From the outside looking in, leaving an abusive relationship seems easy. We’ve all said something to the effect of, “If that were me, I would dump them. I’d never put myself in that situation.”
Of course, all of this is much easier said than done when actually in an abusive relationship. As contrarian as it sounds, the abuse itself can be the reason many people stay.
What Is Trauma Bonding?
Patrick J. Carnes, Ph.D., coined the term “trauma bonding” to describe this phenomenon. Trauma bonds “occur when a victim bonds with someone destructive to them.”
Trauma bonds, Carnes explains, are addictive cycles. The “misuse of fear, excitement and sexual feelings” by the abuser traps the victim. By the time the bond is solidified, the victim can’t even tell it’s there.
The CPTSD Foundation explains these bonds further. The cycle begins “when we go through periods of intense love and excitement with a person followed by periods of mistreatment.”
“The cycle of being devalued and then rewarded works to create a strong chemical and hormonal bond,” the site continues. Abuse victims might feel closer to their abusers than they do with people who treat them well.
Signs Of Abusive Or Toxic Relationship Dynamics
First, it’s important to look at the bigger picture. Trauma bonds form in abusive or toxic environments. So, to spot a trauma bond, you have to spot the abuse first.
We often associate domestic abuse with physical abuse. In reality, abuse takes on many forms. Some are more discreet than others.
Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. If you recognize any of these patterns within your relationships, then you might be trauma bonded.
Signs You Might Be In A Trauma Bond
As with signs of abuse, there are multiple ways a trauma bond might manifest. One major red flag is a partner’s willingness to justify, defend, and protect their abuser.
Victims might defend their partner out of fear. But they could also feel indebted to their abuser. For example, if the victim made a mistake early in the relationship, an abuser might hold that mistake over the victim’s head.
In turn, the victim feels too guilty to leave. Or worse, the victim might feel as though they deserve the mistreatment.
Other signs include victims cutting off ties with family and friends that care about them. A trauma bond victim might feel insecure or dependent on their abusive partner. Hiding negative emotions is another red flag.
Trauma bond victims also tend to play multiple “roles” for their partners. They’re not only their abuser’s lover, they’re also a friend, therapist, parent, teacher, and babysitter.
Why Are You In A Trauma Bond?
David Mandel, executive director of the Safe & Together Institute, poses an interesting argument in this blog post from February 2021. In the post, Mandel cites four reasons why trauma bonding serves to blame the victims.
So, I feel it’s necessary at this point to say trauma bonding is not your fault.
Several factors increase the risk of developing trauma bonds. Risk factors include poor mental health, low self-esteem, and financial difficulties. A history of being bullied, no support system, and lack of personal identity also increase risk.
Perhaps the largest risk factor is a history of abuse. According to the CPTSD Foundation, “[Previous abuse victims’] nervous systems are already wired to respond to the up-down cycle of intermittent reinforcement that is so characteristic of toxic and abusive relationships.”
Past abuse, particularly in childhood, can cause disorganized attachment styles. As a result, abuse victims will “seek security and safety from the same person that is initiating their need to seek safety or who is the cause of their fears,” Health.com reports.
To put it bluntly, if you are in a trauma bond, it is solely the fault of your abuser. Domestic abuse victims are never to blame for their abuse.
As difficult as it can be to remember that while in the throes of a toxic relationship, it’s critical to try. Then, you can move onto the next step—getting out of that toxic muck once and for all.
How To Break Trauma Bonds For Good
Breaking a trauma bond is not impossible. And in some cases, it could mean life or death. So, it’s important to act as swiftly as possible.
Health.com’s medical sources suggest first reestablishing communication with family and friends. If you can’t, then try to make new friends. A good support system is crucial.
Next, try to regain as much independence as possible. Get a job—especially if you feel financially dependent on your abuser. Explore outside interests separate from you and your abuser.
Seek counseling from support groups or mental health professionals. If you know of none in your area, the National Domestic Violence Hotline can assist you.
Remember—trauma bonds are strong, but you are stronger.