People in abusive relationships are often told to “just leave” and pack their bags. While this, undoubtedly, is the most logical course of action, the situation often turns out to be a lot more difficult. It can sometimes feel impossible to just break away, with the abused person feeling as if they’re deeply tied to their partner. This is especially true when abuse is followed by acts of kindness, affection, and intimacy.
The concept described above is referred to as “trauma bonding”. It is difficult to recognize trauma bonding from inside a relationship because of the constant manipulation from the abuser. It occurs when the abused person forms an unhealthy connection with the very person who abuses them. Continue reading as we explore trauma bonding definition, as well as why it happens and how to break it.
What Is Trauma Bonding?
Trauma bonding refers to the emotional attachment formed between the abuser and the individual they abuse. It is developed out of repeated cycles of abuse with alternating affection or positive reinforcement. A trauma bond occurs when the victim starts to develop sympathy for the abuser.
There can be a lot of awful things going on in a trauma bonding relationship, with good things happening in between them. The abuser may alternate abuse with kindness or positive experiences, which can result in the development of a trauma bond. The sad part is that it can grow stronger over time, making it difficult for the person to recognize the trauma bonding signs and physical or emotional abuse.
While trauma bonding often happens in romantic relationships, it can also exist in dynamics with imbalances of power. This can occur between:
- Colleagues (boss and employees)
- Child and parent (or adult caregiver)
- Leaders and members of cults
- Captive and their captor (Stockholm syndrome)
Signs of Trauma Bonding
Trauma bonding can involve a strong and deep connection between two people, with one party occasionally abusing and manipulating the other. It has two common features:
- Power imbalance – you feel and believe that your partner dominates or controls you. It can make you feel negative about yourself to the point that you become dependent on the abuser and don’t know how to break free from the relationship.
- Cyclical abuse – this refers to intermittent reinforcement of good and bad gestures, or physical/trauma with occasional kindness. They may abuse you physically or emotionally, but then also treat you well with gifts, romantic dates, or saying sorry and promising not to repeat the abusive behavior.
Other trauma bonding signs include:
- Justifying or defending the abuse and the abuser;
- Being unhappy in a relationship but feeling incapable of ending things;
- Trusting the abuser, hoping they can change;
- Focusing on the “good times/things” and using them as proof that they love and care for you;
- Being loyal to them even though they hurt you through a pattern of deceit, threats, and intimidation;
- When you say you’re leaving, they say sorry and promise to change but make no effort in doing so;
- Keeping their abusive/manipulative behaviors secret ;
- Having an extreme fear of leaving the relationship.
Even though the abuse is over or happened a long time ago, the fear and worry can linger. There are also cases where victims can’t get abusers out of their minds and may even feel tempted to contact and get back with them. You can try online therapy to find clarity, develop a self-care plan, and break a trauma bond.
The Stages of a Trauma Bond
This type of bond can take weeks, months, or longer to develop. There are 7 stages of trauma bonding.
- All love or “love bombing” – The abuser overwhelms you with gifts, praises, and even calls you “the one” or soulmate early on.
- Trust/dependency – They do everything to win your trust, making you feel like you can depend on them, especially for love and validation.
- Criticism – They start to criticize you, demand more of you, and blame you for the things you have no control of.
- Gaslighting – They manipulate stories, so you doubt your perceptions and make you believe that you are the only one to blame for the problems in your relationship.
- Resignation – You can’t solve issues your way or work things out through healthy communication. You decide to give up and do things their way to experience the positive feelings of Stage 1.
- Loss of self – Things only get worse when you try to stand up for yourself, so you settle for anything to avoid fights and find peace. At this stage, you have already lost your self-confidence.
- Addiction – Your stress is constantly on high levels, making you crave for pleasure or relief that the abuser provides. This can lead to a cycle of dependency that can feel like a drug/substance addiction.
Why Trauma Bonding Happens
Even when there are clear signs of an abusive relationship, trauma bonding makes leaving or ending the relationship extremely difficult. In fact, some biological processes also fuel or contribute to the development of a trauma bond.
Natural stress response
When you’re frightened or stressed, your body activates the sympathetic nervous system, triggering a release of stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. This process is aimed to either confront the danger (fight) or run away from it (flight). That’s the reason why this process is also known as the fight-or-flight response. Power imbalances, however, can also trigger the “freeze” response, as you feel like you can’t move or are unable to stand up for yourself, so you just don’t do anything.
When abuse becomes too intense, you may try to block out terrifying experiences or negative things in your relationship. You may also choose to fixate on the good things and even rationalize your need to stay despite clear signs of an abusive relationship. This can damage your sense of self-worth while also making you feel more connected to the abuser.
Dopamine, the neurotransmitter responsible for feelings of pleasure and motivation, also plays a part. Gifts and affection that follow abusive behavior act as a reward and therefore can trigger the release of dopamine. As this hormone causes you to feel pleasure, it can reinforce your bond with the abuser. When overexposed to feel-good hormones, your brain is likely to become dependent on them.
For this reason, you may try to earn their kindness and affection, creating an intense hormonal connection between the abused and the abuser. Even when your partner is the one inflicting pain, you may not want to leave because they are also treating you nice sometimes (which results in a dopamine boost). This also creates the feeling that you need them to survive.
Other factors that can also contribute to the development of the trauma bond include:
- Dependence – If a child, for instance, relies on the abusive parent to give them care and support, they may think that love and abuse co-exist together.
- Unhealthy attachment – When a person’s primary source of support is the abuser, they may turn to them for comfort and love, even though they are the ones hurting them.
- A cycle of abuse – The abuser may promise to change, giving the other person a false hope that the abuse will stop. The victim may also consider abuse as a price to pay for their love and affection.
How to Break a Trauma Bond
It can be difficult to break a trauma bond, especially if there is a history of abuse. It may take time, but it is possible to break the cycle. Here are some tips on how to break a trauma bond.
Stop all communication
Once you decide to leave, cut off contact completely. Find a safe place away from your previous home, and if possible, change your phone and email address. You can get help from a therapist or social worker if you co-parent. If you’re feeling the urge to return, remind yourself of why you left and how many times they fail to change.
Keeping a journal can help you recognize trauma bonding and record evidence of abuse. Write down the things that happen daily and note how you react to abuse. Did your partner apologize or rationalize their behavior? Note those things too.
Stop the self-blame
A history of trauma can make you believe that you deserve all the abuse and you’re weak or not worthy to leave. This, however, is not true and can only keep you from moving forward. Remind yourself that it is not your fault how broken or lonely you feel without them. Practice positive self-talk and realize that you deserve better.
Try new activities
Reduce the feelings of loneliness and isolation by trying new things or pursuing a hobby. If you can, join groups and classes that interest you, which can help improve your self-esteem. For example, it can be a language class, yoga, fitness membership, hiking, or creative writing.
Given that trauma bonds can linger, it can be difficult to break free on your own. Talking to a professional can help, especially in learning more about the patterns of abuse that can lead to trauma bonding. For instance, you can try online therapy to rebuild your self-esteem, learn how to set healthy boundaries, and address abuse, trauma, and related mental health symptoms.
- Don’t hesitate to contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline
Online therapy platforms like Calmerry allow you to get psychological support from home. Online therapy can be a good solution if you are feeling overwhelmed or trying to recover from a trauma bonding relationship. This can help you begin the journey towards healing, with no need to leave the comfort of your own home. Learn more about the benefits of therapy to prepare for the first session.