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Key Takeaways:

  • A trauma bond is an unhealthy attachment that results from a cycle of abuse and positive reinforcement.
  • While trauma bonding can develop in different types of relationships, it is not the same as true love.
  • There are ways to heal from the psychological and emotional effects of trauma bonding.

The beginnings of relationships are almost always exciting, full of butterflies, passion, and adoration. You are over the moon for each other, and anything seems possible in the best sense. However, you may notice that somewhere down the line, something’s amiss. You start to feel that the relationship is no longer suitable for you but find it impossible to leave, sometimes even defending your partner for their actions. What you’re experiencing might be trauma bonding, which can hurt you in the long run. Here’s what you need to know about it, including its effects and how to break free.

What is Trauma Bonding?

Trauma bonding is a term that specifically refers to the emotional ties that develop between a victim and perpetrator as they go through cyclical patterns of abuse.

In trauma bonding, the abuser uses cycles of abuse to manipulate the victim, who then becomes dependent on them for affection, validation, and care. This dynamic causes a strong attachment or bond. Trauma bonding can occur in all relationships, from romantic narcissistic ones to family ties and friendships.

What Does Trauma Bonding Feel Like?

Relationships characterized by trauma bonding usually start very positively, with feelings of excitement, adoration, passion, and novelty. However, as the relationship continues, you may feel any of the following if you are a victim of trauma bonding:

  • Small instances of love and affection make your day
  • You feel like you can’t leave the person you are in a relationship with
  • You secretly crave the drama or “excitement” that your relationship provides
  • You worry about doing things that will set your partner off
  • You stay because you feel like the person you are in a relationship with is the only one who can fulfill your needs

An individual in a trauma bond is often fully aware that they are in a relationship with a toxic person. However, they have been so deeply conditioned to forgive the abusive behavior that they find it nearly impossible to leave, causing them to feel stuck.

Trauma Bonding vs. True Love

Trauma bonding is different from true love. It describes a close relationship that develops when one person (the abuser) uses abusive behavior to trap another (the victim), who then feels bonded to the first.

Here are the characteristics of trauma bonding compared to true love:

Trauma bonding:

  • The relationship starts with instant attraction and intense chemistry.
  • The connection is highly physical and/or sexual.
  • Important conversations are usually avoided.
  • The relationship goes through extreme highs and lows.
  • The relationship feels like an addiction.

True love:

  • The relationship starts with attraction and curiosity that develops over time.
  • Apart from the physical and sexual aspects, the connection is also emotional and intellectual.
  • Important conversations are prioritized.
  • The relationship is stable and predictable as it is anchored on mutual trust.
  • The relationship feels like a privilege/choice.

How Trauma Bonding Develops

Trauma bonding develops as a psychological response to abuse. It happens because the abusive person uses reinforcement after cycles of abuse to keep the victim connected to them. The person who experiences the abuse develops a strong attachment to the abusive person, often developing feelings of sympathy or affection for them.

The trauma bond develops as the manipulative person alternates abuse with extremely positive experiences. Over time, the trauma bonding strengthens, making it more difficult for a person to see the clear signs of physical or emotional abuse. The abuser does this by reinforcing specific behaviors, which essentially trains someone to stay and give their love to them.

People who have experienced relational and emotional trauma (such as childhood trauma) are often susceptible to being pulled into a trauma bond. This is because traumatic bonds are learned in abusive childhoods from intermittent positive and negative reinforcement or adverse childhood experiences. Children may be punished for something one day and then praised for it the next, which results in them learning that the environment is unsafe and people in their lives are unreliable. Trauma bonds formed with narcissistic, abusive, or negligent parents are later reflected in life in the formation of relationships with people who have similar traits, especially romantic partners [*]. These are usually signs of childhood trauma in adults.

Common Trauma-Bond Relationships

  • Romantic relationships
  • Child abuse
  • Kidnapping
  • Military training
  • Fraternity hazing
  • Cults
  • Political torture
  • Prisoners of war

The Cycle of Trauma Bonding

Trauma bonding occurs as a cycle, taking place across several phases before repeating. Here is the cycle of trauma bonding.

Attraction Phase

During the attraction phase, everything feels good for both parties involved. The victim, in particular, is particularly attached and may feel like nothing or no one else matters. Since no abusive tendencies surface just yet, the victim wants to spend more time with the abusive person and depends on their presence to feel loved.

Traumatic Incident

The traumatic incident establishes the power imbalance that characterizes a trauma bond. As the relationship becomes seemingly stable and secure, the initiating partner slowly switches roles and becomes the abuser. Here, the victim will experience several manipulative tactics, emotionally, physically, and/or psychologically. This sudden traumatic incident and shift in the other person’s behavior from “loving partner” to “abusive partner” is often very painful for the person on the receiving end.

