A relationship therapist breaks down what's really going on when there's trauma bonding in a relationship — and how to get out.
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What Is Trauma Bonding In a Relationship?
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In my opinion, the phrase "trauma bonding" is one of those psychological concepts (such as attachment styles and gaslighting) that has made its way into public consciousness — and has subsequently become misused through casual conversation.

Trauma bonding is an important thing to understand — and use correctly. Here, you'll get to know the common misconceptions, the true meaning of trauma bonding, what trauma bonding looks like, and how to get out of a trauma-bonded relationship.

This isn't necessarily a fun, lighthearted conversation, but it is a necessary one, for sure. Even if you aren't in a trauma-bonded relationship, understanding the signs and language could potentially help someone you love who is. Plus, anytime you learn why people respond or act the way they do, it helps make you an even more empathetic listener and helper — and the world always needs more of those.

What Is Trauma Bonding, Exactly?

Trauma bonding is often misunderstood as a bond between two or more people who experience the same traumatic event — but that isn't what trauma bonding really means.

Trauma bonding is a psychological response to abuse where the abused person forms an unhealthy bond to their abuser. An example of trauma bonding is Stockholm syndrome — when a captive tends to form sympathy or affection for their abuser, which hinders them from seeing the severity of their situation.

Trauma bonding doesn't have a distinct timeline and can develop over days, weeks, months, or even years. It's important to mention that not everyone who experiences abuse will develop a trauma bond, but everyone with a trauma bond has experienced some sort of abuse. Trauma bonding and Stockholm syndrome may begin when an abused person begins to rationalize their perpetrator's actions.

It's important to note that when talking about "abuse," that's any and all kinds of abuse — physical, mental, and emotional. Generally, there will be a combination of multiple types of abuse involved in trauma bonding.

Along with feeling sympathy, it's very common for an abused person to have feelings of attachment and dependence toward their abuser — which also tends to lead to continued patterns of abuse and a sense of responsibility for the actions of their abuser.

Trauma bonding is an extremely unhealthy attachment formed between two people (sometimes more people are involved, if it's a parent or guardian situation) when one person is doing the abuse, and one person is being abused. In short, it's a vicious, confusing cycle to be in and can feel like a mind-fuck for the person who is being abused. (Related: What Is Intergenerational Trauma, and How Can You Heal from It?)

"These attachments cause the [person] to distrust their own judgment, to distort their own realities so much, [they] can place themselves at more risk," writes Patrick Carnes, Ph.D., founder of the International Institute for Trauma and Addiction Professionals, who first coined the phrase "trauma bonding," in his course titled Trauma Bonds.

How Does Trauma Bonding Happen?

Your brain is always trying to protect you, even if it means tricking you into feeling safe in an unsafe situation as means for survival.

Carnes defined "trauma bonding" as "dysfunctional attachments that occur in the presence of danger, shame, or exploitation" and considers it one of nine possible reactions to a traumatic situation. "When people are profoundly frightened, trauma creates a biological alteration of the brain," he writes in his Trauma Bonds course. And when this fear goes away, so do all the neurochemicals associated with it. Then, "the person experiences cravings. They can become attached to trauma." In the event of long-lasting trauma, the person actually becomes accustomed to it.

In relationships where there's trauma bonding, it's likely that the person being abused keeps themself "small" to feel safe — they appease, are obedient, and remain in the relationship because they have deemed it a "normal relationship." (Also read: The Potential Red Flags In a Relationship You Need to Know About)

For example, children form attachments to their caregivers because they need someone to depend on to survive, while adults form attachments to other people who provide them comfort and support. Suppose a child's caregiver growing up was abusive. In that case, because of trauma bonding, the child will likely associate love with abuse — resulting in romantic relationships later that mirror the caregiver relationships of their upbringing. Because of this, it's hard for the person who grew up abused to see their caregiver or partner as "bad" because this is the only form of "love" they know.

