The trauma bond created in some abusive relationships can make it difficult, and seemingly impossible to stay or leave the harmful relationship. Trauma bonds to abusive relationships as adults often are a perpetuation of trauma bonds first formed in early childhood.
In romantic partnerships or other intimate relationships with interpersonal violence, trauma bonding takes place when the victim experiencing the harm has experienced early childhood trauma from disrupted attachment styles by their primary caregiver, creating an unhealthy relationship patter connection which follows them into adulthood.
In this article, we’ll talk about trauma bonding within romantic, intimate partnerships, but it’s also important that you understand that they can form within friendships and other relationships which can also be abusive. If you’re a parent and you cannot understand why your child continually returns to a friend who treats them horribly, we encourage you to follow along and take a look at the risk factors, signs and solutions.
So, keep reading as we define and share how the trauma bond develops, the 7 stages of trauma bonding, tactics for breaking the trauma bond, and suggestions for recovering from trauma bonds.
Trauma Bonding and its Impact on Relationships
Well first of all, what is a trauma bond?
As the phrase indicates, it’s a bond or connection between two people – one who is an abusive person and the other is the target of their abuse. Trauma bonding occurs when the victim has a psychological response to abuse which develops into a deep sense of affection, empathy and sympathy for their abuser.
People who experienced childhood trauma bonds and early attachment disruption that are not resolved are highly susceptible to forming trauma bonds in toxic adult relationships where abuse occurs.
This Form of Bonding Isn’t Positive
Some people mistakenly believe a trauma bond is when two people share a deep connection over past trauma each has experienced. In some cases this type of bonding could be positive and is NOT within the meaning of “trauma bond” which takes place in abusive relationships.
Trauma bonds form and find strength in the current relationship because of the past trauma bonds and attachment dysfunction being perpetuated within the present relationship.
A trauma bond develops when abusers use covert forms of abuse that make the victim believe they need the abuser’s care and validation to feel whole. They become very dependent on the abusive relationship whether family, romantic, friend, or work-related.
They become so addicted they are willing to set aside the destructive phases which prevent healthy, loving emotional connection from ever taking place. They remain laser-focused on achieving the positive interactions which may come and go periodically.
It’s Not the Same as Codependency
A trauma-bonded victim is not the same as one who is codependent although both can exist in the same relationship. A co-dependent believes the abusive person needs them to care for them and places the abuser’s needs over their own. Codependency enables the abuser’s unhealthy power and control to continue.
Whereas, with a trauma-bonded victim, they are simply addicted to the relationship and see the abuser’s actions as love, notwithstanding the harm the abusive person causes. Trauma bonds do not take place in every abusive situation but once they are formed, they are very hard to break.
In a trauma bonded relationship, it’s impossible to understand why you keep going back to the abusive person. And it’s impossible to imagine living without them. The confusion for the person experiencing trauma bonding combined with the incredible pull to the relationship makes the abused person feel as if the bond is true love, but it’s not.
Trauma bonded individuals experience cognitive dissonance where there is a significant disconnect between what is actually occuring in the relationship versus being able to see the harmful behavior with a clear sense of understanding.
Why is Trauma Bonding So Strong?
In relationships, there is an intrinsic human need for a secure attachment along with a sense of emotional intimacy and safety with people we perceive to be partners, caregivers, protectors, or defenders. We first form attachments to our primary caregivers. Healthy attachments in our formative years encourage healthy relationships and connection hopefully with a healthy love that is open, safe and encouraging in their autonomous endeavors.
When early childhood attachment is disrupted or inconsistent, we become attracted to similar, unhealthy attachments as adults. We develop a strong need to stay with anyone, even an abuser, who presents themselves as a caretaker, comforter or protector.
The trauma bond cycle creates repetitive interruption of any positive attachment, leaving the victim craving and desperate to return to those positive feelings not with standing the destructive patterns of maltreatment.
These conflict cycles are difficult to identify and our interactive course “Finding Clarity and Healing in Difficult, Confusing, Stressful or Abusive Relationships” is a straightforward way to begin to break these trauma bonds.
Trauma Bonding Versus Love
They mistake the craving for the positive feelings for love, emotional support and safety, enabling a strong bond to firmly root during the trauma bond cycle of the abusive situation. Their obsession with the positive stages of the cycle blind them to or at least makes them willing to tolerate the abuse and classify it as less important.
