Trauma Bonding: How to Heal From Your Past Relationships

Escaping an abusive relationship is rarely as simple as stepping out the door. You may be worried about building your life from scratch or being denied access to your loved ones. At the same time, you may feel attached to your partner.

It’s only natural to bond with someone who is kind to you, especially when abuse alternates with affection and kindness. This kind of attachment to an abuser is what is called trauma bonding.

Many people find leaving a toxic relationship confusing and overwhelming because of trauma bonding. 

Let’s learn more about trauma bonding and how you can break free.

What is a Trauma Bond?

A trauma bond is an unhealthy link between an abusive person and the person they abuse. It usually happens when the abused individual develops sympathy or affection for the abuser.

Trauma bonds can occur anywhere, primarily associated with toxic romantic relationships. The bond develops due to a psychological response to abuse. This response occurs when the victim gradually develops sympathy or affection for their abuser.1

People are hard-wired to create ties to those they perceive as defenders or caregivers. The emotional need to stay is overwhelming when the abuser is the defender or caregiver. It is difficult for a victim to separate love from a trauma bond.

A cycle of abuse and positive reinforcement forms a trauma-bonding relationship. Following each instance of abuse, the abuser professes love and regret. They will attempt to make the connection feel safe and necessary for the abused person.

Where Can Trauma Bonding Occur?

Signs that You Have a Trauma Bond

A trauma bond can form so quietly that you may be surprised to discover that your partner’s conduct isn’t random, but reflects an unhealthy pattern. 

Here are some frequent indicators to be aware of:

You Ignore Red Signals for the Charm of the Periods of Affection

In trauma-bonding relationships, your partner may occasionally treat you kindly and show affection. These gestures can be perplexing and disturbing, especially when interpreted as indicators of irreversible change.

Love eventually triumphs over the fear of additional abuse. As you restore trust, you may ignore or repress recollections of their previous abuse until the cycle repeats itself.

You Defend Your Partner's Inappropriate Actions

In a healthy partnership, both of you should step up and accept accountability. If your abuser blames you for their harmful actions and refuses to own their errors, this is a red flag.

You're Exhausted and Avoid Open Communication

Being with your partner does not make you feel alive and invigorated, but you are mostly exhausted. Because they twist your reality and truth to frame their behavior as acceptable, you are afraid of openly discussing your opinions. So, you speak and share less over time.

It’s vital to remember that solid relationships not only tolerate but also encourage conflict as an opportunity to strengthen the bond. It demonstrates that you trust each other enough to meet your requirements.

You're Not Yourself, and You Keep Secrets

Coercive control is a significant component of trauma bonding. It involves oppressive behavior aimed at controlling someone and robbing them of their sense of self.2

Physical and emotional abuse may eventually cause a person to self-perpetuate these habits, thus stopping them from being themselves. You may begin to twist and view love through pain and dysfunction. You may start filtering your partner’s violent behavior as coming from a place of love.

You Maintain Unwavering Loyalty Even In Danger

Trauma bonding is characterized by loyalty to the abusive relationship. To stay in the relationship, you may try to remember the good times and disregard the negative.

A trauma bond arises when your partner purposefully affects you through a habit of intimidation, manipulation, or betrayal. They do this to develop a sense of power and control over the victim. Despite feelings of terror, emotional agony, and distress, you remain devoted to your violating partner.

What Are the Causes of Trauma Bonding?

Trauma bonding occurs due to the deliberate, repetitive infliction of psychological trauma. The goal is to instill terror and helplessness, and destroy the victim’s sense of self concerning others. By reinforcing these emotions, the victim fosters an attachment to the perpetrator.

Some reasons why the bond develops include:

Imbalance of Power

The individual who is mistreated believes they have less authority than the aggressor. The abuser uses violence, humiliation, and deprivation to frighten and control the individual. 

A dependency bond develops through activities that emphasize and strengthen the perpetrator’s power and control. The victim realizes that their survival depends on the goodwill of the perpetrator.

