Trauma bonding can keep people trapped in abusive relationships. But what is it and how can you spot the signs? Here, we look at toxic ties and their causes...
‘The anger burns and erodes the soul. Yet they stay.’ Patrick Carnes, The Betrayal Bond
We often think of bonds as positive things — as the shared experiences, loyalty and promises that tie us to other people, whether that’s family, friends or romantic partners.
Yet some bonds can be damaging and toxic. They can keep us trapped in painful, confusing and even abusive relationships year after year, feeling unable to leave. This is because leaving can sometimes feel more painful than staying in the relationship. Yet why is this the case?
What a lot of people don’t realise is that a toxic bond — otherwise known as a ‘trauma bond’ — isn’t just a relationship with some unhealthy elements. Rather, what makes a trauma bond so hard to break free from is that it is often the pain, suffering and drama that creates the bond itself.
So just like a rope woven by poisoned threads, a trauma bond is not an attachment marred by some unhealthy parts, but an attachment that is partly or wholly created from those unhealthy parts. This creates a high intensity relationship that can tie two people together tightly, addicting them to each other and making it feel impossible to break away. And although a trauma bond can be with anyone (including a parent, sibling, friend, spiritual leader or even a boss), this blog post will focus on romantic partners. That said, a lot of the information here will be applicable to other kinds of toxic relationships too.
Once we begin to understand how trauma bonding works and why it is so powerful, we can start to move forward and gain clarity. This begins by being able to see the attachment for what it is and then committing to breaking free. However, the starting point for this can sometimes be in asking yourself ‘How did I become so hooked in the first place?”
‘Betrayal is the sense of being harmed by the intentional actions of a trusted person.’ Patrick Carnes
Most of us have heard of ‘Stockholm Syndrome’, the phenomenon that causes hostages to sympathise with their kidnappers. The name originates from a famous bank robbery in Sweden in 1973, where four people were taken hostage for six days. When they were rescued, they actually tried to protect the robbers as they had formed attachments with them. In trying to understand how this could have happened, psychologists began to uncover the process of trauma bonding. And they began to realise that it didn’t just apply to hostage situations but to other dynamics like cults, families and romantic relationships.
Essentially, trauma bonding is a process where an abused person forms an unhealthy attachment with a person who is abusing them. However, the trouble with trauma bonding is that the person experiencing it might be totally blind to the process. To them, the relationship can feel like a powerful love — they may not even realise that it is abuse at all.
Also, trauma bonds tend to happen to people who have experienced an earlier ‘betrayal’ in childhood. This betrayal could be anything from physical abuse to emotional neglect to abandonment from a parent. But whatever it is, it needs to be acknowledged so that healing can start to take place and toxic ties broken.
Abuse dynamics can be hard to see clearly. For a whole host of reasons that we will look at, they can masquerade as a ‘passionate romance’ or ‘soulmate experience’. But if you think that you might be unhealthy attached to someone, then here are seven key signs:
Trauma bonds develop for complex reasons and there can be social, cultural, psychological, emotional, spiritual, sexual and physiological elements. However, here are some of the key reasons why people can get trapped in this dynamic:
This is a powerful process where someone is showered with love, affection and affirmation at the beginning of a relationship as a manipulation technique. For this reason, it’s no surprise that ‘love bombing’ is a classic recruitment tactic of cults and other controlling organisations. However, love bombing never lasts and as soon as the person is hooked they suddenly find demands being made on their time, energy and attention. Suddenly, all of that ‘love’ becomes conditional but because the person is now terrified of losing it, they can be very easy to control.
And it is actually the same with romantic relationships. In fact, one of the hallmarks of an abuser is that they will love bomb a potential partner in the early stages of a relationship (usually from six weeks to six months). This can include showering them with gifts, giving them compliments, whisking them out on romantic dates, fixing things around their home and wanting to spend every minute with them. Although this kind of behaviour could feel seductive to anyone, a person with a trauma background, or who has low-self-esteem, or feels lonely or unloved, is particularly vulnerable to it. In fact, abusers and controlling people know this and can sense when someone is wounded.
However, once the person is reeled in their new partner changes abruptly. They might become distant, demanding or critical, or could even lose their temper and behave abusively. Afterwards, this will probably be followed with apologies and more love bombing. And because you desperately want the ‘good times’ back, you might find it hard to walk away at these first red flags. And so the abuse cycle begins, with periods of closeness, tension, explosive incidents, apologies and renewed closeness, followed by a build up of tension again.
What’s important to understand is that love bombing is actually the start of the abuse cycle, not something separate from it. In understanding this, you will realise that the initial ‘perfect’ honeymoon period of your relationship was anything but that.
One reason that people get trapped in abuse cycles is because of the ‘story’ that they tell themselves about the relationship. Dr. Patrick Carnes, author of The Betrayal Bond, describes this as the ‘sustaining fantasy’ or ‘supportive script’. In essence, the way you frame a relationship in your head can create a really powerful alternative reality. And this false reality can stop you from seeing your partner — or the way they treat you — clearly and rationally.
