How many of you have a friend who finds it too hard to get out of a toxic relationship?
Or why it’s hard to shake off an abusive ex-partner months or even years after you’ve broken up?
Is it true love or have you developed a trauma bond?
What is trauma bonding?
These clearly toxic and unhealthy relationships seems quite bizarre and incomprehensible to outsiders, who can see quite clearly what is going on.
“Trauma bonding” is when you connect with someone to fix things inside you.
This could be any form of unresolved hurt, unmet expectations, unloved or neglected childhood. You operate in your present relationships while holding the steering of your past experiences.
So what is trauma bonding?
Why do people become trauma bonded and continue to stay with a manipulative partner?
How do people begin to break the destructive bond?
We’ll answer those questions as well as the common red flags of trauma bonding so you can recognize it and stop it in its tracks.
Table of Contents
- WHAT IS TRAUMA BONDING?
- Common Signs of Trauma Bonding
- WHY DO PEOPLE DEVELOP TRAUMA BONDS?
- LEAVING A TRAUMA BONDED RELATIONSHIP
- How to recover from trauma bonding?
- Continue Reading About Narcissistic Personality Disorder
WHAT IS TRAUMA BONDING?
Let’s start with the basic definitions.
Bonding and building healthy attachments is a natural biological and emotional process that makes people more important to each other over time.
These process are cumulative and grow with spending time together, living together, eating together, making love together, having children together, and being together during stress or difficulty.
Experiencing extreme situations and feelings together tends to bond people in a special way, which may be healthy or unhealthy.
The term trauma bonding (also known as Stockholm Syndrome and the Betrayal Bond), describes a deep bond which forms between a victim of abuse and their abuser.
Trauma bonding can occur in various types of relationships including:
- Romantic relationships
- A child and an abusive caregiver or other adult
- A hostage and kidnapper
- The leader and members of a cult
In this article we will focus on trauma bonding as a result of intimate partner violence and emotional abuse.
“Trauma bonding” is when you connect with someone to fix things inside you.
This could be any form of unresolved hurt, unmet expectations, unloved or neglected childhood.
You operate in your present relationships while holding the steering of your past experiences.
On the other hand, authentic bonding and healthy attachments are possible when you hold the potential to know your real self.
You are aware of reactions and can reflect and work on them.
You find healthy relationships are a safe space, without feeling externally or internally threatened.
Trauma bonding makes one project their emotions such as fear, anger, or insecurity on their partner or others.
Often leading to blame games, taunts or frequent shutdowns. Whereas people with authentic bonding tries to reason and accept their partners wholeheartedly.
Their past baggage doesn’t impact their present and future.
There is less of emotional dependency and more of emotional maturity to understand that self-work is needed for happier relationships.
Where one person exerts power or control over another, with the result that the other person feels intimidated or confused, harmed or diminished in some way, we can say that abuse has taken place.
The abuse can be physical abuse, verbal abuse, psychological abuse, financial or spiritual abuse, and can be intentional or unintentional.
Victims of the cycle of abuse often develop a strong sense of loyalty, compassion, and emotional attachment towards their abuser, despite the fact that the trauma bond is detrimental to the victim.
Learn more about the different types of abuse here.
This trauma bond seems quite bizarre and incomprehensible to outsiders of the relationship, who can see quite clearly what is going on.
Dr. Patrick Carnes calls these types of destructive attachments are known as “betrayal bonds” based on a forged relationship and can occur in romantic relationships, friendships, within the family, and the workplace.
In his book, Betrayal Bonds, he mentions a number of signs that a person is involved in an unhealthy bond with a partner or other significant person.
So, if you’re wondering maybe you have a traumatic bond with your partner, make sure you read the following traumatic bond symptoms (Carnes, 2016):
Common Signs of Trauma Bonding
- Obsessing about people who have hurt you, though they are long gone
- Continuing to seek contact with people whom you know will cause you further pain
- Going “overboard” to help people who have been destructive to you
- Continuing to be a “team member” when obviously things are becoming destructive
- Continuing attempts to get people to like you, though they are clearly using you
- Trusting people again and again who have proven to be unreliable
- Being unable to retreat from unhealthy relationships
- Wanting to be understood by those who clearly do not care
- Choosing to stay in conflict with others, though it would cost you nothing to walk away
- Persisting in trying to convince people there is a problem and they won’t listen
- Remaining loyal to people who have betrayed you
- Being attracted to untrustworthy people
- Being forced to keep damaging secrets about exploitation or abuse
- Maintaining contact with an abuser who acknowledges no responsibility
- You stay in relationships with people who use you or treat you badly
- You cover up or make excuses for your partner’s anger, abuse or addictions
- You continue to support someone who is financially irresponsible
- You repeatedly invest energy in trying to get your partner to “see the light”
- You don’t listen to trusted friends who are worried about your situation
- Your partner expects you to isolate yourself from others and always behave as expected.
