Relationships are largely regarded as positive aspects of people’s lives. As humans, we’re social creatures who crave love, friendship and general bonding with other people. Many of us seek out ideas and guidance for finding a great partner, making our relationships stronger and working through tough times with those we love so we can really make the most of these bonds.
But for some people, relationships aren’t fun, happy or fulfilling. Those stuck in toxic, abusive relationships endure cycles of extreme highs and lows that make them feel loved, and then completely worthless.
Known as trauma bonds, these relationships are unhealthy and difficult to break, for a number of psychological reasons. If you feel like you’re trapped in an abusive relationship, or you think you might know someone who is, keep reading to understand how you (or your loved one) can break free of a trauma bonding safely.
What is a trauma bond?
The definition of trauma bonding is relatively straight forward: In a trauma bond, a person feels attachment to someone who is causing them trauma. It is an outgrowth of domestic violence (which doesn’t always have to be physical to be violent).
You might feel emotional attachment toward your partner/abuser, and even compassion or empathy, but you also feel confused, trapped and powerless within your relationship. In a trauma bonding, there will be a clear cycle of abuse, where the abuser belittles and manipulates, followed by positive reinforcement and making amends.
The extreme highs following the abuse are usually what keep people trapped in these bonds.
Obligation towards the abuser
Embedded in these relationships is often a feeling of obligation toward the abuser. In the case of trauma bond as a form of child abuse, children often feel loyal to their parents or family members and want to please them.
Victims of any age may also feel a sense of commitment or duty toward their abusers, particularly women who are in their first romantic relationship, making them unable to leave their supposed “first love.” Those in trauma bondings may also develop Stockholm syndrome, a psychological survival technique where they begin to feel a deep sense of connection to their abuser.
In short, trauma bonds leave victims feeling disoriented in their relationships, unable to get out but also knowing deep down that staying is unhealthy.
How do trauma bonds develop?
At the root of it, trauma bonding happens because of the abuser in the relationship and that person’s toxic behavior. But many people have a hard time understanding why the survivors of these relationships put up with abuse and why they don’t just leave the person victimizing them once they’ve seen the red flags.
The answer to this is pretty complex.
Abusive relationships can also be potent relationships
In reality, trauma bonds happen because the bonding part of the relationship is potent. The person being abused has a hard time enforcing boundaries and they become so entangled in the relationship by the abuser that leaving them eventually doesn’t even feel like a plausible option.
Hormones play a significant role in why these relationships continue. As you can imagine, being with an abusive person is rife with stressful situations. And when people undergo stress, the body releases two hormones, adrenaline and cortisol, making your survival instincts kick in.
You’ve likely heard of the term “fight-or-flight response” but this reaction to stress isn’t actually a binary. There’s a third option, freeze, which is what people who are in a traumatic relationship usually do.
Freezing and feel-good hormones
Freezing can happen in the middle of physical abuse by literally freezing in place or within a bout of emotional abuse by not speaking. Freezing can also happen psychologically by blocking out the negative parts of a relationship and ignoring the signs that the bond is detrimental to your mental health. This freezing aspect also makes it hard to leave, making the person feel paralyzed and causing the relationship to continue even when it’s very unhealthy.
The stress of this abusive kind of relationship is juxtaposed by feel-good hormones, dopamine and oxytocin. After an abuse incident, the abuser usually goes out of their way to make up for their bad behavior with loving gestures, sexual advances, gifts and so on.
The dopamine rush that comes from these actions activates a pleasure response, making the person being victimized caught in a cycle of abuse and then craving that windfall of dopamine and trying to “earn” those good feelings. Oxytocin plays a role if there is cuddling, sex or other physical affection following an abuse incident, reinforcing the cycle.
Certain traits and circumstances can also make people more susceptible to falling into a trauma bonding relationship. If you don’t have a strong support system, like friends or family members who live close by, or you lack financial resources to leave the relationship, it’s hard to break a trauma bond. People who have been abused might also suffer from low self-esteem or haven’t clearly defined their own identity, making them struggle with having autonomy and feeling able to leave these types of relationships.