They mischaracterize the abuser’s false promises or doses of affection as love, making it nearly impossible for them to distinguish true love from an abusive situation. But a trauma bond is not love. The regular interruption of positive attachment prevents a healthy mutual love from developing.
A Trauma Bond is More Than an Emotional Attachment
It’s an addiction. When someone is traumatized by a romantic partner, their brain releases certain chemicals which stimulate trauma bonding and create mental health issues. Dopamine, endogenous opioids, corticotropin releasing factor, and oxytocin are released in response to intimate partner trauma.
Particularly oxytocin is highly responsive to social situations and in high levels can cause emotional dysregulation, anxiety and addiction, among other things. This chemical response is why victims become physically addicted to the abusive relationship.
They crave the “high” they experience from the oxytocin release during the early stages of the cycle.1 As with drug addictions, victims will excuse, hide or lie about the abuse to prevent others from confronting them about the relationship or encouraging them to leave.
Let’s take a look at the seven stages.
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Seven Stages of Trauma Bonding
When unhealthy emotional attachments are developed during youth, they repeat themselves in many other relationships over time creating revictimization and regular relationship dysfunction. In the 7 stages, the abuser intermittently reinforces the positive and the negative catching the victim off guard. The victims loses the time and presence to see the toxicity in the relationship, instead remaining in a state of intense confusion.
The seven stages of trauma bonding are:
- Love Bombing
- Developing Trust and Dependence
- Resigning to Control
- Loss of Self
- Addiction to the Cycle
Okay, let’s start unpacking these.
1. Love Bombing
Love bombing is the most essential step which enables the abuser to entice their partner into a trauma bond. Here, the abuser lavishes the other person with attention, affection, or flattery often filling an internal void in the victim who has been longing for true love and positive reinforcement.
Usually, the relationship progresses quickly during this phase when the abuser identifies you as their soulmate or professes their desire to be with you forever.
Can This Be True Love?
The victim is enamored believing they have found true love. Love bombing fills a void the victim has been desperate to fill possibly their entire life due to early attachment disruption. The positive reinforcement feels wonderful. The victim will spend the rest of the relationship desperately longing to re-experience the feelings and chemical release from this phase.
Or is it Manipulation?
In reality, the abuser is setting themselves apart from all others in the victim’s eyes, making them believe they are the only ones who will love them, protect, and nurture them, compelling the victim to let their guard down and fall prey to the abuser’s manipulations. The victim begins to trust the abuser’s intentions and feel safe. They need to believe the love is true.
Be on the Alert
During the first couple of stages, the mask of the abuser hasn’t had the time needed for it come off and allow the victim to see the immediate danger and red flags needed to make accurate decisions about the relationship.
Be on alert if the adoration seems so fast and sudden that it catches you off guard. If your partner’s affection is “over the top,” such as whisking you away on an extravagant trip early on versus giving you something small and appropriate for the stage you’re in, pay attention.
You have permission to slow things down. After all, a healthy lifelong relationship is not forged in a month. It takes time.
2. Developing Trust & Dependence
So now that they lavished you with flattery, gifts, and attention, they will do many things to make you trust them and increase your dependence on them.
They Make Promises They Won’t Fulfill
For example, they’ll ask you to move in with them or set a date to get married, or elope, following through on the dreamy ideas they shared during the love bombing phase. They promise they will always love you. It’s compelling, flattering and endearing to the victim.
In a friendship, trauma bonding occurs when that person attests to the “friends forever”and “best friends” insignia making the other person feel wholly and completely loved and accepted by the other until a later phase.
Or They Provoke You to Question Them
Alternatively, the abuser’s behavior attempts to provoke you so you’ll question them. They’ll make you feel guilty for questioning them after ALL they did for you during the love bombing phase. This makes the victim feel bad and their regret draws them closer to their abuser who they accommodate.
The fear of the loss of that attachment makes the victim second guess themselves and over function in the relationship.
The Trauma Bond Forms
When you find yourself longing for their love, validation and acceptance, even craving it, it’s an indication that you’re developing a trauma bond or said another way, an addiction to the relationship
Here, the abuser promotes the unfaltering trust they require from you. When confronting the abuser at this stage, you will be criticized for questioning their love. This is why the love bombing phase is so important: they are always able to point back to it as a reminder.
And so you become firmly bonded.
The honeymoon is over and no matter what you do, it’s not good enough. The abuser reacts to the victim’s expression of sadness, disappointment or concern by placing the blame and responsibility onto the victim. They may begin picking you apart, demeaning your qualities, or making you feel like your values are the problem.