Bonding Phase

To counteract and relieve the abused person’s fears and doubts, the abusive person will usually offer some sort of reward. This can take the form of loving words, increased attention, gifts, and other behaviors that are sure to draw the affected person back and make them feel that they must stay in the relationship. After receiving the reward, the abused person questions their reality while, at the same time, feeling grateful to the abuser. The relationship resumes a state of “normalcy” or even a honeymoon-like phase similar to the initial stages of the partnership. This perpetuates a feeling of connectedness to and dependence on the abuser.

Trigger Phase

The trigger phase, while seemingly calm and neutral, is actually creating the groundwork for the next cycle of abuse to begin. It is during this phase that tensions are building. It is usually during this time that both the person experiencing abuse and the abuser create justifications for toxic behavior.

Signs of Trauma Bonding

Several signs can indicate trauma bonding in a relationship. Here are some of the biggest indicators:

  • Justifying or defending the person’s behavior
  • Constantly thinking about people who hurt you and still wanting to help them
  • Unwillingness to leave the relationship
  • Covering up, making excuses for, or defending the other person’s behavior
  • Not sharing your true feelings or opinions
  • Feeling unhappy and not liking the other person anymore but still unable to leave
  • Feeling physically and emotionally distressed when wanting to leave
  • When expressing the desire to leave, the other person promises to change but does not
  • Fixating on the good days to prove they truly care
  • Continued trust in the other person
  • Hoping to change the other person
  • Keeping abusive behavior a secret

Psychological and Emotional Effects of Trauma Bonding

There are several significant psychological and emotional effects that result from trauma bonding.

One is the development of complex trauma, which is “a type of trauma that occurs repeatedly and cumulatively, usually over a period of time and within specific relationships and contexts [*].”

Such trauma can develop in relationships where there is intimate or domestic abuse and the affected person is entrapped in various ways. Complex trauma can cause affected persons to feel various negative emotions, including shame, insecurity, and being “trapped.” It also causes feelings of mistrust and affects one’s ability to manage emotions.

As trauma bonding continues and worsens, the resulting stress from these experiences causes adverse effects physiologically and psychologically. Prolonged exposure to a relationship where stress from trauma bonding is constant can exacerbate the stress response and increase the likelihood of cognitive impairment, depression, and anxiety [*]. Always being on “high alert” can affect your mood, thoughts, actions, and relationships, resulting in symptoms such as difficulty regulating emotions, struggling with self-esteem, and depersonalization.

Trauma bonding may also lead to maladaptive behaviors such as isolating the self from loved ones, unhealthy relationship patterns, self-harm, and substance abuse. It is possible to develop mental illnesses such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, and/or depression from prolonged exposure to relationship dynamics that are characterized by trauma bonding.

The 7 Stages of Trauma Bonding

There are seven stages in the course of trauma bonding that develops in a relationship.

1. Love Bombing

The first stage of trauma bonding is love bombing. This occurs at the beginning of a relationship and involves excessive affection, praise, and flattery for the affected partner. The abusive partner does this to win the other person’s trust with grand gestures and an overwhelming concept of love.

2. Trust & Dependency

In the second stage, the perpetrator does everything they can to earn their partner’s trust. This may involve advancing the relationship quickly to ensure that the other person is dependent on them. This is when the abusive partner tries to convince the victim that they are meant for each other.

3. Criticism

After gaining their trust, the abuser will then start to criticize the affected partner with the intention of causing negative feelings about themselves. Arguments often occur during this stage, with the perpetrator placing blame on the victim so that they think something is wrong with them. They over-apologize and doubt themselves while looking to the abuser as someone who is there for them.

4. Gaslighting

Gaslighting is a type of psychological abuse that causes the victim to question reality. Abusers who gaslight shift the blame onto the person they are in a relationship with. They manipulate them into thinking that they are wrong and “crazy.”

5. Addiction

Stages are often cyclical in trauma bonds, that is, after conflict, there is typically a period of calm or even a honeymoon phase. Abusers typically apologize and begin the love-bombing process again, or they may become avoidant and withhold love, affection, and attention. This can either make the target feel relieved and desired or cause them to apologize and win the abuser back. This gives the victim a false sense of control, leading them to think that the perpetrator must really love them.

6. Loss of Self

Individuals who are stuck in a trauma bond often have a broken sense of self and low confidence. They often feel isolated, disconnected, and at a loss when it comes to their own identity. This can persist for years until the affected person cannot recognize themselves anymore.

7. Resignation & Submission

After feeling a loss of self, the target of abuse may no longer know what to believe and chooses instead to give in and avoid conflict altogether. This is because it may seem easier to do things the perpetrator’s way rather than fighting back. The victim grows even more dependent and reliant on the abuser in this stage.

