How to Identify & Break Free From Trauma Bonding

Published on: 04 Jul 2019
Clinically Reviewed by Cynthia V. Catchings LCSW-S
Woman holding a gloved man's hand on a mountaintop.

Updated on 8/15/2022

Trauma bonding is an emotional attachment that forms when you’re stuck in a repeated cycle of abuse. Though it can seem counterintuitive to many people, abuse can result in intense feelings, or a trauma bond, between you and your abuser. 

Part of the reason why abuse tends to repeat is that you learn at a very young age what you must do to be loved and accepted. If your parents and caregivers are abusive when you’re young, it can be easy to accept or internalize the idea that abuse equals love. Unfortunately, in these instances, the experiences you have surrounding love as a young child can easily carry over into your adult relationships. 

The feelings associated with trauma bonding can be very hard to navigate, especially given that it’s common for an abuser to quickly shift from abusive behavior to intimacy, gentleness, and kindness. If you’ve developed a trauma bond, seeing a clear picture of a toxic relationship can easily be muddled by the deep, real feelings you might have developed for your abuser.

There are multiple reasons why leaving an abusive relationship and breaking a trauma bond can be difficult. They can include fear about where you’ll go, who you’ll be able to trust, and how you’ll support yourself. 

It’s important to note that many people who abuse have narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). The control they hold over those closest to them can be incredibly difficult to understand. 

Answering the question: what is trauma bonding might help you understand why it can be so hard to leave an abusive relationship, even if you know deep down that you need to.

What Is Trauma Bonding?

Trauma bonding is a unique form of manipulation, defined by repetitive behaviors where someone — often with narcissistic personality disorder — operates within a cycle of abuse. That abuse results in an attachment bond, or a trauma bond. Ultimately, this bond is further strengthened with each abuse cycle.

Although, at first, it’s common to feel secure and loved in a relationship, over time, someone who abuses, or someone with narcissistic personality disorder will begin to engage in more emotional, mental, financial, or physical abuse. People are often unaware that they’re stuck in an abusive situation. The abuse is so repetitive that the abused person can grow accustomed to it. When abuse becomes intertwined in a relationship, it can become easy to confuse trauma and love.

It can be challenging to know for sure if someone is experiencing a trauma bond, because the traumatized partner remains attached to and passionate about their unhealthy relationship. It’s vital to keep in mind, however, that strong emotions can be brought on by pain that the abuser inflicts. Of course, it’s not genuine love, but that can be hard for the abused to see. 

When trauma bonding occurs, a relationship typically has become so toxic that the abused partner actually begins to crave the infatuation that marked the beginning of the relationship. That need propels them to quickly forgive and become willing to do anything to get back to a good place with their partner despite any abuse that may be occurring in their toxic relationship.

Someone who is a narcissist leverages inconsistent positive reinforcement to lure their partner back. Often the cycle becomes an endless pursuit to win back the original love and admiration that was once abundant. By the time awareness really kicks in, and it’s clear the relationship must end, victims often feel too trapped to leave.

Examples of trauma bonding

Before looking more closely at the cycle of traumatic bonding, it’s important to point out: people with narcissistic personality disorder don’t reserve abuse just for their romantic partners. Trauma bonding can occur as a result of mental or physical abuse in relationships, including:

  • Boss and subordinate
  • Professor and student
  • Colleague-to-colleague
  • Parent and child
  • Family member to family member
  • Friend to friend

Common Signs of Trauma Bonding

According to Talkspace therapist Reshawna Chapple, PhD, LCSW, the following are trauma bonding examples that can help you understand how the trauma bonding definition fits for most people. 

You try to protect your partner by keeping abusive behavior secret

Often people who are abused try to protect the abusive person. This can be out of fear, or it can simply be an example of the trauma bond that’s formed. Coming out against your abusive partner can mean there’s a good chance the relationship will end. That can be scary and cause uncertainty because of the feelings you’ve developed toward your abuser.

When you do try to leave, you might feel physically and emotionally distressed

For someone in an abusive situation to leave a trauma bond relationship, things usually aren’t as simple as packing a bag and walking out the door. You might have physical, emotional, and quite often, financial components that mean deciding to go can be devastatingly difficult. Not to mention, there’s also the potential of your abuser lashing out or trying to make it even harder for you to leave.

You feel unhappy in the relationship, but you also feel unable to end things

Abusive relationships really aren’t about being happy. If control is a dominant force in your trauma bonded relationship, simply being unhappy might not be enough for you to find the courage to leave.

You focus on the “good” days but ignore major issues in the relationship

Especially if you once had good times, it can be easy to fall into the trap of trying to convince yourself that you can get back there. It’s probably hard to recognize that when your partner was kind during this initial phase of your relationship, it was likely a ploy to gain your trust. Accepting that can be very painful.

