Trauma Bonding in Abuse Relationships

How Trauma Bonding Occurs in Abusive Relationships

What Is Trauma Bonding?

Trauma bonding is an unhealthy attachment that forms between an abusive person and the person that they abuse. This bond forms as a result of constant mental and emotional abuse, gaslighting, and prolonged feelings of dependence that occur as a result of the abuser cutting them off from their support network.

One of the most well-known forms of trauma bonding is Stockholm Syndrome, although this is only one very specific example of the phenomenon.2 Trauma bonding of all kinds is always the result of psychological abuse and emotional abuse.

It is not completely understood why this response happens in certain individuals in toxic relationships. However, it is believed to be a response of the parasympathetic nervous system as a survival mechanism.2

When a person experiences constant abuse of trauma, they find themselves constantly in “flight” mode due to the inherent and constant stress of the situation. Because of this feeling, trauma bonding may occur as a way of unconsciously attempting to deescalate the abuse.

If you or someone you know are a victim of domestic violence, emotional abuse, or narcissistic behavior, call the domestic violence hotline for help at 1-800-799-7233.

How To Recognize Signs Of Trauma Bonding

In cases of domestic violence, the victim of abuse is usually completely dependent on their abuser financially, emotionally, and mentally. They will have usually been systematically cut off from their friends and family members by their partner’s narcissistic behavior, and in many cases may have been convinced to give up their job or means of income.

A toxic relationship gives the abuser essentially full control over the person that they are abusing as they have no one else to turn to for help or support. It is important to note that this type of narcissistic behavior also happens in parent-child relationships when a child is too young to be able to take care of or provide for themselves.

Signs of a Trauma Bond

There are numerous signs that a person may have formed some sort of trauma bond with a potential abuser. These can be emotional or physical cues that may signify that the person needs help. Some of these signs include:

  • Exhibiting conflicting emotions toward their abuser
  • Identifying with their abuser
  • Making excuses for their abuser’s behavior and actions
  • Feeling indebted to their abuser or feeling like they owe them something for “taking care of them”
  • Developing an unhealthy emotional attachment to their abuser, believing that they can change their abuser, or feeling sorry for their abuser.
  • Making excuses for the abuse or saying that they deserved it
  • Allowing the abuse to continue (particularly in cases of sexual abuse) to please the abuser because they believe they owe it to them.
  • Hiding negative emotions or masking their emotions to match their abuser’s mood
  • Protecting their abuser from judgment

Why Trauma Bonding Happens 

Trauma bonding often happens as a freeze response to a situation. In situations of abuse, a person’s body tends to “shut off” to avoid as much pain as it can. This response manifests itself as dissociation and is the mind’s way of trying to protect itself.

Humans are not built to be able to withstand abuse. However, we are incredibly resilient, and our bodies will do whatever they have to in order to survive. A freeze response makes a person numb and is a primary response to extended trauma.

Common Risk Factors That May Cause Traumatic Bonding

Unfortunately, several significant factors may make a person more susceptible to abuse and trauma bonding. Many of these factors are established at a young age and make a person more likely to enter a toxic relationship or be the victim of domestic violence as they age. Some of the most common factors of trauma bonding are:

  • Low socioeconomic status
  • History of substance abuse
  • Poor mental health
  • Financial difficulties or lack of employment
  • Lack of a support system
  • History of being bullied
  • Low self-esteem
  • Lack of identity
  • Homelessness
 

Some of these factors, such as poor mental health, lack of support, and lack of employment also tend to be common in situations of elder abuse and abuse of vulnerable persons. If you suspect that you may know a situation where this is happening, reach out to your state’s Adult Protective Services for help.

How Does a Person Break the Trauma Bond?

Breaking a trauma bond is difficult, but not impossible. The first step is to educate yourself to recognize toxic relationships and to be able to identify the signs that you are in one. From there, it can be extremely beneficial to get professional help, such as a therapist, to guide you and support you as you work to break your connection with your abuser.

If possible, go no-contact as quickly as you can. By completely cutting off your abuser, you will be able to move on and recover more quickly than if the separation was prolonged. Reach out to any friends or family members that may be willing to help you find a place to stay while you get back on your feet.

For some, it may be beneficial to attend a support group with others who have experienced similar situations. Support groups can help a person learn other signs to look for, learn how to protect themselves from entering another toxic relationship, and help them understand healthy bonds and attachments with others.3

Get Professional Help

It can be incredibly difficult to break the cycle of abuse and violence on your own. There are many sources available that provide significant support to those who are in abusive situations. In addition, these sources may be able to help you help another person who you suspect may be in an abusive situation.

  • The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV) has a list of numbers, websites, and support groups to help those in need.4
  • Adult protective services can help if you suspect a case of elder abuse or vulnerable adult abuse. 5
  • The Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 can help provide support and shelter for those in an abusive relationship.

Resources

  1. https://www.domesticshelters.org/articles/identifying-abuse/can-dv-survivors-have-stockholm-syndrome
  2. https://www.bodywisefoundation.org/blog/bodywisefoundation/nervous-system-trauma
  3. https://cptsdfoundation.org/2019/11/22/recognizing-and-breaking-a-trauma-bond/
  4. https://ncadv.org/resources
  5. https://ncea.acl.gov/NCEA/media/publications/APS-Fact-Sheet.pdf

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