It’s well known that cutting ties with an abuser — whether they’re a relative, friend, or romantic partner — can feel difficult, if not impossible. One reason for that is trauma bonding: the intense bond that can develop within an abusive relationship. It can bring up questions like, “Do I really have to leave? I really love this person, but how do I stay?” explained Nadine Shaanta Murshid, associate professor of social work at University at Buffalo. We talked to Murshid to identify the signs of trauma bonding and the steps you can take to heal from it.
Warning: This story talks about domestic violence, which could be triggering to some readers.
What is trauma bonding?
A trauma bond is an emotional attachment that can grow out of an abusive relationship. It can happen when there is a pattern of intermittent harm or violence and intense positivity and kindness, reinforcing the emotional attachment. This back and forth between love and abuse can be a part of a cyclical pattern of abuse, said Murshid.
First, “you have ‘love bombing,’” Murshid said, aka when someone inundates you with attention, gifts, or compliments. That love bombing is often followed by abuse, which strengthens the bond. “And that attachment keeps reproducing itself,” she said.
In part, the abuser’s kindness makes it even harder to leave abusive situations, according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline. But that’s just one of many factors that make it hard to leave, like fear, shame, and, as Murshid explained, economic and emotional dependency.
Thing to know: Stockholm syndrome, where a survivor feels positively towards or empathizes with their abuser or captor, is a form of trauma bonding.
Where does trauma bonding show up?
Trauma bonding is common in romantic relationships,but it can also come up in other situations. Like…
Parent-child relationships (like in cases of child abuse).
Kidnappings (think: Patty Hearst).
Between coaches and athletes.
What are the signs of trauma bonding?
Some red flags for trauma bonding can look like…
Love bombing. Love bombing can be the start of an abusive cycle, and part of what establishes the trauma bond. Partly because, as Murshid explained, “There's always that hope that people will change and things will be better — because that's the thing with love bombing. It's so much love that it feels like, ‘If only things will just remain like this.’”
Isolation. You cut off relationships with friends and family to meet your partner’s demands.
Dependency. There is a power imbalance in the relationship. And you feel controlled by or dependent on the abuser.
Rationalization. You find yourself frequently rationalizing abusive behavior because ‘most of the time’ your abuser treats you well.
How to break a trauma bond:
Breaking a trauma bond isn’t easy, but it’s possible. Here are a few places to start:
Recognize the problem. The first step, according to Murshid, is to acknowledge that the trauma bond exists, “and that it's a situation that requires redress,” she said.
Avoid fantasizing. Instead of thinking about how a person ‘might’ change, remind yourself of their actual behavior, says the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
Avoid negative self-talk. That includes criticizing or blaming yourself. Replacing negative thoughts with positive affirmations is a part of the healing process, according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline. Because, reminder: Abuse is never your fault.
Reconnect with friends or family. People in trauma-bonded are often “very isolated” because their abusive partners insist on that, said Murshid. It’s one way for the abuser to continue to assert control and keep the victim attached to them. Social networks and connections with other people are really important “because what you really need is healthy attachment,” Murshid said.
Resources for survivors of abuse:
National Domestic Violence Hotline. Provides tools and support for survivors of domestic violence, 24 hours a day.
National Resource Center on Domestic Violence. Works to end domestic violence through education and advocacy.
Love is Respect. A project of the National Domestic Violence Hotline that provides resources available for young people about relationships, 24 hours a day.
Battered Women's Justice Project. Provides assistance to survivors charged with crimes and their defense teams.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Office on Women's Health. Provides links to resources by state.
Leaving an unhealthy or abusive relationship is rarely easy, despite what people on the outside might think. And trauma bonding makes it even harder. But there are resources and strategies to help break that bond.
If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline by calling 1-800-799-SAFE (7233), visiting www.thehotline.org or texting START to 88788.
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