The shift in treatment is sudden and in stark contrast to the love bombing and trust stages that the only logical reason for the change in the victim’s mind is that the victim must have done something wrong to make their partner change so abruptly. The victim turns inward in self blame, then seeks to resume connection through repeated apologies for things that aren’t their fault, hoping to avoid the downward cycle of abuse.
And it appears momentarily that it works. The abuser reluctantly forgives them and convinces them that their actions are meant to help the victim not hurt them. This positive switch makes the victim believe they can trust and depend on the abuser, falsely hoping the abuse will stop. But it won’t.
The deception of the earlier phases doesn’t allow you to believe the abuser is the problem. After all, they love you. Don’t they?
Gaslighting is one of the most common forms of psychological abuse. Gaslighting is a covert tactic aimed at making the victim question their own reality, perception or sanity. Gaslighting can include false accusations (inventing false narratives that are the victim’s fault), lying (saying anything to make the victim feel they are going crazy), blame-shifting, etc. Over time, the gaslit victim believes they are the ones who need help, not the abuser. Likely, the victim is accustomed to gaslighting from their early years making them automatically internalize it.
In this way, gaslighting moves well beyond criticism and into the world of fiction.
As soon as the victim demonstrates worry or concern for their own well being, their partner plays nurturer, possibly recommending counseling or expressing concern that the victim is not emotionally well. This satisfies the victim’s need to believe the abuser truly cares and they mistake the abusive tactics for love.
5. Resigning to Control
Left completely depleted by the gaslighting phase, the victim begins to shut down, possibly dissociating. With nowhere to turn and no idea how to address the conflict, they submit to their partner’s control in order to avoid future conflicts. The victim becomes an expert at people-pleasing to try to manage the relationship.
The level of confusion for the victim is at an all-time high by this point. They might have a sixth sense they are being manipulated but the extraordinary confusion they feel dims their cognitive senses and deters them from taking concrete steps to end the relationship.
The balance is tipped in favor of self-blame and self doubt. “If only I could be better” or “try harder.” The victim works much harder on the relationship putting forth tremendous efforts to improve communication and keep the relationship at all costs.
6. Loss of Self
This is the whole point for the abuser: the victim loses their self esteem and sense of self. They release their own boundaries to the person abusing them. The loss of self makes it difficult if not impossible for the victim to have transparent and meaningful connection with anyone outside the relationship, increasing their isolation.
They lack confidence, feel intense shame, and are lonely, depressed, anxious or possibly suicidal. Having arrived in this place, it’s hard to imagine how to leave. The relationship is the only attachment they falsely believe they have and most can’t fathom leaving it.
Perhaps after many months, years or even decades have passed, the victim may come to recognize they are in an abusive relationship but the trauma bond is now firmly rooted making it extremely difficult for them to imagine leaving.
7. Addiction to the Cycle
Trauma bonds are powerful because they are rooted in the victim’s desperate need for a safe and secure attachment. The target becomes addicted to the relationship cycle. The focus on resuming attachment, love bombing, trust, and dependency becomes so intense that the victim doesn’t see the relationship as destructive.
The abuser uses withholding to deprive their partner of the feeling of attachment and relationship and increase their desperation for earlier phases. The victim will try anything to win back their partner’s affection. The victim will accept crumbs of affection, starting the cycle all over again. Their ability to return to a positive phase makes the victim believe their abuser really loves them. It reinforces their self-blame as they hope for a better future.
Those hopes are repeatedly dashed leaving the victim longing even more for a sense of secure attachment. Remember, all this is combined with the neurotransmitters being released by the victim’s brain chemistry resulting in a physical addiction to the relationship.
The Role of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder — What Most Miss
There can be many negative effects of trauma bonding relationships including post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”) or if the harm continues for a long while, complex PTSD, a more difficult form of PTSD to heal. Symptoms of PTSD can increase the victims desperation for the relationship. Let’s explain this more.
As we said, in adult relationships that include a trauma bond, one or both of the individuals usually experienced disrupted attachment through intermittent positive and negative attachment cycles in their primary early relationships, along with PTSD that might not be resolved. The intense fear of leaving an abusive partner with whom you are trauma bonded to can escalate significantly when the victim already has symptoms of PTSD carried over from childhood.
