Trauma Bonding: How To Recognize It and Move Past It
Healthy, wholesome human bonds are some of the most important emotional experiences you’ll ever feel. However, some human bonds are not beneficial, healthy, or wholesome at all. If you or a loved one have become emotionally attached to an abuser, you may have experienced trauma bonding.
It’s important to understand what trauma bonding is, how to recognize it, and how to move past it so you can emotionally heal and form healthy connections in the future. Read on to learn more about trauma bonding and how to recognize it.
What Is Trauma Bonding?
Traumatic bonding is an attachment cycle in which an abused person feels a strong emotional attachment with their abuser, despite receiving emotional, physical, or psychological abuse. Trauma bonds occur when an abuser creates intense emotional experiences in their victim, tricking their minds into thinking the bond is legitimate or healthy (even if they rationally know it is not).
In many cases, trauma bonds lead to cyclical patterns of abuse, as well as impart negative emotional habits or thoughts to abused people. Trauma bonding can also be a side-effect of a relationship where the abusive partner is a narcissist.
While trauma bonding may sound a lot like Stockholm syndrome, the two are actually very different. The main difference is that trauma bonding only affects one partner in the relationship, whereas Stockholm syndrome affects both partners.
Trauma Bonding Stages
Trauma bonding often (but not always) occurs across seven distinct stages. You or a loved one may have experienced these stages before but might only recognize them in hindsight and with the benefit of time.
- The love bombing stage, which involves intense attempts to connect an abused individual with their abuser, often through flowery language, “proof” of good intentions through acts of service, and so on. While it may feel nice at the beginning, love bombing is one of the red flags of a potentially unhealthy relationship.
- The trust and dependency stage, during which the abuser may test a victim’s trust and dependency or use circular logic to create feelings of guilt in the abused individual. In this stage, the abused partner may find themselves codependent on their abuser and may begin to lose their sense of self.
- The criticism stage, during which the abuser heavily criticizes the abused individual, causing recurring feelings of guilt, self-blame, and indebtedness on their part.
- The manipulation and gaslighting stage. In this stage, the abuser manipulates their victim and gaslights them by making them feel as though they experience or perceive things incorrectly, often through doubling down on lies or trying to prove that what they say is objectively correct.
- The resignation or giving up stage. Here, the abused victim gives in to the abusive behavior in an attempt to avoid conflict. This is a natural reaction, but it may cause more guilt in the abused person.
- The loss of self stage, during which the abused individual feels isolated and lonely due to the trauma bond and the behavior of their abuse. Low self-esteem and poor mental health may prevent the abused partner from seeking professional help or leaving the toxic relationship.
- The addiction stage, during which the abused individual becomes addicted to or emotionally dependent on the emotional highs or adrenaline that their abuser provides them with. This dependency and the cycle of rejection and positive reinforcement can make trauma bonding very difficult to escape for some individuals.
When Can Trauma Bonding Occur?
Trauma bonding can occur in a wide range of situations, including any situation where there might be abuse or complex trauma. Trauma bonding can also occur across any length of time, so it’s not just something that affects long-term abuse victims. Some examples of situations where trauma bonding occurs include:
- Incestual relationships
- Domestic abuse
- Child abuse from parents or caregivers
- Sexual abuse
- Intimate partner violence
- Elder abuse, such as in elder care facilities
- Human trafficking
From the outside, it can be difficult for individuals to understand why abuse victims return to their abusers or “put up with” bad behavior or domestic violence. But in reality, trauma bonding can be deceptive, addicting, and hard to escape alone.
How Can Trauma Bonding Impact Victims?
Trauma bonding can impact victims in many negative ways. Most basically, trauma bonding can cause victims to receive more harmful abuse from their attackers, including emotional abuse, physical abuse, etc.
In the long term, trauma bonding may negatively impact victims by changing how they view relationships and making it difficult for them to create or maintain healthy relationships in the future. This is part of how cyclical abuse progresses through families down generations.
