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.
If you are in immediate danger, call 9-1-1. For anonymous and confidential help, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-7233 or TTY 1-800-787-3224) and speak with a trained advocate for free as many times as you need. They’re available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You can also speak to them through a live private chat on their website.
When you’re in an abusive relationship, leaving your partner is the best course of action to take. But what happens if it feels impossible to extricate yourself from the toxic union? When you can’t seem to end it or find yourself coming back time and time again?
If you’ve ever questioned why it’s hard for people to leave painful partnerships, it’s important to understand the concept of trauma bonding—which points to an abusive and distressing relationship with brief moments of positive reinforcement.
What is trauma bonding?
“Trauma bonds are the attachments we have with our abusers. It’s when we have fond feelings or miss individuals who have abused us because we’ve developed a connection to them. One minute things are good, and then the next, they’re not,” psychotherapist Jourdan Travers, LCSW, tells mbg.
Trauma bonding frequently shows up in romantic relationships but also extends to dynamics with power imbalances including, but not limited to, abusive parent-child relationships, sex trafficking, military training, fraternity hazing, kidnapping, cults, and hostage situations. The situation can vary, but fundamentally, it’s about dependency and having someone abusive fulfill your emotional and spiritual needs. The attachment pattern alternates between devaluation and intimacy. The person you want to console you the most is the one hurting you.
In practice, trauma bonding looks like a compulsive cycle of wanting to please your partner to avoid setting them off, followed by an incident of physical, verbal, or emotional abuse, and then a honeymoon period where all seems well. Your partner may remorsefully cry to you saying it wasn’t their character and they’ll never do it again, equally fueling your fear and trust in them. You want to believe it will get better, which is why you stay. Yet the pattern continues.
What trauma bonding is not.
Trauma bonding has become a bit of a trendy term, but according to psychologist Nadine Macaluso, LMFT, it’s often misunderstood, minimized, and even romanticized. People sometimes think trauma bonding is simply bonding over shared traumas, she notes, or that it’s simply about overcoming obstacles and hard moments together. In truth, trauma bonding is a feature of abusive relationships.
“Because we tend to think of bonding as beneficial and romantic love as transcendent, we don’t understand the prevalence of trauma bonds in modern-day,” she says. One in four women and one in 10 men are victims of intimate partner violence, according to CDC data.
Signs of trauma bonding.
A trauma bond can happen so subtly that it might be surprising when you realize some of your partner’s hot-and-cold behavior isn’t random but actually indicates an unhealthy pattern. Here are some common indicators to keep in mind:
1. Looking past red flags for the allure of the honeymoon phase
“A trauma bond begins with promises of love, trust, and safety. During the sweet beginnings phase, you are tricked by their mask of confidence, dominance, and charisma, which inspires you to believe you will be loved and protected,” Macaluso says.
When you bond with a partner, your body releases happy chemicals like dopamine (released through attraction) and oxytocin (released through orgasm and hugging), which cements your attachment. However, in a trauma bond, it can keep you “addicted” to them and holding on to the instances they are kind to you.
“Passion and seductive pledges push intuitions aside,” she explains. “Your pathological partner may lure you in using specific psychological tactics such as lying, deceit, love-bombing (showering you with excessive gifts, affection, or attention), and twinning, which is appearing interested in all of the same things as you. Then the mask slips off, and the boundaries are crossed.”
2. You feel drained and avoid open communication
While the relationship has some happy interludes, for the most part, being with your partner doesn’t make you feel alive and rejuvenated. On the contrary, you feel depleted. The toxic relationship is filled with crazy-making behavior because your reality and truth are usually reinterpreted to frame their actions as acceptable. As a result, you fear openly sharing your thoughts, so over time, you say less and share less.
It’s important to remember healthy relationships not only tolerate conflict but welcome it because it’s seen as an opportunity to strengthen the connection. It shows you trust each other enough to meet your needs. However, in trauma-bonded relationships, there’s a lot of anxiety about maintaining the status quo. You don’t want to dig deeper because fighting can be debilitating, which leads to a sense of powerlessness. So, you ignore bringing up what’s really going on and hope for changed behavior. On the other side of it, you may rationalize their awful behavior as your fault and try harder to avoid upsetting them.
3. You don’t feel like yourself and keep secrets
“Coercive control is a pattern of oppressive behavior intended to control someone and strip away their sense of self,” Macaluso says.
Coercive control can include:
Direct or indirect isolation (e.g., Your friends and family can’t stand them and start to distance themselves)
Monitoring and interrogating you
Limiting access to finances
Physical and emotional abuse
She points out this is all done with such covert finesse, you may not realize the hole you’ve dug yourself into until you’re in so deep it’s hard to climb back out.
To make it even more disorienting, trauma bonding is characterized by cognitive dissonance, which creates confusion. You may start to twist and view love through pain, therefore filtering your partner’s abusive actions as OK and out of a place of love. Even though you try to downplay the fighting, you’re still afraid of what your loved ones will think if they really knew. You may keep the true shadow side of the relationship and its problems to yourself out of shame.
4. Defending your partner’s bad behaviors
Here are some refrains Travers says you might say to your loved ones when you’re talking about your partner:
“They behaved that way because I pushed them to it.”
