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Maybe, It's NOT Love - Learn More About Trauma Bonding

Starting to question the intention of your loved one's aggression? Or are you having a hard time leaving an abusive relationship? Let’s explore trauma bonding and all the facets of this relationship dynamic. We hope you will find some answers to these important questions.


Image by Oscar Keys
Image by Oscar Keys

Table of Contents:


Professionals and laypeople, both, question why a woman or a man being abused in their relationship, does not leave them to prevent being abused in the future.


This is because the tie that ties the abuser and their victim is an incredibly complex form of psychological warfare. And regardless of how serious the abuse is, leaving the abuser is not as easy as just walking out the door.


This tie is trauma bonding.



What is a Trauma Bonding?


In its most basic sense, trauma bonding is the development of an attachment between the abused individual and their abuser.


A trauma bond means when the victim of abuse starts to feel affection or sympathy for the abuser, strengthened by cycles of abuse and remorse. It could take days, weeks, or months for this bond to develop. And, not every victim of abuse forms a trauma bond.


To understand better, we’ll gently go through the various aspects of this relationship dynamic.

 


Factors Causing a Trauma Bond Between Individuals


Attachment and dependency are the two main factors behind trauma bonding. The cycle of abuse increases attachment and dependency, which intensifies the bond and the abuse.


1. Attachment


Humans develop attachments to survive. When someone’s primary source of love, comfort and support is also their abuser, a trauma bond forms. The victim continues to seek solace from the abuser, for the abuse, the perpetrator caused.


2. Dependence


As a child relies on their parents for food and shelter, a wife may rely on her husband to take care of her physical needs. On a much less serious scale, an employee is dependent on their employer for work just as a PhD student is dependent on their guide for their research completion.


When abuse happens in exchange for love, sustenance and other basic needs; to survive, the victim may come to learn to be okay with abuse.


3. Cycle of Abuse


Most of the time, an abusive individual will express regret after harming. This kindness elates the heart of the victim and fills it with hope.


It makes them see that the abuser is a good and gentle human being, who also takes care of them. Unfortunately, these good feelings don’t last long, but as we will see, their emotional imprint does.

 


Why Does the Victim Keep Coming Back to the Abuser?


To understand why the victim keeps going back to the abuser, let’s understand what goes on behind the scenes of trauma bonding.

Trauma bonding follows a repetitive cyclical nature of abuse:


Phase 1: Increasing Tension


The abuser and victim have a conflict for days or weeks, ranging from anything moderate to severe. Eventually, the offender gets tired and blows up, doing something that threatens the safety of the victim.


Phase 2: The Abusive Event


The victim experiences "dissociation coupled with a sense of disbelief that the incident is really happening" as soon as the abusive attack takes place. Subsequently, causing an emotional breakdown, followed by confusion and emotions of helplessness, melancholy, inaction, and self-blame.


Following the attack, these emotions typically leave the sufferer extremely dependent and vulnerable. When the abuser witnesses this breakdown, remorse and regret set in.


Phase 3: Remorse


At this point, the abuser tries to employ tender treatment to "make amends." In this stage, the abuser drastically changes the power balance between them by putting themselves at the victim's mercy. Promising, changed behaviour.


And the moment when the Trauma bond happens:

Seeing this remorse and apologetic behaviour, gives the victim a temporary reinstatement of power, faith and love. The victim, from their state of desperation and vulnerability, begins to see the abuser as someone who just saved them in their moment of darkness. The Saviour, who was kind enough to attempt to bring them to light.


With renewed hopes for life, love and safety, the victim goes from weeks of feeling lonely, frightened, angry and hurt to becoming happy, loving and confident.


Therefore, essentially, in a trauma bond, the person has an emotional attachment to the offender that is maintained through strong emotional rewards and harsh threatening penalties meant to keep the person under control. This dynamic leaves a profound imprint of highs and lows on the victim’s psyche.


What can I do and what could I say?



Relational Environments Ideal for Trauma Bonding

Image by Savannah Bolton
Image by Savannah Bolton

Relationship settings that foster trauma bonding are extremely common and frequently unnoticed by frameworks of society, culture, and spirituality. Examples are:

  • Child abuse

  • Elder abuse

  • Domestic violence

  • Incest

  • Dysfunctional relationships

  • Workplace exploitation

  • Substance abuse, gambling and sex addictions

  • Prostitution

  • Labor and sex trafficking

  • Kidnapping and hostage holding

  • Religious extremism or cults


Trauma bonding can happen in any circumstance where someone is abusing or taking advantage of another. In order for a trauma bond to form, the victim must:

  • Perceive real threat and danger from their abuser;

  • Endure severe treatment interspersed with moments of tenderness;

  • Be cut off from other people and their viewpoints;

  • Think that they can’t leave.