This sort of trauma bonding also generally causes the child to take the blame for the way they are being treated — their sense of self is never fully developed because the love they receive from their caregiver or partner most likely has to be earned or only happens after they were abused. This vicious cycle causes the abused to feel that their caregiver or partner is actually "good," but they are the reason for the abuser's actions.

It's also common that after causing harm, an abusive person may promise to change or to "make up" for their behavior. This can sometimes be portrayed in lavish gift-giving, romantic gestures, or other intense attention that makes the abused person feel loved. This behavior gives the person being abused hope that someday their relationship will look like this forever — and it's that hope that reinforces the trauma bond — especially when the person has become accustomed to poor treatment. (Related: How to Know If You Might Be In a Narcissistic Relationship)

What Can Trauma Bonding Look Like IRL?

There are many different kinds of potential trauma abuse relationships, such as domestic abuse, child abuse, incest, kidnapping, exploitative employment, cults, codependent relationships — really any type of relationship where one person can dominate the other. (Also see: 7 Signs That You Might Be In a Toxic Relationship)

If trauma bonding is at play and someone has bonded with their abuser, they will likely try to justify or defend the abuse. This could manifest in various ways, including:

  • Trying to cover for the abusive person
  • Distancing themselves from people in their lives who are trying to help them
  • Making excuses for their abuser as to why their abusive actions are valid
  • Feeling reluctant to take steps that get them out of the relationship and situation
  • Agreeing with the abusive person's reasoning for treating them poorly

This can sound like:

  • "They didn't mean to hurt me; they were just having a bad day."
  • "It really is my fault — I made them angry."
  • "They only respond like that because they love me so much — you wouldn't understand."
  • "They are just very stressed right now — it will get better later."

It's important to note that even if someone is able to leave a relationship where there's trauma bonding, these feelings of protecting their abuser don't just go away. Likely, the person who was abused will still feel a powerful sense of loyalty to their abuser and feel tempted to return at times. This may be confusing from an outsider's perspective — but this is where it's essential to be empathetic and gentle.

If someone is has experienced trauma bonding in their relationship, it's likely that their trauma has begun to feel safe — even though it obviously isn't. Someone who has been abused starts to believe that this is what true love looks like, and healthy love can feel overwhelming, offputting, or scary. (Related: Why You Might Feel 'Stuck' In a Relationship — and How to Know When to End It)

How Do You Leave a Relationship Where Trauma Bonding Is Present?

Leaving a trauma-bonded relationship can not only feel scary for the person who was being abused, but it can also be truly unsafe for them to go. Leaving certain abusive situations can take a lot of careful planning, so when the person leaves, they are set up for a successful "escape" and have the tools available that they may need.

People fleeing abusive relationships or relationships that involve trauma bonding might need help financially, with housing, to find work or an income, to make plans for leaving (and staying safe after leaving), or even with compiling a list of names and contact details of safe people they can approach for help.

Once the person has found safety, it's imperative to start psychotherapy (of any kind) and even consider joining a support group for survivors of domestic violence or other types of abuse. Trauma that impacts someone's mental well-being can feel like untangling a ball of yarn — it's messy, it likely doesn't make much sense, it's frustrating, and it can't be unraveled without support. Most of the time, people recovering from abuse are under the impression that they are always the problem — this means they need even more reassurance and guidance to safely cope with the trauma they experienced. (Also read: 5 Steps to Working Through Trauma, According to a Therapist Who Works with First Responders)

If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship or may be experiencing trauma bonding, learn more about it (you're working on that right now) reach out to a therapist who specializes in helping folks who have been in abusive relationships of all kinds. Almost all therapists have training in working with survivors of abuse, but some will have that be their specialty and have deep training in many unique methods to support you and your healing.

Ideally, you should only leave a trauma-bonded relationship once you've created a safety plan. A safety plan involves having somewhere safe to go with support. There are a lot of support hotlines available that can help you and that offer 24/7 counseling over the phone or the internet, such as The National Domestic Violence Support Hotline. Remember: You're not alone and don't need to figure it out all on your own.