This post was updated on Sep 2, 2023
Have you ever seen a friend or a family member struggle in a relationship and wondered why they still chose to stay? Did it seem unreasonable? It tends to be much easier to detect an abusive relationship from the outside. What happens when you’re the one experiencing abuse in a relationship? Why is it so difficult to leave, despite all the red flags that may be so obvious to people around you?
A part of the answer to this question has to do with trauma bonding. This common pattern occurs when an individual develops an unhealthy attachment to an abusive partner. Trauma bonding is also often tied to codependency. Sometimes this codependency looks like an excessive reliance on a partner who is narcissistic, or suffers from an addiction or illness.
If you have experienced trauma bonding in your relationship, you may be unaware of the many ways it can impact your emotional wellbeing. In this article, we will explore how trauma bonding occurs, whether it can become healthy, and how it can be released with appropriate intensive coaching. Read on to find out how to recognize signs of trauma bonding and stop it in its tracks.
What Is Trauma Bonding In A Relationship?
Trauma bonding can happen when a partner repeatedly abuses another person, and simultaneously provokes their need for love and validation. You are most likely to experience trauma bonding in a romantic relationship. It is also possible for this trauma bond patterns to occur in other relationships, such as with an abusive boss, or with a family member.
While other kinds of red flags in abuse scenarios can often be easily detected, this is not the case with trauma bonding. One reason for this is the persistent emotional abuse and manipulation. Through gaslighting, love bombing, and numerous other manipulation tactics, the abuser may convince you that their harmful behaviors are normal.
Once the abuse starts, you may find yourself in a confusing pattern of intermittent positive reinforcement, and blame shifting. Blame shifting means that the person exerting the emotional abuse escapes accountability by making another person believe that the relational challenges are consistently the victim’s fault. This keeps the abusive person in a position of control, choosing when to withhold or to give love and safety. The partner in these romantic relationships are left feeling confused and over time the abused individual may become emotionally dependent before the victim develops a better understanding of what is really happening to them. The result is a trauma bonded dynamic.
As a trauma bond forms, you may feel like you need more and more validation from your partner, develop a sense of loyalty, or rationalize their behaviors. This gives the abusive partner more power, enabling them to continue the manipulation.
Trauma Bonding Signs
Unfortunately, it may take months or even years for you to realize that you are in a trauma bonded relationship. You may be aware of the hurt and confusion, but unable to distinguish between true reality and the one created by your partner. To help you avoid or break this dangerous pattern, here are some common signs of trauma bonding:
- Defending and justifying the abuse
- Agreeing with the reasons for the abuse
- Arguing with close family members and friends who are trying to help
- Problem-finding and pointing out flaws in healthy relationships
- Distancing from family members and friends
- Being hostile or defensive when someone tries to intervene
- Not being able to break the trauma bonds despite seeing the signs
- Maintaining the sense of loyalty and love toward the abuser even after leaving
To illustrate the point further, a person in a trauma bond may say:
- “I don’t plan on leaving her. I’ve never been more in love.”
- “You’re just envious. People that are jealous will try and break us apart”
- “He is treating me this way because he’s obsessed with me. He just loves me too much, I know you don’t understand.”
- “I just can’t stop being dumb and making him angry… It is all my fault, I’m so stupid.”
- “I know what abusive relationships look like – This is not domestic violence.”
- “It’s me and him against the world. I don’t expect anyone to understand us.”
- “I love her intensity. Past relationships seem boring in comparison.”
Factors That Make Individuals Susceptible to Trauma Bonding
Certain factors can make individuals more susceptible to experiencing trauma bonding. While it’s important to note that anyone can become a victim of trauma bonding irrespective of their background or characteristics, the following factors can potentially increase an individual’s risk:
Past Trauma or Abuse
Those with a history of prior abuse or trauma may be more susceptible to trauma bonding. This is because previous traumatic experiences can lead to complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD), which can impact an individual’s perception of normalcy and affect their relationship dynamics. Even without a C-PTSD history, past trauma or abuse can impact a person’s sense of self-protection and safety in relationships.