- You and your partner have destructive arguments in which you hurt each other physically or verbally rather than try and resolve the issue
- You have given up your sense of self to meet the needs of someone who is selfish and uses you
- You are preoccupied with a previous partner who hurt or used you.
Protecting the Abuser
Oftentimes, the abuser will have their own serious mental health issues that they are struggling with, and this can lead the person being abused to feel the need to care for them or protect them.
The abused individual will go up against other people who speak out against the partner and often push people away who aren’t supportive of the relationship.
Narcissists love this behavior and will often reinforce this in the person being abused by showing them love and affection following an act of protectiveness.
Playing Multiple Roles for the Abuser
If you find that you are “wearing several hats” for your abuser, meaning you play a number of roles for them, that can be a red flag.
For example, they might look to you to be their lover, best friend, parent, therapist, teacher, babysitter, etc.
By taking on all of these roles, you are being taken advantage of and developing an even stronger trauma bond because you feel like you need to be all of these things to the abuser.
It also leads to a weakened identity, making it more difficult to recognize negative changes in yourself.
Friend and Family Aren’t Supportive of Your Relationship
It’s one thing if you have parents who feel like no one deserves to be with you and will speak out against anyone you date
. But it’s an entirely different thing to have all of your friends and family tell you that they don’t like your partner and don’t think the relationship is good for you.
At first, you’ll likely feel protective and as if they just don’t understand.
But the reality is that these people know you more than anyone and can see a change in your behavior that even you haven’t noticed.
That’s why listening to your friends’ and family’s concerns is vital to recognize that you’re in a toxic relationship that has led to trauma bonding.
WHY DO PEOPLE DEVELOP TRAUMA BONDS?
The way human beings respond to trauma has a biological basis, which is neither rational nor irrational.
People who are overwhelmed with distressing emotions suffer from an overload of their system and shut down emotionally, feeling frozen or numb, in order to cope.
They simply cannot take action, even if it would be more helpful for their longer term well-being to leave the dangerous or unhealthy situation.
The immediate priority is to survive, whether that means protecting themselves physically, or remaining emotionally intact.
People tend to seek consistency in their beliefs and perceptions.
When a person’s behavior conflicts with your beliefs about what you think he or she is like, you might experience cognitive dissonance.
Consider the following example.
A woman begins a relationship with a man she is attracted to because of his apparently kind and caring nature. He then drops into conversation that he once caused grievous bodily harm to somebody in a pub who disagreed with him.
The woman is likely to experience cognitive dissonance, because her initial impression of the man (as one whose values fit with her own) conflicts with what she has just heard.
There are various ways in which she can reduce this dissonance: she can walk away from the relationship there and then, she can deny, minimise or distort what she has just heard, she can focus on the positives, or she can give him the benefit of the doubt: “Maybe I misheard him” or “There must have been a good reason why he did that” or “That was in the past.
He’s a different person now” or “He’s the perfect partner otherwise”. The woman’s response will depend a lot on how she sees herself and others.
If she sees herself as trusting, and others as basically trustworthy, she is likely to give him the benefit of the doubt.
This seems a healthy enough response.
But trauma bonds become stronger over time, and strategies of denial and distortion severely undermine people’s ability to accurately evaluate the state of their relationship and impairs their ability to see or even look for a way out.
Even when people do realize that their relationship is abusive, by that time they have invested a lot of time and energy and resources in it, making it all the more difficult to leave.
LEAVING A TRAUMA BONDED RELATIONSHIP
In a healthy relationship, a stable internal object representation (feeling memory) of an important person makes separation manageable.
While it is very easy to become attached to a very chaotic and inconsistent person, it is simply not possible to form a consistent internal object representation about them, so that when separated from them, the urge to make contact is usually intense.
During the separation, the survivor may find it difficult to relate to anyone, even family or old friends, except superficially. This creates a feeling of isolation and emptiness.