For instance, a young woman may be abused by her father. She only learns his parenting style, so she parents her own children in the same way, creating new trauma bonds and her children and allowing the cycle to continue.
What Are Some Signs of Trauma Bonding?
It’s important to understand and recognize the common signs and symptoms of trauma bonding in yourself or others. Only by recognizing the signs of trauma bonding can you take steps to help yourself or a loved one.
Common signs of trauma bonding include:
- The abuse victim making excuses for or covering up the behavior of their abuser
- The abuse victim lying to friends or family members
- The abuse victim trying to cover up the signs of their physical or emotional trauma to prevent their abuser from getting in trouble
- The abuse victim thinking that the abuse is their fault or they are somehow responsible for “punishment”
- The abuse victim not feeling comfortable with leaving the abusive situation or feeling that they are unable to do so in the first place
How Can You Move Past Trauma Bonding?
Although trauma bonding can be highly traumatic and difficult to stop, there are ways to move past trauma bonding, depending on your circumstances and available resources. In any trauma bonding scenario, your chief concern should be planning for your safety before progressing to other methods.
Plan a Safe Exit
Because many trauma bonding scenarios involve physically violent or dangerous individuals, planning a safe exit is key. If you or a loved one are in an abusive situation, make sure that you develop a safety plan that may involve contacting support hotlines such as the national domestic violence hotline or emergency services personnel.
For example, women in domestic abuse situations can and should contact local women’s shelters for support and resources if they need to escape an abusive situation. During this critical juncture, you should reach out to people you can trust, like friends or family members, and ask them for assistance, even if you refused assistance previously.
Your safety is paramount, and only after you are safely away from the traumatic situation can you begin healing.
Therapy is an excellent and effective tool for moving past trauma bonds with an abuser. A licensed and trauma-informed therapist can help you recognize:
- How you were ensnared in the abusive relationship in the first place
- The signs of trauma bonding in your own behavior, as well as any long-term behaviors you may need to pay attention to
- That your abuser never truly cared about you and that their means of “caring” was highly toxic, even if your brain is still wired to think otherwise
Perhaps most importantly, therapists can provide safe outlets for you to express your emotions and talk through your feelings. They will not judge you for what you say or feel, no matter how inappropriate those thoughts may seem to voice in public.
Practice Self-Care and Self-Talk
It’s also important to take healing into your own hands by practicing self-care and positive self-talk. Self-care involves doing things that provide you with a soothing sense of healing and wholesomeness, such as:
- Reading your favorite books
- Practicing your hobbies
- Taking walks through nature
- Spending time with loved ones
Positive self-talk involves saying positive things to yourself in the mirror, in the shower, or throughout the day. Positive self-talk is proven to help you think more highly of yourself and can assist when counteracting the negative psychological effects of trauma bonds.
Your therapist may be able to provide you with positive self-talk exercises if you feel embarrassed or strange when trying this initially.
Lean on Friends and Family
You can also lean on your friends and family members for support, whether that’s financial support, emotional support, etc. Your friends and family members are the strongest support network you have; use them to take the place of the emotions you experienced with your abuser.
Unlike an abusive individual, your friends and family members will be there for you and provide you with positive feelings and experiences. Furthermore, your friends and family members can help you avoid falling back into the cycle of abuse, as well as help to keep your abuser away from you in the future.
If you don’t feel like you have a good support system, you can also attend anonymous support groups. In these groups, you’ll meet others who are in similar situations and who can help you get out of your trauma-bonding relationship.
Ultimately, trauma bonding can happen to anyone. But whether you or a loved one have bonded to an abusive individual because of a traumatic experience, remember that you can get help and move past this bond to form healthy relationships in the future.
It all starts with making a plan and taking advantage of key resources. After you’re safe, consider starting meditation, therapy, and other helpful practices. 1AND1 can help you begin many of these efforts; check out our resources today.
Emotional attachments in abusive relationships: a test of traumatic bonding theory | NCBI
Recognizing and Breaking a Trauma Bond | CPTSDfoundation.org