Individuals with low self-esteem might be more vulnerable to trauma bonding. Perpetrators of abuse often target such individuals, exploiting their lack of self-confidence and deep-seated fears of rejection or loneliness.
Lack of Healthy Relationship Models
If an individual has not been exposed to healthy relationship dynamics, they might mistake abusive behavior for normal or acceptable. If trauma bonding relationships were demonstrated by caregivers, a person can grow up vulnerable to recreating that trauma bond dynamic.
Inexperience in Romantic Relationships
A young person or a romantically inexperienced person may not have any framework through which to evaluate emotional abuse. Without previous experience in a healthy relationship, naïveté can contribute to trauma bonding relationships.
Codependent individuals often find themselves in abusive relationships, where they’re excessively emotionally or psychologically reliant on a partner who exhibits destructive or harmful behavior. This dynamic can increase susceptibility to trauma bonding.
Certain personality traits such as empathy, agreeableness, or conscientiousness can be exploited by manipulative individuals to establish and maintain trauma bonds.
Social and Cultural Factors
In some societies or cultural contexts, abusive behaviors may be normalized or overlooked, making individuals within those communities more susceptible to trauma bonding. Where cultural norms around control and coercion exist, the relational expectations can contribute to a trauma bonding relationship.
Individuals who are isolated, either physically or emotionally, might be more susceptible to trauma bonding. The abuser often uses isolation as a tool to cut the victim off from potential support networks, making it harder for them to leave the abusive situation.
Mental Health Issues
Mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety, or borderline personality disorder can increase an individual’s vulnerability to trauma bonding. The emotional instability associated with these disorders can make it difficult for individuals to leave an abusive situation.
Stigma or Shame
Elements like personal ideology, cultural or family beliefs, can influence a person out of breaking the trauma bond out of a sense of shame or stigma. These people are much less likely to seek something like a support group, couples therapy, to seek therapy individually, or to accept support from a trusted friend or advisor.
Psychological Mechanisms Behind Trauma Bonding
Understanding the psychological mechanisms behind trauma bonding can provide insights into the often perplexing dynamics of abusive relationships. Here are several key concepts and processes involved in a trauma bond:
This involves unpredictable instances of rewards and punishments, which in the context of an abusive relationship, can take the form of alternating periods of kindness and abuse. This inconsistency can lead to a powerful bond as the victim becomes conditioned to endure abuse in hopes of experiencing the occasional positive treatment.
Cognitive dissonance is the mental discomfort experienced by a person who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, values, or perceptions simultaneously. In a trauma bonded relationship, the victim might believe their abuser is a good person who loves them, despite their abusive behavior. The victim may rationalize or minimize the abuse in order to resolve this cognitive conflict. They may also become hyper-focused on the intermittent reinforcement in order to soothe the anxiety created by the cognitive dissonance presented in the relationship abuse.
Named after a bank robbery in Stockholm where hostages developed a bond with their captors, Stockholm Syndrome refers to a situation where victims of abuse or captivity develop an emotional attachment to their abuser. In a traumatic relationship, the victim may start identifying with the abuser, further strengthening the trauma bond.
Another theory that has developed from those that have studied Stockholm Syndrome is that, in a trauma bonded relationship, the victim develops a skill of appeasing the abuser in order to attempt to create more emotional consistency with them. This is sometimes referred to as “fawning” but it is more than abuser flattery. It is a sophisticated but often unconscious attempt to grow the intermittent positive reinforcement and minimize the emotional trauma. This is a classic indicator that a trauma bond has taken place.
Cognitive entrenchment describes that tendency that many people have under stress, to “dig their heels in deeper,” and to default to the familiar. This might look like committing more deeply the the relationship when people are pointing out it’s critical problems. It might also look like arguing for why things can’t change – fixating on financial, social or logistical challenges.