At first, it seems as if only going back to the abuser can relieve these feelings. When out of the relationship if feels right to be in it, and when in the relationship it feels right to get out.
Therapy can provide a safe and supportive relationship in which people can gain clarity and self-understanding and make necessary changes
How to recover from trauma bonding?
1. Be committed to living in reality at all costs.
Make a commitment to yourself to no longer delude yourself into thinking your relationship is just going to spontaneously improve and become healthy.
In order to live a healthy life, you must be honest with yourself about how compulsive your behaviors are with respect to the relationship, and how abusive the toxic person really is. Tell yourself: “I am committed to living in the truth.”
2. Build your life.
Little by little, start dreaming about your future for yourself (and your children, if you have them); in other words, make dreams that don’t involve your traumatic partner. Maybe you want to go to school, start a hobby, go to church, or join a club.
Start making life-affirming choices for yourself that take you away from the toxic interactions that have been destroying your peace of mind.
3. Live in real time.
That means stop holding on to what “could” or “will” happen tomorrow. Notice what is happening in the moment. Notice how trapped you feel. Notice how unloved you feel and how you have compromised your self-respect and self-worth for this relationship.
Pay attention to your emotions. Stop hoping and waiting, and start noticing in real time what is happening and how it is affecting you.
4. Make decisions that only support your self-care.
That is, do not make any decision that hurts you. This goes for emotional “relapses” as well. If you find yourself feeling weak, don’t mentally berate yourself, but rather talk to yourself in compassionate, understanding, and reflective ways. Remind yourself that you are a work in process and life is a journey.
Do not make the uncaring decision to mentally beat yourself up. In every encounter you have with the object of your obsession, stop and think about each choice you make. Make choices that are only in your best interest.
5. Learn to grieve.
Letting go of a toxic relationship and breaking a traumatic bond may be one of the hardest things you ever have to do. You cannot do it without honoring the reality you are losing something very valuable to you.
6. Make a list of bottom-line behaviors that you will no longer practice.
To figure these out, think about what triggers you to have emotionally charged reactions. Figure out the things your toxic person does that cause you to react with intensity.
7. Stop trying to have the “talk”
Write a letter to your abuser in order to get him/her to understand your point of view and finally resolve the “problem.”
No matter how perfect you try to explain things to those in the abusive system, they will not understand.
8. Make a list of all specific self-defeating behaviors
That you continue to repeat over and over again, that are very unhealthy patterns in your life, and make a commitment to abstain from them.
9. Be kind and compassionate toward yourself.
You cannot heal yourself without having a compassionate inner voice and encouraging inner dialogue. You do not need any more abuse in your life – from others or from yourself. Commit to self-care.
10. Build healthy connections.
The only way to really free yourself from unhealthy connections is to start investing in healthy ones. Develop other close, connected, and bonded relationships that are not centered on drama.
Make these your “go-to” people. It is extremely difficult to heal without support.
Notice the people in your life who show you loving concern, and care and hang around with them as often as you can.
- 17 Steps to Start Healing from Abuse
- 25 Strategies to Get Over A Breakup
- 10 Essential Survivor Secrets to Free Yourself from Narcissistic Abuse
Don’t Let Trauma Bonding Control Your Life
Traumatic bonding can have a terrible effect on not only yourself but also on other relationships you have with family and friends.
By understanding what trauma bonding is, who is most at risk of doing it, and what the common signs are, you can recognize red flags and protect yourself from abusive partners and abusive people moving forward.
If you think you are experiencing trauma bonding, it’s important to seek help so you can safely move forward with your life.
If you need a crisis hotline or want to learn more about therapy, please see below:
- RAINN (Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network) – 1-800-656-4673
- The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline – 1-800-273-8255
- National Domestic Violence Hotline – 1-800-799-7233
- NAMI Helpline (National Alliance on Mental Illness) – 1-800-950-6264
For more information on mental health, please see:
- SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) SAMHSA Facebook, SAMHSA Twitter, SAMHSA LinkedIn, SAMHSA Youtube
- Mental Health America, MHA Twitter, MHA Facebook, MHA Instagram, MHA Pinterest, MHA Youtube
- WebMD, WebMD Facebook, WebMD Twitter, WebMD Instagram, WebMD Pinterest
- NIMH (National Institute of Mental Health), NIMH Instagram, NIMH Facebook, NIMH Twitter, NIMH YouTube
- APA (American Psychiatric Association), APA Twitter, APA Facebook, APA LinkedIN, APA Instagram