How To Tell if You’re in a Trauma Bonding Relationship—And What To Do About It

Photo: Getty Images/Cavan Images
Once upon a time, I was in what you might call a hot-and-cold relationship. It instantly felt emotionally intense. From the start, we spent almost every night together, and I stopped seeing friends to the extent that I even ended some friendships because the relationship was so consuming. But after that initial period of naive-but-happy codependency, he became distant and even abusive. I would wake up to the toxicity and danger of this situation, trying to muster up the courage to leave, but then he would pull me back in, telling me that he didn’t deserve me and promising to be different. What we had was a trauma bonding relationship—and it’s a lot more common than you might think.

Experts In This Article

What is a trauma bonding relationship?

A trauma bonding relationship is reflective of an attachment created by repeated physical or emotional trauma with intermittent positive reinforcement, according to licensed psychologist Liz Powell, PsyD. Put simply, in a relationship with trauma bonding, there’s "a lot of really terrible stuff happening and then occasionally really great stuff happening," they say.

"[Trauma bonding] specifically refers to the emotional bonds that are created between a victim and perpetrator following ongoing, cyclical patterns of abuse."—Carla Marie Manly, PhD, clinical psychologist

It's important to note that trauma bonding has a specific definition that's often mistaken; it does not mean undergoing something difficult with a friend or partner and feeling bonded as a result. Instead, it describes a close relationship that forms when one person utilizes abusive behavior to trap another person, who then feels inexplicably bonded to the first.

Clinical psychologist Carla Marie Manly, PhD, author of Joy from Fear, says that trauma bonding specifically refers to the "emotional bonds that are created between a victim and perpetrator following ongoing, cyclical patterns of abuse." These relationships continue through a pattern of rewards and punishments that are meant to draw the victim in and keep them under the abuser's power. "When the victim is rewarded at times and punished at other times—a pattern called intermittent reinforcement—the victim can become deeply attached to the abuser in ways that defy rationality," she says.

Where does trauma bonding occur?

Trauma bonding doesn't only happen in romantic relationships, though this is a common place for it to occur. You can see trauma bonding signs in dynamics that include:

  • Fraternity hazing
  • Military training
  • Kidnapping
  • Child abuse
  • Political torture
  • Cults
  • Prisoners of war

“In cases of domestic violence or abuse, a lot of people have difficulty leaving abusers because they have a strong connection to them that is able to keep them there even when things are very bad,” Dr. Powell says. “Within military training [or other group-centric situations], you're placed in these stressful situations as a way for you to bond with your fellow service members so that you can trust people whom you don't know anything at all about in a life-or-death situation.”

What are the stages of trauma bonding?

1. Positive connection

Using a romantic relationship as the example here, trauma bonding typically begins like any other relationship might—with a happy honeymoon phase. Dr. Manly says that at this stage, the soon-to-be abuser will draw someone in using their kindness, charisma, and appeal to form the bond.

2. Initiation of abuse

This is when the power imbalance of the trauma bond is established. "As the relationship solidifies, the [initiating] partner will slowly 'switch' roles and become the abuser," says Dr. Manly, wielding any number of manipulative tactics—physical, emotional, or psychological—against their partner.

This sudden shift in behavior is often surprising and hurtful for the person on the receiving end. "The victim will often become fearful, upset, and confused about the personality change from 'loving partner' to 'abusive partner,'" says Dr. Manly.

3. Reward from the abuser

To counteract and assuage the abused person's doubts and fears, the abuser will then offer some version of a "reward" to their victim, says Dr. Manly. This could look like sex, gifts, increased attention, loving words, or any other behavior to draw the abused person back in and make them feel as if they must stay in the relationship.

As a result of this reward, "the partner who is abused often questions their reality and feels grateful to the abuser," says Dr. Manly. At this point, the relationship can settle back into a version of "normalcy" or return to a honeymoon-like phase similar to the initial stage of the partnership. In turn, the abused person may feel even more connected to their abuser.