You might feel that you owe it your partner to stay in the relationship

Guilt plays a big part in why we stay in abusive relationships. Feeling like you owe your partner something can make it hard to believe that leaving is worth it. If the abuse has been going on long enough, you might not have enough self-worth to think you deserve more than what you’re getting. Your abuser probably spent a great deal of time convincing you that they’re great, and that you’re lucky to have them. At some point, you probably started believing this.

You hope your partner will change

Largely because of those good times you once had, it can be tough to accept the fact that you may never get back to that part of your relationship. Part of your preservation tactic might be to hope or believe that your partner will change one day.

How to Break a Trauma Bond

Breaking a trauma bond can be difficult, but you really can do it. Leaving an abusive relationship and a trauma bond means trusting that even though it’ll be hard, your life will be so much better moving forward. 

It will help if you are able to figure out what in your past resulted in you allowing a pattern of abuse in your relationships. By identifying this, you’ll be better-able to break the cycle and seek out healthier future relationships and form more positive emotional attachments.  

The following tips can help you end trauma bonding — both now and in the future.  

Therapy

Therapy can be very effective in helping you break a trauma bond. You can work on exploring the past to identify the places in life where you learned that certain behaviors would result in the love and acceptance you crave. You’ll be able to recognize how you might have carried a certain thought process into your adult relationships, where patterns of abuse might be repeated without you even realizing it.    

“Processing our childhood experiences in therapy can be a helpful and healing way to see what patterns we might be re-living as adults, especially here as it relates to trauma and romantic relationships, in an effort to break these patterns that no longer serve us.”

Talkspace therapist Kate Rosenblatt, MA, LPC, LMHC

Find support

Support will be incredibly important as you begin to make plans to break a trauma bond. You’ll want to surround yourself with people you trust, who can be sources of strength and remind you that you can do this. Rely on what you learned or are learning about yourself, your past, and your inclination to be drawn to toxic people and relationships. Change is hard, but oh, so rewarding. 

Breaking a trauma bond can be difficult, but not impossible, with a plan and help from social support. First of all, creating a safety plan for exiting the relationship is important. 

Talk to individuals you trust about your wishes to leave the relationship. Begin to establish healthy boundaries and make sure you have a list of things that are okay and not okay in relationships. 

Figure out what dynamics in your life led to the relationship. This can help you change and work on developing healthy thought patterns, behaviors, and self-esteem. Working with a counselor or therapist is useful for some people to learn how to develop healthy coping skills and boundaries.” 

Talkspace therapist Reshawna Chapple, PhD, LCSW

No contact

Commit to a total break. Don’t engage with your partner. Ignore emails, texts, calls, and any other means of outreach after parting ways. Yes, there was an overwhelming charm that marked the beginning of the relationship, but remember the start of each cycle thereafter. Avoid the risk of falling back into old patterns.

Live in the present

Commit to living in the present and avoid dwelling on what your toxic relationship could have been. Instead, take note of how you’re feeling in this moment and remind yourself that healthy relationships should not leave you feeling devalued or trapped.

Detachment

Lean into your dispassionate cognitive abilities and return to them every time the void tempts you to go back to the unhealthy relationship. Establish truths about the nature of your relationship and ask friends and family to surround and support you with this way of thinking. 

In the same way your abuser used positive reinforcement to keep you in their grasp, your new social network and support system can help you retrain and heal your brain. This practice will serve as protection for your emotional health in a confusing time.

Look Out for Warning signs

If a new romantic interest shows controlling behavior and emotional manipulation, it’s important to be cognizant of the risks the romantic relationship could carry. Be wary of individuals who place razor-focused attention on you, implore grand gestures in public, rush emotional intimacy, or create a false-sense of deep familiarity. Pay close attention to how they speak about past relationships and take note of the other relational dynamics in their life.

If you’re in an abusive relationship and you think that trauma bonding is now part of the picture, it might be time to consider therapy. A therapist can work with you to identify risks and encourage self-care as you navigate the complexities of dealing with the trauma bonding you’ve developed. Then, you can be free to live a healthy, happy life, without abuse.

Sources:

  1. Dodgson L. People often stay in abusive relationships because of something called ‘trauma bonding’ — here are the signs it’s happening to you. Business Insider. https://www.businessinsider.com/trauma-bonding-explains-why-people-often-stay-in-abusive-relationships-2017-8. Published 2017. Accessed December 12, 2021.
  1. Bachand C, Djak N. Stockholm Syndrome in Athletics: A Paradox. Children Australia. 2018;43(3):175-180. doi:10.1017/cha.2018.31. https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/children-australia/article/abs/stockholm-syndrome-in-athletics-a-paradox/DD5E8799C18FEA1A777AC03E6B8B04A6. Accessed December 12, 2021.

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