Coping with Grooming, Trauma Bonding, and the Aftermath of an Abusive Relationship
Breaking away from an abusive relationship can be one of the most difficult things a person can do... so well done, if you have got out!
This is independent of how much danger and risk there is, for everyone it is challenging on a psychological level at the very least.
While the immediate danger may be over, the emotional and psychological scars can linger for years, if not a lifetime.
One of the most challenging aspects of moving on is the urge to reach out to, or constantly think about, your abusive ex-partner. This is normal, but it is also a sign that you may be struggling with trauma bonding, grooming, and a host of other issues. Whilst being ‘normal, it brings with it the risk that we act on these urges and we make contact with our ex – which often leads many of us into going back. For others, it leads to us meeting this urge by finding a new partner who (without us realising) meets the same old needs in us, because they too are abusive.
So, here’s what we need to know about why we can feel this way.
Grooming: How Abusers Manipulate Their Victims
Abusers are often skilled at manipulating and controlling their partners. They may use tactics such as gaslighting, emotional blackmail, or isolation to make their partner feel dependent on them. Over time, this can create a sense of loyalty and attachment, even if the relationship is toxic. This is known as grooming and is common to men, women of all ages and cultures. When I say common, I am referring to the millions of people every year who reveal that they were abused in their relationship… yes, it’s common and you are not alone!
When a survivor leaves an abusive relationship, they may continue to feel the pull of the abuser's influence. This can feel like a persistent desire to contact or be with them, even if it is not safe or healthy to do so.
Recognising this as a symptom of grooming can help survivors regain control over their own thoughts and emotions. It helps us to make sense of the past and realise that we are not missing someone we love, we are feeling a need to be with them and serve their needs that was groomed into us.
Difficult to tease apart, I know.
Externalised Emotional Regulation: Why We Turn to Our Abusers for Comfort
Survivors of abuse may also find themselves turning to their abusers for emotional support or validation. This is known as externalised emotional regulation. When we have been conditioned to seek validation from an abuser, it can be difficult to break the pattern. Think of it like this… we can’t be calm when our abuser is calm, and when they are stressed we are definitely stressed (often being abused). We learn, over time that feeling calm and good about ourselves is 100% linked to how our abuser is feeling and so our control over our emotional state is externalised, matching our abuser’s state. We call this externalised emotional regulation, meaning our emotions are regulated (controlled) externally (by our abuser).
Survivors may need to find new ways to regulate their emotions, such as through mindfulness, self-care, or therapy. It can take time to relearn healthy coping mechanisms, but the effort is worth it. It starts with realising this is what is happening.
We can feel upset and a desperate urge to contact our ex, because we have linked calm with them being calmed, by us. It’s a little complex, but again it’s common.
Trauma Bonding: The Addiction to Cycles of Drama
Trauma bonding is a phenomenon where a survivor becomes addicted to the highs and lows of an abusive relationship. Abusers often create intense emotional experiences for their partners, alternating between affection and cruelty. This can create a sense of emotional intensity that is difficult to replicate elsewhere. Survivors may find themselves seeking out this intensity even after they have left the relationship.
Recognising trauma bonding can be a key step in breaking the cycle of abuse. This may involve seeking therapy or other support to help address underlying emotional issues that contribute to the addiction. It’s a key theme early in the Get Out Get Love programme, early because we need to know it as soon as possible to understand our recovery needs. Connected to this, is emotional regulation:
The Emotional Storm: Coping with the Aftermath of Abuse
Finally, survivors may experience a range of emotions after leaving an abusive relationship. These may include shame, guilt, and self-blame for what went wrong. Survivors may also feel a sense of loss or grief for the relationship they thought they had.
Recognising that these feelings are normal can be a helpful first step. It can also be beneficial to seek support from friends, family, or a therapist who can help navigate the storm of emotions that may arise after leaving abuse. In fact, getting support is critical as the three challenges listed above make it very difficult for us to stay away from our ex. Asking a friend or supporter to help us stay away (keep zero contact) is usually a vital ingredient of escaping a bad relationship. We can help ourselves more by changing our number, deleting their number, going off social media etc, whilst we get on our feet.
For those with children, see our article on co-parenting with an abusive ex.
Moving Forward: Learning to Love Yourself Again
Breaking away from an abusive relationship is never easy, but it is possible. Learning and accepting the emotional and psychological patterns that contribute to the struggle can be a key first step. With support, survivors can learn to love themselves again and build healthy relationships in the future.
Remember, healing is a journey, and it's okay to take your time.
We’ve mapped out this journey for you, into a digital programme and a book (your choice) that you can tiptoe through at your own pace in private. Build by Psychologists with personal experience guiding the way: the Get Out Get Love programme, check it out – you can try it for free.