What Is Trauma Bonding?
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A trauma bond is an emotional attachment a victim has with their abuser as a result of the abuser’s violence and control tactics. Abusers exploit the victim’s need for connection, support and love to keep them in the relationship despite the abuse. In most cases, the abuser starts out charming and loving to secure the relationship and then begins the abuse.
Abuse escalates over time, but there are generally still periods of non-violence or affection. The abuser may make promises to change or shower the victim with gifts and love. However, the abuse soon continues. Connection and care mixed in with abuse are one of the many reasons it’s so difficult to leave abusive relationships.
History of Trauma Bonding
Dr. Patrick Carnes, an addiction therapy specialist, created the term “trauma bonding” in the 1990s. The term is used to describe how fear, abuse and affection can be used to bond one person to another. His work centers on the belief that abandonment and trauma are central to addiction. His work also explores unhealthy attachments that form in the midst of exploitation, shame or danger.
10 Signs of Trauma Bonding
Being able to identify the signs of trauma bonding can help you recognize destructive relationships.
- Abuse patterns: a pattern of physical, emotional, mental, sexual, or spiritual abuse within the relationship.
- Imbalance of power: one person exerts more influence or control over the relationship and the other person. They use their size/strength, wealth, or position of authority (E.g. supervisor, religious leader, teacher, adult) to gain or maintain control.
- Perceived inability to leave or end the relationship: finances, housing, family, childcare, access to resources, religious or cultural beliefs about abuse and relationships all impact a person’s ability to leave in addition to their emotions towards their abuser.
- Excuses: making excuses for another person’s hurtful behaviors or blaming yourself when they hurt you
- Hiding the abuse from other people
- Walking on eggshells to keep the other person happy
- Becoming isolated from supportive people in your life
- Focusing on good times/days
- Trying to change or fix the other person
- Desperately wanting love or approval from the other person
Why Does Trauma Bonding Happen?
Trauma bonding tends to include a relationship with extremes in treatment, from positive to negative. There is almost always a real or perceived threat of danger, isolation from others, and a belief that there is no escaping the situation. The belief of being unable to escape is often because of:
- Threats of violence and retaliation
- Lack of access to resources (e.g. financial, housing, legal, community/familial support),
- A power imbalance (e.g. the victim is a child or they’re financially dependent on their partner).
This type of bond can be a means of survival. Someone who’s a victim may feel like they have to please the person abusing them to survive or to protect other possible victims.
Trauma Bonding and the Brain
A trauma bond is able to develop in part because of how our brains respond to trauma. The hippocampus, amygdala, and prefrontal cortex are the three main parts of the brain that respond when we’re faced with trauma.
- The hippocampus is involved in learning and memory.
- The prefrontal cortex is responsible for decision-making, thinking, and regulating the amygdala.
- The amygdala is the brain’s “alarm system” which is responsible for the fight-or-flight response, survival instincts and reactive emotions.
When an individual feels threatened, their brain releases cortisol and adrenaline. This activates the amygdala, while simultaneously suppressing the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex. Their “alarm system” becomes overactive, but the “planning and thinking” portion of the brain isn’t working well. They’re in survival mode and it’s difficult to focus, problem-solve and feel present. While the brain is still reeling from the trauma and trying to keep the body safe, the abuser will change behavior. They may start apologizing or comforting the victim. The brain then attaches positive feelings to the abuser.
Can You Experience Trauma Bonding Without Abuse?
The term trauma bond is primarily associated with an abusive relationship, whether physical or emotional. There are times when you might have shared trauma with someone, and that’s the basis of your relationship. If you share negative experiences with a romantic partner, you might confuse it with an authentic loving relationship. The same is true if you become fast friends with a person with a shared trauma.
Trauma Bonding Situations
Examples where trauma may be more likely to occur include:
- Domestic abuse
- Sexual abuse
- Human trafficking
- Elder abuse
- Prisoners of war
Trauma Bonding vs. Love
When a trauma bond is present, it’s not uncommon for the abuser to have also love bombed the victim at the beginning of the relationship. Love bombing refers to one partner overwhelming the other with affection and gifts and monopolizing their time at the beginning of the relationship. This is done to draw the other person into the relationship before the more visible abuse begins. Within a healthy intimate relationship, physical, emotional and mental connections grow over time and each partner still maintains their own identity and support system.