Existing PTSD intensifies the need to have their wounds soothed by their abuser or intimate partner. It can make decisions to leave more confusing even sending the victim into panic attacks, fluctuating heart palpitations or increased heart rate, nausea, etc. These symptoms are intensified when the victim has PTSD from earlier relationships making it even harder for them to break out of the bond.
PTSD also causes the victim to distrust others, becoming suspicious of anyone who questions the relationship or the abuser’s love for the victim. Any outsider who suggests the victim leave the abusive situation adds trauma because the victim desperately believes they need the relationship. The victim will often shut out any person who is not fully in support of their relationship which includes the victim protecting the abuser’s reputation and their relationship at all costs.
Warning Signs of a Trauma Bond
What are the signs of trauma bonding?
Some key signs of trauma bonding include:
- you are willing to overlook the abuse in order to re-experience love bombing
- you cover up or minimize the abuse by making excuses for the abuser’s behavior
- you lie to others about the abuse
- no matter what, you can barely fathom leaving the relationship; the thought makes you feel sick
- you adopt as your own the abuser’s perceptions about the relationship
- a hyper-focus on the abuser’s every want or need
- an overly deep sense of gratitude for even the smallest acts of kindness from the abuser
- an intense emotional bond with the abuser
- profound confusion and/or believing they deserve criticism or abusive treatment
- appeasing their partner in ways that conflict with the victim’s own values
- accepting and agreeing with the perpetrator’s point of view
- calling anyone who encourages them to leave an “enemy”
Analyze Your Relationship for Trauma Bonding (examples)
There are many examples of trauma bonding in various relationships. Here are some for friendships and romantic relationships
Trauma Bonding Friendship Examples
Maile and Sarah met in the dorms and became immediate, inseparable friends. Maile wanted to do everything with Sarah. They laughed, did fun things, shared their deepest secrets. Within days, Maile knew everything about Sarah, more than anyone ever had or seemed interested in knowing. Sarah felt so good inside because of her new best friend. Maile talked about becoming housemates and traveling through Europe together, best friends forever.
Suddenly, Maile didn’t call Sarah back when they were supposed to grab coffee together. She ghosted her for a few days. When Sarah confronted her, Maile became angry. How could Sarah question her after what a good friend Maile had been to her? Sarah felt bad and apologized, believing she was being stupid for questioning Maile.
Soon, Maile begins criticizing Sarah. She’s too tall, has big legs, and tells her how weird other people think she is. Maile makes Sarah believe others don’t like Sarah. Maile laughs at Sarah because she says Sarah isn’t very smart. Suddenly, Maile stonewalls Sarah for a few weeks. Sarah can’t fathom what she did wrong and becomes obsessed about becoming close again. It hurts. Her whole focus is on returning the relationship to where it started.
She has no friends, doesn’t feel safe with anyone. When others tell her Maile is not being a good friend, Sarah shuts them out because she can’t believe Maile doesn’t love her. She feels sick inside without her best friend and will do anything to get her back.
Sarah has become trauma bonded to Maile.
Examples of Trauma Bonding in a Romantic Relationship
Nora met Philip when she was studying in a Paris cafe. He pursued her immediately by buying her coffee and asking her to sit with him. Within the first hour, he was telling her how beautiful she was and that if they hung out much longer, he was sure to fall head over heels in love with her. She thought it was odd, but it felt good.
He kept pursuing her and they quickly began a heavy romance. He picked flowers for her whenever he saw them, held her hand constantly, complimented her often, and sent her texts and called her several times throughout the day. This went on for weeks with him asking if she’d ever consider marrying him. In fact, he promised her a future together. One day, when she ran into him on the street he was talking to another woman and she questioned him. He seemed upset that she would think he’d do anything to hurt her after all he had done for her. He had tears in his eyes making her feel bad for questioning him. What was I thinking?
They were soon engaged and that’s when the mask fell off. He told her that she better be careful what she eats because he won’t want to be with her if she’s fat. He criticized her job, her makeup, her hair. It wouldn’t stop and she couldn’t figure it out. Suddenly, he seemed uninterested in her.
Since he asked her to marry him, she knew he loved her. So, her only explanation for the sudden shift is that she had done something wrong. Over time, he barely pays attention to her and she goes crazy craving the old love back. To appease her (and bond her to him), he takes her on a romantic weekend reconnecting her to positive feelings, so she’ll “forget” the bad treatment. It’s more important to her to have these moments than to focus on the red flags and emotional pain the relationship was causing her.
Nora has become trauma bonded to Philip.