Stories can include: ‘She really loves me underneath it all’, ‘Things will be better when he stops drinking’, ‘I can be the one to save her’, ‘He’s my soulmate so I can’t leave’, ‘I’m the real problem so if I can learn to be better, our relationship will be better’ or ‘Everyone says what a good person she is — look at how much work she does for charity’.
The problem with these stories is that even when the behaviour or attitudes of the partner seems to contradict them, this is often ignored. The story becomes the overriding truth and anything that supports it, no matter how small, is seized upon as ‘evidence’ (‘He was really nice to me on my birthday’). However, anything that contradicts it, such as serial infidelity, is either buried or becomes part of the story (‘He is only unfaithful when he feels insecure, so I just have to show him how much he is loved’).
Yet as pointed out by Carnes, ‘Loyalty to that which does not work, or worse, to a person who is toxic, exploitative, or destructive to you is a form of insanity.’
People with adverse or abusive experiences in their childhoods are much more at risk of making unhealthy partner choices in adulthood and forming trauma bonds as a result.
This is for two key reasons: firstly, because unhealthy relationships were normalised when they were young, meaning that they can feel familiar and even ‘like home’. Secondly, because they might be trying to ‘fix’ old childhood wounds by recreating them in adulthood. For instance, by choosing an emotionally cold partner and trying to get them to commit, in order to fix the wound of a parent ‘abandoning’ them.
This process is usually totally unconscious — the traumatised person has no idea that they are entering a relationship that will dredge up old wounds. Instead, it can feel as if they are magnetically pulled to a certain type of romantic partner again and again, for instance avoidant, abusive or addicted people. And the process of trying to help, heal or rescue the person can keep them locked in, convinced that a happy and healthy relationship is just on the horizon. In the words of Carnes, ‘You may even try to explain and help them understand what they are doing — convert them into non-abusers’.
That is why, in trying to understand a trauma bond, it can be useful to try to trace its roots back to your early years. What previous relationship does your current one remind you of? What old pain could you be trying to heal?
Intermittent reinforcement is a hallmark of trauma bonding. It basically describes the process where a person randomly gives out psychological or emotional ‘rewards’ (such as affection, praise or sex) to their partner, yet mixes this in with distant, critical or abusive behaviour. For instance, they may shower you with gifts one day, then be angry or avoidant the next. The key to intermittent reinforcement is that there is no rhyme or reason to it — sometimes you get Jekyll and sometimes you get Hyde, without ever really knowing why. The worst aspect of this dynamic is that studies have shown that it actually triggers the addiction centres of the brain. This can keep you hooked on a person like a drug, eventually mistaking the highs and lows of a rollercoaster relationship for true intimacy and love.
For a relationship struck in this dynamic, then there is little consistency, security or reliability. For this reason you might fixate on figuring out the reasons for your partner’s switches in behaviour, so that it feels more predictable and even controllable. But no sooner do you think you’ve hit upon a solution (‘They seem nicer to me when I let them have their way’), then the goalposts move or the ‘rules’ are turned upside down again.
According to domestic abuse expert Lundy Bancroft, author of Why Does He Do That?: “The abuser’s mood changes are especially perplexing. He can be a different person from day to day, or even from hour to hour. At times he is aggressive and intimidating, his tone harsh, insults spewing from his mouth, ridicule dripping from him like oil from a drum...At other moments, he sounds wounded and lost, hungering for love and for someone to take care of him...Sooner or later, though, the shadow comes back over him, as if it had a life of its own.’
Eventually, your life might be dominated by trying to psychoanalyse your partner, or ruminating things you might have said or did to trigger their changes. This can put you into a permanent state of hypervigilance, where your whole life revolves around trying to ‘read’ the moods of someone else. However, the problem is that you won’t find any underlying patterns in their behaviour because they don’t exist. In fact, that’s what makes intermittent reinforcement so powerful — it is random but in trying to figure the person out, you get pulled deeper in.
With this in mind, is it the case that abusive partners use intermittent reinforcement on purpose as a method of control? The truth is that it probably differs from relationship to relationship — in some cases it is intentional and manipulative, in others it might not be. Yet by trying to work out a person’s motivations for behaving this way you are still fixating on them, which simply reinforces the addiction. Rather, the key to breaking free is to realise that their shifting moods have nothing to do with you and how ‘good’ a partner you are being (even if that’s what they claim). Instead, it is an internal force working inside of them that makes it impossible for them to show up as steady, safe and consistently loving. In other words, their behaviour is driven by deep-seated fear, rage, insecurity, entitlement, instability and control, none of which you are to blame for.
It’s also crucial to understand that there is a chemical and physiological element to trauma bonding. Once you know this it can help to break the spell, because you realise that what feels like an intoxicating ‘soulmate’ experience might just be your brain and body being chemically hijacked.
Essentially, toxic relationships can put you in a permanent fight-flight state, ‘flooding’ your system with addictive, high intensity hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. Eventually you can come to crave these high-impact hormones, finding life dull or unstimulating without them. Added to this, when your partner dishes out random kindness or attention you can also get a rush of feel-good hormones like dopamine and oxytocin. Together, all of these create a heady, addictive cocktail that can cause people to experience feelings of physical withdrawal when they are away from their partner.