Intermittent Abuse

The perpetrator alternates abuse with periods of kindness, remorse, or pledges to reform. The affection and kindness stage of the abuse cycle deepens the victim’s emotional attachment to the perpetrator. 

As a result, the survivor frequently feels relief, and sometimes even gratitude, toward the offender. The abuser’s irregular and unexpected behavior is particularly successful at bonding the abused to them.

Hormones

Hormones can be very effective reinforcers of trauma bonds. Dopamine serves a similar role in trauma bonding as it does in addiction. The time of calm that commonly follows an incidence of abuse might relieve your worry and fear.

The affection shown by the abuser serves as a reward, reinforcing the intense feeling of relief and triggering dopamine release. Because dopamine produces pleasurable experiences, it might increase your bond with the abusive person. You desire the dopamine rush, so you keep attempting to please them to gain devotion.

Physical affection also causes the production of oxytocin, a feel-good hormone that may deepen ties even further. Oxytocin not only promotes connection and happy sensations but also alleviates fear.3

The 7 Stages of Trauma Bonding

Trauma-bonding relationships often start as really incredible before gradually deteriorating into an abusive cycle. This evolution is one reason the attachment can profoundly affect a victim’s worldview and connection with oneself.

The following are the seven stages of trauma bonding:

Love Bombing

Love bombing is the abrupt, passionate endeavor to build a relationship through excessive compliments and high praise. This relationship primarily occurs between an abuser and a victim, but it can occasionally involve others around the couple.

Dependency & Trust

An abusive person may purposely test the victim’s dependency and trust in them at this stage. They may leave the victim feeling terrible for questioning the behavior of the abuser. Having doubts is typical in a healthy relationship; getting to know a person for their words and actions takes time.

When facing an abusive person, they may give you a lot of backlash for dismissing everything they’ve done for you. This is why the love bombing stage is so important to the abuser. 

Trusting an abusive partner in a trauma-bonding relationship is a delusion.

Criticism

Once they have your trust, abusers may begin to pick some of your characteristics, labeling them as difficult. This criticism may appear abrupt, especially after the love bombing period, but abusers wait until they have proven a victim’s trust.

The criticism phase is most visible during heated fights. The abusive person may blame their target, and the subject will likely over-apologize. This alternating of severe criticism and excessive apologies hold the trauma bond together.

Manipulation and Gaslighting

Gaslighters never take full responsibility for their actions but blame others instead. Victims of gaslighting and manipulation eventually question their reality and perception. Gaslighting is a typical narcissistic, sociopathic, and psychopathic behavior.

Attacking or criticizing the abusive person can sometimes feel hopeless, leading to reactive abuse from the victim. It is natural for victims to feel incredibly guilty when their behavior becomes physical. The abuser uses this to make their target doubt their own identity even more.

Resignation and Failure

It is typical for abuse victims to begin giving in to prevent more conflict. Negotiating and people-pleasing may help to keep the partnership stable. Targets may be aware of the manipulation but fail to leave. They are probably still unsure whether the abuser’s actions are their fault.

Depending on the period of the existence of the relationship and the form of the abuse, a victim may become more reliant on the abuser to avoid more confrontation.

Loss of Identity

There is a progressive loss of self across the phases of a trauma bond. The loss of self causes separation from the previous world of the victim. Survivors of abusive relationships may not appear to be their typical selves because of a loss of identity.

Trauma bonds can be isolating. You may lose your social relationships because of changes in self-identity that do not fit into old relationships. This psychological devastation might result in very low self-esteem and even suicidal thoughts.4

Dependence on the Cycle

The stages of trauma bonds are often cyclical. The abuser may apologize and restart love-bombing, making the victim feel comforted and desired. This positively reinforces reliance on this vicious cycle.

The abusive person may withdraw or withhold attention and affection to pressure the target to apologize. When responsibility and blame are placed on the victim, they may take extreme measures to regain favor. 

The victim is given a false impression that they are in control. They believe that the abuser must truly love them if they gain them back. This reaffirms that the abused is to blame for the abusive actions.

