Trauma Bonding: What is it and What You Should Know

gay couple seated on couch, one partner comforts other partner who looks upset

Trauma bonding is a term used to describe a type of insecure attachment that is formed between individuals who are engaged in a traumatic or abusive relationship. The bond is created due to a cycle of abuse and positive reinforcement. After each abusive experience, the abuser asserts their love and regret and falsely tries to make the relationship feel safe and needed for the abused person.

A trauma bond can form over days, weeks, or months. Trauma bonding is one of the reasons leaving an abusive relationship can feel so overwhelming and conflicting since there are both positive and negative feelings associated with the abuser. Breaking a trauma bond can be challenging, but recovery is possible.

Why Does Trauma Bonding Occur?

Psychoanalyst John Bowlby has done a vast amount of research on healthy and insecure attachments.  A healthy attachment is formed when, “more often than not,” our needs and sense of safety are met in the relationship.  Different types of insecure attachments can begin to form if our needs or sense of safety is not met the majority of the time. There is a greater risk for trauma bonds to develop in individuals who grew up with unhealthy attachment styles in their childhood, such as if their parent or caregiver showed them inconsistent or disrupted displays of love and affection.

During an abusive relationship, our mind and body work consistently to adapt and survive.  Our fight, flight, and freeze responses kick into high gear, leading us to be hypervigilant and attentive to what the abuser is doing. This could look like trying to understand or rationalize the abuser’s behaviors to be able to predict and survive the next experience.

Negative beliefs about ourselves will form, often ones like

  • “I’m not good enough.”
  • “I can’t be loved.”
  • “I’m powerless.”
  • “It’s my fault.”

It is easier for the abused person to feel they have some type of control or say in what happens next even from a distorted negative perspective.

These beliefs, although harmful to our mental well-being, feel less overwhelming than the anxiety of realizing we have no control over what happens next to us. Ultimately, this happens because all the information we receive through relationships, body, and mind is through a fight/flight/freeze lens.  When you are living in a headspace that can’t healthily process thoughts and experiences, you start to form a narrative that tricks you into believing you have feelings or empathy for the abuser.

What Are Examples of Trauma Bonding?

While we discussed how trauma bonding can occur between two partners in a romantic relationship, this insecure attachment style can also happen in abusive family relationships. If the abused are children, an insecure attachment will form between them and the abuser, who may be a parent or caregiver. A scenario of a younger generation taking care of an older generation is possible as well when there is elder abuse involved.

Outside of a romantic or family setting type of relationships, are those who are exploited or have been held captive for various reasons such as illegal employment, sex trafficking, and kidnapping or hostage-taking situations.  Often referred to as Stockholm Syndrome, this is like trauma bonding in that the person held captive comes to have feelings of trust or affection for the person holding them against their will.

Common Signs of Trauma Bonding

In cases of trauma bonding, you may notice signs of a person struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms such as hypervigilance, insomnia, depressed or anxious mood, nightmares, flashbacks, or negative beliefs impacting the ability to have healthy relationships.   Signs of abuse or a potential trauma bond may include

  • Validating the actions of the abuser
  • Trying to minimize how bad the behaviors of the abuser are
  • Defending the actions of the abuse
  • Blaming themselves, accepting the abuse as their fault
  • Being ambivalent to take steps to end the relationship
  • Isolating themselves from friends and family members

How to Break a Trauma Bond

Immediate help on breaking a trauma bond is dependent on each scenario, which could require the support of law enforcement or legal actions, child protective services, elder protective services, and intimate partner violence (IPV) resources.  For the abused looking to heal, it would be beneficial to engage in therapy with a professional who can support people in trauma recovery.  With the support of a therapist, a client can move through the stages of trauma recovery (Safety, Remembrance and Mourning, and Reconnection), and participate in trauma-specific modalities such as Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), somatic experiencing, trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy (TF-CBT), and exposure therapy.

Keep in mind that each person’s story is unique and with the support of a professional, a recovery plan based on the strengths, needs, abilities, and preferences of the client will be developed so they can heal and move forward in a positive way.

Knowing When to Seek Help from an Abusive Relationship

If you believe you are struggling with trauma bonding, it’s important to seek help and form a safety plan when you do not feel safe, and when you start to feel stagnant.  The National Domestic Violence Hotline can also be a source of help.

In the case of your loved ones, it is challenging to watch someone you care about struggle, and even harder to stand back and not rescue them without an invitation.  Consistently reminding them you are available, implementing healthy relationship practices, and simply listening to your loved one will create a warm, honest environment for them to reach out to when they are ready to make a change.

If you suspect your loved one’s trauma bond is immediately serious and their safety is at risk, report it to the appropriate authorities immediately. Most importantly, if your loved one is a minor or elder, please contact child or elder protective services for your state.

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