What is Trauma Bonding?
Learn more about the psychological mechanisms behind trauma bonding and learn how to identify and break free from these destructive emotional connections.
Clinically Reviewed By: Don Gasparini Ph.D., M.A., CASAC
May 17, 2023
Table of Contents
Trauma bonding refers to a complex psychological phenomenon that occurs when a person forms a strong emotional bond with someone who has caused them harm or trauma. It is commonly observed in abusive relationships, but can also occur in other contexts such as hostage situations, cults, or even in non-abusive relationships where a traumatic event is shared.
The term “trauma bonding” was first coined by Patrick Carnes, a psychologist specializing in addiction and recovery. It describes a pattern of behavior where the victim becomes emotionally attached to their abuser as a result of the intense and inconsistent experiences they share. The bond is characterized by a mix of fear, love, loyalty, and dependency.
What are the signs of trauma bonding?
Trauma bonding occurs when someone forms a strong emotional attachment to someone who has caused them harm or trauma. Some signs of trauma bonding may include:
- Feeling like you can’t live without the person, even if they are abusive or harmful to you.
- Continuously making excuses for the person’s abusive or harmful behavior.
- Feeling like you are responsible for the person’s well-being or their behavior towards you.
- Having an intense fear of abandonment or rejection by the person.
- Feeling like you are the only one who truly understands the person and their behavior.
- Rationalizing the person’s abusive or harmful behavior as a result of their past trauma or circumstances.
- Feeling like you owe the person for the good things they have done for you, despite the harm they have caused.
- Feeling like your sense of self-worth is dependent on the person’s approval or validation.
- Feeling unable to leave the person, even if you want to or know it would be better for you.
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What are examples of trauma bonding?
Examples of trauma bonding can vary and may involve different types of relationships. Here are a few examples:
Abusive romantic relationships
A person may develop a trauma bond with their abusive partner, finding it difficult to leave despite the harm inflicted. They may believe the abuser’s apologies, promises to change, or manipulative tactics, feeling emotionally attached and dependent on them.
Cults or extremist groups
Individuals who join cults or extremist groups can experience trauma bonding with the charismatic leaders or members. They may become isolated from their previous support systems, leading to dependence on the group for validation and a sense of belonging.
Abusive parent-child relationships
Children who have been subjected to domestic violence, abuse, or neglect by their parents may become trauma bonded, feeling attached to their parents despite the harm caused. They may internalize the belief that they deserve mistreatment or that the abuser’s actions are a form of love.
In cases of kidnapping or hostage situations, captives may become trauma bonded with their captors as a survival strategy. They might experience conflicting emotions, such as fear and gratitude when shown small acts of kindness, leading to a bond that can be difficult to break even after their release.
Trauma bonding can also occur in toxic friendships where one person consistently mistreats the other. The victim may become emotionally dependent on the friend, feeling obligated to maintain the relationship despite the harm caused.
These examples illustrate how trauma bonding can develop in various contexts, emphasizing the complex psychological dynamics that can keep individuals trapped in harmful relationships.
What are some common myths surrounding trauma bonding?
There are several common myths and misconceptions surrounding trauma bonding. Here are a few examples:
Myth: Trauma bonding only occurs in physically abusive relationships.
Reality: While physical abuse can contribute to trauma bonding, it is not limited to this type of relationship. Trauma bonding can develop in various forms of abuse, including emotional, psychological, and sexual abuse, as well as in non-abusive situations like hostage scenarios or cults.
Myth: Trauma bonding is the same as Stockholm Syndrome.
Reality: While trauma bonding shares similarities with Stockholm Syndrome, they are not exactly the same. Stockholm Syndrome specifically refers to the psychological phenomenon in which hostages develop positive feelings or empathy towards their captors. Trauma bonding is a broader term that encompasses similar dynamics in various contexts, not just hostage situations.
Myth: Trauma bonding implies weakness or codependency.
Reality: Trauma bonding is a psychological response that can affect individuals from all walks of life. It is not a reflection of weakness or character flaws. People who experience trauma bonding may be strong individuals caught in difficult circumstances or manipulation tactics that make it challenging to break free.
Myth: Trauma bonding can be resolved by simply ending the relationship.
Reality: While ending the relationship is a necessary step, it does not automatically resolve trauma bonding. Healing from trauma bonds often requires therapy, support, and a dedicated effort to address the underlying trauma and unhealthy attachment patterns.
Myth: Trauma bonding only occurs in romantic relationships.