The perpetrators appear to be kind, caring, and committed, but they are also subtly deceptive, domineering, and emotionally abusive. It is necessary to know how to break a trauma bond with a narcissist.


Additionally, the victim's trauma bonding is also frequently caused by two main factors:

  • Wanting to be loved.

  • Unhealthy concept of love, based on traumatic early experiences, involving both emotional and physical abuse.

Factors Allowing Trauma Bonding to Perpetuate


Some factors that encourage this dynamic are:


1. Abusive Childhood


Trauma bonding frequently has its origins in childhood events characterized by maltreatment and neglect. People who were raised in violent environments may internalize violence as a commonplace feature of relationships, causing harm to continue generation after generation. Seeing violence against one's parents may leave a lasting impression on a person's perception of power, control, and intimacy, which can influence how that person interacts with others as an adult. Moreover, victims of maltreatment as children could unintentionally go for partners who repeat abusive tendencies, thereby continuing the trauma bonding cycle.


2. Psychological State


Individuals who have experienced trauma are often marked by a deep sense of powerlessness and acceptance of their situation. Long-term abuse can weaken a victim's sense of agency, autonomy, and self-worth, trapping them in a never-ending cycle of victimization. The behavioral psychology term for this phenomenon is "learned helplessness," which refers to a state in which people accept unfavorable circumstances passively because they feel powerless over their surroundings. Because victims may believe that leaving the abuse would be impossible or pointless, this psychological condition strengthens the victim-abuser link.


3. Self-Blame


The subtle but persistent element of self-blame, in which victims take ownership of the harm they have endured, is essential to the continuation of trauma bonding. This self-reproach is frequently the result of the abuser instilling remorse, inadequacy, or deep-seated feelings of unworthiness. Victims can justify the abuser's actions by attributing it to their failings, which exacerbates feelings of helplessness and surrender. This self-blame is reinforced by the cyclical nature of abuse, which leads to a vicious cycle of emotional suffering where victims believe they are undeserving of sympathy or support.


4. Unrealistic Expectations


Relationships linked by trauma are illustrated by an underlying dysfunction that is fostered by false expectations and ongoing conflict. Unrealistic expectations of love, approval, and fulfillment may be held by both partners, which would feed a never-ending cycle of dissatisfaction and bitterness. When people can't live up to one other's impossible expectations, there's constant strife, disagreements get worse, and complaints go unanswered. Trauma-bonded people may continue to try to save the connection even if it is pointless, holding on to the unfulfilled expectation that they would be accepted and validated.



Effects of Trauma Bonding on The Victim


Depending on the severity and length of the trauma that was experienced, as well as the victim's subjective perception of the trauma.


Frequent symptoms could be:

  • Adjustment Disorders: Panic attacks, PTSD, obsessive-compulsive disorders, anxiety disorders, and stress disorders.

  • Psychotic illnesses, dissociative disorders, personality disorders, and depression disorders.

  • Substance Use Disorders

  • Interpersonal and emotional Dysfunction


Some commonly observed symptoms may be:


  • Increased Physical Health Risk:

Trauma bonding has a significant physical cost, increasing a person's chance of developing several health issues. Sexually transmitted infections (STDs), anal and vaginal tears, pelvic discomfort, rectal injuries, and urinary tract infections (UTIs) are a few examples of these. In addition, people could experience difficulties with urinating, infertility, irregular menstruation, and self-inflicted wounds including burns, broken bones, and scarring. The combined effect of these physical conditions may lead to a decline in general health and functional disability.


  • Increased Mental Health Risk:

Trauma bonding can have serious psychological repercussions for the person involved, including a higher likelihood of suicide thoughts and behaviors, depressing moods, and low self-esteem. Furthermore, trauma bonding can weaken a person's sense of identity or self-concept, which can impair their capacity for problem-solving and their enjoyment of life. These mental health hazards have the potential to seriously impair a person's ability to achieve personal objectives, interact with others, and take part in meaningful activities.


  • Increased Spiritual Health Risk

In addition to causing existential crises and spiritual pain, trauma bonding can make people doubt their religious convictions and conception of the divine. Feelings of alienation and existential distress might be exacerbated by doubts about the existence or goodness of a higher power. The decline in spiritual well-being can exacerbate a person's feeling of loneliness and alienation from meaningful and supportive relationships.