Breaking Free from a Trauma Bond

Despite being trapped in a trauma bond, it is possible to break free. Here are concrete ways to do so:

  • Keep a written record. Documenting everything that goes on in your relationship can help you reflect on the reality of things. It is crucial to remain as factual as possible when logging precisely what is happening in your conflicts. Keeping a journal can help you see patterns and gain a more objective perspective on your relationship.
  • Seek outside advice. It can often be difficult to see outside the bubble of our own relationships. We are used to seeing things from one viewpoint, so it can be valuable to seek outside perspective. You can talk about things with someone you trust, such as a friend or your therapist. Doing so can give you clarity and ways to better inform the way you see things.
  • Nurture yourself. Navigating a trauma bond in a complex relationship can take its toll on your emotional well-being. Practicing self-care and gentleness can guide you through the healing process. You can engage in hobbies, improve your other relationships, or simply try new things. This can also improve your self-esteem, which is crucial in breaking the cycle of trauma bonding.
  • Cut off contact. The final way to break free from a trauma bond is to finally cut off all contact with the abuser. Once you have prepared a safety plan for yourself, it is important to commit to the decision to cut ties.
  • Seek professional help. Healing from emotional trauma is a long and complicated process. It can help to have a professional who focuses on trauma guide you.

The Difficulty of Breaking a Trauma Bond

Despite making the decision to break free from a trauma bond, the reality is that it is a very difficult process. Individuals usually feel lost or incomplete without their partners despite the cycle of abuse, simply because it is familiar.

Trauma Bond Withdrawal Signs

The difficulty of breaking a trauma bond often manifests in withdrawal symptoms. These are intense and can include flashbacks, compulsive thoughts about the relationship, cravings for the toxic person, and a persistent anxious state. Such symptoms may make you feel like you are regressing rather than truly moving forward without the abusive person.

How to Heal from a Trauma Bond

Apart from getting professional help, there are other ways you can heal from a trauma-bonded relationship.

  • Educate yourself. Learn the signs of both healthy and unhealthy relationships. Knowing what each looks like is extremely important so you can distinguish between the two.
  • Focus on the present. By focusing on the present, it becomes easier to see the perpetrator as they are now. This draws attention away from any thoughts that might be reminiscent of the good times and make it tempting to stay in the relationship.
  • Create space. Sometimes being too involved in a situation makes it difficult to see it clearly. Take a step back and create some distance between you and the other person so you can see the relationship as it is.
  • Find a support system. Aside from relying on your friends and family, it may be helpful to join a support group. It can help you realize that you are not alone in your experience.
  • Practice self-care. Good self-care activities reduce stress while promoting physical and emotional well-being. Try journaling, exercising, engaging in a new hobby, or spending time with trusted friends and family.
  • Make future plans. When you are comfortable in the present, it can also help to look to the future. What do you envision? Allow yourself to realize that there is so much more to look forward to.

How Long Does It Take to Heal from a Trauma Bond?

There is no prescribed time that it takes to heal from a trauma bond because each individual and their circumstances are different. For some, it may only be a matter of months. Others may take years to overcome the effects of being in such a relationship.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can a trauma bond become true love?

As much as the affected person wants to believe it, trauma bonding will not turn into a healthy and loving relationship. Individuals in a trauma bond usually mistake their emotional connection with the other person for real love, even though the feelings are the result of an abusive cycle.

Are there any specific risk factors that make individuals more susceptible to trauma bonding?

Some individuals are indeed more susceptible to trauma bonding than others. These are usually people with existing relational or emotional trauma. Other risk factors may include but are not limited to the following:

  • Having a disorganized, anxious, or avoidant attachment style
  • Having a dependent personality
  • Having a history of being abused in childhood or past relationships
  • Existing mental health conditions (e.g., depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, etc.)
  • Being quick to forgive and putting too much emphasis on “the good times”
  • Having separation anxiety
  • Being sensitive to rejection

What are some of the challenges individuals face when trying to break free from trauma bonding?

People who are trying to break free from trauma bonding are constantly faced with the challenge of fulfilling their needs for attachment and security. Abusers wield tremendous control over this by using shame, embarrassment, and tactics such as positive reinforcement and gaslighting. The complexity of the dynamic and its psychological attributes make it extremely difficult for individuals to ultimately break free.

Is it possible to rebuild a healthy relationship with someone after trauma bonding has occurred?

While it may be hopeful to rebuild a relationship even after trauma bonding has occurred, it usually does not happen and is not recommended.

The Bottom Line

Trauma bonding is a complex and serious reality for many people. While it is difficult to break free, doing so will open up more possibilities for the future without being traumatized further by the perpetrator. As you begin to move forward, remember that healing your childhood trauma or your experiences from previous traumatic relationships is vital. Continue to use helpful tools at your disposal, such as our trauma worksheets. Living your life how you want it is possible if you can break free.

References:

  1. Herrero J, Torres A, Rodríguez F. Child Abuse, Risk in Male Partner Selection, and Intimate Partner Violence Victimization of Women of the European Union. November 2018.
  2. Courtois, C. Complex Trauma, Complex Reactions: Assessment and Treatment. August 2008.
  3. Chu B, Marwaha K, Sanvictores T, et al. Physiology, Stress Reaction. 12 September 2022.