How to Break a Trauma Bond

Anyone can form a trauma bond with an abuser they are in a relationship. People who have been victims of childhood trauma may be more vulnerable to trauma-bonding relationships.5

It will take time to unlearn old strategies and learn new techniques. What matters is that you can recover from your trauma and understand stronger coping mechanisms. 

Here are some steps to break free from a trauma-bonding relationship.

Understand What You're Up Against

Trauma bonds can appear to be functional relationships, but they are not. The first and most critical step is recognizing the attachment as a trauma bond. Be truthful to yourself about the circumstance

Communicate with Family and Friends

Bringing up the subject of trauma connections with loved ones might be difficult. They may not comprehend your concerns, or they may have warned you about the abuse. Seek support and aid from your loved ones. You may be surprised at how understanding and helpful they can be.

Create a Plan for a Safe Exit

Planning your escape is critical once you’ve identified the presence of a trauma bond and found support. Fleeing is probably your best option instead of hoping the person can be rehabilitated. Work with caring parties to develop a safe and successful plan. Family members and loved ones can help you find the safety and support you need.

Avoid Blaming Yourself

In an abusive and dysfunctional relationship, your spouse may try to convince you it is your fault. This guilt, humiliation, and self-doubt make them powerful and may lead you to stay. Assure yourself that you are acting appropriately and that no one deserves to be maltreated.

Cut Off All Contact

Rebuilding a healthy relationship after a trauma bond is improbable. Though there were some good times, they were never enough to balance the negatives. Cut off communication and start a new, independent life. Leaving the relationship is often the first step toward recovery. 

Self-care can help relieve stress and minimize the need to seek comfort from an abusive person. Journaling, meditation, exercise, or talking to trusted friends can be very beneficial.

Seek Professional Assistance

While you can take steps to lessen the trauma bond, these bonds are strong. Naturally, you will struggle to break free without professional help.

A therapist can tell you more about the abuse patterns that cause trauma bonding and bring a lot of insight. They will help you understand the causes of your trauma bonding and help you prevent future abusive situations.

How to Break a Trauma Bond

Anyone can form a trauma bond with an abuser they are in a relationship. People who have been victims of childhood trauma may be more vulnerable to trauma-bonding relationships.5

It will take time to unlearn old strategies and learn new techniques. What matters is that you can recover from your trauma and understand stronger coping mechanisms. 

Here are some steps to break free from a trauma-bonding relationship.

Understand What You're Up Against

Trauma bonds can appear to be functional relationships, but they are not. The first and most critical step is recognizing the attachment as a trauma bond. Be truthful to yourself about the circumstance

Communicate with Family and Friends

Bringing up the subject of trauma connections with loved ones might be difficult. They may not comprehend your concerns, or they may have warned you about the abuse. Seek support and aid from your loved ones. You may be surprised at how understanding and helpful they can be.

Create a Plan for a Safe Exit

Planning your escape is critical once you’ve identified the presence of a trauma bond and found support. Fleeing is probably your best option instead of hoping the person can be rehabilitated. Work with caring parties to develop a safe and successful plan. Family members and loved ones can help you find the safety and support you need.

Avoid Blaming Yourself

In an abusive and dysfunctional relationship, your spouse may try to convince you it is your fault. This guilt, humiliation, and self-doubt make them powerful and may lead you to stay. Assure yourself that you are acting appropriately and that no one deserves to be maltreated.

Cut Off All Contact

Rebuilding a healthy relationship after a trauma bond is improbable. Though there were some good times, they were never enough to balance the negatives. Cut off communication and start a new, independent life. Leaving the relationship is often the first step toward recovery. 

Self-care can help relieve stress and minimize the need to seek comfort from an abusive person. Journaling, meditation, exercise, or talking to trusted friends can be very beneficial.

Seek Professional Assistance

While you can take steps to lessen the trauma bond, these bonds are strong. Naturally, you will struggle to break free without professional help.

A therapist can tell you more about the abuse patterns that cause trauma bonding and bring a lot of insight. They will help you understand the causes of your trauma bonding and help you prevent future abusive situations.

