If you have ever been in an abusive relationship and felt a bond with your abuser, you likely experienced what is known as trauma bonding.
Trauma bonding occurs when you feel bonded with or sympathetic towards an abusive partner, parent, or friend. An abuser often alternates between treating you poorly and showering you with positive attention.
The alternating forms of treatment can lead to a strong psychological bond. Trauma bonding can lead to low self-esteem and development of mental health disorders, such as depression.
Recognizing the signs of trauma bonding may help you avoid or take the necessary steps to break the bond.
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According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, survivors of domestic violence or abuse typically describe that their partner displayed “perfect” or “wonderful” behavior 90% of the time and only 10% of the time together was the problem.
The overall “good” behavior is what allows the bond to form in the first place.
It may also lead you to seek ways to justify the person’s behavior when they exhibit unhealthy traits or behaviors. You may find yourself making excuses for them, such as “oh they’re just having a bad day” or “I shouldn’t have spent money on myself.”
Whether the person is a former romantic partner, relative, or friend, if you may find that you incessantly think about them even after they’re gone, you may have a trauma bond with them.
In other words, you find it hard not to think about them or fantasize about being with or around them again despite their abuse.
Similar to incessantly thinking about the person who caused you harm, you may be showing signs of trauma bonding if you’re constantly trying to help the person despite a history of abuse from them.
This could include things like:
- offering to shovel their driveway after a snow storm
- helping with paying their bills
- offering to pay for groceries
- paying for their cell phone or internet service
You may have a trauma bond if your partner, friend, or relative treats you poorly or has repeatedly broken your trust, but you’re still unwilling to leave the situation or break your bond with them.
To be clear, leaving can be very difficult. Mixed emotions, fear of “starting over,” financial uncertainty, and other considerations can make it hard to leave. Choosing to leave can help prevent escalation of abuse.
Covering for an abuser’s unhealthy behaviors can take several forms, such as:
- making excuses for them
- getting defensive when speaking to friends and family about them
- distancing yourself from family or friends
Even after you leave the relationship, you may still remain silent about their behaviors and abuse. This may be due to a variety of reasons including shame, feeling like no one will believe you, or fear of punishment.
If you feel you can’t be yourself around your partner, friend, or family member, it could be a sign of trauma bonding.
This can include not being willing to share your feelings, opinions, or thoughts. You may also find that you start to match their thinking either to please them or to prevent them from getting angry.
Though it can be difficult, it’s possible to break a traumatic bond with a person. According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, some ways you may able to break the bond include:
- Focus on the truth: If your partner doesn’t take any steps to make changes or improvements in themselves, it may be time to believe what you’re seeing or not seeing over their promises.
- Focus on the current situation: Nostalgia for the past or reminiscing about good times with the person can reinforce a traumatic bond. Instead, focus on what the current situation is like and how it makes you feel now. Keeping a diary may help you to organize your thoughts on this.
- Learn about self-care: Another reason you may stay invested in an abusive relationship is because they provide you with comfort despite the abuse. To help you cope consider learning about and then practicing self-care routines. This may help reduce your dependency on them for support.
- Practice positive self-talk: Being in an abusive relationship can lead to a lower self-esteem. Positive self-talk and recognizing when you’re being overly negative about yourself can help you to improve your own self-image. This may also give you the confidence you need to leave the situation.
You may also find that learning more about and recognizing the signs of an abusive relationship can help you see early signs of it in new relationships. If you can spot the signs and recognize the relationship as unhealthy early on, this may help you prevent developing a trauma bond with a person.
If you want to learn more about the signs of domestic abuse, consider visiting Psych Central’s resource page.
If you or someone you know are experiencing controlling behavior or domestic violence, you can:
If you suspect you may have a trauma bond with someone, working with a mental health worker may help. They can help you to identify the abuse, develop a positive self-esteem, and connect you with resources to help you leave.
If you need help finding a counselor, you can ask a primary care provider or use the American Psychology Association (APA)’s therapist locator.
You may also want to make a personal safety plan if you’re living with an abusive partner. Though plans can vary, they often include steps to help if you need to escape, such as:
- identifying safe friends or family to stay with
- make plans to leave including money, where to stay, and work
- find information on local support organizations
- plan for ways to stay safe after leaving, such as changing phone numbers, locks, and work hours
- keep evidence of the abuse
- seek legal action if needed