What Is Trauma Bonding?

By Kate Dubé, LCSW on November 19th, 2021

Trauma bonding is an emotional and psychological attachment that develops in an exploitative or abusive relationship. It can occur with anyone, including family members, friends, partners and other loved ones.

A famous example of trauma bonding is Stockholm syndrome, named after the 1973 bank robbery in Stockholm, Sweden. In this case, despite an extreme power imbalance, the four bank workers became attached to their armed captors during their six-day captivity.

At a Glance

  • Trauma bonding is an attachment that can develop in an exploitative or abusive relationship.
  • Because it is rooted in an imbalanced and abusive dynamic, there is no such thing as a healthy trauma bond.
  • It is not easy to break free of a trauma bond, but it is possible. 

Trauma Bonding Signs

Trauma bonds show up when there’s an imbalance of power in a relationship. Unfortunately, the warning signs are not always clear-cut, so a person may not be aware that they’re developing a trauma bond. Potential signs of trauma bonding may include: 

  • Difficulty distinguishing between loving and abusive treatment
  • Social isolation that enhances a sense of dependence in the relationship 
  • Self-blame and excuses to minimize the harmful and cruel behavior of the other person (“I started it,” or, “They’re under a lot of pressure right now.”) 
  • Attempts to cover up the other person’s abuse
  • Continued trust in a person who has proven to be unreliable
  • A selective memory that focuses on the kind or caring gestures and ignores the abuse
  • Reluctance to end the relationship despite acknowledging a desire to separate
  • Defensiveness toward anyone who intervenes to address the abuse
  • Disbelief in the potential to have a safe and supportive relationship   

The person perpetrating the abuse might: 

  • Come off as charming or charismatic
  • Have unpredictable mood swings
  • Blame the other person for their changing emotional states
  • Try to isolate the other person from their loved ones
  • Make empty promises to behave better in the future 

FAQs 

What does trauma bonding feel like?

There’s no one way to explain how a trauma bond feels; it can be different for each person. It’s possible to be unhappy in a relationship or not even like a person and still be trauma bonded to them. It’s also possible for a person to dissociate from their feelings altogether as a way of coping with the distress from the abusive behavior. Some common experiences of trauma bonding include feeling:

  • An intense need for the other person in order to function and survive 
  • An extreme fear and repulsion at the thought of the relationship ending 
  • A sense that you need the other person in your life to be fulfilled
  • An inability to remove the other person from your life 
  • A lack of safety in all of your interactions, including with health care professionals, family members and therapists 
  • A longing for “what could be” based on an initial honeymoon phase

Can a trauma bond be good?

Due to the unequal balance of power and manipulation at its core, there’s no such thing as a good or healthy trauma bond. Trauma bonds do not transform into healthy, stable, or loving relationships.  A general rule of thumb to follow is that if you need to wonder whether a relationship is based on love or a trauma bond, it’s probably not love.

What is a trauma-bonding narcissist?

Many people wonder how and why another person would be capable of saying or doing things that cause so much harm. It may be tempting to label someone as narcissistic, which is a term that often shows up in media coverage or casual conversation. In fact, “narcissist” is one of the most common terms that callers use when describing their partners to National Domestic Violence Hotline operators.

The word is generally used to describe someone who is: 

  • Self-centered 
  • Self-absorbed 
  • Self-serving 

However, narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is a serious mental disorder with a set of diagnostic criteria. According to the DSM-V, these include: 

  • A pervasive pattern of grandiosity and self-importance 
  • Need for admiration 
  • Lack of empathy 
  • Fixation on fantasies of success and power
  • Sense of entitlement 
  • Arrogance
  • Envy
  • The feeling of being elite or superior
  • Willingness to take advantage of others to meet one’s ends

While people can have varying degrees of narcissistic traits at varying times in their lives, not everyone with NPD is going to perpetuate abuse. Additionally, not everyone who perpetuates abuse is going to have a personality disorder or any other mental health condition.   

Labeling a person without sufficient knowledge and experience can promote harmful stereotypes or create a false hope that abuse is treatable with medication. In reality, there is no conclusive evidence to support the idea that abuse is caused by mental health issues.

Why and When Does It Happen?

Trauma bonds develop when there’s an imbalance of power, abuse or exploitation in a relationship. It might start with “love-bombing,” meaning the other person showers you with love, attention, gifts and constant communication. They’ll remember how you like your eggs in the morning and the small details about your family and friends. This can induce a flood of hormones that promote bonding. 

