A trauma bond is a connection an abused person has to their abuser. Trauma bonding is a psychological response to abuse and it occurs when the abused person forms a connection or relationship with the person who abuses them. It explains why people who have suffered abuse often feel attached to their abuser and why leaving an abusive relationship is often difficult. The abuser can be a parent, a friend, a romantic partner, a caregiver, a leader of a cult and so on. This bond develops out of the repeated cycles of abuse, devaluation and positive reinforcement.
Signs of a traumatic bond
Trauma bonding is often characterized by two key things:
- Cyclical nature
It’s a cycle of abuse, not a singular incident. A cycle that depends on intermittent reinforcement. Sometimes your abuser treats you well, they’re kind and do things like taking you out and buying you gifts which is the love bombing stage. Once you relax and even begin to suppress memories of the terror, they swing back to abuse and it’s a never-ending cycle.
- Power imbalance
These relationships often have a power imbalance that makes you feel not just dependent on the abuser but also incomplete or lost without them. This makes it hard to break free because they control you and you feel incomplete without them.
Other characteristics/ signs of trauma bonding
You may be in a trauma bond situation if:
- You are unhappy and may not even like your partner but you feel unable to end things
- When you try to leave you feel physically and emotionally distressed
- When you say you want to leave, they promise to change but make no effort to actually do so
- You fixate on the ‘good days’, using them to prove they truly care
- You make excuses and defend their behaviour when others express concern
- You continue to trust them hoping they change
- You protect them by keeping their abusive behaviour secret
- You feel like you owe your abuser
- You hide your true feelings around them
- You blame yourself for their unwanted behaviour
- Change your thinking to match their opinions
- You distance yourself from people who question the health of your relationship
Why it happens
Trauma bonding can be caused by:
Trauma bonds are the result of an unhealthy attachment style. Children form an attachment to the person caring for them as a means of survival and if that person is abusive, a trauma bond can form.
A trauma bond can also form because a person is reliant on the abusive person to fulfil their needs.
Cycle of abuse
It can develop as a by-product of an abusive relationship in which there’s a cycle of the abusive person being remorseful and even extra kind before repeating their abuse which gives the abuser false hope in the interim.
In each of the cases, the person must:
- Perceive a real threat of danger from their abuser
- Experience harsh treatment with small periods of kindness
- Be isolated from other people and their perspectives
- Believe that they cannot escape
It can happen in a variety of relationships including:
- Domestic abuse
- Child abuse
- Elder abuse
- Exploitative employment e.g. with undocumented workers
- Kidnapping or hostage-taking
- Human trafficking
- Religious extremism or cults
Breaking the bond
People who experienced trauma in childhood are more likely to find themselves in relationships with trauma bonding. We are often drawn to situations that are familiar because the brain already recognizes the highs and lows of the cycle. A history of trauma can also make it harder to break the bonds. Here are some things to do if you suspect your relationship may include trauma bonding:
Know what you’re dealing with
Document things that happen, and behaviours that you identify as problematic. Abusers often rely on gaslighting, making you question reality and your memory. You can use a journal. Talk to trusted loved ones to get their perspective on your observations.
In a society obsessed with taking personal responsibility, you can begin to assign blame to yourself. Abuse is never your fault, no matter what.
Cut off contact completely
Cut off all contact with the abuser to finally disrupt the cycle of abuse. Ask a trusted person to help you with this and maybe even get a new phone number. Also, consider finding another safe place to stay where the abuser can’t easily get to you.
Seek professional help
A therapist can give you the tools you need to break free and give you further insight into the cycle of abuse and trauma bonding.
Children And Trauma: How To Help
Vicarious Trauma: 5 Strategies To Nurture Your Nervous System During Difficult Times
Mental Health: 8 Myths About Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Relationships: Signs Of Emotionally Abusive Parents And How To Deal With It