself.
A therapist who is trained in trauma can help you feel safe and develop healthy boundaries so you may learn to trust yourself and others again.
This is not a process to be undertaken on your own. You will need help to get through the aftermath to heal and reprogram your brain. Support is essential.
It is important to be honest with yourself. This will take time. There is no right way to heal or recover, and there is no set timeline.
Learn how to set healthy boundaries with the help of an informed therapist. Boundaries may feel scary and difficult to stick to, but they are necessary to developing a sense of self outside the intense trauma-bonded relationship.
Only those who are threatened by boundaries will try break them down and expect you to compromise your sense of safety and self, like a vampire who sucks everything out of you and gives little in return.
You wrapped yourself in
the cocoon of my empathy—
dance of the devil,
Starving me of the
love I filled your empty soul
with—your vampire need.
You used my own heart
against myself, barely had
to lift a finger.
You showed up and took
every ounce of love I was
willing to give you.
You sucked me dry and
left me empty, moving on
to your next victim.
never satisfied from the
emptiness you served.
A healthy relationship does not look like the star-studded toxicity of the movies. Those story lines romanticize a traumatic bond that can cause both emotional and physical harm to a person’s brain and body.
A healthy relationship allows each person to maintain their own autonomy and come together to complement and lift one another, without each person sacrificing who they are for the other.
Save your soul from the emotional vampire.
The love they stole from every part of you is the love you deserve to hold for yourself.
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