Finally, if you have a history of bullying or abuse, you may even seek out a trauma bonding relationship because that’s what may feel comfortable to you. For some people, unsafe situations actually feel safer (and more predictable) than stable situations.
Past trauma could even make you seek out a scary or unstable relationship in order to feel something, since many people who have experienced trauma shut down emotionally in intimate situations. While it doesn’t make sense logically, some people don’t feel satisfied by a so-called “normal” relationship because of their traumatic past and seem to have what feels like a biological craving for extremity.
In no way does any of this mean that the victim of a trauma bonding is at fault. But it’s important to understand that certain people can be more susceptive to trauma bonds and more easily fall into these toxic relationships.
What types of relationships are affected by trauma bonding?
Trauma bonds can be found in any type of relationship. Romantic relationships are likely the ones you might think of first, but trauma bonds are common in families and in friendship situations. They could even happen in the workplace with toxic bosses or coworkers who backstab you one week and then want to sing your praises at happy hour over margaritas the next.
These abusive relationships are also common in group settings like fraternities and sororities, the military and cults, which try to create unity and bonding through hazing or forced scary situations. These rituals are then passed down to recruit and indoctrinate new members, creating a cycle of abuse and group-think. Typically, any person who questions the status quo will be isolated, criticized or further abused.
How do I tell if I’m in a trauma bonding relationship?
There are a number of key warning signs that you are in a trauma bonding relationship. Many of these signifers are hallmarks of full-on abusive relationships, while others are simply signs of an unhealthy bond. To learn more about setting healthy relationship goals, read our blog on the subject.
In a trauma bond, there is always some kind of abusive behavior. This can constitute many different types of abuse: physical, verbal, emotional or psychological, economic, cultural or sexual. Some of these types of abuse are detailed below as they are more common with trauma bond relationships specifically.
If the following qualities sound all too familiar, you should consider making a plan to safely end your relationship:
Trauma bonding relationships usually start and progress quickly. Of course, there is nothing unhealthy about falling in love at first sight or bonding rapidly with another human. However, when a quick progression into a relationship is coupled with any of the below, you’re likely ensnared within an abusive trauma bond.
Abusive relationships typically follow a recurrent pattern: outburst of abuse, apology or repair, brief honeymoon period. The bursts of loving regret and making amends usually get shorter and more spaced out while the periods of emotional or physical mistreatment normally get longer and more intense.
In a trauma bond, the abuser holds the upper hand in the relationship. There is typically controlling behavior involved, too. The abuser might make all or most of the major decisions, control the finances, determine what you’re allowed to do, keep you from forming (or maintaining) relationships or hobbies that are outside of the relationship and so on. You feel like the passenger of the relationship (and of your own life) instead of sitting in the driver’s seat.
Abusers prey upon your emotions to get you to stay with them, feel sorry for them and feel badly about yourself so you don’t think you deserve better.
There are a number of tactics for emotional manipulation, including passive aggressive behavior, gaslighting, giving you the silent treatment, making you feel guilty, preying upon your insecurities, lying and using deflection to change the subject when you bring up a relationship grievance.
These tactics can make you feel powerless and even crazy, making you doubt your own inner truth and causing you to question your self worth.
Trauma bondings can make you feel very alone and empty. But because of the biological impact of abuse on your hormones, you might feel that only your abuser can fill the void inside you. You might even start to shut out your other relationships, like your friends and family members, for a few reasons.
Your abuser might discourage you from making contact with them, your loved ones may not approve of your relationship or question it directly and you may feel ashamed or embarrassed for staying in an abusive relationship so you self-isolate.
Fear of leaving
Because you feel so alone, you might be even less apt to get out of your relationship because then you’d really have nothing and no one. You might also be worried about your abuser’s feelings of what they would do if you left them.
When you’re in a trauma bond, you feel like you can’t stay in your relationship with that person but you can’t leave them either. Usually a fear of leaving wins this catch-22 because your brain is hooked on the dopamine rush that comes from the brief periods of happiness in your relationship.
