A trauma bond typically follows a cycle and rests on an imbalance of power. Recognizing the bond for what it is and getting help may help you break it.
Leaving an abusive relationship usually isn’t as simple as walking out the door. Along with concerns about finding a place to live, supporting yourself, or being prevented from seeing your children or loved ones, you might feel tied to your partner, unable to break away.
This emotional attachment, known as a trauma bond, develops out of a repeated cycle of abuse, devaluation, and positive reinforcement.
It’s only natural to develop a bond with someone who treats you with kindness. Many abusive relationships begin with a shower of affection and assurances of love.
These attempts to manipulate often succeed since you remember the early days of the relationship and believe they can be that person again.
Trauma bonding can also happen between:
Trauma bonds can look a little different depending on the type of relationship, but they tend to have two main characteristics.
A cyclical nature
First, they depend on intermittent reinforcement. In other words, a cycle of abuse.
It’s generally easier to leave an entirely bad situation, one where the abusive person never offers any kindness or concern for your well-being.
But in abusive relationships, your partner occasionally does treat you well. They might bring you gifts, call you their soul mate, take you out, or urge you to relax. Some refer to this stage as love bombing.
Eventually, love begins to overshadow the fear of further abuse. As you slowly regain a sense of trust, you might ignore or suppress memories of their past behavior until the cycle begins again.
A power imbalance
These bonds also rest on an underlying imbalance of power. In this dynamic, you might feel as if they control you to the point where you no longer know how to resist or break free.
Even if you manage to leave the relationship, you might have difficulty breaking that bond without professional help. You might feel incomplete or lost without them and eventually return, simply because the abusive cycle is familiar and you don’t know how to live without it yet.
Other key signs
Here’s a look at some other characteristics of traumatic bonds:
- 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 actually to do so.
- You fixate on the “good” days, using them to prove 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 find it difficult to stop thinking about someone who hurt you and feel the urge to reach out or try again.
People who haven’t experienced abuse often find it difficult to understand why people remain in abusive relationships. They might believe you’re perfectly capable of leaving.
In reality, though, the trauma bond makes this extremely difficult.
People don’t choose abuse. They also can’t help the development of trauma bonds, which are driven by some pretty strong biological processes.
The freeze response
Perhaps you’re familiar with the fight-or-flight response, your body’s automatic response to any perceived threat. Maybe you’re even aware people respond to threats in four different ways: fight, flight, freeze, fawn.
When you face abuse or fear the possibility of future abuse, your brain recognizes the impending distress and sends a warning to the rest of your body. Adrenaline and cortisol (the stress hormones) flood in, jump-starting your survival instinct and triggering emotional and physical tension.
When thoughts of the abuse become too painful or difficult to bear, you choose to focus on the positive parts of your relationship and ignore or block the rest. You might make excuses for them and justify their behavior to rationalize your need to stay.
Hormones play a part, too
Hormones can be powerful reinforcers. Apologies, gifts, or physical affection offered by the abusive person serve as rewards that help reinforce the rush of relief and trigger dopamine release.
People who experienced abuse in childhood often feel drawn to similar relationships in adulthood since the brain already recognizes the highs and lows of the cycle.
A history of trauma can make it even harder to break trauma bonds, but you can learn to stop this cycle. These tips can help.
Know what you’re dealing with
Recognizing the existence of the bond is an important first step. When it comes to abuse, of course, this is often easier said than done.
To find evidence for abuse and recognize signs of trauma bonding, here are some things to try:
- Keep a journal: Writing down things that happened each day can help you begin to identify patterns and notice problems with behavior that may not have seemed abusive in the moment.
- Seek perspective: Pretend you’re reading about your relationship in a book. It’s often easier to examine negative events when you have some level of detachment.
- Talk to loved ones: Loved ones can offer essential perspectives. Challenge yourself to listen and make a real effort to consider the accuracy of your observations.
Believing you caused the abuse or brought it on yourself can make it harder to exercise your autonomy, effectively keeping you in the relationship.
Remind yourself that abuse is never your fault, no matter:
- what you may or may not have done
- how deeply you fear loneliness or a life without them
- how many times you’ve already gone back
Cut off contact completely
Once you decide to leave, disrupt the cycle completely by stopping all communication.
If you co-parent, this might not be possible, but a therapist can help you establish a plan to maintain only necessary contact.
Create physical distance by finding a safe place to stay, such as with a relative or friend. Also consider changing your phone number, if possible.
Get professional help
While you can take action to begin weakening the trauma bond on your own, these bonds tend to hold fast. You might not find it easy to break free without professional support, and that’s absolutely normal.
A therapist can teach you more about the patterns of abuse that drive trauma bonding, and this insight can often provide a lot of clarity.
In therapy, you can also:
- explore factors fueling the bond
- work on setting boundaries
- learn skills for building healthy relationships
- confront self-criticism and self-blame
- develop a self-care plan
- address mental health symptoms related to long-term trauma and abuse
It’s generally recommended to work with a trauma-informed therapist. Professionals who specialize in recognizing and treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), particularly complex PTSD and the aftereffects of abuse, can often have the biggest impact for people working to overcome this specific trauma.
If you need help recognizing abuse, leaving an abusive situation, or beginning the healing process after leaving an abusive partner, these resources can offer a starting place:
Below are frequently asked questions about trauma bonding
What is a trauma-bonded relationship?
A trauma bond is when a person forms a deep emotional attachment with someone that causes them harm. It often develops from a repeated cycle of abuse and positive reinforcement. When this occurs between partners, this is a trauma-bonded relationship.
What are the signs of trauma bonding?
All people experience trauma differently. However, typical signs of trauma bonding include:
- denial of the other person’s fault
- justification of their actions
- increasing isolation from support structures
- increasing dependence on the partner
What are the 7 stages of trauma bonding?
Some people define trauma bonding in seven stages. There are:
- love bombing
- gaining trust and increasing dependency
- criticism and devaluation
- submission and resignation
- loss of self and value
- emotional dependence
Abuse is never your fault. Neither is the development of a trauma bond.
It may take some time to regain a sense of self-worth and feel like you’ve finally broken free, but support from a trained professional can make all the difference.
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.