Trauma bonds are the toxic relationship between the abuser and the victim of the abusive relationship. It can be found in romantic relationships, between a child and abusive family members, or with a hostage and kidnapper situation. Trauma bonding can occur through the cycle of abusive behavior and positive behavior from the abuser. Through this way abusive behavior is normalized and whenever positive reinforcement is shown it can release an almost addictive-like dopamine rush, allowing for the abused to disregard the negative behavior and only focus on the infrequent good behavior.
Trauma bonding is one reason that leaving an abusive situation can feel confusing and overwhelming. It involves positive and/or loving feelings for an abuser, making the abused person feel attached to and dependent on their abuser.
The term trauma bonding was coined by Patrick Carnes, PhD, CAS in 1997. Carnes is a specialist in addiction therapy and the founder of the International Institute for Trauma and Addiction Professionals (IITAP).
FIGHT OR FLIGHT RESPONSE
Trauma bonding relationships take shape due to the body’s natural stress response. When you become stressed, your body activates your sympathetic nervous system and your limbic system—or the part of the brain that regulates emotions and “motivated behaviors,” like hunger or sexuality. This activation is commonly known as the “fight or flight” stress response.
It is so easy to become attached to anything that helps you get through a traumatic event: your brain associates that thing or person with safety. So, when an abusive person decides to comfort you or apologize—even for a trauma they, themselves, put you through—your brain latches on to the positive reinforcement rather than thinks through the long-term effects of staying with the abuser.
Hormones bond people in relationships, but in abusive unions, these chemicals aren’t properly regulated. The brain can become so overexposed to some of these hormones—like oxytocin, the cuddle hormone, and dopamine, the “feel-good” hormone associated with cravings and motivation—that it actually becomes chemically dependent on them. As a result, even when someone treats you poorly time after time, your brain won’t want to leave because it felt so wonderful when they were nice to you.
Trauma bonding can happen between:
- a child and an abusive caregiver or other adult
- a hostage and kidnapper
- the leader and members of a cult
- fraternity hazing
- military training
- political torture
- prisoners of war
- concentration camps
SYMPTOMS/SIGNS OF TRAUMA BONDING
- The relationship is moving at an accelerated pace
- You feel very close even though you haven’t known each other for very long
- You make huge life changes for a relatively new relationship
- You put time and effort into the romantic relationship at the cost of friendships and family and other relationships
- You have an extreme fear of leaving the relationship
- You feel like they’re the only one who can fulfill your needs
- You feel unhappy and may not even like your partner any longer, but you still feel unable to end things.
- When you do try to leave, you feel physically and emotionally distressed.
- When you say you want to leave, they promise to change but make no effort to actually do so.
- You fixate on the “good” days, using them as proof that they truly care.
- You make excuses and defend their behavior when others express concern.
- You continue to trust them and hope to change them.
- You protect them by keeping abusive behavior secret.
Trauma bonds can linger, even when the abuse happened long ago. You might struggle to stop thinking about someone who hurt you and feel the urge to reach out or try again.
Some long-term impacts of trauma bonding include but are not limited to remaining in abusive relationships, having adverse mental health outcomes like low self-esteem, negative self image, and increased likelihood of depression and bipolar disorder and other medical conditions, and perpetuating a trans-generational cycle of abuse.
Victims who traumatically bond with their victimizers are often unable to leave these relationships or are only able to do so with significant duress and difficulty. Even among those who do manage to leave, many go back to the abusive relationship due to the pervasiveness of the learned trauma bond.
Make a safe exit plan
Prioritize your safety first, which includes making a safe plan for how to leave, and where you are going. Execute that plan the minute you can financially afford to. If you are currently in an abusive situation, you should leave it when you have created a safety plan. This involves having somewhere safe to go with support. You don’t need to figure it out all on your own.
Break your silence
Open up to trusted, nonjudgmental loved ones who understand that you’re in a bad situation.
Identify how your next relationship will be different by looking back at what you won’t allow again.
Positive Self-Talk and Care
One significant impact of abusive situations is that they can lower your self-esteem. Work on rebuilding your eroded self-esteem.
Being made to be dependent on an abuser, being spoken down to by one, and simply the act of being abused wreaks havoc on a person’s self-esteem.6 Speaking kindly to yourself and doing your best to believe that the abusive situation wasn’t your fault are helpful tools to break your bond from your abuser(s).
Additionally, making a point to be kind to yourself through acts of self-care can also facilitate your healing. Putting yourself in situations where your actions are the reason you feel good can reinforce the idea that you don’t need someone else to make you realize your worth.
Therapy is an incredible tool for helping people move past trauma. It can not only help you move through the complex and difficult emotions you’re experiencing after leaving an abusive situation, but it can also enable you to make different choices in the future and prevent mental health issues.
It can also help you see warning signs of abuse so that you don’t end up in an abusive situation again. There are many different types of therapy, with trauma therapy always being a top choice for people who have experienced trauma such as abuse.