How to end a trauma bonding relationship
Ending a trauma bond can feel like an insurmountable thing to do. But it is possible. If you feel unsafe in your relationship, it’s time to get out and allow yourself to heal from the abuse you’re suffered. Here is a guide to help you get out safely:
Talk to a therapist
Working with a trusted therapist who specializes in trauma or trauma bonding specifically is an important first step to break free. By having someone help you work through your feelings and allow you to talk freely without worrying about retribution you will slowly begin to see the possibilities beyond life with your abuser.
Getting the psychological help you need to understand your relationship for what it is, leave your relationship and then process the aftermath will keep you grounded in what’s best for you and you alone. If you can’t see a therapist in person, there are a number of virtual therapy options online where you can connect with a trusted professional from your own computer in the privacy of your home.
Start documenting incidents of abuse. Not only will these notes allow you to see traumatic behavior for what it really is but you may need a record of these events in the future. Make sure you note the date of the incident, anything that happened or was said and your feelings about the incident. If you need to get custody of your shared children, want to get a restraining order or choose to file a lawsuit, you’ll need this documentation.
Confide in a trusted loved one
Find someone besides your therapist who you can call and who will be there for you when you leave. You may have been isolated from your loved ones during your relationship but know that these people are likely waiting for you to reach out and would be grateful to have the chance to help you get out of your toxic situation.
Make a safe exit plan
Work with your therapist to form a plan of how you are going to leave the relationship. Are you planning to tell your abuser that you’re leaving? How? Determine where and when you will do this and if you’ll need backup (like your trusted loved one) to be there with you. You’ll also need to think through any financial logistics like shared bank accounts.
Set up alternative housing
If you live with your abuser, find another place to live before you end the relationship. That way, you have somewhere safe waiting for you when the relationship is over. You don’t want to stay in the same place with your abuser after saying it’s over because you’re likely to have to endure more abuse and it will be harder to actually leave if you’re still living together.
Maintain no contact
In order to truly end a trauma bond relationship, you have to go cold turkey on contact. Block the person’s number (or change your number if you have to), block them on social media (or suspend or delete your accounts) and avoid places where you might run into them (or where they might try to run into you).
Of course, this may be impossible if you share children with your abuser, in which case it would be helpful to hire a lawyer or mediator who can be your go-between.
Surround yourself with positivity
To help yourself stay the course in keeping this relationship in your past, make your new home your haven and create a routine that will allow you to heal. Stick Post-it notes with positive affirmations and healing quotes written on them to your bathroom mirror so you can remind yourself of your worth. Read survivor-focused books like The Body Keeps the Score.
Find an activity you can look forward to, whether it’s an online yoga class, a weekly coffee date with a friend or a new creative hobby. Check in with your mental state and note your feelings so you can work through them emotionally. Focus on yourself: get ample sleep, feed yourself nourishing food and surround yourself with people who can love and support you in this hard time.
If you’re wondering whether it’s love or trauma bonding
If you’re asking yourself if you’re with an abusive person, you probably intuitively know deep down that your bond isn’t healthy at best, and that it’s detrimental to your mental or physical health at worst. Love shouldn’t cause pain or confusion and it shouldn’t lower your own self worth.
For many people within trauma bonds, making the first step to break free is the scariest part, and the biggest hurdle to overcome. If you’re not ready to find a therapist or talk to a trusted loved one, reach out to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, which offers confidential support (for free). You can talk to someone over the phone or chat online, as well as get help on making a safety plan to exit your trauma bond relationship.
Traumatic relationships are psychologically taxing for the people in them especially but also for the people who love them. If you know someone who’s in a trauma bonding, do your best to continue to support this person by checking in, even if they aren’t able to respond often or admit that they are in an unhealthy relationship.
The most important thing you can do is make sure that they know they’re not alone. Be their lifeline and know that just by staying available—and not giving up on them—you’re providing an invaluable service to their wellbeing and safety.