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Trauma Bonding Explained: Why “Just Leave” Doesn’t Work

Reviewed by Karis A. Williams, MSMHC, LPC,   January 13, 2024

A trauma bonding relationship is very difficult to navigate.  Often, the victim doesn’t feel as though they have the freedom to escape.  But they are a grown adult and able to make their own decisions.  And they haven’t been kidnapped.  So what makes “just leave” so hard or seemingly impossible for victims to do?

The “just leave” mentality doesn’t work for trauma bonding victims.  They feel like they cannot leave a trauma bonding relationship because they have been emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, financially, physically, sexually manipulated to the point they are afraid to leave.  Additionally, they can feel as though they should stay because they think things can get better in the future and they have already invested so much.  It would be advantageous to stay to see that improvement.  Or so their thinking goes.

Let’s take a look at what “just leave” in a trauma bonding relationship looks like and some healthy ways to work through it.

Why “Just Leaving” a Trauma Bonding Relationship Doesn’t Work

There are several reasons why leaving a trauma bonding relationship isn’t as easy as just deciding to leave and doing it.  Let’s break them all down.

Hormones and Body Chemistry can Confuse the Victim

When the relationship gets chaotic, the hormone cortisol is released, often making the victim take on a fight or flight mentality.  On the flip side, when things are going really well, the hormone oxytocin is produced.  Oxytocin is known as the “reward” hormone, in that the brain considers it a reward for whatever caused the production.  Because of this, the brain will continue to look for those oxytocin opportunities and fool the trauma bond victim into living for the next good event that causes oxytocin to once again be produced.

Over time, life for the trauma bonded victim becomes a series of seeking out whatever they can do to bring about the next “reward.”

Trauma Bond Victims Always Hold Out Hope That Things Will Improve

Trauma bonding victims see the good and loving times and think that better times are around the corner.  Every time things get better again, the victim becomes more hopeful.  And the narcissist generally realizes this and keeps on doing it, knowing that it secures them narcissistic supply for the near future.  As long as they can do things that will draw the victim back in, they know their victim will not leave.

Trauma Bond Victims are Afraid of Leaving

Even when trauma bonding victims start to understand the level of abuse they are under, they often don’t leave because they are already afraid of their abuser.  Attempting to leave could very well send their abuser over the edge and they are well aware of it.

I was very fortunate that when it was time for me to leave, my church leadership and counselors took over because they knew the level of anger was already at fever pitch.  And they knew that me announcing my departure was going to turn heads.  I am grateful to this day that I was never in a dangerous position in order to start my (and my kids’ new life).  That being said, upon the church and counselors letting my ex know about the separation, my kids and I were all taken to a secret location for 10 days while the legal separation agreement was drafted and enacted.  This was due to threats and anger that happened with the church and counselors there.  I can’t imagine how much worse it would have been had I announced all of this in private with my ex.

And with this, I would like to say here that if you feel you are in any danger, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233).  Or you can visit online at

Victims Cannot Leave a Trauma Bonding Relationship Because of the Nature of the Abuse

Victims often feel they cannot leave a trauma bonding relationship because the nature of the abuse makes them feel powerless to go out on their own.  Here are some examples:

  • When financially abused, victims won’t have the cash, securities, housing, or credit rating to be able to go out on their own.  This is especially true of women who have been married for many years to their abuser.
  • When psychologically abused, victims can feel like they are not wise enough to make the decisions they need to in order to succeed out on their own.
  • In the case of physical abuse, victims often feel that if they try to leave they will be in even worse danger.  So they stay to try to stay under the radar.  Again, If you feel unsafe or that you could be in any danger, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233).  Or you can visit online at

You Will Need Outside Help

Because you have been functioning in a bubble for so long, it is critical to find a couple or a few RELIABLE friends and/or family members to talk to about what you are feeling.  You can share your feelings, fears, hopes, thoughts, anything that can help you to start to see things through a more accurate lens than the destructive words that have been thrown at you.

I remember not saying anything to anyone for years because I felt like everyone loved my then husband so much and would never believe what was happening behind closed doors.  I think if I had done this, I would have found healing much sooner than 35 years after it all started.

The first time I started talking was when my husband “turned me in” to pastors and later counselors to make me fall in line.  I couldn’t even find the right words.  I told one pastor that all of the fighting and his displeasure with me would stop if I would just shut up and obey.  My pastor looked at me as if to say, “Then just obey!”  A year later and much wiser to what was really going on, he apologized profusely for not realizing what I was really saying.  And he has used that example since to help others see the clues when there is abuse and trauma hiding behind closed doors.

Once my pastor knew what was going on, he recommended I talk to a few friends to gain some balance.  One was his wife.  I was in counseling by this time, who also recommended I have a few confidantes.  And this started my healing in full swing.

