March 28, 2023

Here’s What Trauma Bonding Really Is and How To Recognize the Signs

The glue that helps hold an abusive relationship together

Person cowering in fear and depression with large pointing hand in forground.

If you’ve come across the term “trauma bonding,” you may have done a double take and thought it was something else — maybe it simply refers to two people bonding over a difficult or painful experience.

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But the term is in reference to a connection that can appear in abusive relationships. It’s a situation where we form a strong attachment to someone who is causing us harm. This can happen in any relationship, romantic or not, and often fuels a cycle of abuse and affection that can be difficult to break.

Understanding what trauma bonding is and how to recognize it are the first steps in separating from an abusive relationship and finding ways to heal. Registered psychotherapist Natacha Duke, MA, RP, helps explain what trauma bonding really is and the signs to look out for.

What is trauma bonding?

Trauma bonding is when a person who is or has been abused feels a connection to their abuser. And this connection is based on the abuse that the person has or is enduring — whether emotional or physical.

It may be surprising to hear that you can develop a bond with someone who treats you poorly, but this is why the cycle of abuse is an important puzzle piece. The cycle of abuse can create a false sense of safety during the reconciliation and calm phase (more on that in a moment). As Duke explains, this is why a person being abused will cling onto those moments of peace, even when they go away. “This cycle is often what elicits feelings of attachment,” says Duke. “And the feelings similar to a bond happen toward the abuser or perpetrator.”

Trauma bonding is an important concept to understand when helping people who’ve experienced abuse. This is because one of the most challenging things about experiencing an abusive relationship is how it brings up complicated, mixed feelings.

Trauma bonding’s role in the cycle of abuse

When it comes to the cycle of abuse, trauma bonding plays a parallel role in it.

The cycle of abuse is a concept that explains the cyclical nature of an abusive relationship and the phases it goes through.

Here’s how trauma bonding fuels and fits into the cycle of abuse:

  1. Tension building. During the first stage, there’s tension, anger or stress that’s silently growing between the abuser and the abused. This often starts with internal turmoil the abuser is experiencing, and they’ll start to project their own tensions onto the other person.
  2. The incident of violence or harm. This is when an incident of violence occurs. This can be either a physical or emotional incident that includes actions like yelling, throwing things, calling someone names or threatening harm. This is the stage where the abuse is the most “visible” and one or both parties might threaten to end the relationship or cut each other off while emotions are running high.
  3. Reconciliation. After the violent incident ends, a reconciliation happens that essentially “puts the matter to rest.” In a healthy relationship, there would be no incident of violence that would occur out of an argument — instead, partners would find a healthy compromise to resolve conflict. But in an abusive relationship, this will often look like the abuser buying gifts or being overly kind to make up for their previous behavior. This further strengthens the trauma bond, as the person experiencing abuse also experiences a dopamine release when the abuse momentarily subsides. “When we’re experiencing abuse or neglect, or manipulation, all our brain wants is to escape from the situation. And what normally happens in the cycle of an abusive or toxic relationship or situation is that there is some relief,” explains Duke.
  4. Calm. Finally, there’s the calm stage. While this stage is the one where the abusive relationship is essentially in “neutral” mode, it’s also creating the groundwork for the next cycle of abuse to begin — when tensions can be building. This is also the phase where both the abuser and the person experiencing abuse will make up justifications for toxic behavior.

As Duke further explains, an abusive relationship creates a push and pull between extremely painful events and periods of kindness, reconciliation and calm. And there lies the role of the trauma bond, disguised as a genuine connection.

Can trauma bonding happen in non-romantic relationships?

Trauma bonding can happen in any type of relationship that involves a power imbalance. This includes child abuse, where the child wants an emotional attachment to their parent and feels a bond, but also experiences abuse, creating a cycle. “The child really wants relief from the abuse and an emotional attachment with their parent or guardian,” Duke notes.

The same can even occur in organizations like fraternities and sororities, where there may be abusive behavior muffled by periods of fun events and rewards, leading to a trauma bond between fraternity members and their leaders.

Trauma bonding also plays a big role in cases of Stockholm syndrome where, over time, a bond is developed between kidnappers and their captors. “There are many famous cases where the victims had a chance to escape but didn’t because they come to have this trauma bond with the captor,” states Duke.

What are the signs of trauma bonding?

Denial of red flags

A clear sign of emotional trauma bonding is denial. This is when the person experiencing abuse chooses to ignore any obvious red flags in their relationship. This can come in the form of not talking about the abuse with people around them or choosing to minimize or omit certain pieces of information from their loved ones.

“One common theme is for the victims to deny the red flags or not acknowledge the bad elements of the relationship,” says Duke. “And usually, other people in their lives are seeing it.”

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Isolation and secrecy

Additionally, Duke says that trauma bonding can lead to isolation, as the person experiencing abuse may withdraw and separate from friends and family.

The person may also feel as though they’re walking on eggshells and constantly trying not to upset the perpetrator. This can lead them to keep secrets from both their abuser and the people around them — whether it involves finances, decisions about housing, child rearing or disagreements about career and work life.