Reality: While trauma bonding is commonly associated with abusive romantic relationships, it can occur in various types of relationships, including friendships, family relationships, cults, or hostage situations. Trauma bonding is not exclusive to romantic partnerships and can manifest in any relationship dynamic where there is a cycle of abuse, manipulation, and intermittent reinforcement.
It’s important to debunk these myths to foster understanding and empathy for those who experience trauma bonding and to encourage appropriate support and intervention.
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Who is vulnerable to trauma bonding?
Trauma bonding can affect individuals from various backgrounds and situations. While vulnerability to trauma bonding can vary, there are some common factors that may increase the likelihood of experiencing it:
History of trauma
Individuals who have experienced previous traumatic events, such as childhood abuse, neglect, or other forms of victimization, may be more susceptible to trauma bonding due to the impact of their past experiences on their sense of self-worth and attachment patterns.
People with low self-esteem may be more prone to seeking validation and acceptance from others, making them vulnerable to forming unhealthy attachments and being more likely to tolerate abusive or harmful behavior.
Lack of support networks
Limited social support systems or feelings of isolation can contribute to vulnerability to trauma bonding. When individuals feel disconnected or lack alternative sources of support, they may be more likely to develop an attachment to an abusive person or group.
Unmet emotional needs
Individuals who have unmet emotional needs, such as a longing for love, belonging, or validation, may be more susceptible to seeking these needs from an abusive or harmful person, even if it comes at the cost of their well-being.
Manipulation and coercion
Perpetrators of abuse often employ manipulation tactics to gain control over their victims. This manipulation can exploit vulnerabilities and create a sense of dependency or fear, further facilitating the development of trauma bonding.
It’s important to note that vulnerability to trauma bonding does not imply personal weakness or fault. Many factors, including individual circumstances and the tactics employed by the abuser, contribute to the development of trauma bonds. Seeking support from trusted individuals, therapists, or support groups can help individuals break free from trauma bonds and regain their well-being.
What is the relationship between trauma bonds and attachment styles?
Trauma bonds can be influenced by an individual’s attachment style, which refers to their patterns of relating to and forming emotional bonds with others. Different attachment styles can impact the formation and maintenance of trauma bonds in the following ways:
Individuals with an anxious attachment style often seek high levels of closeness, validation, and reassurance from their partners. They may be more prone to forming trauma bonds due to their intense need for connection and fear of abandonment. They may stay in abusive relationships in the hope of receiving the love and acceptance they desire, even if it comes with harm.
Individuals with an avoidant attachment style tend to value independence and self-reliance. They may struggle with forming deep emotional connections and may be less susceptible to trauma bonds initially. However, if they do form a trauma bond, they may suppress their emotions and detach themselves to cope with the pain, making it challenging to break free from the bond.
Individuals with a fearful attachment style often have a fear of intimacy and fear of rejection or abandonment. They may experience contradictory desires for closeness and distance. Trauma bonding may occur as a result of their desire for connection conflicting with their fear of rejection, causing them to stay in harmful relationships.
It’s important to note that attachment styles are not fixed or definitive, and individuals can develop a secure attachment style through personal growth and therapeutic interventions. Understanding one’s attachment style can provide insight into the dynamics of trauma bonding and serve as a starting point for healing and forming healthier relationship patterns.
How to break a trauma bond
Breaking a trauma bond is a complex and challenging process, but there are steps that can help.
Recognize the abuse
Acknowledge that the relationship is abusive and understand the manipulation tactics and cycle of abuse.
Reach out to trusted friends, family, or support groups to create a network of emotional support and guidance.
Seek professional help
Work with a therapist experienced in trauma and abuse to receive specialized support and guidance.
Establish a safety plan
Prioritize your safety by creating a plan to leave the abusive situation, secure a safe place to stay, and access necessary resources.
Gradually distance yourself from the abuser and establish clear boundaries to protect yourself.
Prioritize your well-being by engaging in activities you enjoy, practicing mindfulness or relaxation techniques, and taking care of your physical and emotional health.
Learn more about trauma bonding to understand its dynamics and effects, empowering yourself to break free and make informed choices.
Remember, breaking a trauma bond takes time and support. Seek professional guidance for personalized assistance.
Healing from a trauma bond with Charlie Health
There are many mental health treatment options if you are healing from a trauma bond.
At Charlie Health, our team of mental health professionals specialize in and expertly curate trauma-informed virtual therapy programs designed to meet you where you are. Through a combination of supported groups, individual therapy, and family therapy multiple times per week, our virtual intensive outpatient program (IOP) may be the solution if you are healing from a trauma bond.
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