Trauma Bonding: Definition, Signs, and Ways To Cope

Humans are hardwired for interpersonal connection and attachment — one of life’s most fulfilling and beautiful aspects. But sometimes, a person forms a close attachment to someone who hurts them, called trauma bonding.  A trauma bond is an emotional attachment between an abusive person and their victim. For some, forming a powerful connection with an […]

Author Generic Image By Grow Therapy

Updated on May 21, 2024

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Humans are hardwired for interpersonal connection and attachment — one of life’s most fulfilling and beautiful aspects. But sometimes, a person forms a close attachment to someone who hurts them, called trauma bonding. 

A trauma bond is an emotional attachment between an abusive person and their victim. For some, forming a powerful connection with an abuser seems counterintuitive: “If someone abuses you, just leave,” they may think. In truth, trauma bonding is a complex, toxic cycle that requires tremendous learning, courage, and work to end.

We’re here to help you better understand trauma bonding, recognize the signs and stages of a trauma-bonded relationship, and identify lifelines and strategies to help you break a trauma bond and work toward healing. 

What Is Trauma Bonding?

Trauma bonding occurs in an abusive relationship where the abused person has a powerful emotional connection to their abuser. Trauma therapist Deborah Harland, MSW, LCSW, with Grow Therapy, explains that the core of the trauma bond is the victim’s “inability to follow logic and keep healthy boundaries due to the intense emotional feelings with those who were abusive.”

Trauma Bonds are Based on a Power Imbalance

An abusive person gains power and control over their loved one using threats, violence, manipulation, and gaslighting. The abuser shifts between violent and kind behavior, and the abused person copes by modifying their own behavior to match the abuser’s demands. 

Trauma Bonding Develops in a Sustained Cycle of Abuse

Physical and emotional safety is a primary human need. After trauma, a person may seek care and comfort from an attachment figure — like a parent or significant other. Receiving comfort causes the person’s brain to release oxytocin, a hormone that supports feelings of love and security, deepening the attachment. 

In a trauma bond, the trauma-causing abuser and the loving attachment figure are the same person. After abusing their partner, the abuser offers comfort, love, and connection. Soon enough, the abuse happens again, and the cycle continues.

Features of a Trauma-Bonded Relationship

While trauma-bonded relationships are unique, these unhealthy relationships tend to share similar features:

Imbalance of power in favor of the abusive person: In an unbalanced relationship, one person doesn’t feel they can speak up for themselves or that their partner will listen. The abusive person doesn’t compromise and may control the finances or living situation.

The abuser offers positive interactions before and after negative ones: One survivor explained it this way: “The bait and switch occurred violently.” An abusive person might give gifts or apologize for destructive behavior.

The abused person feels grateful for positive interactions and guilty for negative ones: An abused person might see loving interactions with their abuser as proof that the relationship isn’t all bad. An abusive person can change moods dramatically, so the abused is relieved and grateful during calm or pleasant moments. 

The abused person internalizes the abuser’s view: Someone who is regularly abused may believe they are to blame for the poor treatment. If they are “good enough” or “stop making their abuser angry,” the abuse will end. 

Signs of Trauma Bonding

Like most relationships, trauma-bonded relationships usually start wonderfully, which can make future abusive behavior confusing for a victim. Trauma-bonded relationships follow some general patterns.

Seven Stages of Trauma Bonding

  1. Love Bombing: The abuser showers the victim with positive attention, compliments, or gifts.
  2. Building Trust and Increasing Dependency: The abused person starts to trust and depend on the good parts of their abuser.
  3. Criticism and Devaluation: The abuser blames all the problems on their victim. “He made me feel like I wasn’t good enough for him, and nothing I ever did was good enough,” one survivor remembered.
  4. Gaslighting: The abuser takes no responsibility and causes a victim to question their own feelings, judgment, memory, and even sanity. One survivor said, “I always believed at the end of the argument that I was the one who should apologize.”
  5. Submission and Resignation: Attempting to protect themselves from more abuse, the victim acquiesces to the abuser’s demands and preferences.
  6. Loss of Self and Value: The abuser overpowers and dominates the victim’s sense of self and personal strength.
  7. Emotional Dependence: Harland explained that one of her clients who had been in a trauma bond with her husband doubted she could be OK if she left.

Signs You Might be in a Trauma-Bonded Relationship

Certain behaviors might indicate you’ve developed a trauma bond, such as obsessing about someone who has hurt you — thinking about that person or replaying arguments in your head, even if you don’t want to. It can feel like they control you even when you’re not together.

 A few other behaviors may feel familiar to you if you’re in a trauma bond:

Abuse victims don’t behave this way because they are weak. These choices are a trauma response based on self-preservation.

Remember, abuse victims don’t behave this way because they are weak. These choices are a trauma response based on self-preservation. 