Journaling Will Help You Regain Your Perspective

I almost didn’t add this section because, honestly, I HATE journaling.  Which is kind of funny, because I love to write (or type, as it goes today).  For whatever reason, I have always loved to write about things that interest me, but when it came to writing about myself or my feelings, I would much rather gracefully bow out and continue writing about other things.

But here is what I learned when I started writing things down because my counselor strongly encouraged it.  First, I needed documentation as things happened behind closed doors.  I tended to forget things pretty quickly, so most of my counseling subjects would be just what had happened in the 24-48 hours before the session.  But writing about my experiences allowed me to remember things longer and it allowed my counselor to see more of the full picture in the week or two between sessions.

Second, it allowed me to start actually seeing what was happening.  I knew things were crazy at times.  But when I started to write about it on a regular basis, I could see the frequency and patterns that I couldn’t see before.  I have never been a keep score kind of person.  So once an exchange was finished, I seldom remembered it very long.  And because things were coming at me constantly, I especially couldn’t remember.  That is why journaling turned out to be a lifesaver for me.

The Biggest Advantage of Journaling

Maybe one of the biggest advantages of journaling was that when it came time for proving things in court, I was able to easily coordinate with my counselors, lawyers, and journal to find the proof and documentation I needed to make sure things were clear.

Everything I had written was in line with interviews that had been done with my ex-husband, counseling records, and evaluations of his circumstances throughout the process.  My journaling was instrumental in keeping everything organized to answer questions and keep everyone informed as the narcissistic behavior continued throughout our separation and divorce process.

If you are trauma bonded, journaling will be a necessary step to help clarify your mind and start moving forward.

For the record, I am no longer journaling because I am well beyond the counseling/court/divorce process.  But I do sometimes wonder what my journaling would look like now that life is in such a better place.  And I often wish that I liked journaling and was better at it.

You Will Need to Re-adjust Your Sense of Reality

Once you start talking about your trauma bonding issues with people who are outside of the circumstances, you will find clarity coming quite quickly.

One of my favorite movies (in recent years) is Gaslight.  In it, Paula is terribly manipulated psychologically by Gregory, her husband.  In the guise of taking the “best care of my dear wife,” he destroys her reputation and confidence.  Until she finally sees what is really going on and outsmarts his narcissistic tactics.

Of course, in real life it doesn’t get solved in two hours.  But once you start to see things for what they are, healing can be very rapid.  Working with the best counselors and support will help even more.  Check it out.  I know you will love it when you see how similar the patterns are and realize that you can get out from under it!  Your sense of reality is not as far away as it seems!


You Will Need to Learn How to Respond to Your Partner in Healthy and Safe Ways

At first, this step seemed so impossible to me.  I had gotten to the point that I couldn’t bear arguing about one more thing.  I would just stay silent because it made things easier.  So when my counselor starting talking about no longer being a doormat, about being able to evaluate and share my feelings, and being able to communicate my truth, my whole world shook with fear.

But guess what?  I forced myself to do those scary assignments she gave me every week.  And at first it was miserable.  I would go to counseling so angry that she had put me back into the fire.  Except that wasn’t what she was really doing.  It just felt like it at first.  But she stuck with it.  And after a while, I started to see some things.  My thinking was clearer.  I was getting braver.  I was learning healthier ways to communicate.  And I was starting to feel like my own person for the first time in so many years.

Around the same time, I was reading the book, The Emotionally Destructive Marriage by Leslie Vernick.  Those of you who have read my other articles will recognize this title well.  it is by far my most recommended book because it literally changed my life.  It taught me how to face my abuse with dignity and strength.  It starts with a test to decide if you are in a difficult marriage or a destructive one.  Then it helps you to function through it regardless of which marriage you are in.  And it helps you to decide on your own how your future will look.  Ms. Vernick gives you the tools to do all of that on your own.  She isn’t telling you what to do!

You really, really need to check this book out if you still feel like you don’t have a good handle on things.  I am sure you will find it just as much a lifesaver.  The reviews for this book are as off the charts as my opinion of it!


Gaining CORE Strength

I do want to share with you one of the single most beneficial parts of The Emotionally Destructive Marriage.   Leslie Vernick talks about using CORE strength to learn how to properly deal with your narcissist.  Here is what the acronym CORE stands for:

C – I will be committed to truth, both internally in my own heart and mind and externally. I refuse to pretend.

O – I will be open to the Holy Spirit and wise others, teaching me, maturing me, and guiding me into his way of living my life.

R – I will be responsible for my own responses to destructive behavior and commit to being respectful without dishonoring myself.

E – I will be empathic and compassionate toward others without enabling people to continue to abuse and disrespect me.

In a response to a follower, she goes on to say, “When you know and believe that you are a loved, valuable, worthwhile human being and live from that core place, toxic people lose their power to manipulate you. They can’t control and intimidate you as they once did when you felt worthless, dependent and needy.”

