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What Is Trauma Bonding and What are the Signs?

03/03/2023

Trauma refers to a person’s emotional, mental, or behavioral state after experiencing an event that caused physical or psychological harm. To simplify, trauma is what’s left behind after someone experiences something distressing. Trauma doesn’t just impact the individual who is traumatized — it impacts everyone around them as well. While there are some overlapping effects, identifying trauma is complicated, as it can look different for each individual.

Trauma bonding is a type of trauma that happens when someone in a distressing relationship (romantic or otherwise) becomes bonded or dependent on their abuser.

The good news is you can break these harmful bonds and heal. In this article, we will discuss what trauma bonding looks like and how you can start your healing journey.

What Is Trauma Bonding?

Trauma bonding refers to the emotional bond that victims of abuse form with their abuser. Trauma bonding is most commonly found in romantic relationships, but these harmful bonds can be formed in non-romantic relationships as well. For example, trauma bonding can occur between a child and their caretaker, a cult member and their leader, or a hostage and their kidnapper. This type of bond can involve a power imbalance rather than a romantic element.

Trauma bonds thrive on the cycle of abuse and can feel like an addiction for those stuck in the cycle. These bonds are usually the reason someone will stay in an abusive situation long after the abuse becomes obvious. Leaving someone you’re bonded with can feel impossible, especially when there’s a lack of help or resources.

There are several factors that make breaking trauma bonds extremely difficult:

  • Over time, the cycle of being disparaged and then praised creates a chemical bond between victim and abuser, making it difficult to even consider leaving as an option.
  • The “good times” in an abusive cycle fill the victim’s brain with dopamine, which is why trauma bonds often feel like an addiction.
  • Abusive relationships play on the human need to feel attached and secure. Trauma-bonded victims often believe they can’t live without their abusers or that life without them would somehow be worse.
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Main Characteristics of Trauma Bonds

Trauma bonds can look different from relationship to relationship. Generally speaking though, there are two types of trauma bonds — those of a cyclical nature and those with a power imbalance. Trauma bonds can have one or both of these characteristics.

    • Cyclical Nature - Not all abusive relationships are 100% bad all of the time. Many abusive relationships have a cyclical nature to them, meaning they operate in a repeating cycle. When those in trauma-bonded situations see their abusers being kind, apologizing for behavior, or acting as if they’ve changed, it can be easy to forget about past abuse. Eventually, however, the abusive part of the cycle circles back around.
    • Power Imbalance - Another common aspect in trauma-bonded relationships is a clear power imbalance. A power imbalance happens when the abuser has control over some or all aspects of your life. Maybe they hold all the money or maybe they are making decisions for you. Either way, it can be incredibly difficult to break this type of trauma bond, as you may feel dependent on it.

Why Does Trauma Bonding Occur?

Trauma bonding can occur in any style of relationship from romantic partners to cult leaders and followers, among others. But why does trauma bonding occur? There are a few different factors that contribute to the forming of trauma bonds:

  • Reinforcement and manipulation: Trauma bonds often begin with overwhelming feelings of love and mutual adoration. It’s common for abusers to put their victims up on a pedestal. This is referred to as love bombing. During the cycle of abuse, abusers will periodically reinforce this love bombing, thus manipulating their victims to keep chasing the “good times,” even while they’re being treated poorly. Additionally, abusers tend to manipulate their victims into thinking the anxiety and depression they feel is their own fault, which only reinforces the feeling that victims need their abusers.
  • Alternating abuse with positive experiences: Abusive people will sometimes alternate bad experiences with positive ones. This might look like buying gifts after a fight, for example. This can lead victims to feel indebted to their abuser.

Trauma Bonding Signs

Recognizing trauma bonding signs is one of the first steps in getting out of a traumatic relationship. While each relationship looks different, there are a few overlapping signs to look out for:

 

    • Feeling unhappy in your relationship but also feeling unable to end things.
    • When you try to end the relationship, you feel distressed.
    • Your abuser promises to change when you try to leave, but ultimately things remain the same.
    • You keep the abusive behavior a secret in order to protect them, or you defend their behavior when others express concern.
    • You continue to trust your abuser in hopes they will change.
    • You focus on the good experiences as evidence that the relationship is healthy.
    • The abuse follows a cycle.
    • The abuser controls the victim through manipulation or gaslighting and isolates them from friends and family.

7 Stages of Trauma Bonding

Although everyone’s experiences are different, there are some common stages associated with trauma bonding.

Love Bombing

Love bombing refers to over-the-top expressions of love and adoration that are used to manipulate another person. During this stage of trauma bonding, it’s common for abusers to dole out excess amounts of praise, attention, and validation.

Gaining Trust/Trust & Dependency

During this stage of trauma bonding, abusers may start to control what you do and who you see in order to “keep you safe.” The goal here is to make the victim feel dependent on the abuser, making it harder to leave the situation in the long run.

Criticism

Criticism is used to make the victim of a trauma bond feel unworthy. This gives the abuser more power and makes the victim feel as if no one else would ever love them.

Manipulating/Gaslighting

Eventually, criticism will graduate into manipulation and gaslighting. During this stage, victims are made to feel as if they are “too sensitive” or are simply imagining things that didn’t happen. Gaslighting is dangerous and can lead to feelings of confusion and doubt.

Resignation/Giving Up

At a certain point in most trauma-bonded relationships, the victim submits to the abuse. This can happen for a number of reasons but is often a result of the victim feeling like they don’t deserve better or that the situation is somehow their fault.

Distress/Loss of Self

Trauma bonds leave victims with low self-esteem, which eventually leads to a loss of identity. Victims become so dependent on their abusers that it overshadows all other aspects of self.

Repetition/Addiction to the Cycle

Much like drugs or alcohol, it’s all too easy to become addicted to the cycle of abuse. Your brain releases chemicals that keep you coming back for more.

How to Break a Trauma Bond

Breaking a trauma bond isn’t impossible, but it can be incredibly difficult, especially without professional help or guidance. Thankfully, there are tools and help available to guide you through this process. Here are a few ways you can start to break a trauma bond:

  • Learn as much as you can about the signs and symptoms of trauma bonds.
  • Look for ways to create space between victim and abuser.
  • Seek support from family or friends, and don’t keep abuse a secret.
  • Seek professional help with breaking trauma bonds, practicing self-care, and finding healthy relationships.

Heal from Trauma Bonding with Help from Beachway Therapy Center

If you’re currently in a trauma-bonded relationship, regardless of which stage, Beachway Therapy Center can help. Beachway offers a wide range of evidence-based mental health treatments in Florida designed to help victims successfully break the cycle of abuse and avoid repeating the pattern with future relationships. When it comes to getting help with trauma and mental health, there is no time like the present. If you’re ready to accept the help you deserve, don’t wait. Call the Beachway Therapy Center helpline today, or send a completely confidential email. Beachway admissions coordinators are standing by to explore services and answer any questions you might have. Remember, healing is possible.