It is sometimes hard to understand why people stay in abusive relationships, whether they have experienced them or not. In reality, these types of relationships are complex, and there are many reasons why victims may feel compelled to remain in an unsafe environment. One of these reasons is known as traumatic bonding (or trauma bonds).
Traumatic bonding is an unhealthy emotional attachment that can occur between the abused person and the person who abuses them in response to trauma. In situations with repeated abuse and remorse, sympathy and/or affection can develop for the abuser.
Stockholm syndrome, for example, is a well-known type of trauma bond which occurs when someone kidnapped develops positive feelings for their captors.
It takes days, weeks, or even months for this bond to form, but not everyone who experiences abuse develops a trauma bond.
What is Trauma Bonding?
Trauma bonding happens when people who have not been in an abusive relationship develop feelings for those who have abused them. The abuse may range from verbal harassment and insults to physical and sexual assault. The victim may develop an emotional connection with the abuser, which can lead to paradoxical strong and prolonged feelings of attachment. These bonds can be challenging to overcome as the victim grows older.
When Does Trauma Bonding Happen?
Any situation in which one person abuses or exploits another may become a site for trauma bonding. Generally speaking, two main factors are involved in establishing trauma bands: a power imbalance, and intermittent reinforcement of good and bad treatment. These relationships are based on terror, domination, and unpredictability.
Trauma bonding often occurs in:
Abusive romantic relationships,
abusive parent-child relationships,
sex trafficking, or
tours of duty among military personnel
Signs of Trauma Bonds: Two Main Features
What Trauma bonds look like depends on the type of relationship. Still, they usually have the two main features listed above: a power imbalance and an intermittent reinforcement cycle.
In these types of relationships, the abuse is cyclical; there are cycles of good and bad treatment or rewards and punishments. In trauma bonding, the abuser intermittently harms the victim through physical, verbal, emotional, and/or psychological abuse. This mistreatment is mixed with positive behaviors like promises not to repeat the abuse, affection, kindness, and giving gifts. The large disparity between the two behaviours increases the effect the positive has on the victim creating a large flush of good neurochemicals.
People might interpret these signs as indications of a permanent change, which can be confusing and disarming. Once trust is regained, love may eventually overtake the fear of further abuse. You might ignore or subconsciously block out memories of their past behavior until the cycle begins again.
The dynamic also rests on an underlying power imbalance. The abuser must be in a position of power or authority, and the victim is not. This situation makes it easier for the victim to internalize the abuser's perception of themselves, resulting in self-blame for the violence perpetrated by the abuser. This can also create a dependent relationship if that doesn't already exist.
An abused person may develop a trauma bond if their only support source is their abuser. When someone is wounded, an abused person might seek solace from an abusive person, even if that person was the one who harmed them.
Causes of Trauma Bonding
An attachment and dependence trauma bond can be formed when a victim experiences abuse and remorse. Some biological responses aid the formation of trauma bonds.
First is the freeze response. You may be familiar with the fight-or-flight response, our body's physiological response to perceived danger. But there are four distinct response types: fight, flight, fawn, and freeze. Typically, the fight/flight response floods your body with hormones like adrenaline and cortisol to get your body ready to either fight your way out of a dangerous situation or run away from it. However, sometimes, especially with trauma, you conclude, consciously or unconsciously, that the threat cannot be confronted or invaded. Then you are left with the freeze response.
Your survival instincts, aided by adrenaline and cortisol (stress hormones), trigger emotional and physical tension. Because there is a power imbalance within abusive relationships, safely leaving or confronting the abuser does not seem possible, so staying (or freezing) may feel like the best option.
This response may lead to blocking out painful memories or rationalizing them. Over time, the sense of powerlessness created by repetitive, abusive cycles will increase, creating a more considerable feeling that escape is impossible.
Dopamine and Oxytocin
Dopamine is a powerful reinforcer. It is one of the main hormones in addiction cycles and habit creation.
After an act of abuse, the period of calm that follows can alleviate your stress and anxiety. When you receive an apology, gift, or physical affection from an abusive person, dopamine is released as a result.
Dopamine contributes to the sense of pleasure, enabling you to keep caring about the abuser. You continue connecting with them to get the dopamine boost.
The other "feel-good hormone," oxytocin, can also reinforce bonds and is triggered by physical affection or intimacy. This hormone can not only strengthen connection and positive feelings, but it can also ease fears.
Stages of Trauma Bonding
There are seven common stages of trauma bonding:
The start of a relationship can feel profound, intense, and euphoric. Often, the beginning of abusive relationships is overwhelming, with excessive gifts, shows of affection, appreciation, and love. Research shows that this can change the dynamic of the relation where the one not giving now owns the other. Love bombing is a manipulation trick to win over people's affection and present themselves as your ideal partner. This stage does not last forever. It is sometimes hard to know at this stage that this is occurring, as we all want to feel seen, loved, and acknowledged.
Trust and Dependency
The next stage involves winning over trust and creating dependency. This may be rushing into commitments or making you depend on the abuser for love and validation. This may become an addiction of sorts, where you may start craving affection, love, and validation from the abuser.
Then there is a gradual shift to criticism and devaluation. This could be criticism of how you dress or who your friends are. They may start demanding more of your time and blaming you for things that go wrong. No matter what you do, you are not good enough for them. This may also start to be internalized. You find comfort in this person as they say they're telling you to protect you.
During this stage, the abuser will try and deny your feelings and experiences. They will alter the trust to make it seem like your concerns are invalid. Gaslighting can make you doubt your thoughts, experiences, and feelings and start to believe their narrative.
Resigning to Control
In this stage, reality becomes fuzzy. No matter how hard you try to reason things out, you have resigned to take a backseat in the relationship. The previous stages have mentally and emotionally exhausted you, and doing things their way feels like the only way to resolve conflict.
Loss of Self
Any and all attempts to set boundaries or regain control have failed, and your self-esteem and sense of self have been broken down. You find yourself apologizing constantly and likely do almost anything to avoid another conflict or more suffering.
Similar to substance addiction, the highs and lows of the relationship have put your body on a stress high and craving dopamine. There is a cycle of dependency as you struggle to find pleasure in anything, and you crave relief from the pain as a result of being rejected by your partner. You feel trapped and unable to leave.
Support to Break the Trauma Bond
It is possible to break a trauma bond, but it may take time. Some recommended ways to break trauma bonds are:
Focus on the present
Keep a journal, try to avoid nostalgia, and talk to loved ones
Focus on the evidence
Focus on what they are doing, not what they promise to do. Consider a relationship from another perspective, like you're reading it in a book or like it was happening to someone else close to you.
Practice positive self-talk
Don't self-blame; it's not your fault, no matter what you have done. Try to notice the negative self-talk and challenge it with positive alternatives.
Taking care of yourself may relieve some stress and reduce the desire to turn to the abusive person to comfort. Journaling, meditation, exercise, hobbies, or talking to close friends can help.
Learn about abusive and toxic relationships and how to spot the signs early. Learn what healthy relationships look like. Create a plan for your safety and make it possible to leave.
Cut off contact
Once you have decided to leave, disrupt the cycle by stopping all communication, create physical distance by finding a safe place to stay, Block them or change your number if you have to
Get professional help
A registered psychotherapist or inpatient treatment can teach you more about the patterns of abuse that drive trauma bonding. This insight or time away can often provide a lot of clarity.