Exploitive relationships create betrayal bonds. These occur when a victim bonds with someone who is destructive to him or her. Thus the hostage becomes the champion of the hostage taker, the incest victim covers for the parent and the exploited employee fails to expose the wrongdoing of the boss. Dr. Patrick Carnes

“Why didn’t he or she just leave?” is a question that makes many victims of abuse cringe, and for good reason. Even after years of research about the effects of trauma and abuse and the fact that abuse victims often go back to their abusers an average of seven times before they finally leave, society still does not seem to understand the powerful effects of trauma bonding and intermittent reinforcement in an abusive relationship.

According to Dr. Logan (2018), Trauma bonding is evidenced in any relationship which the connection defies logic and is very hard to break. The components necessary for a trauma bond to form are a power differential, intermittent good and bad treatment, {as well as} high arousal and bonding periods.

Trauma bonding is a bond that develops when two people undergo intense, risky emotional experiences together. In the context of an abusive relationship, this bond is strengthened due to the heightenedintimacy and danger. Similar to the way Stockholm Syndrome manifests, the abuse victim bonds with his or her abuser as both the source of terror and comfort in an attempt to survive the tumultuous relationship. As a result, abuse victims feel a misplaced, unshakeable sense of loyalty and devotion to their abusers, which to anoutsider may appear nonsensical.

As Dr. Patrick writes in his book, The Betrayal Bond, trauma bonding is especially fierce in situations where there are repetitive cycles of abuse, a desire to rescue the abuser, as well as the presence of both seduction and betrayal. He writes:

“Those standing outside see the obvious. All these relationships are about some insane loyalty or attachment. They share exploitation, fear,and danger. They also have elements of kindness, nobility,and righteousness. These are all people who stay involved or wish to stay involved with people who betray them. Emotional pain, severe consequences and even the prospect of death do not stop their caring or commitment. Clinicians call this traumatic bonding. This means that the victims have a certain dysfunctional attachment that occurs in the presence of danger, shame or exploitation. There often is seduction, deception or betrayal. There is always some form of danger or risk.”

The Role of Intermittent Reinforcement in Trauma Bonding

Intermittent reinforcement (in the context of psychological abuse) is a pattern of cruel, callous treatment mixed in with random bursts of affection. The abuser hands out rewards such as affection, a compliment, or gifts sporadically and unpredictably throughout the abuse cycle. Think of the violent husband who gives his wife flowers after assaulting her, or the kind words an abusive mother gives to her child after a particularly harsh silent treatment.

Intermittent reinforcement causes the victim to perpetually seek the abuser’s approval while settling for the crumbs of their occasional positive behavior, in the hopes that the abuser will return to the honeymoon phase of the relationship. Like a gambler at a slot machine, victims are unwittingly “hooked” to play the game for a potential win, despite the massive losses.

This manipulation tactic also causes us to perceive their rare positive behaviors in an amplified manner. Dr. Carver describes this as the small kindness perception. As he notes in his article, Love and Stockholm Syndrome:

“In threatening and survival situations, we look for evidence of hope a small sign that the situation may improve. When an abuser/controller shows the victim some small kindness, even though it is to the abusers benefit as well, the victim interprets that small kindness as a positive trait of the captorIn relationships with abusers, a birthday card, a gift (usually provided after a period of abuse), or a special treat are interpreted as not only positive, but evidence that the abuser is not all bad and may at some time correct his/her behavior. Abusers and controllers are often given positive credit for not abusing their partner, when the partner would have normally been subjected to verbal or physical abuse in a certain situation.

The Biochemical Element

As I discuss more in-depth in my books on narcissistic abuse, there is also a biochemical addiction involved when it comes to intermittent reinforcement and trauma bonding. As Helen Fisher (2016) explores, love activates the same areas of the brain responsible for cocaine addiction. In adversity-ridden relationships, the effects of biochemical addiction can be even more powerful. When oxytocin, serotonin, dopamine, cortisol, and adrenaline are involved, the abusive nature of the relationship can actually strengthen, rather than dampen, the bond of the relationship in the brain.

For example, dopamine is a neurotransmitter which plays a key role in the pleasure center of our brains. It creates reward circuits and generates associations in our brain which link our romantic partners with pleasure and even survival. The catch? Dopamine flows more readily in the brain when there is an intermittent reinforcement schedule of affection and attention, rather than a consistent one (Carnell, 2012). The hot and cold behaviors of a toxic relationship actually exacerbate our dangerous attachment to our abusers rather than deterring it – creating an addiction that is not unlike drug addiction.

This is just one of the ways the brain is affected by abuse, so imagine how difficult it can be for a traumatized individual to break the bond.

You might be suffering from a trauma bond if you exhibit the following behaviors:

  1. You know they are abusive and manipulative, but you can’t seem to let go. You ruminate over the incidents of abuse, engage in self-blame, and the abuser becomes the sole arbiter of your self-esteem and self-worth.
  2. You walk on eggshells trying to please your abuser, even though they give you little in return except for crumbs of affection and more pain.
  3. You feel addicted to them without understanding why. You “need” their validation and approval, looking to them as the source of comfort after incidents of abuse. This is evidence of a strong biochemical and psychological attachment to them.
  4. You defend your abuser and keep their transgressions a secret. You might refuse to press charges against your abuser or defend them against family members or friends who try to tell you that they are toxic. You may even present your relationship as a happy one to the public eye, attempting to minimize their abusive behavior and romanticizing and exaggerating any positive behaviors they dole out occasionally.
  5. Even when you attempt to leave the abuser, you give into the abuser’s faux remorse, crocodile tears and claims to change for the future. The pattern of abuse and its cycle may be evident, but you hold onto the false hope that things can get better.
  6. You develop self-sabotaging behaviors and might engage in some form of self-harm or addictions to dissociate from the pain of the abuse and the acute sense of shame caused by the abuse.
  7. You are willing to lower your standards time and time again for this toxic person, accepting what you previously believed was unacceptable.
  8. You change your own behaviors, appearance and/or personality in an attempt to meet the abuser’s moving goal posts, although the abuser rarely changes their own behavior to please you.

The Big Picture

If you are experiencing a trauma bond with an emotional or physical abuser, the first step is awareness. Know that it is the addictive nature of the trauma bond and the effects of intermittent reinforcement which contribute to the source of your bond, not the merits of the abuser or the relationship itself.This will help you to distance yourself from seeing your relationship as a “special” one just in need of more of your time, energy, or patience. Malignant narcissistic abusers follow hardwired behaviors and will not change for you or anyone else.

Get distance from your abuser, even if you feel you cannot leave yet. Work with a trauma-informed counselor to process the trauma, examine the cycle of abuse, reconnect with the reality of the abusive relationship, and place responsibility where it truly belongs.The abuse you endured was not your fault and neither was the trauma bond that formed. You deserve a life free of abuse and mistreatment. You deserve healthy relationships and friendships which nourish you, not deplete and exploit you. You deserve to break the bonds which tether you to your abuser.