When we think about friendship, lots of us think of the people in our lives who are by our side no matter what—our besties, the ones who hype us up, cheer us on, and give us a space to feel all the feels when something goes wrong. These are friendships we cherish, and they help make up the beautiful tapestry of our social lives.
But what about those of us who call to mind that person in our lives—the one we call a friend, even when we feel kind of… icky around them? The friend who is warm and loving one day, and cold, abusive, or unforgiving the next? The one who we’ve always had a complex relationship with, where there’s no good way to explain why things feel so strained in one moment, and then so connected and awesome the next?
While there are a lot of reasons why a friendship might feel complicated and difficult to navigate, for some of us, when we find ourselves in the constant push-pull of the highs and lows within our closest friendships, we may be experiencing something called a trauma bond.
What is Trauma Bonding?
Trauma bonding is a concept that is most often talked about in the context of romantic relationships, but it’s something that can occur within any close relationship—romantic or otherwise—and friendship is definitely no exception to this.
Trauma bonding is what happens when we form a close attachment (or, a bond) with someone who is abusive toward us—whether that is emotional, physical, mental, or even sexual abuse. A trauma bond may form when someone who is being abused by a friend, a partner, or other close connection starts to feel a confusing mix of compassion, love, and empathy toward the abusive partner, while also experiencing confusion, anger, or sadness.
As a trauma therapist in Seattle, I have worked with many people in a trauma bond who find themselves in a repeating cycle of highs and lows. This cycle is surprisingly difficult to detach from. Some people describe their trauma bond as almost addicting—like they know the relationship is unhealthy and toxic for their mental health, but they find it nearly impossible to pull away from the intense rollercoaster ride of emotions that come with their connection.
Signs of Trauma Bonding
Some of the more common signs of trauma bonding include:
● The relationship may have started with “love bombing” — excessive and intense attention or compliments, a rushed sense of intimacy, or frequent and intense communication.
● Feelings of “stuckness,” powerlessness, and defeat when you think about your relationship.
● You may feel torn down, gaslit, or otherwise invalidated when you bring up concerns, and you may stop bring up concerns to “keep the peace.”
● Your relationship often feels intense, complex, or confusing.
● The other person makes promises that they don’t keep, like promising to “do better” and then failing to follow through.
● You might find yourself spending much less time with other people, or doing other things that are important to you, like professional pursuits, hobbies, or leisure activities.
● You minimize abusive behavior from the other person, or you try to defend them with things like, “they were just having a shitty day,” or, “they had a really hard childhood and got triggered.”
● You tend to believe that if you just “do the right thing” or “say the right thing” you can help fix your relationship and stop the abusive behaviors.
● Other people in your life have encouraged you to leave the relationship but it feels super hard, if not impossible, to do.
While this list isn’t exhaustive, if you notice yourself nodding your head or saying “yep, that’s my friendship” to more than two or three of the above items, you may be experiencing a trauma bonded friendship.
Trauma Bonding in Friendships
Even though a lot of people think of romantic relationships when they talk about trauma bonding, it is absolutely possible to form a trauma bond with a friend, and the cycles can look very similar even when romance is not involved.
You may be experiencing trauma bonding with friends if your friend:
● Regularly uses “guilt trips” or manipulation to get something or to get their way.
● Has a hard time accepting feedback, acknowledging hurt, or taking accountability for things they’ve done wrong.
● Criticizes you, talks down to you, or calls you hurtful names, even if they say they’re “just playing” or they tell you that you shouldn’t be “so sensitive.”
● Hurts you, apologizes, then does the same thing again later on—and this is a cycle that plays on repeat in your friendship.
How to Get Over a Trauma Bond Friendship
Getting over a trauma bond can be difficult, but it’s not impossible. In the long run, it can be an incredibly compassionate way of helping both you AND your friend get to a healthier place outside of the toxic elements of your relationship.
Here are a few suggestions for ways to respectfully end and heal from a trauma bonded friendship:
Get support from a friend, family member, or therapist
Ending a relationship of any kind is hard, and ending a friendship is doubly hard because we rarely ever talk about “friendship breakups” in our society. As you go through the process of ending and getting over a trauma bond, you may find it helpful to enlist the support of a different friend, a close family member, or even a therapist who can encourage you and help you stay accountable to your process.
Write down the things that make you feel gross, hurt, angry, sad or mad
This is less to have something to throw in your friend’s face, and more to give you a solid understanding of the cycles and patterns that play out in your friendship on repeat. Writing a list that is just for you can help clarify your personal and unique reasons for wanting to end a trauma bonded friendship.
And rather than bashing your friend’s personality or character, try to write down observable behaviors that make you feel gross, hurt, sad, or scared. Try to notice any patterns that emerge. For example, maybe you’ve told your friend that Sundays are your personal day to relax and recharge before work, but they consistently use guilting language or manipulative behaviors to get you to hang out with them. Write down the patterns and start noticing how their behaviors impact you on an emotional, mental, and even physical level.
Prepare what you want to say beforehand
Having a prepared list of things to talk about when you plan to end or significantly distance yourself from a trauma bonded friendship can make this process much easier. That’s not to say it will be easy—but, it can be easier when you know what you want to say, how you want to say it, and in what order. Enlist the help of a trauma therapist or a close friend to help you write down what you want to say.
Make a clean break and stick to your boundaries
When you’re trying to get over a trauma bond, it’s often best to make a clean break. This can feel painful for everyone involved, but it’s also a way to avoid the intermittent reinforcement of a toxic dynamic. This is another area where a close friend, family member, or trauma therapist can help you process the painful emotions that come up while staying true to your process.
Trauma Counseling in Seattle
As a therapist in Seattle, I’ve worked with clients on identifying, understanding, and ultimately finding freedom from painful trauma bonded friendships and relationships. I know how hard this process can be and would be honored to help you find your way through the grief of getting over a trauma bond.
To learn more about Seattle trauma counseling, contact me for a free consultation to see if I’m the right fit for you.