What Is Trauma Bonding?

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Trauma Bonding

Trauma bonding is the attachment an abused person feels for their abuser, specifically in a relationship with a cyclical pattern of abuse.

The bond is created due to a cycle of abuse and positive reinforcement. After each circumstance of abuse, the abuser professes love, regret, and otherwise tries to make the relationship feel safe and needed for the abused person.

Trauma bonding is one reason that leaving an abusive situation can feel confusing and overwhelming. It involves positive and/or loving feelings for an abuser, making the abused person feel attached to and dependent on their abuser.

History of Trauma Bonding

The term trauma bonding was coined by Patrick Carnes, PhD, CAS in 1997. Carnes is a specialist in addiction therapy and the founder of the International Institute for Trauma and Addiction Professionals (IITAP). He shared the theory of trauma bonding in a presentation called "Trauma Bonds, Why People Bond To Those That Hurt Them."

Carnes defined trauma bonding as "dysfunctional attachments that occur in the presence of danger, shame, or exploitation" and considered it one of nine possible reactions to a traumatic situation.

He surmised that trauma bonding occurs due to the way our brains handle trauma and that these ways are based on the manners in which we must adapt when we need to survive. He found the two most important aspects of trauma, how people respond to its severity, and how long it continues.

This concept continues to hold today, with therapy nowadays often focusing on how victims can break trauma bonds and not feel shame or guilt over how they reacted to a potentially life-threatening situation.

Before the term trauma bonding, the only term for emotional attachments in abusive situations was Stockholm syndrome. However, that term did not broadly encompass the many different situations in which bonding can occur or the many different ways it can manifest.

Signs & Symptoms of Trauma Bonding

Because not all abusive situations result in trauma bonding, you may be unsure if this term applies to you.

So, what are signs of trauma bonding? They include the following:

  • An abuse victim covers up or makes excuses to others for an abuser's behavior
  • An abuse victim lies to friends or family about the abuse
  • A victim doesn't feel comfortable with or able to leave the abusive situation
  • An abuse victim thinks the abuse is their fault
  • The abuse follows a cycle (i.e., the abuser tries to make up for an abusive incident)
  • The abuser promises they'll change but they never do
  • The abuser controls the victim (i.e., manipulation or gaslighting)
  • The abuser isolates the victim from friends and family
  • The abuser gets friends and family on their side
  • The victim continues to trust the abuser

Stages of Trauma Bonding

You may have heard of the seven stages of trauma bonding. Though each trauma bond is unique, they often involve a version of the common patterns listed below.

What Are the Seven Stages of Trauma Bonding?

  • Love bombing
  • Gaining trust
  • Criticism
  • Manipulation
  • Resignation
  • Distress
  • Repetition

Love Bombing

Love bombing is when a person overwhelms you with grand displays of affection. They might send you extravagant bouquets of flowers every day for a week, or tell you that they love you early on in the relationship.

Psychologists note that narcissists and sociopaths may engage in love bombing to gain the other person's trust.

Gaining Trust

An abuser may perform specific actions in order to be considered trustworthy. If you doubt their trustworthiness, they may become offended that you would doubt them in the first place.

Criticizing the Victim

An abuser often criticizes the victim to the point where the victim even blames themself. In many cases, the victim comes to believe they deserve the criticism—even when they've done nothing wrong.

Manipulating the Victim

Abusers defend their own behavior by manipulating their victims. When a victim tries to speak out against unfair treatment, the abuser might gaslight them by saying, "You're imagining it," or "You're exaggerating." They may even convince the victim that the abuse is normal and there's nothing wrong with it.

Resignation

Often known as the fawn response to trauma, after repeated incidents of abuse, a victim often resigns to going along with the abusive behavior. They acquiesce to what the abuser wants. The fawn response is often referred to as people-pleasing. However, it's also a coping mechanism for survival.

Psychological Distress

A victim experiences severe psychological distress as a result of abuse; unfortunately, during this stage, they may also experience emotional numbness, feeling as though they've lost who they are, withdrawing from people and activities, and even suicidal ideation.

If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

The Cycle Repeats

Unfortunately, the cycle of abuse is characterized by its repetition. After an abusive incident, an abuser often begins the stages of trauma bonding all over again by love bombing the victim and regaining their trust.

The victim may make excuses for the abuser's behavior. Things may seem like they're returning to "normal," until another incident of abuse occurs.

The cycle of abuse can be broken. Though it may seem impossible at times, many people go on to end abusive relationships and find safety in healthy relationships.

Causes of Trauma Bonding

Trauma bonding can occur in any situation of abuse, no matter how long or short an amount of time it lasts.

That said, it is most likely to happen in a situation where the abuser makes a point of expressing love to the person they are abusing, and where they act as if the abuse will not happen again after each time it does. It's that combination of abuse and positive reinforcement that creates the trauma bond or the feeling of the abused that the abuser isn't all bad.

