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Trauma Bonding is as Powerful as Heroin Addiction: Why It’s So Hard to Escape Toxic Relationships

Physically removing yourself is often not the most difficult part of getting out of a toxic relationship. What many people who have never been through it don’t realize is that once you’re out, an abuser’s voice remains in your head.

Getting out of an abusive relationship is extremely difficult, and staying out is even harder. On average, it takes seven to nine attempts to do so successfully. We have known people who spent years planning an exit, even putting a six-month deposit down on an apartment, only to return back to a terrible situation. Coercive control is powerful.

It can be incredibly frustrating to close family and friends to see a loved one willingly return back to a toxic partner. Often, outsiders feel helpless and eventually give up on a victim.

What we ourselves need to understand is that what draws us back into these awful situations can be temporarily beyond our control. Our brains have literally become “addicted” to the power dynamic in a toxic relationship.

I spoke with Texas author, coach, and substance abuse therapist Matt Phifer, who noted the chemical addictions present in an emotionally abusive relationship. Here’s Matt, in part of our conversation:

I know a lot of people say it’s like an addiction, but when I was in the substance abuse world, there was actual evidence to support that it literally is. It’s the same part of the brain that functions with addiction.

It’s debatable whether a trauma bond or heroin addiction is more potent and more addictive.

When you actually look at the parallels between the two, you start to see that there are a lot of similarities.

One is the fact that whenever you start to pull away from that person, you start to miss them in an unhealthy way.

That’s just like someone who struggles with heroin withdrawal symptoms. And you think that the only way that they’re going to overcome it is if they use one more time, and then they’re going to feel better about themselves, and they don’t.

It’s the same thing here. You think that if you talk to them one more time, if you go through their social media or if you see them, or try to reason with them, that it’s going to make you feel better.

And it doesn’t. It just continues to take you further and further down that cycle.

There’s also all that shame associated with this. We hear people all the time, after attempting to get away, and then going back, always say, “I feel so stupid.” They blame themselves. And people who don’t understand domestic violence, like family and friends, also say, “Why do you keep going back to this person that’s treating you terribly?” It doesn’t make sense to them.

It all begins with what starts out initially in childhood. No one’s stupid. You’re just so used to being comfortable in chaos. And so you grow up in that system, you end up with someone, and it’s almost like your grief from childhood, and that’s when the addiction starts. Oftentimes you feel like you need to rescue them or you feel, in some way, that they need to rescue you.

People who struggle with heroin addiction will tell you that the very first time that they used, it was the most euphoric feeling that they had ever felt in their life. And what they call it from that point forward is “chasing the very first high.”

And it’s the same thing when you’re talking about trauma bonds, and you’re talking about toxic relationships.

If you think about the beginning stages, it’s the most euphoric feeling. You think they’re your soulmate. You believe that they can’t do anything

So what happens is that when you start to see their bad behavior, you think that there’s something that you did wrong because that’s the way that you were raised. And you think that there’s some way that you can control it.

And then what happens is that you don’t want to be the one to ruin the relationship.

You think they’re just having a bad or rough day at work, and there’s some way that you can actually control it by being a nicer person, talking to them differently, being more patient, or getting into therapy.

And so you think that there’s something that you can do better, and start to come up with all these different excuses, not realizing that there’s a whole abuse cycle that’s happening.

For most people, myself included years ago, domestic violence conjures up images of physically battered women. But what we are starting to learn, especially now with coercive control legislation on the rise, is that there are many other, and certainly as, if not more potent, types of abuse.

Keep in mind that most victims of emotionally and psychologically abusive relationships have no idea of what they are dealing with, or even that they are in an unhealthy relationship.

This is why education is so important. Awareness of what we are dealing with is the first step we can toward recovering from a toxic relationship.

And then, and only then, perhaps we can stop blaming ourselves so much along the way…

(Note: This excerpt is from our longer live interview, “The Significant Impact of Trauma Bonding in High-Conflict Divorce, and How To Protect Yourself” with Matthew Phifer of Matt Phifer Coaching. For part II of this blog series, “I Love Pissing You Off, Because Then I Know You Still Love Me: the Insidious Nature of Narcissistic Abuse, and How to Stop Being Their Supply,” click here).

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