What Is Trauma Bonding?

Trauma bonding is a dysfunctional attachment that can develop in an abusive relationship with a cycle of physical or emotional trauma paired with positive reinforcement. Trauma bonding can make an abuse victim more reliant or dependent on his or her abuser, as the victim is convinced that he or she is in a loving relationship. This can make it more difficult to leave a dangerous situation.

What Does it Mean to Be Trauma-Bonded With Someone?

A trauma bond is a potential emotional reaction to an abusive situation based on the brain’s need to adapt and find a way to survive. It is an emotional attachment that can develop during a romantic relationship that involves physical, mental, psychological or sexual abuse or trauma. Difficulty processing trauma can result in a bond forming between the two people that could lead to the victim becoming emotionally dependent on the abuser.

Trauma bonds can occur in romantic relationships, but this is not a requirement. It is also seen in relationships between children and caregivers, peers, colleagues, two friends, and a hostage and kidnapper (sometimes referred to as “Stockholm Syndrome”). Abusive words, actions or behaviors within a relationship can result in complicated emotions and coping mechanisms used by the victim that result in a trauma bond: where the victim feels connected to the abuser because he or she is convinced it is love.

Signs of a Trauma Bond

In the beginning, an abusive relationship may appear loving, passionate and stable. Over time, however, some form of abuse arises, whether it be physical, verbal or emotional. Then, the abuser will follow up with proclamations of love or promises that the abusive behaviors will not happen again. In some cases, a victim will respond to this combination with an unhealthy or dependent emotional attachment known as a trauma bond. Signs of a trauma bond can include:

  • Making excuses for abusive behaviors or lying about the abuse to loved ones.
  • Getting defensive when someone tries to help or points out the abuse.
  • A controlling relationship that involves manipulation or gaslighting.
  • Isolating the victim from friends and family.
  • An abuser making the victim think the abuse is his or her fault.
  • Empty or unfulfilled promises that the abuser will change.
  • Being unable or unwilling to leave the abusive relationship

Trauma bonding occurs in several stages. Most start with overwhelming displays of affection, known as “love bombing.” They then move to gaining trust, followed by criticisms or manipulations of the victim. After repeated incidents of abuse, a victim often resigns to the abusive situation. The victim can suffer psychological distress, emotional numbness or withdrawal, and even thoughts of suicide. Unfortunately, the last stage is repetition, where the cycle starts over again.

What to Do if You Are in a Trauma Bond

Being trauma-bonded with someone can mean getting stuck in a cycle and constantly returning to an abusive person despite knowing that you are not being treated correctly. If you feel trapped in a relationship because of a trauma bond, start by asking for help. Go to a trusted source of assistance, such as a friend, family member or the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

Take steps to safely get out of the abusive situation. Make a safety plan with assistance from trained advocates or professionals, such as a shelter in your area. Once you are free from the abusive situation, turn to tools such as therapy to help you overcome the emotional or psychological harm of a trauma bond. It is possible to break free from a trauma bond and rebuild your life with help from professionals.

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