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Understanding Trauma Bonding: Breaking Free and Healing

“Many survivors have such profound deficiencies in self-protection that they can barely imagine themselves in a position of agency or choice.”

– Judith Lewis Herman

Understanding Trauma Bonding: Breaking Free and Healing

In relationships, the emotional connections we form can be powerful and profound. However, not all connections are healthy, and some can become deeply entangled with trauma. Trauma bonding refers to a strong emotional attachment that forms when a person who is being abused develops a deep attachment to their abuser. It develops when intense emotions, such as fear, pain, and confusion, become intertwined with feelings of love, loyalty, and dependence.

What Do Trauma Bonding and Abusive Relationships Look Like?

Trauma bonding can occur in various situations, such as domestic violence, incest, cults, or abusive romantic relationships. The bond is reinforced through inconsistent positive and negative experiences, where occasional moments of love, tenderness, or kindness are interspersed with periods of abuse, manipulation, or neglect. This rollercoaster of emotions creates a heightened emotional dependence on the abuser.

A typical cycle of trauma bonding plays out as follows:

  • The abuser draws the victim to them through words of affirmation, gifts and affection.
  • Abusive behaviours begin to develop, such as intimidation, coercion, ridiculing, harassment, isolation from community, use of silence to control behaviour, and yelling or swearing. 
  • The victim experiences confusion as they struggle to know if this version of their abuser is the real them, or the one who is loving and kind. Often they will believe that the loving, kind version is the authentic one and will make excuses for abusive behaviours.
  • The abuser will intermittently show love and kindness, leaving the victim believing that things have returned to normal and the abuse is over.

One particular type of trauma bonding is known as Stockholm Syndrome, which refers specifically to a psychological response where hostages develop a positive bond with their captors. This stems from a combination of fear, perceived kindness, and a need to survive with the victim believing that cooperation and attachment will increase their chances of survival.

Why Trauma Bonding Persists

The psychological reasons for the continuation of a trauma bond can be complex. In cases where a minor is involved and the abuser is a caregiver, the reasons for the bond are clear; the minor is dependent on the adult for their survival. It may be many years before a child understands that the abuse they have been enduring is wrong.

In other types of relationships, many victims fear for their safety. The abuser often threatens the victim, making them believe that leaving the relationship would result in even greater harm or danger. This fear can be reinforced by physical violence and emotional manipulation.

Prolonged abuse can also significantly erode a person’s self-esteem and self-worth, keeping them trapped in the relationship. The victim may start to believe the negative messages and criticism from the abuser, feeling undeserving of love, respect, or a better relationship. They may believe they are incapable of finding someone else and fear being alone.

Over time, the victim may come to believe that they have no control over their circumstances. The abuser’s constant belittling, criticism, and control can lead to a state of learned helplessness, where they feel powerless and unable to change their situation.

Ultimately it is the cognitive dissonance—the psychological discomfort that arises from holding contradictory beliefs or feelings—that keeps a victim willingly held in a trauma bonding relationship. The victim simultaneously holds negative feelings about the abuser as well as positive feelings due to intermittent reinforcement or moments of kindness and love. This conflict and power imbalance create confusion and make it challenging to leave the relationship.

Breaking a Trauma Bond and the Cycle of Abuse

Awareness is the first step in breaking free of a trauma bond. Most people who are in an abusive relationship have some awareness that the relationship doesn’t look or feel like other relationships they have seen or experienced. Learning about abusive behaviours and recognizing the signs of abuse and trauma bonding is the first step in breaking free.

Once the victim is aware that their circumstances are unhealthy, reaching out for support from others is key. This is the time to seek professional help or confide in a trusted friend to gain clarity and support. Establishing safe connections with friends, family members, support groups, or therapists provides the abused with a network of support and validation, helping to break the isolation created by the trauma bond.

Which Mental Health Professional Can Address a Trauma Bond?

It’s important to seek out therapists who are experienced in trauma as they can offer valuable insights, coping strategies, and emotional support to help victims through the recovery process.

Trauma-focused therapies such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), Internal Family Systems (IFS) or Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) are all helpful therapies in healing a trauma bond and developing healthier relationship patterns.

Finally, it’s important to understand that trauma bonding is not a conscious choice or a sign of weakness on the part of the abused person. It is a complex psychological response that can develop as a survival mechanism in traumatic situations where psychological abuse occurs.

Have you been the victim of trauma bonding by an abusive person? Reach out to one of our experienced counsellors today for professional support with your mental health issues. Overcoming trauma bonds is possible with the right help.