Patrick Carnes, Ph.D., CAS, coined the term trauma bonding in 1997. Carnes is the founder of the International Institute for Trauma and Addiction Professionals and an expert in addiction therapy (IITAP). In a talk titled “Trauma Bonds, Why People Bond To Those Who Hurt Them,” he discussed the topic of trauma bonding.
Trauma bonding was characterized by Carnes as “dysfunctional bonds that emerge in the midst of danger, shame, or exploitation,” and it was one of nine possible reactions to a traumatic incident.
He hypothesized that trauma bonding happens as a result of the ways in which our brains deal with trauma and that these ways are based on how we must adapt in order to live. He discovered two key aspects of trauma: how people react to its severity and how long it lasts.
This principle also holds true today, with counseling focused on how victims can break trauma attachments and no longer feel shame or guilt about how they reacted to a potentially life-threatening circumstance.
What is Trauma Bonding
Trauma bonding is an abused person’s attachment to their abuser, especially in a repetitive pattern of an abusive relationship. A cycle of abuse and positive reinforcement creates the attachment. Following each incident of abuse, the abuser professes to love, expresses regret, and generally tries to make the connection feel safe and necessary to the abused person.
One of the reasons why leaving an abusive setting might feel unclear and overwhelming is because of trauma bonding. It entails pleasant and/or loving feelings for an abuser, causing the abused person to feel linked to and reliant on their abuser.
Trauma Bonding Situations
Trauma bonding can happen in any situation of abuse, regardless of how long or short, it lasts. That said, it’s most likely to happen in a circumstance where the abuser makes a point of expressing affection to the person they’re abusing and then acts as if the abuse won’t happen again. The trauma bond or the feeling of the abused that the abuser isn’t all awful is created by the mix of abuse and positive reinforcement.
Trauma bonding can develop in a variety of abusive contexts, and emotional ties are typical in abusive conditions. They are nothing to be ashamed of, as they are the consequence of our brains searching for ways to survive. This phenomenon, also known as paradoxical attachment, can develop as a result of a variety of circumstances. Here are a few of the most common:
- Domestic violence
- Abuse of a sexual nature
- Abuse of the elderly
It may be difficult to comprehend how someone in one of the aforementioned situations may feel affection, dependency, or care for the person or individuals abusing them. While you may not understand it if you have never been in a situation involving cyclical abuse, it is fairly simple.
The bond is formed as a result of the basic human need for attachment to survive. An abuse victim may then become reliant on their abuser. When you add in a cycle in which an abuser swears never to do it again and repeatedly gains the victim’s trust, you have a complex emotional condition that can damage even the most emotionally strong people.
Trauma Bonding Relationships
According to licensed psychologist Liz Powell, PsyD, a trauma bonding relationship is defined as an attachment formed as a result of repeated physical or emotional trauma with intermittent positive reinforcement. Simply put, “a lot of pretty bad stuff happens; then occasionally really fantastic stuff happens” in a relationship with trauma bonding, they add.
Where does trauma bonding occur
Trauma bonding occurs in all kinds of relationships, not just romantic ones. According to Dr. Powell, trauma bonding can be seen in situations such as fraternity hazing, military training, kidnapping, child abuse, political torture, cults, prisoners of war, or concentration camps.
“A lot of people have difficulties leaving abusers in cases of domestic violence or abuse because they have a strong connection to them that keeps them there even when things are very terrible,” they explain. “You’re put in these difficult scenarios in military training [or other group-centric situations] as a method to bond with your fellow service members so that you can trust individuals you don’t know anything about; in a life-or-death situation.”
Why does trauma bonding happen
The body’s natural stress response causes trauma bonding bonds to form. When you’re stressed, your sympathetic nervous system and limbic system—the area of your brain that controls emotions and “motivated behaviors” like hunger and sexuality—are activated. The “fight or flight” stress response is what this activation is known as. “When sympathetic activation is under control, the regions of our brain that undertake long-term planning or risk analysis in our prefrontal cortex are turned off,” Dr. Powell explains. “Our brain is focused on just getting us through this trauma, so they can’t be as effective.”
Trauma Bonding Signs
Trauma ties can take on a variety of forms depending on the sort of relationship, but they usually share two criteria.
1. The existence of a cyclical nature
For starters, they rely on sporadic reinforcement. In other words, it’s a vicious cycle. It’s usually simpler to get out of a poor situation where the abusive person never shows any love or care for your well-being. You won’t stick around if you don’t believe someone will ever change.
However, in abusive relationships, your partner may treat you well on occasion. They may send you gifts, refer to you as their soul mate, invite you out, or advise you to unwind. These gestures can be perplexing and disarming, especially if they are interpreted as indicators of long-term change.
Love eventually triumphs over the fear of additional abuse. You may overlook or conceal recollections of their previous actions as you gradually restore trust until the cycle repeats itself.
2. An inequality of power
These ties are also based on an underlying power imbalance. You may feel as if they are controlling you to the point where you are unsure how to resist or break free in this situation.
Even if you are able to leave the relationship, you may find it difficult to break the bond without professional assistance. You may feel incomplete or lost without them, and you may return because the abusive cycle is familiar to you and you don’t know how to live without it yet.
3. Other important indicators
Here are some other aspects of traumatic relationships to consider:
- You are dissatisfied and may no longer like your partner, yet you are unable to terminate the relationship.
- You are physically and emotionally uncomfortable when you attempt to flee.
- They promise to change when you say you want to leave, but make no effort to do so.
- You obsess over the “good” days, using them as evidence that they genuinely care.
- When others show worry, you create explanations and defend their actions.
