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Breaking the Cycle: Understanding the Power of Trauma Bonds

Updated: 2 days ago

What Does Trauma Bonding Mean?

Trauma bonding occurs when a person experiencing abuse develops an unhealthy attachment to their abuser. They may rationalize or defend the abusive actions, feel a sense of loyalty, isolate from others, and hope that the abuser’s behavior will change.

Trauma bonds typically occur in romantic relationships, making it very hard to leave. That doesn’t mean there is no hope. Read this article to determine if it’s love or trauma, and how to remove yourself from the unhealthy bond. 


What Is A Trauma-Bonded Relationship?

Often, trauma bonding occurs in romantic relationships, but it can also occur between:

  • A child and abusive caregiver

  • A hostage and their kidnapper (referred to as Stockholm Syndrome)

  • Colleagues

  • Friends

Abuse in an intimate relationship often shows up as physical, sexual, psychological/emotional, and even financial. 


How Does Trauma Bonding Work?

There’s a misconception that trauma bonds are about being with someone who has also experienced trauma so that you feel like you share that in common. 

It is more about the attachment styles we have developed in our childhood that are getting played out in this new relationship. If you grew up witnessing various forms of abuse, being a victim of abuse or even just living in chaotic or unpredictable environments, you may be more prone to thinking this is a normal way of experiencing intimacy and closeness. If your childhood caregivers were the ones creating negative experiences for you, then you have learned that feeling loyal to people who are confusing and unpredictable in how they love you is normal. 

You can experience this again when your partner abuses you but follows it with a bit of kindness or a crumb of remorse. You end up questioning your reality and feel sympathy for your partner.


As a result, you start to feel bonded to the abusive person. You become emotionally attached because it feels like love.


You start thinking you need to love this partner more and try harder. It must be something you are or are not doing. 



How Did I Get Into This Mess?

Often these relationships start with love bombing. Most of us have heard that phrase by now. When you are dating someone, they start hard and fast. You get showered with affection and attention and it makes you feel so good, it’s hard to imagine this person could ever treat you poorly. They show up in every way to earn your trust and make you feel that you can depend on them. 


Eventually, things start to change and the abuser starts picking at your character, criticizing you, your friends, your family, and everything you do. Usually, this is subtle and over time so you may not recognize it right away. Or you may feel things aren’t like they used to be and when you challenge or question things, you are met with gaslighting and blame. But then, they show up loving again. They say they want to work on things and that you just need to do things differently. You believe them and the cycle begins and continues. After all, you love each other and if they could love (bomb) you the way they first did, you must be able to get it back. 


At this point, this is all you know about love and you stay stuck. You have lost a sense of yourself. You may feel isolated, lonely, and powerless. You feel confused and crazy most of the time and constantly question your reality. You feel fearful and like you are walking on eggshells. Eventually, you decide it’s easier to just avoid conflict so you give in and aim only to please your abuser. You may have children with them, allow them to take over your finances, and avoid anything and anyone that may upset or create escalation.


This is NOT love. It is not healthy. You do not deserve this. This is trauma.


Couple hugging looking sad and unhappy

Addiction

It’s a vicious cycle.

After the abuse, the love-bombing and positive behavior reappear. This can create a sense of hope and happiness that sparks the “feel good” hormones in your brain. It can become addictive. 


Once you feel positive again, the abuser starts the cycle of manipulation and poor treatment to keep you guessing. This gives them the sense of power and control their disordered attachment is seeking. You become like a heroin addict in withdrawal. Someone took your drug and now you desperately want it back and will do anything to feel that good again. 


What Are The Signs Of Trauma Bonding?

Signs of trauma bonding can include:

  • Justifying abuse

  • Covering for the abusive person

  • Isolating, especially from people who are trying to help

  • Becoming defensive when someone brings up the abuse or tries to help

  • Not wanting to leave the situation

Is this blog hitting close to home?

Is This Love?

In a healthy relationship, a person should feel safe and confident. They have the freedom to come and go, and problems, needs, and differences are discussed without violence or putdowns. Compromise is always a goal so that both parties can feel happiness and satisfaction in the relationship. When someone makes a mistake, they hold themselves accountable and find ways to repair the trust. In a healthy relationship, you will feel trusted, supported, respected, and appreciated. 


With a trauma bond, you will often feel negative about yourself. You will feel anxious, afraid, and uneasy much of the time. This kind of abuse cannot be treated in couples counseling or therapy unless the abuser recognizes the issue and wants to change which is very rare. 


So How Do I Break the Bond?

It takes time and dedication to yourself. A trauma-informed therapist with knowledge of intimate partner violence and attachment theory can help.


  • Acknowledge what is. Look at their behavior, not their words.

  • Write down things they have said or done so that when you forget or get gaslit you can remind yourself and reflect more clearly.

  • Look at the evidence. What has really changed?

  • Find supportive people who will have your back

  • You may need to develop a safety plan and exit strategy. There are professionals to help with that.

Couple embracing happily

National Domestic Violence Hotline 800-799-7233

Text START to 88788


If you think that you may have a trauma-bonded relationship, reach out for a free consult.

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