Examples of Trauma-Bonded Relationships

Trauma bonds can form between any two people in a longstanding relationship where one person abuses or exploits the other. The following examples may help you identify a trauma bond in your life or in the life of someone close to you. 

Intimate Partnerships or Romantic Relationships

The National Domestic Violence Hotline reports that in the United States, one in four women and one in seven men have suffered severe physical violence from an intimate partner, and almost half of all men and women have experienced psychological aggression from an intimate partner.

Harland worked with one such woman, trauma-bonded to her abusive husband of 15 years. She desperately wanted to leave the marriage, but it felt impossible. Looking back, she could see red flags and remember incidents of abuse. However, her intense emotional connection to her husband led her to believe he was sorry, that he could change, and that “this time would be different.” Though she could see he was abusive and selfish, her emotional bond overrode logic to discontinue the relationship.

Parent and Child 

Harland had a client in her 30s seek therapy after growing up in an emotionally abusive home. Her parents threatened that her father’s career would be ruined if she didn’t obey them. Family image should be the most important factor in any decision. During therapy, this client learned how she developed a trauma bond with her parents and decided to set healthy boundaries. Despite intense stress from interacting with her parents, she felt panicked when limiting regular communication. 

Athletic Coach and Youth Participants

Youth athletes often develop a strong connection to their coach, sometimes a parent-like relationship. The coach’s authority creates a power imbalance.

Unfortunately, some youth coaches in this position engage in abusive behaviors, like shouting, belittling, humiliating, and withholding attention and support. Focusing only on their own professional image, a coach may prioritize winning and emotionally abuse their players to control their performance. Still, the players won’t quit. Their deep loyalty to the team and connection with the coach may lead them to justify the coach’s behavior as doing what it takes to win.

Breaking a Trauma Bond

Trauma bonds are strong, built over time through countless shared experiences. Trauma-bonded relationships aren’t broken overnight, but with courage and help, someone who has been abused can break the cycle and start healing. 

Remember, It’s Not the Victim’s Fault

Harland explains, “Trauma bonding can occur to anyone and is not a reflection of a personal flaw or lack in yourself.” No one chooses abuse; abuse is always wrong and always the fault of the abuser. 

Know It’s Normal for a Trauma Bond to be Hard to Break

Not all experiences in a trauma-bonded relationship are terrible. The National Domestic Violence Hotline explains: “Survivors tell us that their abusive partners exhibit ‘good’ behaviors too. Many survivors comment that their partners are ‘perfect’ or ‘wonderful’ 90% of the time and that it’s just 10% of the time that’s a problem.” “He liked to break me and then take care of me,” one survivor said.

Trauma bonding can occur to anyone and is not a reflection of a personal flaw or lack in yourself.

- Deborah Harland, MSW, LCSW

Reach Out for Help

If you’re experiencing any kind of abuse, connect with the National Domestic Violence Hotline — call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or text 88788. Advocates are available around the clock to listen and help you take the next best steps.

Seek Trauma-Informed Treatment

Individual therapy with a trauma-trained therapist can provide a safe and encouraging environment to process a trauma-bonded relationship. In therapy, you explore your unique circumstances, work through guilt and shame, and develop healthier coping mechanisms, says Harland. 

One helpful approach is Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT). TF-CBT helps you work through and cope with trauma while addressing negative thought patterns and behaviors related to the trauma bond. 

An experienced therapist may also recommend Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). EMDR works by accessing brain mechanisms similar to those that appear in restorative, rapid-eye-movement sleep. During this treatment, clients can reprocess beliefs and memories associated with their trauma so they are not so emotionally overwhelming. 

Support groups, self-care, and basic healthy practices such as adequate sleep, a healthy diet, and regular exercise can support your journey toward healing from your trauma-bonded relationship.  

A trauma bond is complex and develops over time through repeated cycles of abuse and affection. Healing from a trauma-bonded relationship also takes time. Naming the problem gives you the power to start untangling yourself from a damaging relationship and rebuild a healthy and confident identity.

While this article can help you understand trauma bonding and its signs, it’s important to consult a mental health professional if you or someone close to you might be in a trauma-bonded relationship. Grow Therapy’s large network of mental health providers includes trauma-trained therapists who can help someone in a trauma-bonded relationship. 

You are not at fault. You are not alone. You can recover.

Get Support

Don’t battle this alone. At Grow Therapy, we help people find therapists who meet their needs and accept their insurance. At the click of a button, you can discover qualified therapists near you who specialize in your area of need and accept your insurance type.

Frequently Asked Questions

This article is not meant to be a replacement for medical advice. We recommend speaking with a therapist for personalized information about your mental health. If you don’t currently have a therapist, we can connect you with one who can offer support and address any questions or concerns. If you or your child is experiencing a medical emergency, is considering harming themselves or others, or is otherwise in imminent danger, you should dial 9-1-1 and/or go to the nearest emergency room.

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