Once I learned these 4 really important steps and starting practicing them, my whole world changed.  Tell me how it worked for you too!!!!

You Will Need to be Prepared Before You Can Leave a Trauma Bonding Relationship

It took me over a year from the time my counselor and I talked about the possibility of leaving to it actually happening.  And it didn’t even happen on my time because my church and counselors facilitated the process because things had gotten so toxic and unsafe.

During that year, my counselor and I worked on the many aspects of what leaving would look like and require.  We talked about the financial process, which in my case was actually pretty good.  Fortunately, I had a good credit rating and had my own credit card.  I had also recently opened my own savings and checking accounts because I knew what was coming.  I was able to do much of this while my husband was out to sea with his Navy job.

One of the biggest things that held me back was thinking that because we could barely make our paycheck work together in our marital household, how would I possibly be able to set up a second household without a significant second income (I had been a homemaker and spent mosst of my spare time in church ministry–nothing that would earn me a full-time salaried income if I tried to choose a career after nearly 30 years of marriage)?

As it turned out, because I had done the finances for most of our marriage because he was unable to responsibly handle finances, I easily landed on my feet with significantly less money.  I no longer had to fight for the right financial decisions or try to do damage control for the previous month’s financial missteps.  And instead of falling apart, my credit rating went up 100 points, into the 800’s!

Other steps we talked about were mostly emotional strength and single parenting since I had been singlehandedly running our household for most of our marriage.  This was either due to my ex being out to sea or just not being engaged in the household/family life when he was home.

Even Though You Feel You Need to Leave a Trauma Bonding Relationship, You NEED TO!

In spite of those shots of oxytocin you get from the good times you have with your partner, you need to realize that it is never okay to continue in abusive patterns.  If a really nice person is kind and giving throughout the year, but then robs a bank once a year to finance the next year’s niceness and giving, do you say, “It’s okay, they are a really nice person, we will just overlook the bank robbery”?  Of course not.

Just because good comes out of something does not mean we should excuse it.  The same is true for you.  Just because he give you some good experiences and feelings, you cannot stay to put up with the abuse.

Generally, as soon as you realize that he is only giving you those good experiences to keep you tied to him through the abuse, you will be ready to say enough is enough.  And when your brain makes that transition, you will find your path to healing making even more strides.  Just remember to keep all of your support people and methods in place.  You’ve got this!

Do you think you may be involved in a trauma bond relationship?  Take this test to get more information!

Have you done all of this already and you are now feeling freedom and autonomy?  Are you getting ready to start the process?  What supports are in place and what to you still feel like you have to do?  What were some of the negative sides of breaking free?  Feel free to comment below, or contact me here if you do not feel safe posting publicly.  Blessings to you!

If you liked this article, I think you will also love the following articles:

Are You Trauma Bonded?  Take This Test to Find Out!

Recognizing & Dealing With Trauma Bonding Withdrawal Symptoms

Types of Trauma Bonding:  What You Need to Know

The Seven Stages of Trauma Bonding:  An In-depth Look

Signs of Trauma Bonding You Need to Look Out For

What to do When Your Narcissist Threatens You

The Bible Used as a Weapon Against You:  You can Overcome!

What Does the Bible say About Abusive Husbands?

The Link Between Spiritual Abuse and Narcissism

What Does the Bible Say About Abusive Husbands?

The Link Between Spiritual Abuse and Narcissism

Can a Narcissist Change for Love?

Why are You Attracting Narcissists?

Why Narcissists Love Going to Church

Does a Narcissist Know They are a Narcissist?

How Religious Narcissists Think?

Can a Narcissist be a Good Person?

Narcissistic Behavior:  What to Look Out For

Praying for Your Narcissistic Husband

Are Spiritual Narcissists Overt or Covert?

How to Navigate Religious Narcissistic Parents

What Happens to the Soul of a Narcissist?

How to Heal From a Spiritual Narcissist

Can You Maintain a Relationship With a Spiritual Narcissist?

Can Narcissists Have a Spiritual Awakening?

How Will God Judge a Narcissist?

When the Church Says to Move Back in With Your Narcissist

What Can We Say to a Friend Who’s Divorcing

23 Reasons Why Narcissists are Drawn to the Church

When the Church Doesn’t Recognize Narcissistic Abuse

Will the Church Support Divorcing a Narcissist?

What Does the Bible Say About Narcissism?

Can a Spiritual Narcissist Heal?

Can a Narcissist Be a Christian?

What is Spiritual Narcissism?

What Does the Spiritual Narcissist Do When You Try to Leave?  

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Hi! I am the founder of Navigating Religious Narcissism after being raised under a narcissistic mother and married to a narcissistic man for 31 years. It is my prayer that I can be as valuable on your journey to healing and peace as were so many who crossed my path of healing.

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