This secrecy further isolates the person experiencing abuse, who must then rationalize the abusive behavior in order to reconcile their conflicting emotions.

Justification of an abuser’s actions

Another major sign of trauma bonding is justifying an abuser’s actions. If you’re experiencing abuse, this can be a way to self-soothe and reconcile with your situation.

“You have to rationalize that dissonance when you’re in a relationship like this,” points out Duke. This may take the form of making excuses for the abusive behavior, such as thinking about the stress the abuser is under or focusing on the good moments in the relationship.

This could look like telling a friend that your partner has taken over your bank account, but framing it as if it’s your partner’s way of wanting to help you with your finances. Or it could be a loved one asking a child if their parent is being abusive and harmful, but the child only shares the good memories they have.

The difference between trauma bonding and relationship conflict

In many relationships, there are always going to be ups and downs. So, how do we separate having hot and cold phases in our relationships versus the development of an unhealthy trauma bond?

Conflict in relationships is normal and can actually be healthy if both partners are treated as equals and able to communicate and resolve the conflict in a respectful way, says Duke. But in abusive relationships, the conflict often follows a pattern of gaslighting, manipulation and blaming — along with a power imbalance.

“It’s not the conflict, but it’s the way that the conflict is happening; it’s the pattern,” Duke continues. To determine whether a relationship is healthy, she suggests looking at the way conflict is handled. “It’s important to think about what a healthy relationship looks like, but also, what does healthy conflict look like?”

Understanding the difference between healthy and unhealthy conflict can help distinguish between normal bumps in a relationship and abusive patterns.Duke suggests asking yourself questions like:

  • Is there mutual respect in the conflict?
  • Is the conflict always shifted to one person’s fault?
  • Is there a power imbalance in the relationship?

How to break a trauma bond

Breaking a trauma bond can be a challenging and difficult process, but it’s also an important step toward healing and regaining control over your life.

Duke shares some tips to break a trauma bond:

Keep a written record

Writing things down can be extremely healing in a lot of ways. In terms of navigating your own trauma bond and freeing yourself from it, Duke suggests a very factual approach to documenting incidents and actions.

This means being very clear-cut and neutral about what the person in your relationship is doing. Try not to add any emotion — whether good or bad. Focus on keeping a log of what precisely is happening in your conflicts. Keeping a journal of events that happen or things that are said can help you see patterns and gain a more objective perspective on your relationship.

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Seek outside advice

A valuable step in finding your way out of a trauma bond is to seek outside perspective. A lot of times, it’s hard to see outside the bubble of our own relationship. We get used to seeing things in one way, so it can help to see things from a different angle.

The best way to do this is to simply be vocal and talk about things. Even if it’s a slow process and you’re not ready to let everything out right away, talking about your experiences can help give you clarity.

“If there’s somebody in your life that you trust like a therapist or friend or even a crisis line — it can be anonymous — just look for ways to inform your perspective,” encourages Duke.

Nurture yourself

When you’re navigating a trauma bond or complex relationship, it takes a toll on your emotional well-being. So, it’s important to give yourself gentleness and self-care that will guide you through the healing process.

“It’s important to do things that are good for your emotional well-being and your self-esteem. So, make space to enjoy hobbies, nurture other relationships or try new things. It’s good to take care of yourself and engage in activities that bring you joy,” says Duke.

She adds that improving your self-esteem can help you break the cycle of trauma bonding and build a stronger foundation for recovery.

Cut off contact

The final way to end the trauma bond, and thus end a cycle of abuse, is to finally cut off contact with the abuser.

“Once you make that decision to cut off contact — to really commit to that and stick to that — make sure to have a safety plan in place for yourself,” stresses Duke.

You should prepare your safety plan before you cut off that contact, so you’re prepared in case the abuser reacts harshly or violently. Here are some ways you can put a safety plan in place for yourself:

  • Reach out to the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800.799.7233 for help and resources.
  • Tell a loved one when to call the police or authorities if you don’t answer their texts or calls at a certain time.
  • Develop a code word with children, family or loved ones to prompt them to call 911.
  • Keep your important documents like birth certificates, social security cards, etc., in a safe place in case you need to grab them quickly.
  • If you think you’re being monitored by someone, try finding or using a different device that the other person can’t access.
  • Create new social media accounts with non-identifying usernames. Or change your current usernames and passwords on a different device.
  • Keep a bag with all your essentials packed in case you need to leave at a moment’s notice.

Cutting off contact is a critical step that can be very hard to take. It’s OK to feel grief or sadness after leaving the relationship. But make sure to also give yourself lots of credit for taking this important step.

Seeking professional help and moving forward

Pay attention to your behaviors and thoughts, Duke reiterates. Are you starting to feel unsafe in your home or within your relationship? Do you find yourself isolating and moving away from others around you? Don’t ignore these feelings, no matter how hard they may seem to face.

Healing from emotional trauma can be a long and complicated process. It can be very helpful to have a good trauma-informed therapist on your side to help you through these difficult emotions. Enlist the help of a therapist and reach out to your friends and family as a support system to keep you anchored during this time.

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