4. Heightened abuse followed by heightened reward

The cycle repeats, often with an increased level and frequency of abuse followed by additional intermittent rewards designed to keep the abused person from leaving the relationship. With each reward, the victim may feel that much more grateful toward their abusive partner for staying with them, despite the continued abuse.

Over time, the rewards may become less and less frequent, says Dr. Manly, often leaving the abused person feeling increasingly ashamed as they remain feeling trapped in the partnership. They may continue to cling onto sparse, intermittent rewards as reasons to stay in the relationship and could feel an inexplicable gratitude for their abuser, even as this person becomes more abusive.

Why does trauma bonding happen?

Trauma bonding relationships take shape due to the body's natural stress response. When you become stressed, your sympathetic nervous system is activated along with your limbic system, or the part of the brain that regulates emotions and motivated behaviors like hunger and sexuality. This activation is commonly known as the “fight or flight” stress response.

“When that sympathetic activation is in control, the parts of our brain that do things like long-term planning and risk analysis in our prefrontal cortex are shut off,” Dr. Powell says. “They're not able to be as effective because our brain is focused on just getting us through this trauma.”

This helps to explain why it is so easy to become attached to anything that helps you get through a traumatic event: Your brain associates that thing or person with safety. So, when an abusive person decides to comfort you or apologize—even for a trauma they, themselves, put you through—your brain latches on to the positive reinforcement instead of thinking through the long-term effects of staying with the abuser.

“There is a strong hormonal connection between the abuser and the victim. The feeling is that you need the other person in order to survive.” —Jimanekia Eborn, trauma-informed sex educator

Cycles of abuse and manipulation can also result in a chemical bond between the abuser and the victim, says trauma-informed sex educator Jimanekia Eborn. Hormones bond people in relationships, but in abusive unions, these chemicals aren’t properly regulated. The brain can become so overexposed to some of these hormones—like oxytocin, the cuddle hormone, and dopamine, the feel-good hormone associated with cravings and motivation—that it actually becomes chemically dependent on them. As a result, even when someone treats you poorly time after time, your brain won’t want to leave them because it felt so wonderful when they were nice to you.

“There is an intense connection due to the fact that there is a strong hormonal connection between the abuser and the victim,” Eborn says. “The feeling is that you need the other person in order to survive.”

What are signs of trauma bonding?

What's key to understand about a trauma bonding relationship is that it can't be healthy because it is not equal. “Oftentimes, when folks are trauma bonding, it may look and feel safe for some,” says Eborn. “But there is a lot of inconsistency within the relationship, and it can be extremely dysfunctional, as there is always a form of manipulation involved.”

It also bears mentioning that while trauma bonds always feel very intense, all intense relationships aren't trauma bonding relationships or necessarily unhealthy. Here are a few signs that a relationship is indeed a trauma bond:

  • The relationship is moving at a very accelerated pace
  • You feel very close to your partner even though you haven’t known each other for very long
  • You make huge life changes for a relatively new relationship
  • You put time and effort into the romantic relationship at the cost of friendships, family, and other relationships
  • You have an extreme fear of leaving the relationship
  • You feel like they’re the only one who can actually fulfill your needs

How can you tell if you're in love or trauma bonded?

Trauma bonds may look, at some points, like love, but Dr. Manly says that there is no overlap. Part of trauma bonding is the rewards phase, which may involve the abuser showing someone affection and attention in a way that could be mistaken for love—but these actions are done explicitly to perpetuate a cycle of abuse and don't come from a place of care or desire to genuinely connect.

"Although loving relationships are inherently imperfect, healthy partnerships will never involve a cycle of abuse," says Dr. Manly. "If you are in a relationship that involves abuse—whether physically, emotionally, financially, sexually, spiritually or in any other way—genuine love is not in play."