Healthy relationships are based on equality and involve:
- Trust and support
- Negotiation and fairness; willingness to compromise
- Honesty and accountability
- Shared responsibility; equal decision making
- Non-threatening behavior; safety
- Economic partnership
- Responsible parenting; shared duties
Unhealthy relationships are based on one partner using tactics to gain and maintain power and control over the other person. These tactics include:
- Coercion and threats
- Financial abuse
- Using the children
- Minimizing, denying, and blaming
- Emotional abuse
- Using isolation
- Utilizing privilege
- Physical or sexual violence
Examples of Trauma Bonding
The following are a few examples of trauma bonding in various situations.
- In order to survive living with an abuser, a victim will work to please the abuser. They feel like they’re walking on eggshells to keep the abuser happy. For their own mental and emotional survival they may minimize or justify the mistreatment.
- Abusers pick out vulnerable people and exploit their need for connection. They might use something like money, fear of rejection, preservation of their family, or threats to keep the person in the relationship.
- An abuser uses threats, such as “No one else will ever love you. Good luck finding someone else.” The victim believes the abuser is right, that they won’t feel this attached to another person.
- Within a parent-child relationship, a child may grow to believe that abuse is associated with love.
The Impacts of Trauma Bonding
Trauma bonding combined with the abuser’s threats and mistreatment as well as isolation and a lack of resources hinders a victim’s ability to escape an abusive relationship safely. This leads to repeated exposure to trauma which can have lasting effects, including:
- Depression, anxiety, PTSD
- Low self-esteem
- Substance use
- Difficulty sleeping
- Appetite changes
- Difficulty forming and maintaining healthy relationships
- Financial loss due to medical bills, poor job performance
- Job or school absenteeism
- Injuries, physical disability
- Suicidal thoughts
- Death by homicide or suicide
How to Overcome Trauma Bonding
If you’re in a situation that you believe is leading to trauma bonding, there is help available. Support can help you begin to heal and focus on your safety.
Have a Safety Plan
Your safety is the number one priority. Before leaving an abusive relationship identify your support and develop a safety plan. There are hotlines you can contact that will help you figure out the next steps and resources close to you. One option is to contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233.
Join a Support Group
Once you’re safely out of a situation, you can start to work toward healing. Support groups are an excellent way to build a support network and to understand you aren’t alone in what you’re going through. Support groups allow you to reduce the shame you might feel and work on rebuilding your sense of self.
Trauma-informed therapy is a critical tool to help you heal. You will undoubtedly experience complex emotions after you leave an abusive relationship. When you go to therapy, you can process those feelings, develop coping mechanisms and learn to identify red flags in relationships.
If you’d like to learn more about connecting with a therapist on your terms, consider the Nobu app. The app is created by a leading national mental health services company and offers tools to promote insight and connections to licensed mental health providers.
Take Control Of Your Mental Health
- Leigh, Hannah. “Recognizing and Breaking a Trauma Bond.” CPTSD Foundation, November 22, 2019. Accessed July 25, 2022.
- Dissociative Identity Disorder Research. “Traumatic Bonding.” Accessed July 25, 2022.
- The National Domestic Violence Hotline. “Identifying & Overcoming Trauma Bonds.” Accessed July 30, 2022.
- Carnes, Patrick. “Trauma Bonds.” 2016. Accessed July 30, 2022.
- Domestic Abuse Intervention Programs. “Power and Control Wheel.” Accessed July 30, 2022.
- Domestic Abuse Intervention Programs. “Equality Wheel.” Accessed July 30, 2022.
- Center for Substance Abuse Treatment. “Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) Series, No. 57: Trauma-Informed Care in Behavioral Health Services” Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2014. Accessed July 30, 2022.
- Bremner, J.D. “Traumatic Stress: Effects on the Brain.” Dialogues Clinical Neuroscience, 2006. Accessed July 30, 2022.