 


How to Identify a Trauma Bond?


Abuse can escalate over time — if someone exhibits even a few signs of abusive behavior at the beginning of a relationship, it is important to be aware and catch it. Let’s see how the victim and abuser generally act in a trauma bond:

The Victim may

The Abuser may

Try to defend or explain the abuse

Abuse and rage

Hide or justify the actions of an abuser to others

Show convincing remorse and guilt


Tell lies to loved ones about the maltreatment

Posing a good image in front of friends and family to win their support

Argue with or avoid interacting with friends, family, or neighbours who are attempting to be of assistance

Giving an ultimatum or isolating the victim

Believe they are to blame for the abuse

Manipulate and/or gaslight the victim

Still have faith in the abuser

Exerts control over the victim

Believe they are the hero to change the behaviour of the abuser

Vow to change even when they do not mean to

Helpful questions to ask oneself are:

  • Is there a power imbalance?

  • Does one party execute more power over the other party?

  • Is there an underlying intermittent good-bad treatment? Respect-disrespect, hate-love, abuse-cuddles.

  • Are they hurting you, just to save you from the hurt they caused in the first place?

  • Were you generally a more secure person and now you are losing self-esteem?

  • Are you being told that something nice that brings you joy is not right for you?

  • Are you being isolated?

  • Can you discuss issues in your relationship with someone you completely trust?

  • Are you frightened of this person?


Recognizing these signs and answering these questions honestly, can be the start of one’s journey to awareness on how to fix trauma bonding.


If you fear 2 or more questions are answered with a "possibility or tendency". We urgently suggest you talk to someone.


Dynamics of Trauma Bonding


image by Kristina Flour
Image by Kristina Flour

There are two very important aspects of a trauma bonding relationship: Power imbalance and the intermittent good-bad treatment


  • Power Imbalance


When there is a significant power disparity, those with less influence will adopt the aggressor’ supposed perspective of themselves, of being less capable, either internalize aggression or aim it onto other people who are similar to them. Soon, weakening their stance.


The individual in a position of greater authority thus grows to have an overly broad perception of their own power. This will conceal their own reliance on the low-power individual (in order to feel powerful), which is revealed when this power dynamic is disturbed.

An example of this is; desperate attempts to exert control over the life of a low-power individual, such as through monitoring, intimidation, or the withholding of resources and positive reinforcement.


Therefore, during this process, the two groups fuse to uphold the psychological subsystem that partially satisfies the wants generated by the less powerful person.


  • Periodicity of abuse


The maltreatment happens sporadically. Threats, verbal, and/or physical abuse are some of the ways that the aggressor mistreats the victim. This is interspersed with more acceptable social behaviour between abusive episodes.


As a result, the victim experiences both pleasant and unpleasant situations alternately, which creates ingrained behavioural patterns and powerful emotional bonding effects, seen in both people and animals.

 


How to Break a Trauma Bond?


It is possible to break free from the trauma bond, even if it may be challenging and require both patience and time. Awareness and self-care are key. To know how to overcome trauma bonding, here are a few things you may want to consider doing:


1.  Express Your Needs and Boundaries


To express your requirements in relationships with clarity and assertiveness, it's critical to understand how to set solid boundaries in all of your interactions. When someone crosses a line you've set for self-defence, becomes enraged and attacks, or makes threats to leave, it may be a sign of something more serious.


2.  Identify the Abuse


If the abuser doesn't stop, doesn't listen to your concerns, and doesn’t take any action to get help, keep that in mind. Don’t focus on what they say about the future.


3.  Step Back and Disengage


Retraction and disengagement can be beneficial for you in the long run to assist lessen the intense feelings brought on by a trauma bond.

Second, if you find yourself trying to comfort them in this circumstance. This could indicate that you are in a trauma bond or dependent relationship.


4.  Accept Your Role in the Trauma Bond


Be honest with yourself about your dependence on your abuser. Become aware of how you ignore your emotions in order to settle disputes and please your partner. Then, instead of trying to escape or evade your emotions, make an effort to recognise them as they are.


5.  Validate Yourself


It's crucial to approve your emotions as soon as you've recognised them. The most crucial strategy for validating your feelings is to cultivate constructive self-talk.

The best method to validate yourself is to speak to yourself with love and support, just like you would to someone you truly care about. You must make sure that you are on your own side.


6.  Locate Available Resources


To help you get out of the toxic relationship and into safety, make connections with dependable friends and family. Victims can also get access to legal support, therapy, childcare, healthcare, job support, educational services, and financial aid through a number of shelters and organisations.