"Although loving relationships are inherently imperfect, healthy partnerships will never involve a cycle of abuse."—Dr. Manly

How the pandemic made trauma bonding more common

The pandemic itself caused a form of collective trauma, Dr. Powell says, because at the start, there was a very real threat of death or long-term disability from just leaving your house. To survive this threat, we isolated without seeing friends or family for weeks or months at a time, but since, as they say, “that is not how humans are designed to operate,” the dynamic allowed for trauma bonding relationships to crop up easily.

For those looking for a partner, when they found a connection, the relationship may have become serious very quickly, in part because the easiest and safest way to see someone during the pandemic was to live with them. “When we're in a trauma state, we're profoundly vulnerable,” Dr. Powell says. And in the case of developing new relationships during this time, we might not have instated the kind of boundaries that we usually would when we first start dating someone.

For some people, the accelerated pace of certain pandemic relationships—or turbo relationships—may have resulted in missing red flags or manipulative behaviors, and then, once toxic or abusive behavior unfolded, they may not have reacted like they usually would. “Due to the pandemic and folks feeling more isolated overall, there... has been an increase in abuse within relationships,” Eborn says.

How do you break a trauma bond?

Once you discover that a relationship you're in is actually a trauma bonding relationship, leaving it is often no small task. It can “feel like pieces of you are being ripped out in hugely violent ways,” Dr. Powell says. “Trauma bonding can cause us to question our own reality or to trust someone else's reality more than our own,” she adds. “So, coming out of it often is a process of rediscovering who you are and what reality is for you, and figuring out how to trust that for yourself.”

In turn, to be free of any trauma bond requires ample support. "On a neurobiological level, trauma becomes deeply hardwired in the brain and the body, so changing abusive patterns is often difficult, but it surely can be done," says Dr. Manly.

Dr. Manly says psychologists and therapists trained in trauma and relationships often play a key role in helping people break free of trauma bonding relationships. "Domestic violence support groups can also be incredibly beneficial as people from all walks of life wake up to find themselves in the midst of a trauma bonding relationship," she says.

Because the effects of an abusive relationship can linger, in the wake of a trauma bond, you may also experience post traumatic relationship syndrome (PTRS), or adopt the habit of fawning, or over-explaining trauma as a defense mechanism to please others. Studies have also shown that trauma and abuse can have negative effects both emotionally and physically; you could even be holding onto trauma throughout the body or particularly in your hips.

How to find support for leaving a trauma bonding relationship

When healing from trauma, it’s important to surround yourself with a strong support system. Some examples include:

  • Trusted friends and family: Relationship therapist Rachel Wright, LMFT, says to surround yourself with people you’re comfortable opening up to and being vulnerable with. By doing so, you’ll have a strong support system as you navigate the trauma bonding vs. love realization and healing process as a whole. Keep in mind, though, that family members often aren't equipped to provide all the support you need (but can bolster you through your recovery).
  • Support groups: Some people benefit greatly from being surrounded by people who have experienced the same forms of trauma as they have. With that in mind, Wright suggests joining a support group for survivors of domestic violence or other types of abuse. Additionally, she says that finding a mentor or sponsor within the group can enhance the healing process.
  • Therapist: While it may feel more comfortable to talk to a trusted friend or family member, Wright recommends seeking professional help when dealing with trauma bonding. “For some, it’s actually easier to open up about this type of topic with someone they know is a professional and can help them.” Not ready to visit a therapist in person? Online therapy services can make getting help more accessible and less intimidating.
  • Psychiatrist: In some cases, trauma bonding can create such an unharmonious aftermath that mental-health medication may be necessary to overcome the trauma. As such, Wright suggests meeting with a psychiatrist if other support systems don’t seem to be helping, or even to be assessed at the start of your healing journey.

If you are experiencing or have experienced domestic violence and are in need of support, please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or TTY 1-800-787-3224. You can also text "START" to 88788.

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