This is a manipulation technique where the abuser makes the victim question their own perception of reality or doubt their own sanity. By constantly dismissing the victim’s experiences and emotions, the abuser can gain control and make the victim more dependent on them, reinforcing the trauma bond. In a trauma bond, this causes the victim to question their own thinking and judgment, which grows greater confusion and dependence.
This concept suggests that people who have experienced trauma, especially during childhood, may unconsciously seek out situations or relationships that replicate the dynamics of their original trauma. This unconscious drive can make some individuals more susceptible to entering relationships where trauma bonding is likely. Left unexamined, this unconscious driving force can direct a person’s relational choices for their entire life.
Over time, the victim in a trauma bond may begin to believe they have no control over the situation and are helpless to change it. This state, known as learned helplessness, can cement the trauma bond and make it even harder for the victim to leave the abusive relationship and to begin a healing process.
Fear and Traumatic Bonding
Fear is a powerful factor in the trauma bond. The abuser’s verbal abuse or acts of violence can trigger a survival response in the victim, who might feel they need to comply with the abuser to stay safe. This fear-based attachment can become a strong trauma bond over time.
How Does Trauma Bonding Happen?
Trauma bonding happens through a complex and often cyclical process that can be difficult to recognize from within. This cycle typically involves periods of intensely positive attention, such as flattery, gifting, displays of affection, etc., followed by equally intense negative experiences, such as emotional or physical abuse.
The Cycle of Abuse and Reinforcement
Abuse reinforcement is at the core of trauma bonding. The manipulative partner may alternate abuse with highly positive experiences, especially at the start of the relationship (known as love bombing). In the beginning, love bombing is almost indistinguishable from intense affection. The abuser showers the victim with affection, praise, and gifts.
In the recipient’s eyes, the love bombing has created an image of an ideal partner. It feels wonderful to be loved so much.
This initial period of intense positive reinforcement is what first hooks the victim into the relationship. Eventually, the love bombing becomes the tether that keeps the traumatized partner from leaving. In a trauma bonding relationship, the victim is starving for love, like a dependent person does for a drug, and in this case, the abuser controls the dosage.
Once the trauma bond of abuse starts to develop, it gets strengthened over time, as the manipulation continues. As time passes, you may find it more and more difficult to detect the signs of abuse, as the abuser may isolate you from your close friends and family and ‘train’ you in a way, to stay in the relationship.
Establishing the Bond
Once the victim becomes emotionally invested, the abuser starts introducing episodes of emotional, physical, or psychological abuse. The stark contrast to the initial love-bombing phase can leave the victim confused, questioning their perception of reality—a manipulative tactic known as gaslighting. This keeps the victim stuck in a cycle of trying to regain the abuser’s affection and approval.
Strengthening the Bond Over Time
As the relationship progresses, the trauma bond strengthens. Each cycle of abuse further confuses the victim and deepens their emotional dependency on the abuser. The manipulation continues, the person in the trauma bond normalizes the relationship dynamics. The victim may become more tolerant of abusive behaviors, blaming themselves or making excuses for their partner’s actions.
Isolation and Control
The abuser often isolates the victim from friends and family, further strengthening the trauma bond. Support people who have a healthy relationship may feel especially threatening to the abuser. Isolation is a tool used by the abuser to cut the victim off from potential support networks, making it harder for them to leave the abusive situation. With the victim increasingly isolated, the abuser exerts more control, creating a sense of dependence.
The Difficulty of Leaving
Over time, victims may become so conditioned to the cycle of abuse and reconciliation that they find it increasingly challenging to leave the abusive cycle. Despite recognizing the severe problems that exist, they may continue forgiving their partner due to the strength of the trauma bond. This abusive cycle leaves victims feeling stuck, confused, and lonely, often without a support system to turn to.
Isolation and control have made leaving significantly more challenging. The trauma bond relationship may feel worth protecting if they believe it’s the only relationship they have left.
Even if you are aware of the damaging circumstances that contribute to the trauma bond, you may be so conditioned to keep forgiving your partner that leaving becomes near impossible. You may feel stuck, confused, and incredibly lonely, all without support.