7.  Speak with a Therapist


It can be immensely empowering to have a secure environment in which to examine relationship problems and determine their underlying causes. Finding the underlying source of a problem or emotion is the first step in healing and letting go of a trauma link.


8.  Allow Yourself Patience and Grace


As you start the process of moving on, give yourself some grace and patience in the moments you are feeling overwhelmed or if you are having trouble putting yourself first.

You'll feel more in control if you keep your attention on your well-being and the things you can influence. If you follow these steps, you will soon find yourself on the path to independence and good health.


Recovery is a gradual process and there is no wisdom in trying to rush it. Allow yourself time to grieve and process these emotions. It will help you get perspective and gain your strength back. As you recover and heal, connect with your loved ones, seek to talk to a therapist, spend time outdoors, get a hobby, and try to find what brings you joy.

And remember, you are never alone. We all are battling our demons. Therefore, in that, we are all together.



Image by Thought Catalog
Image by Thought Catalog

Breaking out of trauma bonding properly, takes time, patience and lots of support. Support can come in the form of knowledge and understanding, as well as via talking to your loved ones, seeing a therapist, and working with them.


To recognise the warning signals and emphasise that abusive and toxic relationships are unhealthy, it is advisable to educate oneself on these topics. Learn about what healthy love is, and what healthy relationships look like. Give yourself time to heal and recover, this may take some time but is worth it, in the end.


Remember that it is important for you to make sure you are on your side.

If you have developed or recognised a trauma bond around you, help is available. You can reach out to us at Project C Foundation, where many have found safety, support and guidance.

 


FAQs

 

How does one feel in a strong and secure relationship?  What limits do they have?

In general, secure relationships are linked to less stress, more comfort, and improved ability to negotiate differences and solve problems. Secure and stable relationships are characterised by commitment and support along with seldom outward displays of anger.

 

What occurs when an individual separates from a trauma bond?

After escaping this pattern of relationships, the victim will go through stages of denial, fear, rage, hurt, and acceptance.

 

How does self-blame and learned helplessness sustain trauma bonding?

A victim loses motivation to alter an undesirable environment or scenario when they discover that they have no control over it, leading them to believe that it is a way of life. This is learned helplessness.


In addition, the abuser's self-esteem is further damaged, which exacerbates feelings of hopelessness and melancholy, as they internalise the responsibility for the abuse (e.g., accusing themselves of being a bad husband, partner, sibling, or kid).


Subsequently, the victim experiences self-blame each time the abuser becomes enraged, further trapping them in a state of hopelessness, melancholy, and darkness.

 

Is a young girl who grew up witnessing domestic violence more likely to engage in violent relationships as an adult?

A little girl who is going through the typical stages of developing into a woman begins to identify with her mother as a target of violence. They might start to believe that they are helpless, the object of mockery, and that they do not influence their destiny in this world.

They are consequently unlikely to leave their abusive spouses and, even if they do, are likely to end up in a relationship that is similar to the one that their parents modelled because deep down they don't think they deserve better or that they can survive on their own in this world.

 

What effects does child maltreatment have on a child as they become older?

Childhood maltreatment and neglect are typically associated with decreased adult perceptions of social support.


Subjects may have experienced extreme emotional and financial deprivation as children, leading them to yearn for affection or become excessively preoccupied with things that others possess but they lack, such food, clothing, toys, drugs, or money.

However, inadequate early childhood support negatively affects how much support is felt today, which puts kids at even greater danger of physical abuse.

 


Key Takeaways

  • Trauma bonding is a psychological reaction to abuse.

  • The brain starts to associate abuse and neglect with "love."

  • Trauma bonding is an intense emotional attachment born and sustained through intermittent reward and punishment model/strategy.

  • The abuse may go to the extent that the victim may feel that they have been “saved” by the abuser. 

Written by Laksh Rampal

Edited by Virginia Helzainka


References:


Dutton, Donald. AU - Painter, S.L. 1981/01/01. 139, 155. Traumatic bonding: The development of emotional attachments in battered women and other relationships of intermittent abuse. VL - 6. Victimology


Xiang, Yanhui. Wang, Weixin, Guan, Fang 2018/06/20. The Relationship Between Child Maltreatment and Dispositional Envy and the Mediating Effect of Self-Esteem and Social Support in Young Adults. Front. Psychol. Vol (9)


Dorey, Kathysue. 2022/10/10. A Traumatology Focus on Trauma Bonding.


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