“They wouldn’t say those things to me if I didn’t deserve it.”
“They treat me like that because they love me.”
Travers says if you’re immediately coming to their defense and justifying their actions toward you, even when they’re clearly in the wrong, that’s a key sign you’re in a trauma bond. In a healthy relationship, you should both step up and take accountability when you can do better. If they blame you for their problematic actions and can’t own up to their mistakes, that’s a red flag.
5. Persistent loyalty in the face of danger
Loyalty to the abusive partner is a hallmark of trauma bonding, according to Macaluso. You may try to remember the good and dismiss the bad times to stay in the relationship.
“A trauma bond occurs when your partner intentionally harms you through a pattern of threats, intimidation, manipulation, deceit, or betrayal so they have power and control,” she says. “You stay loyal to your violating partner despite feelings of fear, emotional pain, and distress.”
Why trauma bonding happens.
Romanticizing “intense” relationships
According to Macaluso, trauma bonding often happens because the relationship feels intense—and that intensity can be confused for love.
“The irregular and unpredictable cycle of cruelty mixed with caring gestures are critical to forming traumatic attachments. No abusive person is mean or threatening all of the time,” she explains. “The cocktail of fear and seduction ironically deepens attachment because it provides intensity that escalates attraction and arousal. When you don’t understand traumatic bonding, you often mistake intensity and passion for love.”
And because you don’t see the trauma-bonded relationship as being abusive, the bad behaviors aren’t identified in time and may be waved away at the start.
Both Travers and Macaluso add that attachment issues stemming from childhood can also contribute to the formation of trauma bonds.
“Early attachment experiences lay the foundation for our future self-esteem and how we bond with others. It’s where you learn about interpersonal boundaries and what your role in relationships is. You discover your emotional needs and how to fulfill them. You [also] form beliefs about yourself and the world,” Macaluso says.
She notes adults with an insecure attachment pattern are more likely to enter into trauma bonds, while the perpetrator often has fearful-avoidant attachment. “Individuals who experienced childhood abuse or absent parents are more susceptible to developing trauma bonds to intimate partners because we unconsciously gravitate to partners and relationships that feel familiar,” Travers adds.
It makes a lot of sense—if you were around a lot of difficult relationships growing up, you can unconsciously attract partners who repeat the same pain you experienced growing up. Even though it’s difficult, choosing a dysfunctional version of love is all you know. It can feel like you’re “coming home” to it even if it generates a lot of negativity and angst for you.
Another component that affects trauma bonds can also be personality. In her work, Macaluso observed individuals, particularly women, who scored high in traits like agreeableness and conscientiousness can be prey to harmful and abusive partners.
“These prosocial personality traits [can] make them a magnet for the extremes of pathological partners who lack these traits,” she explains. “So, even if you heal your codependent issues, these innate personality traits do not disappear. Hence, you need to understand your vulnerability for entering a trauma bond.”
How to heal.
If you haven’t ended the relationship yet, that’s the first place to start. Here’s mbg’s full guide to leaving an abusive relationship. You can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-7233 or TTY 1-800-787-3224) and confidently speak with a trained advocate who can help you think through your options and make a plan.
“Healing from an abusive or traumatic relationship doesn’t happen overnight. Individuals involved in those relationships need both support and resources; working with a trauma-informed therapist and joining a support group is a great place to start,” Travers suggests.
Go no-contact with your ex so you can focus on yourself completely. Since trauma bonding works within isolation, move to the other side of the spectrum by intentionally connecting with others. Repressing your emotions and pushing away what happened will keep you from processing the relationship, which will keep you spiritually frozen. By sharing openly, it decreases feelings of loneliness as you cultivate restorative relationship practices.
During your recovery from a trauma bond, developing your relationship with yourself will be essential as you find safety again. “My advice to any and every person: Find out your attachment pattern, understand the basics of your early life relational trauma, and find out what your Big Five personality traits are,” Macaluso says. “The more you know, the more power you have. And the more power you have, the less likely you are to choose someone who will take it away from you.”
Keeping a journal to privately record your thoughts and figure out patterns may be eye-opening as you return to yourself. Working on your self-worth will help you recognize the difference between unhealthy and healthy attachments down the line. It also works hand in hand with boundary development and higher self-esteem.
Not only are you emotionally attending to yourself, but you’re also processing it somatically, which can be heavy. Toxic relationships are emotionally arresting, and unprocessed trauma can convert into stuck energy, which can overwhelm the systems in your body and overall cognition. It can also lead to increased blood pressure, tense muscles, sending your sympathetic nervous system into overdrive. Leaning on movement, mindfulness, and self-care will be vital.
The bottom line.
As you’re going through the complexity of feeling the grief and sadness, let the trauma and betrayal flow through you, but don’t let it shift into self-blame.
Take a moment to congratulate yourself for beginning to end the cycle. It’s a big step to make. As you know firsthand, it’s not easy to “just leave” an abusive partnership. Walking away from toxicity demonstrates incredible strength to choose yourself and your well-being first. Be gentle and tender with yourself as you recover from trauma bonding.