Trauma Bonding, Toxic Emotional Attachment, How to Know When to Stay & When to Go + How to Find Healing & Freedom

In this podcast (episode #280) and blog, I answer another question from a listener on toxic relationships and trauma bonds.

Trauma bonds is a phrase that was first used by Patrick Carnes, who describes them as chains that link a victim to someone who is dangerous to them within the confines of an exploitive relationship. Divorce, employee relations, child abuse, family and marital systems, domestic violence, kidnapping, exploitation and religious abuse can all be areas of trauma bonding. All these relationships share one thing: “they are situations of incredible intensity or importance where there is an exploitation of trust or power”.

The listener who emailed me their question wrote that:

I have a partner that was a heavy substance [abuser] for years….Last year he came back to me promising that he is in a good place, [but] I saw how he is still disconnected from everybody, even from himself. Little by little, I was trying to help him to understand what he is doing…and, each month, he seemed to be getting better…I knew he was trying to do this for me. But one day my partner almost died after getting very sick; after this happened I wrote him a letter telling him about how I felt. My partner decided to leave me, because he understood that he was hurting me.  

Now, after 3 months, he is back again. I can see the cloud is gone from my partner’s mind—he is like a new person. We are trying to be together again, but I can also see that all toxic traits are still there: the emotional manipulation, the gas lighting, the emotional instability and so on. But I can also see the patterns and I am beginning to understand where everything comes from and how I can deal with this situation in a healthy way for both myself and my partner…how I can help him heal his childhood wounds.

I can see that the road will be long and very difficult. But I believe that with every day, month, year he will get better. But he does not want to go to therapy (he has several issues trusting people), which it is extremely difficult for me. Sometimes I even think to myself, “what is wrong with me that I am still doing this?!”. It is almost like he is a project for me in my head, to find ways how to help and heal him. And I can't find it in myself to leave because of the happy moments with him.

My question is it possible to fix toxic relationship patterns when one of the partners is aware of what is happening and trying to find the way out and the other partner is slowly, unconsciously following their lead? And can the toxic behavior really change over time when treated with love and understanding, while, at the same time, I find ways to stand my ground? Are my own thoughts and behavior toxic, that I am doing this, waiting for him to change? Should I just leave to “fix” my own issues, so I can find a person who is in a better place mentally and emotionally, when I am in a better place myself? 

The kind of emotional attachment that is being described here appears to be a type of trauma bond, a recurring cycle of emotional abuse that alternates with kindness and intimacy, which is what often makes the situation so confusing. In the situation above, the person removes herself from the situation when she recognizes the damage his behavior is doing to them both, but then takes him back several times. There is the repeated cycle of holding onto the hope and promise that her partner will change, a hope that is underscored by “the good moments” they share, but he doesn’t seem to want to put in the mental work to change—it appears he wants her to do the actual work for them both.

Of course, in the email above you can clearly see she loves him and understands where his pain is coming from -- the root cause of his addictive behaviors -- and feels she can help him heal with love, patience and kindness. This works to a certain extent, and he seems grateful, but then the cycle begins again. She starts oscillating between thinking there is something wrong with her because her partner doesn’t want to get help (and the fact that her support doesn’t seem to be leading to any kind of sustainable change on his part), and her frustration with the lack of effort on his part and her need for boundaries.

How does all this work in the mind and brain? Bonding is a psycho-neurobiological phenomenon, a mind-brain-body affair. The experience of falling in love is processed by the mind into the brain and body; the other person is literally built into your biology. This means that a thought “tree” of that person is wired into your brain along with all the detailed memories you have about them. The roots of this tree are each encounter you have with them; the branches of this tree are your interpretations of these experiences. This thought tree grows into a thought “forest” over time with each encounter.

Indeed, whatever we think about the most grows, and this applies to our relationships as well. The more time we spend with someone, living together, eating together, sharing great experiences and being together during stressful or difficult times, the more we think about them and build them into our brain.

If behaviors happen repeatedly over 63 days, they become habits that induce behavior change, as I discuss in detail in my latest book Cleaning Up Your Mental Mess. In this case above, the relationship has been going on for around four years–that’s about twenty-four 63-day cycles, which means there is an established thought pattern and habit in the minds of both partners.

This kind of mental and neurobiological bonding can become distorted over time with enough toxic experiences. That doesn’t mean that everything is bad or that there are no “good moments”; rather, these good moments are mixed in with the bad times in a chaotic manner, which creates enough confusion to strengthen the bond between two people, almost creating an addictive pattern in their mind as they relate to one another.

