If you have lived with abuse and felt attached to your abuser, you may have experienced trauma bonding.
It might be a romantic partner or a parent, or even a close friend. If a person in your life alternates between treating you abusively then showering you with attention, a powerful bond can result.
You might think having a bond with another person is a positive thing. But trauma bonding is more like an entanglement that keeps you in a dysfunctional relationship.
A trauma bond can reduce your self-esteem and lead to unwanted mental health issues. That’s why it’s important to identify whether you’re in this type of relationship and if so, take steps to break this bond.
Trauma bonds are not just found in romantic relationships. They can happen between family members, friends, and even coworkers.
This bond is forged through affection alternating with abuse. The contrast between the two makes the affection seem more valuable and leaves the person hanging on for the next outpouring of positive reinforcement.
Depending on the type of abuse you’re experiencing, you might not feel safe leaving or self-advocating. According to research, victims of intimate partner violence develop bonds with their abusers to survive the abuse.
So instead of fighting back or fleeing, you focus on the good parts of the relationship and ignore the rest. You rationalize the fact that you’ve stayed by making excuses on behalf of your abuser.
This sets you up for a repeated pattern of disregarding abuse. You become habituated to the relationship dynamic and increasingly powerless to leave.
It’s understandable to say nice things about the people you care about. You may miss them when they’re not around and advocate for them when they need support.
But trauma bonding is different. The kindness and commitment you offer come at the expense of your well-being.
In a trauma bond, you might:
- justify abusive behavior, for example: “they’re only yelling at me because they are tired”
- cover for your abuser
- tolerate abuse to please them
- feel like you owe your abuser
- hide your true feelings around them
- be unable to leave the relationship even if you want to or know you should
- offer your trust and goodwill even when the other person betrays you
- blame yourself for their unwanted behaviors
- change your thinking to match their opinions
- distance yourself from people who question the health of your relationship
If you have a combative spouse who is overly critical and finds a way to blame their problems on you, your relationship might include a trauma bond. They might be jealous and suspicious of you and try to control you.
Maybe you have a parent with narcissistic traits or narcissistic personality disorder who takes credit for your achievements while criticizing most of what you do. They may be temperamental and use bullying tactics, but they bought you whatever you asked for while you were growing up.
You have a friend who seems to think highly of you but abandons you when other friends are around. You’ve heard your friend has told lies about you and spread unkind rumors. They apologize and treat you like their best friend again, until the next round of abandonment and gossip.
Though it may not be easy, there are ways you may be able to extricate yourself from a trauma bond.
Some types of abuse are clearer than others, like those involving physical contact. Some types are less obvious.
Gaslighting is one such example. When a person gaslights you, they manipulate you so that you doubt yourself. The motivation for gaslighting is often exerting control over the other person.
There are several kinds of non-physical abuse, some of which include:
- verbal abuse, such as name-calling
- emotional abuse, like gaslighting
- economic abuse, when an abuser takes complete control of their spouse’s money
- identity abuse, like threatening to out someone as LGBTQ+ against their wishes
Maybe your abuser tries to isolate you from your friends and family. Or maybe they blame you for their own mistakes or unwanted behavior. They might monitor and interrogate you.
Spotting these types of abuse is an important step in breaking your trauma bond.
If you don’t recognize certain behaviors as abusive, there’s a chance you might internalize their distorted messaging.
However, if you can spot the abuse tactics, you can start to distance yourself from your trauma bond.
If you pay attention to your thoughts, you may find that many are negative and mirror your abuser’s treatment. This is something you can change.
For example, imagine you drop a dish and it breaks. Your reflexive thought might be “I’m so clumsy!” A more helpful alternative might be: “I’m usually more coordinated, but I’m tired. I didn’t get much sleep last night.”
The second option takes the fault away from you and accurately frames the event as an accident. It also gives you a constructive suggestion: try to get more sleep.
If you’re caught in a trauma bond, chances are you spend a lot of your energy trying to please your abuser. It can be exhausting, and the futility of your efforts can eat away at your self-esteem.
Instead, turning your care efforts back onto yourself can rejuvenate your spirits. Focusing on self-care can help.
It can also give you some valuable perspective. Unless you remind yourself of what it means to receive respectable treatment, you may lose sight of what your abuser has taken from you.
Recognizing apologies without change
Your abuser may not always be difficult. They might apologize and treat you well between abusive outbursts.
This doesn’t undo the damage from abuse. In fact, it can worsen the situation because it makes it harder for you to leave.
If you remember that apologies don’t count when they’re followed by more abusive behavior, this can help break your trauma bond.
Finding professional support
A therapist trained in the effects of trauma can help you reframe the thought processes that keep you in your trauma bond. Therapists trained in trauma-informed care understand the impact that adverse experiences can have on mental health.
Instead of asking what’s different about you, they seek to understand what’s happened to you.
Trauma therapy may enable you to heal from the abuse you’ve experienced and extract yourself from the trauma bond you share with your abuser.
It’s important to find the right therapist. Research has shown that when practitioners aren’t trained in trauma care, providing this service can be retraumatizing for the client, and traumatizing for the therapist.
There is never a justification for abuse.
You might think the other person is treating you badly because you’ve disappointed them. Even if you did make a mistake, you’re human. No mistake should have abuse as a consequence.
Trauma bonds can be difficult to escape, but there are ways to distance yourself emotionally from your abuser. Recognizing abuse for what it is rather than internalizing mistreatment is an important first step.
Reaching out for support from a trauma-informed therapist can also help.
You’re not alone in your situation, and there’s a range of resources available:
- Casa de Esperanza (in Spanish)
- Hope Recovery
- National Center on Domestic Violence, Trauma & Mental Health
- National Child Abuse Hotline
- National Coalition Against Domestic Violence
- National Domestic Violence Hotline
- National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center
- National Resource Center on Domestic Violence
- National Sexual Assault Hotline
- Pathways to Safety International
- The National Center on Violence Against Women in the Black Community
You may sometimes feel overwhelmed, so it might help to read some success stories like the ones featured at Partnership Against Domestic Violence.