There are many types of abusive situations in which trauma bonding can occur, and emotional attachments are common in abusive situations.

It's important to note that trauma bonding does not mean bonding with another person over shared traumas; but rather, a bond that a survivor of abuse feels toward the person perpetrating the abuse.

Trauma bonds are nothing to be ashamed of, as they result from our brains looking for survival methods. Also referred to as paradoxical attachment, this phenomenon can occur due to a wide variety of situations. Here are the most common ones:

It may be difficult to understand how someone in such a terrible situation like one of the above could have feelings of love, dependence, or concern for the person or people abusing them. While you may not understand it if you've never been in a situation yourself that involved cyclical abuse, it's pretty straightforward.

The bond forms out of the basic human need for attachment as a means of survival. From there, an abuse victim may become dependent on their abuser. Add in a cycle in which an abuser promises never to repeat the abuse and gains the victim's trust repeatedly, and you have a complex emotional situation that affects even people who seem very emotionally strong.

Risk Factors for Trauma Bonding

The following may make someone more susceptible to trauma bonding in abusive relationships:

  • Attachment insecurity
  • Childhood maltreatment
  • Exposure to abusive relationships growing up
  • Lack of social support
  • Low self-esteem

Impact of Trauma Bonding

The largest and worst impact of trauma bonding is that the positive feelings developed for an abuser can lead a person to stay in an abusive situation. That can lead to continued abuse at best, and death at worst.

Once separated from the abuser, someone who has trauma bonded to theirs may experience everything from continued trauma to low self-esteem. One study noted that the impact on self-esteem continued even six months after the separation from the abuser.

Additionally, the after-effects of trauma bonding can include depression and anxiety. Experiencing trauma bonding may also increase the likelihood of an intergenerational cycle of abuse.

How to Break The Bond

If you have experienced an abusive situation that led to trauma bonding, your priority now is likely to get past the trauma bond so that you can see the situation for what it was and move past it.

If you are out of the situation already, you might not need to do the first step, or you may have done it. Beyond that, all of the remaining steps can be helpful and useful for anyone who has been on the abused side of a trauma bonded relationship.

Plan for Safety

If you are currently in an abusive situation, you should leave it when you have created a safety plan. This involves having somewhere safe to go with support. You don't need to figure it out all on your own. There are many support hotlines available that can help you and that offer 24/7 counseling over the phone or the internet. The National Domestic Violence Support Hotline and Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline are two examples.

If you or a loved one are a victim of domestic violence or abuse, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 for confidential assistance from trained advocates.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Therapy

Therapy is an incredible tool for helping people move past trauma. It can not only help you move through the complex and difficult emotions you're experiencing after leaving an abusive situation, but it can also enable you to make different choices in the future.

It can also help you see warning signs of abuse so that you don't end up in an abusive situation again. There are many different types of therapy, with trauma therapy always being a top choice for people who have experienced trauma such as abuse.

Positive Self-Talk and Care

One significant impact of abusive situations is that they can lower your self-esteem. Being made to be dependent on an abuser, being spoken down to by one, and simply the act of being abused wreaks havoc on a person's self-esteem. Speaking kindly to yourself and doing your best to believe that the abusive situation wasn't your fault are helpful tools to break your bond from your abuser(s).

Additionally, making a point to be kind to yourself through acts of self-care can also facilitate your healing. Putting yourself in situations where your actions are the reason you feel good can reinforce the idea that you don't need someone else to make you feel OK. You have autonomy, and the more you remind yourself of that through loving acts, the easier it will be to feel and believe.

Support and Peer Groups

Therapy is a much-needed tool for recovery, but your experience of trauma bonding might be one where therapy alone isn't enough. In these situations, communing with others who have also gone through something similar can be very helpful. It can help you feel less alone and make you feel less shame for having been abused.

If you don't feel up to a support group, consider sharing what you went through with the people you are close to and whom you trust deeply. There isn't anything to be ashamed of, and the more you hear that, the easier it may be to believe.

Trauma bonding is a human emotional response, not a character flaw, and it can occur within abusive cycles to anyone. Disclosing your experience may provide you with a sense of relief once you see how empathetic those around you are about it.

A Word From Verywell

If you have been in an abusive situation of any sort, you may have experienced trauma bonding. This is nothing to be ashamed of or feel guilt towards. It's a natural response to trauma, and there is help available for you.

Speaking about your trauma bond with a mental health professional, a support group, and even trusted loved ones can help you realize that you are not to blame for your attachment towards your abuser, and that you can heal from it.

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By Ariane Resnick, CNC
Ariane Resnick, CNC is a mental health writer, certified nutritionist, and wellness author who advocates for accessibility and inclusivity.