Finding Treatment for Your Trauma Bond

Healing from trauma is not an easy task. It is a process that takes time, patience, and great care. You must look into your past and discover where it all began.6  This type of recovery necessitates specialized, trauma-informed therapy from a therapist familiar with the complexity of trauma responses.

There is no specific treatment that can treat trauma bonds. Instead, several trauma-focused therapies can help survivors of trauma bonds.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) investigates how ideas and feelings influence behavior and seeks to alter negative thought patterns. This method assists in changing behavioral responses and developing more effective approaches to dealing with issues.

Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT)

Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) is a popular treatment for trauma. It is comparable to CBT, but DBT empowers people to change their behavior patterns. 

DBT helps you learn better ways to manage your emotional responses to stressful events to make correct decisions.

Support Groups

Therapy is an essential tool for rehabilitation, but your trauma-bonding experience may be one in which therapy alone is insufficient.7 Communicating with individuals who have gone through similar experiences can be highly beneficial in these instances. It can make you feel that you are not alone and reduce the shame.

While there are no support groups, particularly for trauma bonding, several support groups exist for persons in toxic relationships. Codependents Anonymous (CoDA) uses a 12-step program based on the principles of Alcoholics Anonymous.

If attending a support group doesn’t seem right, consider sharing your experience with individuals you trust. There’s nothing shameful about trauma bonding; the more you hear it, the more you believe it.

Trauma bonding is a psychological response that can happen to anyone. Seeing how sympathetic individuals around you are to your situation may offer you a sense of relief.

Find Support for Your Trauma at No Matter What

It is never your fault if your partner abuses you. Neither is the formation of a trauma bond. Reclaiming your sense of self-worth may take some time, and you will feel like you’ve fully broken free. However, professional help can make all the difference. 

At No Matter What Recovery, we understand that life brings enormous delight and great difficulty. When in despair and anxiety, some people turn to drugs, alcohol, or other unhealthy behaviors. This leads to a habit that feels like you are circling the drain.

No matter how traumatic your relationship has been, you can break free. You will never have to use drugs or alcohol again to numb the pain of abuse. At No Matter What recovery, our team of professionals is determined to help you recover. We help people recover from trauma bonds and addiction to live a sober and fulfilling life. 

Contact us today to speak to a therapist in Los Angeles.

References:

  1. Babcock, J. C., Roseman, A., Green, C. E., & Ross, J. M. (2008). Intimate partner abuse and PTSD symptomatology: examining mediators and moderators of the abuse-trauma link. Journal of Family Psychology, 22(6), 809. DOI: 10.1037/a0013808 
  2. Reid, J., Haskell, R., Dillahunt-Aspillaga, C., & Thor, J. (2013). Trauma bonding and interpersonal violence. Psychology of trauma. https://digitalcommons.usf.edu/fac_publications/198/
  3. Mariana F.D., Rocio M-S,and Flávia de Lima O.(2018). The Associations Between Oxytocin and Trauma in Humans: A Systematic Review 10.3389/fphar.2018.00154
  4. Campbell JC, Webster D, Koziol-McLain J, et al. Risk factors for femicide in abusive relationships: results from a multisite case-control study. Am J Public Health. 2003;93(7):1089-1097. doi:10.2105/ajph.93.7.1089
  5. Xiang Y, Wang W, Guan F. The relationship between child maltreatment and dispositional envy and the mediating effect of self-esteem and social support in young adults. Front Psychol. 2018;9:1054. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2018.0105
  6. Czerny, A. B., Lassiter, P. S., & Lim, J. H. (2018). Post-abuse boundary renegotiation: Healing and reclaiming self after intimate partner violence. Journal of Mental Health Counseling, 40(3), 211-225. https://doi.org/10.17744/mehc.40.3.03
  7. Center for Substance Abuse Treatment (US). Trauma-Informed Care in Behavioral Health Services. Rockville (MD); 2014. (Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) Series, No. 57.) Chapter 3, Understanding the Impact of Trauma. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK207191/