Many people have heard the term “trauma bonding,” but it is not well understood and there are a lot of misconceptions about it. I want to discuss these issues.
What is trauma bonding?
Trauma bonding is what happens when someone going through trauma forms an emotional bond with the one who is traumatising or abusing them. This may mean feeling sympathy or affection for an abuser, or rationalizing why the person traumatizing them “isn’t so bad.” One more widely known type of trauma bonding is Stockholm syndrome, where someone who has been captured develops positive feelings toward their captors. Not all people who go through trauma form trauma bonds, but if you have, it isn’t your fault and it doesn’t make what you went through “less traumatic.”
Why do trauma bonds form?
Trauma bonds are often formed by the “good times” of the relationship. Abusers tend to shower their victims with affection and praise early in the relationship or in the times after abusive acts, where they are trying to “make up for” these acts. These displays may be overwhelming and may feel like they show love, and are sometimes described as “love bombing.” The body may respond to the good feelings and stress relief experienced at these times by releasing hormones which are strongly associated with positive feeling responses - this is a subconscious process, over which we have no control.
Why can’t people easily break trauma bonds?
Someone who is in a trauma bond may be in denial of it, believing they are “too smart” or “too strong” to develop such feelings. They may experience shame or guilt about what they are going through, which causes them to avoid telling others about their situation. This can make them more dependent on their trauma bond and help their abuser to isolate them. That isolation tends to make it harder for them to get the support they might need to attempt to break the bond and leave an abusive relationship.
This dependence on their abuser may also help to lead them to convince themselves that they are judging their abuser too harshly, or to blame themselves for their own abuse. Their trauma bond can make them sure their abuser cares about them and would never treat them wrongly.
Abusers often reinforce a trauma bond by pushing the idea that the abuser is the “only one who cares” or turning the one they abuse against their friends or family. Many abusers “groom” their victims in a process that starts well before any kind of "obvious" abuse. (See our blog post on grooming here). In some cases, this kind of emotional manipulation may be easy to see from the outside of a traumatic relationship or in hindsight, but trauma can cloud someone's thought process - someone going through trauma may have too much to handle to be able to take in the full picture of their life, and if they are a child that can be even harder.
How can someone in a trauma bond deal with and limit its impact or break it?
There are a lot of things that can help someone going through trauma to deal with a trauma bond. One is to keep a journal. A journal can allow a person to notice patterns of behaviour, such as the lovebombing that just happens to come right after abuse or the way any friend or family member who gets close might just happen to suddenly be a target of an abuser’s criticism. It also might let someone recognize abuse that may not have been obvious in the moment, or help them to see how often abusive incidents have happened. This can be particularly helpful in cases of abusers who act like assaults or other incidents are extremely rare.
Another thing that can help is to speak to and listen to loved ones. Loved ones may have no idea that someone is going through abuse, and once they know, can give badly needed support. They can help to feel less isolated and refute ideas that help keep people with their abusers, such as the idea that no one else wants to be around them. They may give the perspective needed to recognize that their abusers actions are abuse, or to rebuild confidence that an abuser might have broken down.
If someone in a trauma bond does leave an abuser, it would likely be a good idea to cut contact as strictly as possible. An abuser may promise that things will be different, or that they will change. It’s likely that they gave similar promises after abuse during the relationship, but any change generally does not last.
It would also be good to consider what different aspects of relationships would be good to focus on for the future. This might mean considering what happened early in an abusive relationship which, in hindsight, was a sign that the relationship was becoming abusive. It may mean considering what the abused person allowed in that relationship (or previous ones) which they would not want to ever allow again, or what boundaries they might want to set. They might want to consider if there are things which drew them into an abusive relationship, especially if they have been in more than one, and think about how to avoid it in the future.
Someone who has been in a trauma bond also may want to consider getting therapy. A professional therapist can help to understand why a trauma bond formed and how to better avoid similar bonds in the future. They can help to improve mental and emotional health. For many people, therapy is extremely helpful in changing patterns and gaining confidence and independence that help to make life better. (See this blog post for tips for finding a therapist).
Is it my fault?
If you have trauma bonded with someone, it is not your fault. Subconscious processes may have had a part in it. It may have helped you to limit what abuse you went through. And there is a very good chance your abuser manipulated you in order to form and strengthen an emotional connection between you and, if possible, your dependence on them. Whatever the reasons your trauma bond formed, you didn’t choose it. Whatever the reasons you might have found it hard to break, or might still be unable to break it, you are valid. Being emotionally attached to your abuser, perhaps feeling affection or love toward them, does not make your trauma any less valid. What you have been through is real and traumatic and if you have not yet been able to break your trauma bond, I hope you are able to do so. Having a trauma bond does not make you “weak” or mean you are “okay” with your abuse. You and your feelings are valid. And in case you need to hear it, I believe you.