What is Trauma Bonding?
Have you heard of Stockholm Syndrome?
It’s a psychological response to being kidnapped or held hostage where the victim develops positive associations with their captors or abusers.
But, if you take a step back, what’s really happening is something called trauma bonding.
This doesn’t just happen in high-stakes captive situations, it can happen in any relationship — whether that’s with a friend or a romantic relationship.
So… what is trauma bonding? What are the signs of trauma bonding? We’re diving into all the details.
What is trauma bonding?
Trauma bonding is a cognitive or psychological response to abuse where the victim forms a deep connection and attachment with an abusive person — often due to the cycle of abuse.
The cycle of abuse, also known as the cycle of violence, is a pattern of repeated behavior by an abuser that starts with pressure building in a relationship, an explosion of abuse, a reconciliation, and the calm before another storm. It is repeated trauma with intermittent positive reinforcement, often including love bombing.
There are different types of trauma bonds. Trauma bonding can occur in abusive relationships, fraternity hazing, religious cults, military training, child abuse, and even kidnapping.
Trauma bonds are often formed due to the body’s natural stress response that activates the sympathetic nervous system and limbic system — the parts of the brain that regulate emotions and bodily responses to your environment.
“When that sympathetic activation is in control, the parts of our brain that do things like long-term planning or risk analysis in our prefrontal cortex are shut off,” says Dr. Powell in a conversation about trauma bonding.
Victims can become attached to anything that helps them get through a traumatic event — anything our brain associates with safety. In an abusive relationship, this can occur when the abuser comforts the victim or apologizes for the abuse. It’s the reconciliation phase in the cycle of abuse that often bonds an individual to their abuser.
This is because in these periods after an abusive incident the offender (aka abuser) is overly nice and affectionate to diminish their bad behavior.
However, not every victim creates trauma bonds with their abuser.
What are trauma bonding signs?
The number one sign of trauma bonding is rationalizing or justifying another person’s bad behavior.
What does trauma bonding look like in a relationship?
Some trauma bonding signs include:
- Agreeing with the abuser’s reasons for treating you poorly
- Trying to cover for the abuser
- Arguing with or distancing yourself from people trying to help, including family and friends
- You are codependent on your abuser for your needs and emotions
- They are gaslighting you
For example, a victim trauma bonded with their abuser might say things like:
- “They are only like that because they love me so much, you wouldn’t understand.”
- “They are under a lot of pressure at work right now, they will make it up to me later.
- “It’s my fault, I make them angry.”
In private, relationships involving a trauma bond might have some of these characteristics:
- The relationship is moving at an accelerated pace
- You make huge life changes for a relatively new relationship
- You have an extreme fear of leaving the relationship
- You feel like they are the only person who can meet your needs
- There are deep emotional attachments in the relationship
Again, trauma bonding doesn’t only occur in romantic relationships and isn't just domestic abuse perpetrated by an abusive partner. Trauma bonding friendships can form when one individual within the friendship is mean or cruel to another friend. For example, trauma bonds in friendships can start when one person is more popular than the other. Family members can also form trauma bonds, especially after a major traumatizing incident.
Other early trauma bonding signs include:
- Love bombing the potential victim to form attachments
- Power dynamics in a relationship (could be economic, age differences, etc)
How to know if you’re trauma bonded with someone
You might be looking for a trauma bonding test of some sort to help you, or someone you know, understand trauma bonding.
Feelings of trauma bonds can include:
- Not wanting to leave because you’re emotionally attached to someone, even if you don’t like them in many ways
- When you do try to leave the offender makes you feel emotionally or physically distressed
- Your partner continues to promise to change their behavior and never does
- You focus too much on the good things in the relationship while ignoring major red flags
- You continue to trust them, even with important secrets and information
- You protect them by keeping their abusive behavior a secret
- You develop a dependence on their nice side
Why do trauma bonds occur?
There are many reasons why a trauma bond might occur in a relationship.
People who haven’t experienced abuse may not understand trauma bonds — which can be detrimental in their own lives and others around them.
Types of trauma bonding include situations like:
- Domestic violence
- Narcissistic abuse
- Sexual assault
- Child abuse
- Childhood trauma
- Elder abuse
- Fraternities / Sororities
- Friendships with power imbalances
- Human trafficking
Trauma bonds often occur when someone has previously experienced physical or emotional abuse. They are used to these types of experiences and being treated in a certain way so they continue this pattern.
How does a trauma bond develop?
There are usually four steps in the trauma bonding process.
- The victim perceives a real threat of violence or danger from the abuser
- The victim then experiences violence from the abuser dispersed with small periods of kindness — often extreme to make up for the abuser’s bad behavior
- The victim is isolated from other people and their perspectives
- The victim believes they cannot escape so they must make the best of a bad situation
Oftentimes victims are in a survival brain mindset — meaning they’re attempting to simply survive a situation. Trauma bonds can help them mentally lessen the pain they are experiencing. Because trauma bonds often happen in abusive relationships, patterns of abuse and violence are often cyclical — with really high highs and really low lows.
The 7 Stages of Trauma Bonding
According to experts, there are 7 stages of trauma bonding.
