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The Trauma Bonding Friendship – Tips For Handling Toxic Friends

Friends can enhance your life in many ways. They can provide comfort during a breakup, encourage you to reach your goals, and serve as an extra cheerleader during times of success. 

However, not all friendships are designed to build you up. Unfortunately, many people will experience toxic friendships in their lifetime. 

Contrary to popular belief, abusive relationships aren’t merely reserved for romantic partners.  Friendships can quickly develop a trauma bond dynamic if one person is manipulative or narcissistic. 

So, how can you tell if your friendship is trauma bonded? 

Once this realization is made, what’s next? 

We’ll talk about trauma-bonded friendships and what you can do to move on from a toxic friend. 

What Is Trauma Bonding?

Before we take a deep dive into trauma-bonded friendships, we need to discuss what exactly a trauma bond is. 

A trauma bond occurs when a victim of abuse feels a strong connection and an overwhelming need for validation from their abuser. 

In a trauma-bonded relationship, the abuser is a master manipulator. They’ll make their victim feel loved, cared for, and appreciated, yet tear them down at the drop of a hat, criticize them, and abuse them. 

Trauma bonding is a cycle that constantly repeats itself. Manipulation and abuse will alternate with wonderful experiences. These good times will reinforce the bond a victim feels towards their abuser and is enough to keep many people stuck in toxic relationships for years. 

Simply put, a trauma bond is a psychological response a victim feels toward their aggressor. They may experience manipulation, lies, deceit, and abuse at the hands of their partner, yet experience an addiction to the highs from intermittent love and affection. 

A woman smirks as she puts her hands on her friend's shoulder. Her friend looks upset. The title reads Signs of a Trauma-Bonded Friendship
Trauma Bonding Friendships

Can You Be Trauma Bonded With a Friend?

Yes – you can be trauma bonded with a friend. Trauma bonds aren’t limited to romantic relationships and can occur with friends, family members, and even coworkers. 

This bond is formed during periods of affection, praise, and acknowledgment alternating between periods of manipulation or abuse, it’s not strictly romantic. 

The abuse in a trauma bond does not have to be physical, and it’s important to keep this in mind. While your friend may not hit or beat you, they may play psychological games that leave you feeling hurt, exhausted, drained, or upset. 

More>> Do Manipulators Always Know They’re Being Manipulative?

What Does a Trauma-Bonded Friendship Look Like?

Trauma bonds don’t happen overnight. It’s a slow process that takes time and coercion to happen. Not only this, but since abusers are master manipulators, they’ll begin a friendship disguised as the most loving, caring person you’ve ever met. 

This is because there are stages of a trauma bond. They may not always appear in this specific order and can often jump around or repeat themselves; however, there’s a typical pattern in any trauma-bonded relationship:

Stage 1 – Love Bombing:

An abuser will begin a friendship by love bombing the other person. This may look like excessive attention or compliments, constant communication, and lavish gifts. The main goal is to make the other person feel special to associate the abuser’s presence with happiness.

Stage 2 – Getting Hooked:

Once an abusive friend sees their victim falling for their tricks, they start to dig their claws in. The next phase is to earn their victim’s trust and encourage them to let their guard down by doing whatever it takes to appear loyal.

Stage 3 – Criticism:

After an abusive friend has earned their victim’s trust, they’ll shift to devaluation. This stage of a trauma bond is meant to slowly tear the other person down. Comments may begin small but gradually get worse and more frequent over time. 

Stage 4 – Gaslighting:

At this point, a victim may begin to feel uneasy about the friendship and might try calling their abuser out on their behavior. This is when gaslighting, an extreme form of psychological manipulation, begins. An abuser may deny or belittle a victim’s experience, call them ‘crazy,’ or cause a victim to question their own reality. 

Stage 5 – Giving In:

Many victims of trauma-bonded friendships aren’t ready to throw in the towel just yet. They may notice the toxicity in a friend but attempt to keep the peace and preserve the friendship by submitting to their ways. This is usually a last-ditch effort when a victim feels emotionally drained. 

Stage 6 – Loss of Identity:

As with any abusive relationship, a victim of a trauma-bonded friendship may begin to lose themselves over time. During the love bombing phase, they may have blown off other friends to spend time with their abuser. However, towards the end, it may look more like isolation and disconnection from old friends and family. 

Stage 7 – Addiction:

Intermittent rewards are incredibly addicting. Think about a casino. How do they make all their money when people go and lose hundreds of dollars? Through intermittent rewards.

Someone may lose time and time again, but the high they feel when they finally win is enough to keep them coming back for more.

The emotional addiction of a trauma-bonded friendship is reinforced when in between periods of manipulation and abuse lies good memories, inside jokes, and a shoulder to lean on. This perpetuates the cycle and keeps a victim trapped. 

Think for a second: are you truly happy and thriving in your friendship?

 Is your friend giving you life and energy, or are they draining it? 

We are quicker to ask these questions in romantic relationships but less so in our friendships. This is how trauma bonding friendships invade our lives.

Signs You’re In a Trauma-Bonded Friendship:

You may be experiencing a trauma-bonded friendship if your friend…

  • Guilt trips you into doing what they want 
  • Ignores any real problems in your friendship
  • Rarely owns up to hurting you
  • Rarely takes accountability for their actions 
  • Manipulates you into getting something from you
  • Makes you feel uncomfortable or unsettled
  • Expects you to go the extra mile when they never (or rarely) ever do
  • Never admits to being wrong 
  • Criticizes you 
  • Talks down to you 
  • Calls you names or says hurtful things 
  • Is incredibly defensive when called out for their actions 
  • Hurts you, apologizes, then hurts you again
  • Doesn’t offer up a real apology when they’ve done wrong
  • They don’t ask about your life 
  • They don’t show up for you 

Nobody is perfect, and every friendship has its flaws. However, if you can check more than 3 of these traits off the list, you might be in a trauma-bonded friendship. 