Strategies for Breaking Free from a Trauma Bond
We know how hard it is to break trauma bonds. Exceedingly difficult, but not impossible. Here are some strategies for breaking free:
- Educate Yourself. Listen to podcasts, take classes, join support groups, read books, articles, or blogs on trauma bonding, childhood attachment trauma, and covert emotional abuse. The more you learn, the more aware you will become about the reality of your attachment to your relationship and partner.
- Take a Pause. At this point, take a pause from working on yourself. The victim with a trauma bond to an abusive relationship only focuses on themself and they miss what is really going on the relationship. Pause to really evaluate your circumstances.
- Gain Clarity. Take a look at your relationship and how your partner treats you in all phases of the cycle. Recognize that the negative, destructive, hurtful behavior is abuse. You will be able to see the specific destructive behaviors they use which are causing harm, confusion, and a lack of self-love.
- Go Deeper. Once you clarify the types of toxic behaviors you face in your relationship, go deeper in your knowledge about how your abuser will use manipulative patterns in complex ways that are possibly unique to your relationship. Really take the time to see and unpack these things. Begin writing in a journal to document how each conflict plays out. Writing it out can help you to stop gaslighting yourself and to see things that are confusing more accurately.
- Pay Attention to Yourself. When you focus on what is actually happening in the present, pay attention to how it makes you feel: your emotions, your body, your thoughts.
- Stop Magical Thinking. Magical thinking is when someone continues to hold on to the hope that love will happen soon, things will get better, bad things won’t happen if I change. The victim focuses on the “what if” as if it is reality. There is a cognitive dissonance between reality and what is actually happening. Victims who are stuck within a trauma bond have a very hard time stepping out of the fantasy of what they hope will be. Try to focus on what is happening today.
- Don’t Go Cold Turkey. It’s very hard to have an “all or nothing” approach to breaking a trauma bond or you’ll set yourself up for failure. Take little steps one at a time. Small steps allow you to gain strength and courage to take the bigger steps you’ll eventually need to take.
- Seek Mental Health Services. Get a therapist who is trained and experienced in helping victims of abuse, PTSD and trauma bonds. Learn questions to ask the find the right therapist for your situation.
- Find Community. Perhaps join a support group or find a few friends you can trust who will help you remain focused on your healing. You may not have thought so before, but you will begin to recognize that you are not alone and there are others who understand and can help keep you strong.
Don’t give up hope. There is more you can do to bring healing to your soul and body.
Trauma Bonding Recovery
In addition to steps to help you break free from the bond, here are some steps to help you to recover.
- Seek Professional Help. It’s so important to address the early childhood trauma as well as the adult trauma with a specialist who can help you identify and reform some of the coping and attachment mechanisms keeping you in unhealthy relationship cycles.
- Keep Educating Yourself. We cannot state it enough, the more you learn and understand, the more clarity you will have. Join MEND in one of our training courses.
- Have Patience. Healing is a journey that isn’t always easy but it’s always worthwhile. Don’t expect perfection or results to happen overnight. It takes time.
- Self-Love. Although a trauma bond is different than co-dependency, many of these relationships also have that. A lack of self-love is one of the core reasons one becomes co-dependent upon another. Positive self talk and a positive self assessment is important.
- Self-Compassion: This can be very difficult at first because you are likely accustomed to blaming yourself and believing your partner who is blaming you for the problems in your relationship. It’s OK to fail. Get up after a fall and take two more steps forward. You’re not a failure. You’re human.
- Self-Care. If you see negative traits coming out in yourself, take a deep breath and remember you have been through a lot. Your deserve your own positive attention and care. Don’t make rash decisions that will harm you. Take time to think about the choices you are making.
- Grieve. Too many victims and those helping them overly focus on getting to the next stage of healing and miss the power of grieving well. The MEND Project’s Healing Model of Compassion lists “grieve” as one of the critical steps for responding to abuse. There’s a lot to grieve. Doing it well honors your journey and life’s healing path.
- Find Support. Call the national domestic violence hotline (800.799.SAFE) or connect with your local domestic violence agency to get help. There are also intimate partner violence support groups you can find online or in person, and online therapy services specializing in trauma-informed care.
You’ve got this! We are here to help you. Just reach out.
1Psychology Today- https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/neurosagacity/201701/the-brain-can-work-against-abuse-victims#:~:text=We%20touched%20on%20the%20four,these%20chemicals%20become%20significantly%20dysregulated.