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What is a Trauma Bond?

Trauma bond blog

Do you feel a push and pull in a relationship where you may notice feelings of guilt, shame or fear, sprinkled with periods of ‘good times’?

For those on the outside of the relationship, they may question why you stay and don’t ‘just leave’ which can cause you further shame and isolation.

A trauma bond is a form of psychological attachment that happens in a toxic or abusive relationship where one person repeatedly manipulates, hurts, or abuses the other, followed by shorter periods of affection. The cycle that happens leaves the person being hurt searching for and holding onto the good moments of safety and calm, thereby ‘bonding’ them to the one who is hurting them. 

Trauma bonds can develop not only in romantic relationships, but also in family relationships between a parent/caregiver and child, siblings, or extended family members, as well as friendships, or even in situations involving a captor and captive. The bond can form due to a cycle of abuse, where moments of kindness or relief from tension are interspersed with episodes of mistreatment or manipulation. These alternating experiences create confusion and attachment, making it difficult for the person being hurt to leave the relationship.

Here are 7 characteristics of a relationship with a trauma bond:

1. Intermittent reinforcement

The abuser alternates between affection and abuse, creating a sense of unpredictability and dependency. The relationship may feel like an intense emotional rollercoaster, alternating between extreme highs (love-bombing, praise, or affection) and extreme lows (control, manipulation, or abuse). The periods of safety, calm, or positive affection are sprinkled in throughout, and the person being hurt does not know when to expect them, though they may often appear after periods of abuse. 

2. Isolation

The partner being maltreated may feel isolated from others, as the abuser often seeks to control and restrict their access to social support networks. The person being abused may feel that their relationships with friends, family, or colleagues are more distant than before, or they may feel that others don’t or wouldn’t understand their relationship dynamics, and therefore have withdrawn from them, staying silent about the abuse or downplaying the negativity being perceived by others.

3. Guilt and shame

The person being hurt may internalize feelings of guilt or shame, believing they are responsible for the abuse or unworthy of better treatment. Feelings of embarrassment or confusion often prevent them from fully disclosing to anyone outside of the relationship the struggle they are experiencing as others may share their opinions of disapproval.

4. Dependence

The abuser creates emotional dependence within the relationship where they are a source of validation, approval, or a sense of security to the person they are hurting. 

5. Fear and Anxiety

The partner being hurt may experience heightened levels of fear, anxiety, or hypervigilance, constantly anticipating the next outburst or episode of abuse. This fear can keep them trapped in the relationship and hesitant to take action to protect themselves.

6. Cycle of Abuse

Despite the unpredictability of the relationship, there may be a pattern of abuse, reconciliation, and tension-building, known as the cycle of abuse. After a situation of abuse, the abuser may profess love, dependency, regret, shame, or say or do things to make their partner feel safe, special, and needed.

7. Difficulty leaving

Despite recognizing the toxicity of the relationship, the person being abused – whether this abuse is emotional, physical, or sexual – may struggle to break free due to the intense emotional attachment and/or additional tangible factors that prevent a smooth separation from the individual. These factors can include living situations, financial barriers, having children within the relationship, or being a child of a parent who is the abuser.

Breaking a trauma bond is possible

These characteristics demonstrate how trauma bonds can present in various relationships and situations where there is a power imbalance, manipulation, or abuse.

Breaking free from trauma bonds often requires external support to help individuals recognize and address the underlying dynamics of the relationship and take steps to protect themselves and move forward.

Trauma bonds can have long-lasting effects on a person’s mental and emotional well-being, making it challenging to heal and move on from the abusive relationship. Therapy can be helpful not only for individuals looking to break free from trauma bonds but also rebuild their sense of self-worth and autonomy, and heal from their painful experiences.

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