The Long-Term Impact of Trauma Bonding
Trauma bonding can have severe, long-lasting impacts on an individual’s mental, emotional, and physical health. While these effects can be debilitating, it’s important to note that with professional help and support, it’s entirely possible to heal and lead a fulfilling life. Here are some of the long-term impacts of trauma bonding:
One of the most significant impacts of trauma bonding is on mental health. Chronic exposure to trauma bonding can precipitate various mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD). These conditions can significantly hinder an individual’s ability to function in daily life and take part in activities they previously enjoyed.
Concurrently, individuals who have experienced trauma bonding often grapple with diminished self-esteem and self-worth. They may internalize the abusive behavior they’ve endured, leading to feelings of worthlessness, helplessness, and self-blame. This erosion of self-worth can become a significant barrier to recovery if left unaddressed.
Another profound impact is the difficulty survivors face when trying to form a healthy relationship in the future. The conditioning they’ve undergone may leave them struggling with trust issues, a fear of intimacy, or a tendency to repeat patterns of abusive relationships. This difficulty can further isolate survivors and impede their recovery.
The chronic sense of poor self-esteem and conditioned worthlessness may make it hard for somebody exiting a trauma bonded relationship to believe they are capable of or deserving of a healthy relationship.
Physical health also often takes a toll, as the prolonged stress from trauma bonding can manifest as various physical health issues. These can range from headaches, back and neck problems, and digestive issues to chronic pain. More serious conditions such as heart disease, hypertension, and a weakened immune system have also been linked to chronic stress, underscoring the profound impact trauma bonding can have on a person’s health.
Survivors of trauma bonding often also experience emotional dysregulation, sometimes to the point where where they find it challenging to manage and express their emotions in a balanced and healthy way. They may demonstrate symptoms like intense mood swings, impulsive behavior, or have difficulty calming down when upset. This creates a significant barrier to developing a healthy relationship in the future.
In some cases, the stress and pain resulting from trauma bonding lead individuals to seek solace in drugs or alcohol. This coping mechanism can quickly spiral into substance abuse problems, compounding the health issues they’re already dealing with.
Lastly, after leaving a traumatic bond, victims often grapple with a unique form of grief, known as complex grief. They may mourn not only the loss of the relationship but also the loss of their own sense of self and reality as they knew it. Dealing with this type of grief can be incredibly challenging and may require specialized therapeutic interventions.
When people are able to exit a trauma bonded relationship, they may question their own sanity, or question reality itself. “How could I have let this happen?” “Why did I let this go on?” “Why didn’t I see what was happening?” “Why was it so clear to everyone else and not to me?” Exiting a trauma bond relationship means rebuilding your sense of self, your sense of safety, and re-learning the art of a healthy relationship.
Can A Trauma Bond Become Healthy?
Since trauma bonding can cause the abused person to deny toxic behaviors, they may maintain hope that the relationship can be saved. For example, you may think that your partner will love you more if you become ‘better’. They may change their ways with your love and support. Unfortunately, transforming a trauma bond into a healthy attachment rarely happens, although it is possible to stop one from forming before it’s too late.
Often, a person in a trauma bonded relationship will hold fast to the idea that leaving would mean “giving up” on their partner. They may stay out of a misguided sense of loyalty… loyalty that rarely has the reciprocity of a healthy relationship. The trauma bond relationship holds fast because the victim’s senses of compassion and commitment have been distorted.
Because of these reasons, attempting to stay in an emotionally unsafe relationship and to break the trauma bond, is a very challenging ask. It is nearly impossible if the person causing the trauma is not willing to do significant work on themselves.
If you know that you are in a toxic relationship, seek help. It may seem difficult, even impossible. You don’t have to go on living in the emotional chaos of a trauma bond. However hard it may seem, it is possible to break the bond and manage the symptoms of trauma with appropriate support.
Comparing Trauma Bonding and Healthy Attachments
Trauma bonding and healthy attachments can sometimes be confused, due to the intensity of emotions involved. Also the moments of intermittent reinforcement may leave someone in a trauma bonded relationship believing that they are in a healthy relationship with some rough times.