The more this occurs in a relationship, the more the confusion creates a type of emotional “blindness” to what is really going on, even though we may feel that something is wrong in our nonconscious mind, as the woman in the email above mentions. This can feel like a threat to our survival, which often draws us to the person instinctively to restore some kind of balance. But, instead of restoring balance, toxic immersion/bonding occurs when we take the other person back, and the cycle continues, like in the email the listener sent above. She can see why the toxic person is doing what they are doing, but her intrinsic, “wired for love” nature (her desire for balance and coherence) is trying to fix the situation. This is in part why it is harder to leave an abusive relationship the longer it continues. Bonding makes it hard to enforce boundaries; it is so much harder to keep away from people to whom we have bonded because of the type of connection that has been established over time.

There is not something “wrong” or “broken” with us when we do this. Our mind and brain are just doing what they are designed to do. But, as the consequences of this kind of trauma bonding can be very toxic and harmful, we need to understand that we cannot “fix” another person, as much as we think we can help them change. We can only fix ourselves and support others. As much as you may want to help your loved one, they must make that decision to really want to change, otherwise the cycle will keep repeating itself. Trying to carry their burdens as well as your own will drain you—it will not change things, no matter how much effort you put in.

Of course, supporting those you love is important, and can definitely help them on their own journey towards healing. But enforcing your own boundaries and taking care of your mental and physical wellbeing is equally important. You cannot support someone if you cannot support yourself and your needs. Like the oxygen mask in an airplane, you must put yours on first before you can help others. If you find yourself in a situation like this, I recommend:

1. Seeking help if you do not feel safe at home or around the person you have a relationship with.

The national domestic abuse hotline for the USA is 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). The national child abuse hotline for the USA is 1-800-422-4453.

2. Practicing self-regulation.

Become what I call a “thought detective”—use your thoughts and feelings as warning signals, and work on getting to the root of your trauma bond so that you can start reconceptualizing those thought patterns and healing.

As a neuroscientist, I have found that the most effective way to manage stress and build up cognitive resilience is to practice self-regulation. I do this using my Neurocycle mind-management technique, which I discuss in detail in my new book Cleaning Up Your Mental Mess. The Neurocycle is a way to harness your thinking power through mind-management that I have developed and researched over the past three decades; any task that requires thinking can use it, which means everything can, because you’re always thinking!

This de-stressing, self-regulation technique can really work with any issue, and can be done anywhere, any place and at any time—all you need is you.

First, calm the brain down by breathing deeply. I recommend breathing in for 5 counts and out for 11 counts, and repeating this technique 3 times (for around 45 seconds).

Then, GATHER awareness of the emotional and physical warning signals your body is sending you, such as tension in your shoulders and feelings of anxiety or snappiness. Embrace these signals, don’t judge them or try to suppress them (spend around 30 to 45 seconds doing this).

Now, REFLECT on how you feel: ask, answer and discuss why you are feeling the way you do. Use specific sentences, like “I feel this tension because ...”. Do this for around 1 minute.

After reflecting, WRITE down what you feel and why for around 1 minute. This will help you organize your thinking and give you insight into what your body and mind are trying to tell you about your relationship.

Then, RECHECK what you have written, looking for your triggers and thought patterns. For example, you may notice that you start snapping and speaking louder when your partner is near you, as though this was the straw that broke the camel’s back and released all your pent-up tension and anxiety surrounding your relationship.

Lastly, take action. I call this step the ACTIVE REACH. This can be a positive statement that validates your feelings or a boundary you put up to give yourself time and space to process how you feel.

3. Seeing a therapist or licensed counselor (online or in person) and working through the trauma bond in a safe and effective environment.

For professional counseling, we recommend checking out:

These are not crisis lines. If you are facing an emergency, we recommend contacting a medical professional immediately or dialing 911 (or the emergency number in your country).

4. Reading up on trauma’s impact on the mind and body and how you can start healing.

Read books like The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk for more information on this, as well as How to Do the Work by Dr. Nicole LePera.

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Podcast Highlights

2:05 What a trauma bond is

4:20 Trauma bonding and exploitation

9:00, 33:40 Gaslighting and other relationship warning signs

11:02, 29:00 Why we can never “fix” someone else

14:00 Why boundaries are so important in a relationship

14:24 Sometimes ending a relationship may be the best thing for both people

19:00 How a trauma bond can impact your health

24:50 How to help someone who doesn’t want to change while putting up boundaries

35:15 Why trauma bonds are so confusing

36:45 How relationships change your mind, brain and bond

44:00 How to use mind management to heal trauma from toxic relationships

51:05 Tips to help heal a trauma bond

This podcast and blog is for educational purposes only and is not intended as medical advice. We always encourage each person to make the decision that seems best for their situation with the guidance of a medical professional.

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