For more insights into trauma bonding friendships and trauma bonds more generally, check out this video:

How Do You Get Out Of a Trauma Bonded Friendship?

Once you’ve come to accept that a friendship is toxic, it’s crucial for your well-being and mental health to either move on and let go or set firm boundaries with the other person. 

Many people in trauma bonding friendships attempt to set boundaries; however, abusers in these situations are relentless at roping their victims back into the same dynamic as before.

They may say whatever they have to to keep you from leaving. Abusers love to be in control of their victims and will go to extreme lengths to stay connected. 

Ending any kind of relationship is hard. Ending a trauma-bonded friendship can seem impossible. Nevertheless, there are a few tips to keep in mind when deciding to cut ties for good. 

Woman sit around a table. One types on her phone as another smirks. One is excluded. The title reads How to Leave a Trauma Bonding Friendship
How To Leave A Trauma Bonding Friendship

1. Prepare Beforehand:

A conversation is necessary to firmly leave an abusive friendship. As we’ve discussed, abusers are masters of disguise and will try every tactic in the book to keep you from ending the friendship. Preparing beforehand for anything they may try to say or do to keep you around is a good idea.

Make a list of why your friendship isn’t working out, and stand your ground. 

More>> What Happens When A Codependent Leaves A Narcissus

2. Recognize The Signs of Gaslighting:

Once you discuss why you’re ending the friendship, your abuser may try to gaslight you into thinking you’re the problem.

They might try to confuse you or distort your memory by adding false details, altering past situations, or denying the existence of a specific problem.

Educate yourself on the signs of gaslighting beforehand, so you have the knowledge and power to walk away. 

3. Write It Down:

The conversation may become emotional or intense when you’re talking to your toxic friend. It can become easy to forget why you’re choosing to cut ties in the first place.

Write it down and bring it with you to stay focused and on track. 

4. Be Honest:

It can be incredibly intimidating to talk to your friend about their past abuse; however, it’s crucial to be completely open and honest about the things you’ve experienced within the friendship.

Be transparent about why you’re leaving to have a clear conscience afterward. 

5. Stay Firm:

The best way to end a trauma bonding friendship is to stay firm and clear on your decision. Just like ripping off a bandaid, it may hurt at the moment, but it’s better than to slowly back out with one foot in the door.

If you don’t wish to block them from your phone or social media, set firm boundaries with them on communication. 

How Long Does It Take To Break a Trauma Bond?

In a perfect world, we could all break free from abusive friendships and wipe our hands clean. However, trauma bonds are in fact, traumatic.

Trauma can rewire our brains and leave us broken in the aftermath. Recovering from a trauma bond is the same as recovering from an injury; it takes time.

While there are certainly ways you can guide the process along faster, remember to be patient with yourself while you heal. 

Breaking a trauma bond can require deep inner work, self-reflection, and in some cases, therapy. 

One study examined individuals recovering from a trauma bond. It took people anywhere from 5 ½ to 12 ½ years to fully break free and heal.

Many of the individuals stated that cognitive dissonance (the mental and emotional toll inconsistent behavior can cause a victim) was the main reason it took them years to break their trauma bond. 

However, every person is different. The more in touch you are with your inner self, the easier it will be to overcome the aftermath of a trauma bond. 

More>> Free Shadow Work Prompts To Connect With Your Inner Self

What Does Breaking a Trauma Bond Feel Like?

You’d think that after breaking free from an abusive friendship, you would feel happy, energized, and full of life. This is a huge misconception and can send many victims of abuse back into the arms of their aggressor. 

After breaking a trauma bond, you may feel a range of emotions.

This is completely normal. You may certainly feel joy and relief, but it’s not uncommon to feel sadness, guilt, shame, or anger. It’s possible you might grieve over losing the other person and feel conflicted by the good memories you did share. 

You may also end up confused or unsure how to feel. This is normal, too.

Healing is not linear.

One day you might feel positive and excited for the future, while the next day, you may ruminate on the past and feel defeated and hopeless. 

It’s important to take care of yourself afterward. Reach out to another close friend or family member. Practice self-care. Seek therapy if you need guidance. You just experienced something traumatic – take the time you need to recover. 

You don’t have to figure this out on your own.

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How Do You Know If You Were Trauma Bonded With Someone?

It might be impossible to see while you’re in it, but hindsight is always 20/20. Look back on the friendship and ask yourself these questions:

  • Was I always defending their actions to others?
  • Was I always explaining away the things they were doing?
  • Did I often distance myself from people trying to help?
  • Was the beginning of the relationship far different than the end?
  • Was I hostile toward anyone that would try to intervene?
  • Was I reluctant to leave the friendship?
  • Was I always looking past red flags?
  • Did I often daydream about the beginning of the friendship and cling to hope it would return?
  • Did I keep secrets from my friend?
  • Was I able to be myself around them?
  • How did I feel after spending time with them? Recharged or drained?

As we’ve discussed, all friendships have flaws. However, if you look back on a toxic friendship and can check multiple questions off this list, you might have been in a trauma-bonded friendship. 

Final Thoughts on Trauma Bonding Friendships:

Did your friend initially seem like a perfect match, only to change drastically after getting more comfortable? 

Friendships are a part of life meant to bring out the best in us. If you find that you’re in a friendship that leaves you upset, anxious, hurt, or causes you emotional pain, you may be trauma bonded. 

Trauma bonds can be devastating to break; however, everyone deserves to be surrounded by people that are there to encourage them, help them, and cheer them on. 

You deserve to experience the care a healthy friendship can bring. Don’t wait – it just may be the best decision you ever make for yourself.


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