- You continue to believe in them and hope that they will change.
- You shield them from harm by concealing abusive behavior.
Even if the assault occurred many years ago, trauma attachments might persist. You may find it difficult to stop thinking about the person who has injured you and feel compelled to reach out or try again.
Trauma Bonding Test
Toxic relationships, narcissism, and trauma ties are all hot topics these days. It can be difficult to tell whether what you’re feeling is a reflection of “healthy” love or old childhood wounding.
To see if a former or current relationship is a trauma bond, take this simple quiz. It takes only 3 minutes!
1. You rationalize your partner’s bad behavior by focusing on the positive aspects.
2. The connection is in a state of flux and unpredictability.
3. There’s a lot of sexual chemistry going on. The foundation of any relationship is sex.
4. You give up your goals and needs in order to meet theirs.
5. You want to “improve” your relationship with your partner.
6. To gain their adoration, you betray yourself.
7. You go on an emotional rollercoaster. There are extreme “highs” and “lows”
8. In the connection, there is anxiety, suspicion, and espionage.
9. You feel like you’re walking on eggshells and can’t be yourself.
10. You make excuses for or “brush under the rug” situations of emotional or physical abuse.
11. You’re afraid that leaving would exacerbate the abuse or cause a violent outburst.
12. Your relationship consistently disappoints you, but you continue to trust them or hope for brighter days ahead.
13. You don’t know if you like or trust the other person at times, yet you can’t leave.
14. In the relationship, there is a push and pull dynamic.
A. Yes, this is frequently the case!
15. You don’t feel secure in your vulnerability. There isn’t enough emotional depth.
16. No matter what they’ve done to you, you keep hoping that they’ll change.
17. Personal boundaries are lacking.
If you answered No to most of the questions, you don’t appear to be having trouble with trauma bonding. However, if you answered Yes in the majority of cases, you may be experiencing trauma bonding difficulties.
Trauma Bonding with a Narcissist
Do you know someone who is stuck in a toxic or violent relationship and you’re not sure why they’re still there? The indicators of abuse are clear, but they continue to stay with their relationship. You may have even mentioned the indications of abuse you’ve noticed, but they’ve either ignored you or made excuses. It can be aggravating as an outsider looking in to notice something that no one else does. So, why would someone in an abusive relationship continue and even make excuses for the abuser?
Many people stay in violent relationships for a variety of reasons, including trauma bonding. Trauma bonding can happen in any sort of abusive relationship, even if the abuser is a narcissist. Control and manipulation are two methods used by narcissists to inflict abuse. It is frequently difficult for the person being abused to recognize what is going on, and they may not view the abuse in the same way that someone on the outside does.
The narcissist will adore the bomb if everything goes right. When a narcissist’s partner does something the narcissist doesn’t like or agree with, the narcissist will punish them by shouting, silent treatment, or even physical assault. In order to reestablish pleasant connections with the narcissist, the abused partner will alter their behavior in order to avoid enraging the narcissist.
The optimum climate for trauma bonding is created by this back-and-forth between love bombing and punishment. If the relationship was always horrible, it would be easier to leave since you wouldn’t have any hope for the rare wonderful moments. Your narcissistic partner plays the caring and loving act so well that you believe them. You find yourself dragged back into their grasp, believing that the relationship has improved.
In this game of control, narcissists, on the other hand, are unpredictable. Only they are aware of the rules, which can change by the day or even by the hour. They act in a way that meets their immediate demands and is unconcerned with their partner’s requirements.
Getting Rid of a Trauma Bonding
If any of this feels a little too familiar. Here are Simonian’s four suggestions for getting out of a dangerous situation. She also advises that if physical abuse is present, staying in the relationship is not worth it; you should seek help right away.
1. Seek assistance
“Talk to a friend, family member, or therapist right away to avoid further isolation and the formation of a deeper traumatic bond. Talking to someone who isn’t in the relationship can help you gain perspective and clarity, which can help you decide whether or not to leave.”
2. Recognize the “honeymoon” or reconciliation phase.
“Know the difference between an apology (flowers, pleasant words, gifts) and genuine attempts to modify behavior from your partner; (your partner learning stress management, communication skills, or other coping tactics). An apology will not solve the problem; instead, ask your spouse for assistance.”
3. Take a stand for yourself
“Have a few firm statements prepared in the event of an abusive incident—this will help you establish boundaries and communicate that the abuse will not be tolerated.”
4. Accept that you have the option to end the relationship.
“You are not stranded.” Helping your partner change their behavior is a difficult task that can be emotionally draining, and it’s perfectly acceptable to decide to leave the relationship to protect your mental health.”
When a victim of abuse forms an unhealthy attachment to their abuser, this is known as trauma bonding. They may rationalize or defend the abuser’s actions, feel a sense of loyalty, isolate themselves from others, and hope that the abuser will change his or her behavior.
It can take a long time to break a trauma link and recover, and identifying the true nature of the bond is a vital first step. Counselors, support services, and therapists, as well as trusted family members, friends, and other survivors, can all assist a person in their recovery.
Frequently Asked Questions
Do I have a trauma bond?
When you’re in a trauma connection, you’ll feel trapped in the relationship with no way out. When you try to leave, Morton says, you’ll sense a strong desire to see that person again. “That longing’s sorrow will always draw you back,” she says.
Is bonding over trauma bad?
Long-term consequences of trauma bonding include, but are not limited to, staying in abusive relationships, developing negative mental health outcomes such as low self-esteem, negative self-image, and an increased risk of depression and bipolar disorder, and perpetuating a trans-generational cycle of abuse.