Trauma Bonding Defined: What You Need to Know

by | Feb 28, 2023

Trauma accumulates and that is what makes it difficult to leave a toxic relationship. Many will say “why don’t they just leave?” Well it is actually a chemical dependency that creates the inability to leave a toxic relationship. An abuser starts off gradually to get their person hooked. They start love bombing to sink their hooks in. They make you believe you have found your soul mate. They don’t just “blast” you with abuse because they will start towing the line to see what they can get away with—being it’s an actual slow and gradual process. You cannot just see the trauma bonding coming if you do not understand how the brain works and the typical actions of a toxic partner which leads to trauma bonding. You’ll never even likely understand that you were being abused a significant portion of the time because of their tactics to get you hooked in the relationship in the beginning. Hurt accumulates, whether it be from childhood abuse, or a toxic relationship—due to little acts of gradually increasing acts of degradation, manipulation, keeping secrets, and shame on a continual basis, which takes its toll. Trauma bonding by accumulation will end up sneaking up on unsuspecting victims.

Essentially, survivors cannot simply or “logically” process the situation and get out. All parts of the brain that deal with planning, cognition, learning and decision making become disconnected with the emotional parts of the brain—they can even cease to communicate with each other when an individual becomes traumatized. It takes a great deal of awareness, effort, resources, validation and addressing wounding on all levels before one can gain access to the logical side of the mind to heal the trauma. Continually being exposed to a toxic partner and their devious tactics will prevent healing from occurring if triggering continues to occur.

Abuse survivors are ultimately and unfortunately hijacked by the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine which is responsible for creating reward circuits in the brain—tell the victim to continue in the relationship due to the pleasurable memories created in the beginning along with the idea that it’s almost like a drug addiction—an addiction to dangerous romantic partners. Survivors who experience rejection and devaluation while also being discarded suffer the consequences of narcissism mixing bonding with betrayal to get the survivor hooked on the abuse which acts like a drug in itself. People ruminate over memories of their past partner and the desire is intensified. Dopamine is also about survival and not just pleasure and reward. Ones linked to our survival can cause dopamine to flood the brain. It doesn’t just tell us what is pleasurable, but what to pay attention to in order to survive. The more powerful and intense the experience is, the stronger the message is to continue the activity for survival. 

Do you remember constantly obsessing over the intense and pleasurable sensations and beautiful moments with your narcissistic partner? All the sweet dates, love bombing, compliments and incredible sexual experiences?  That is essentially the dopamine being released into your brain which tells you to continue seeking out those experiences with that partner. Our desires for a partner we love and yet who have ultimately been rejected by, cause the activity in the reward system of the brain that also simultaneously acts as the desires for what is the same as drug addiction.

When partners ride the dopamine roller coaster together, they tend to be fonder of each other afterwards—and the fear creates a biochemical bond between them. So when a toxic partner threatens to smear the survivor’s name or there is fear of retaliation, it creates a deeper bond to them in a way no one would expect. Addiction to pain, fear, and anxiety all are embedded within the cycle of abuse. There is also an antidepressant effect, triggering fear and anxiety which then releases dopamine which can cause a person to become addicted to adrenaline. They then become addicted to recklessly seeking the rush evoked from going between tender bonding and betrayal. This is why it’s so difficult to maintain no contact with a toxic partner which causes many to relapse—thus going back to their toxic partners.

But there is hope—there are ways to counteract the effects of trauma bonding which are through physical activity, mindfulness, meditation, laughter, music, and positive social interactions. Healing involves changing the way our brains our wired. Now, I’ve focused on EMDR therapy in the past and firmly believe that healing from trauma bonding doesn’t have to take years when you can gain access to a practitioner of EMDR therapy to help you move forward with your healing. Please see the blog “EMDR and how it can benefit you” to get more information on this modality of therapy. Please get help, you should try to acknowledge, understand, and come to terms with the toxicity of the relationship. You deserve to not be bonded anymore to the trauma you have endured. Through understanding and awareness—more people can be helped to either avoid this situation altogether or to be able to find a way out.

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