Over time, however, the relationship can morph into a confusing and chaotic shift between loving, thoughtful gestures and violent, toxic or hateful behavior. 

Trauma bonds can have roots that go as far back as childhood. It’s possible for a person to be susceptible to trauma bonding after being abused or mistreated as a child. This might be due to learned attachment patterns or an unconscious attempt to heal past relationship wounds by repeating abusive dynamics and attempting to fix them. 

Trauma bonding can happen in all kinds of relationships and interactions. It can occur with: 

  • Parents and children
  • Family members
  • Romantic partners
  • Friends
  • Group members (for example, fraternity hazing) 
  • Coaches and athletes
  • Kidnappers or captors 
  • Cults

Ultimately, a trauma bond can happen to anyone, regardless of their past. If you’re abused in a relationship, it’s not your fault and you don’t deserve it.  

How To Heal From Trauma Bonding

If you’ve experienced or witnessed a toxic long-term relationship, you might have a sense of how complex and powerful a trauma bond can be. Even when a dynamic has devolved into regular violence and fighting, there can be emotional, psychological, financial and logistical aspects of a trauma bond that make it extremely challenging to simply walk out the door. 

Trauma and abuse can also leave you feeling afraid, disoriented and adrift. While it’s not easy or straightforward to get out of a trauma bond and create a safe environment for yourself, it can be done.  If you’re feeling stuck and have been struggling to remove yourself from an unhealthy or abusive relationship, consider taking a multi-pronged approach using the following strategies:

  • Prioritize your safety above all else: Find someone you trust to support you in creating a safety plan that helps lower your risk of being hurt. Limit the number of people you tell. In addition, if you’re afraid the other person might harm you if you attempt to leave the relationship, trust yourself to know what’s safest. 
  • Follow the no contact rule: When you start to break the trauma bond, it can feel like a profound and even agonizing loss. You may feel a strong pull to re-engage, but it’s important for your self-recovery to end all communication. If you share children or property, or are in another situation that requires contact, limit your interactions as much as possible. 
  • Branch out: Emerging from a trauma bond can leave you feeling very vulnerable, but it also provides an opportunity. Engaging in activities that interest you or learning a new skill can help enrich you and give you the solid foundation you need to come into your own. This can be anything, big or small, such as learning a new language or how to play an instrument, joining a hiking or amateur astronomy group, going to yoga classes, cooking or volunteering for a cause you care about. 
  • Connect with your community: Trauma bonds can make you feel isolated and weaken your self-esteem. Building relationships with people who are kind, caring and compassionate is incredibly healing. Reach out to friends or family members you’d like to reconnect with. You can also join a support group to connect with people who have been through similar experiences. 
  • Take note of your relationship boundaries: If you’ve become accustomed to demeaning and unsupportive treatment, it can be helpful to take some space to re-evaluate what you want out of your relationships. It might help to start thinking in general terms. What makes a good friend or partner? What behaviors are okay and what is unacceptable? If someone you cared about was in your position, would you want them out of this relationship? 
  • Start therapy: A therapist with experience in trauma bonding, abuse and attachment issues can support you in re-establishing yourself outside of a toxic relationship. As you explore what drew you into the trauma bond, you may also uncover early memories or hidden wounds that you can work through with your therapist. It can also support you in setting healthy boundaries and putting your energy toward relationships that are nurturing and fulfilling. The act of building a trusting, stable and supportive relationship with your therapist can go a long way toward rebuilding your self-esteem and allowing you to connect with others in healthy ways.

The free-to-use Nobu app provides a wide variety of tools designed to improve your mental health and overall well-being. For an additional cost, users can also connect with licensed therapists and begin attending life-changing treatment from the comfort of home. Download the app today and see how it can lead you to a happier, healthier future.

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Edited by – Jonathan Strum

Jonathan Strum graduated from the University of Nebraska Omaha with a Bachelor’s in Communication in 2017 and has been writing professionally ever since. Read more.

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Written by – Kate Dubé, LCSW

Kate Dubé is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) and health writer in the San Francisco Bay Area. She earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University of California, Berkeley and has worked as a researcher and clinician at the University of California… Read more.

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Medically Reviewed by – Dr. Angela Phillips

Angela is a licensed therapist and clinical researcher, and has worked in public, private, government, and not-for-profit organizations, across clinical and research-oriented roles. Angela’s clinical and research experience has included suicide prevention, cognitive behavioral… Read more.