A person who is trauma bonded may deeply want to believe they are experiencing healthy attachment. However, they are fundamentally different in their effects on an individual’s well-being, relationship dynamics, and overall emotional health.
Nature of the Relationship
Trauma Bonding: This involves an abusive and manipulative dynamic where one person uses control, intimidation, and negative reinforcement to maintain power over the other. The bond develops through a cycle of abuse interspersed with moments of kindness, keeping the victim tied to the abuser.
Healthy Attachment: In a healthy attachment, both individuals treat each other with respect, understanding, and empathy. The healthy relationship fosters mutual growth, trust, and support. Emotional ups and downs are resolved through open communication and understanding, rather than manipulation or control.
Trauma Bonding: Trauma bonding often leads to confusion, fear, low self-esteem, and feelings of helplessness. The victim may blame themselves for the abuser’s actions and feel trapped in the relationship.
Healthy Attachment: Healthy attachments contribute positively to emotional well-being, fostering feelings of security, happiness, and emotional stability. Both partners feel safe expressing their feelings without fear of retaliation or manipulation in healthy relationships.
Independence vs. Dependence
Trauma Bonding: Trauma bonding often creates an unhealthy level of dependence, with the victim feeling that they can’t live without the abuser, despite the pain and suffering they endure. The abuser may also fuel this belief to maintain control. The idea that “love” looks like completely enmeshed, interdependent lives is endorsed.
Healthy Attachment: Healthy relationships promote relational autonomy, where both partners can exist and thrive independently while still maintaining a strong, supportive connection. There’s a balance between personal space and shared time, with each partner encouraging the other’s individual growth and pursuits.
Trauma Bonding: In relationships marked by trauma bonding, conflict often leads to abuse or manipulation, with the abuser never genuinely acknowledging their harmful behavior. The victim may feel obliged to take on the blame to maintain peace.
Healthy Attachment: In healthy relationships, conflicts are resolved through open communication, understanding, and compromise. Both parties are willing to acknowledge their mistakes and work towards a resolution that respects each other’s feelings and perspectives.
How Do You Release A Trauma Bond?
Releasing a trauma bond can be a difficult, time-consuming process, but it’s entirely possible. You can try:
- Focusing on the present moment:
If you keep hoping that your partner will change and keep remembering the good old times, you may find it increasingly difficult to leave the relationship. Try to focus on attention on what is happening right now and reflect on it.
- Notice negative self-talk:
Do you often catch yourself thinking or saying how weak, stupid, or unlovable you are? This is known as negative self-talk. It can reduce your self-esteem and increase your dependence on your partner. Ask yourself “Whose voice is that REALLY?” If that internal voice is punishing, belittling, or humiliating, it’s likely not coming from. your authentic self. Try to notice it and replace it with more positive alternatives.
- Practice self-care:
Learning to love and care for yourself can help reduce stress and give you more confidence. This may include meditation, physical exercise, journaling, hobbies, and talking to trusted friends. For all of us, healthy relationships start with the one we have with ourselves. Think carefully about how you can care for yourselves in ways that are nurturing, loving and, importantly, protective and safe.
- Learn more about toxic relationships:
If possible, try to learn about the different signs of abuse and unhealthy behaviors in order to prevent them from happening or escalating. Also, explore what healthy relationships tend to look like.
- Seek professional help:
You don’t have to endure the pain of a trauma bond on your own. You might want to talk to a licensed therapist or social worker, or seek the help of a coach that is specially trained in relationships. Experienced coaches can help you gain a new perspective on your relationship and find ways to figure out your problems.
Attend A Codependency Retreat And Find Relief
Speaking with a compassionate relationship coach, whether online or in person, can help you manage the difficult emotions involved in trauma bonding. At PIVOT, we specialize in helping individuals like you break apart from unhealthy and toxic relationship dynamics. It is natural to seek love and validation, and we are here to help you gain insight into your feelings and thoughts.