What Is Trauma Bonding

Ever wondered why you’ve stayed in a relationship you know is bad for you? 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 you have you developed a trauma bond?

Bonding is a biological and emotional process that makes people more important to each other over time.

Bonding is cumulative and grows 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.

What Is Trauma Bonding?

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, verbal, psychological, financial or spiritual, and can be intentional or unintentional.

The term Trauma Bond” (also known as Stockholm Syndrome and the Betrayal Bond), describes a deep bond which forms between a victim of abuse and their abuser.

Victims of abuse often develop a strong sense of loyalty and compassion towards their abuser, despite the fact that the trauma bond is detrimental to the victim.

This trauma bond seems quite bizarre and incomprehensible to outsiders of the relationship, who can see quite clearly what is going on.

There are four key components that generally lead to the development of Stockholm syndrome: a hostage’s development of positive feelings towards their captor, no previous hostage-captor relationship, a refusal by hostages to cooperate with police forces and other government authorities, and a hostage’s belief in the humanity of their captor, for the reason that when a victim holds the same values as the aggressor, they cease to be perceived as a threat.

Trauma Bond

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.

Internal consistency

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.

Trauma Bond

Recognize the Signs of Trauma Bonding

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.

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.

Learn even more about the subtle signs of trauma bonding here.

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

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