1. Love Bombing: Love bombing is the extreme showing of affection with the intention of manipulation and deceit.
2. Trust and Dependency: They do nearly everything right to gain trust while slowly making the victim dependent on them for self validation and other needs.
3. Criticism: After they've made the victim dependent on them, they start criticizing the victim, their abilities, appearance, attitudes, beliefs, etc...
4. Gaslighting and Manipulation: They begin to make the victim doubt their own perceptions and manipulate them into believing their narratives about situations. Everything starts to become the victim's fault.
5. Resigning to Control: To maintain any form of normalcy in the relationship, the victim will begin to succumb to the negativity and resign to the unhealthy dynamics of the relationship to "keep the cool".
6. Loss of Self: When trying to fight back, things get worse. The victim starts to settle for whatever the perpetrator wants to have some peace and make the bad parts of the relationship stop.
7. Addiction: The cycle of abuse kicks in and the highs and lows begin to swing more dramatically. The victim's body has high levels of cortisol from stress and the dopamine triggers when the perpetrator exhibits positive feelings forms what we know as a trauma bond.
Trauma bonding quiz
If you're still unsure if you're in a trauma bond, try taking our trauma bonding test.
Trauma bonds often happen in toxic relationships — you can also take our toxic relationship quiz for more information.
How to heal from trauma bonding
While these relationships are especially hard to leave, and breaking a trauma bond can feel impossible, it will lead to healthier, happier relationships. If you feel like you are in this type of relationship, or know someone who is, there are things you can do to begin the process of leaving and healing.
Keep a journal. Since the trauma bond can affect our ability to process long-term consequences, one way to help ground yourself in reality is to keep a journal. Every day, write down what happens and how you feel. If abuse occurs, make a note of it and write down whether your partner said anything afterward to excuse it. This can help to identify patterns in behavior and help you notice things you might not have in the moment. Over time, it can help you come to terms with the reality of the relationship. You may want to keep a digital journal (if they don’t have access to your device) or keep the journal at work or at a friend’s house so your abuser doesn’t find it.
Talk to loved ones. Opening up about abuse can be one of the hardest things to do. You might have found yourself getting defensive in the past when your loved ones expressed concern. Even if you aren’t ready to open up about the details of your experience, listen to what friends and family have to say about the relationship. The people who love you want the best for you, and they often notice things you might not. They may have noticed a change in your demeanor since entering the relationship, or they might have seen signs in your partner that you haven’t. Keep an open mind about their opinion. Even if you don’t talk about your partner, just engaging with friends and family can give you perspective and help you realize that you have a support system and boost your self worth.
Practice positive self-talk. Abuse can lower self esteem and self blame can make you feel like there’s nothing you can do about your situation. This might feel silly at first, but try writing down some of the problems you experience. Maybe these have to do with your relationship or your self image. Then, look at what you wrote and try to imagine this is a friend sharing these problems with you, and give advice from that perspective. You’ll find that the way we talk to ourselves is far more negative than the way we talk to our loved ones. If you can identify ways you put yourself down, you can start to actively change the way you treat yourself. The best way to feel comfortable leaving an abusive relationship is to feel comfortable in your relationship with yourself.
Make a list of goals. Abusive relationships can make us feel hopeless, like the only thing we have is our partner. Try making a list of goals that don’t involve your partner. These can be small goals, maybe you want to join a club, or learn a new skill, or even get dressed up and go to a fancy restaurant with your friends. Try including larger goals too, maybe you want to go back to school, or work towards a promotion at work, any dreams that you have for yourself and yourself alone.
Create a safety plan. Part of the reason it can be hard to leave is not knowing where to go. The most dangerous time in an abusive relationship can be trying to leave. Make a list of resources that can help support you and keep you safe when you leave. Some will be provided at the bottom of this post. Make a list of people you trust, whether it is friends or family or coworkers. These people can be a resource to you for both your physical and emotional wellbeing. Consider logistics, this can include money, a place to stay, and work. Make a plan to stay safe after leaving. This can include changing locks and phone numbers, altering work schedules, and even pursuing legal action. Writing it all down can help it seem more real, and help you to stay organized and grounded in reality. Here is more information about safety planning.
Consider seeking professional help. As you navigate the end of an abusive relationship, it is absolutely normal to need help. A licensed therapist can provide support that others cannot. They can help you identify factors that fuel your trauma bond, help you to set boundaries, develop a self-care plan, and work on skills for building healthy relationships. Additionally, a mental health professional or support group can help address the mental health symptoms that are related to long-term abuse and trauma. When finding a therapist, it is best to look for someone who is trauma-informed, and professionals who specialize in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are often best equipped to work through this type of trauma.
While you might feel stuck and hopeless now, leaving an abusive relationship is possible, and is the first step towards moving on towards a better life. If you or a loved one identifies with a trauma bond, here are some resources that can help. Trauma bonding recovery is possible
Trauma bonding books for additional reading:
If you need help escaping an abusive situation, please utilize the following resources:
The National Domestic Violence Hotline is available 24/7 via:
Live chat: https://www.thehotline.org/
Text: by texting LOVEIS to 22522
For more information on resources including in-person support, and temporary housing, visit:
The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence at https://ncadv.org/resources