What is so powerful about a trauma bond is that both the cause of your painful feelings and the source of comfort that soothes them is actually the same person. This partly explains why some people stay in domestic violence cycles, where the person who hurts them is the same person who acts kindly to them afterwards. In the words of Patrick Carnes, ‘It is also the soothing, medicating and nurturing that is part of the betrayal bond.’
A trauma bond can unleash a whole set of powerful, intense chemical reactions that can be very hard to live without. And this chemical dependency can feel like an all-consuming love, making more steady attachments seem ‘dull’ in comparison.
Breaking a toxic tie isn’t easy, it can take time and can sometimes be a ‘one step forward, two steps back’ process. But here are a few steps you can take to move forward:
A trauma bond isn’t intimacy, it’s intensity. It isn’t true love, it’s addiction. It isn’t soulmates, it’s wound-mates.
Of course none of this makes it easy to leave, especially if you feel a deep and powerful attachment to your partner. But just by recognising that you’re trapped in a toxic bond, you are taking the crucial first step in waking up from the ‘trance’ of it. The next step is to stay awake.
A good starting point is to start a diary of your relationship (although if your partner is violent or threatening, make sure to keep this carefully concealed). You can use your diary to note down any upsetting, confusing or abusive incidents, so that you have a record of them. Even if you don’t view your partner as abusive, a diary can still help you to get the relationship clear in your head and stop romanticising it or escaping into fantasy or ‘the story’. For instance, if your partner has a pattern of pulling away every time you get close, then a diary can help you to notice that and know that it’s not ‘just in your head’.
However, remember that the point of the diary is not to obsess over your partner further or use it to psychoanalyse them. Instead, it is a tool for you to stay awake to any issues, so that if they later deny any problem behaviour (or try to deflect blame onto you), you will have a record to look back on. Everything will be there in black and white, so that you can’t be ‘gaslighted’ about it (in other words, made to doubt your perceptions).
By understanding what is missing from a trauma bond, you can stay awake to the reality of it and avoid being sucked in again. You can break free of the illusion of it being a ‘soulmate experience’ or a ‘powerful love’ and see what is really happening.
A genuinely close and loving relationship might have its ups and downs, but it is not a rollercoaster of highs and lows. It is not constantly filled with drama, mystery or intrigue. No one is trying to ‘rescue’ anyone else or being held responsible for another person’s feelings. No one is trying to control anyone through guilt tripping, accusations or intimidation. No one feels in danger from the other.
And while there is no such thing as a perfect relationship, a healthy bond will include:
You will largely be able to communicate issues to your partner and be listened to — even if you might need to work on improving your communication at times. You will be able to compromise and work through problems together without being shamed, criticised or shunned. And while there might sometimes be tensions or disagreements, you will never, ever feel unsafe.
Understandably, if you’re carrying trauma from your childhood then you might not know what a healthy bond looks like as it might never have been modelled to you. Your parents could have separated when you were young, or been trapped in a trauma bond themselves, or been emotionally distant or abusive. That is why it’s really important to start learning about healthy relationships and what it looks like when both people’s needs carry equal importance.
One of the most powerful aspects of a therapeutic relationship is that it lets you practice having a healthy bond with another person in a safe and structured way. In other words, a good therapist can model what it is like to be non-judgmentally seen, heard, respected, understood and supported. The therapeutic relationship is one in which your emotions and needs can take centre stage and you can experience what it feels like to have your needs taken seriously and met. And once you have experienced this, you will then know what to look for in other kinds of relationships in your life.
Approaches that can help with trauma bonding include EMDR and body-focused psychotherapies. These kinds of therapy can take you back to any original root childhood traumas that have made you vulnerable to toxic relationships in the first place, helping you to process them safely and release them.
Psychodynamic Therapy can also be helpful as it will explore all different aspects of your life and past, including your childhood, family relationships and unconscious drives. Eventually, you can become more aware of your hidden impulses, helping you to understand why you are staying in a toxic relationship. Similarly, Schema Therapy can help you to explore how unmet childhood needs might be causing you to be attracted to the wrong people. And once you become aware of the patterns these needs create, you can start to break free of them.
If your next step is deciding to leave your relationship, then put an exit plan in place and seek support from people close to you. This is especially important if you think you might be under any kind of threat of harm from your partner. Remember that people are often at most risk when exiting a toxic relationship, so you may need to be discreet about your plans.
And if you feel that you don’t have anywhere to turn to for help, then don’t feel ashamed about seeking outside support. Very often, trauma bonds can put us in a state of isolation, distancing us from friends and loved ones. But help is out there and this list of UK resources for both men and women is a good starting point.
Trauma bonds are hugely challenging on many levels. They can be filled with too much fantasy to see things clearly, too much drama to make rational decisions, and too much addiction to break away. But in recognising a toxic attachment for what it is, you can see through the smoke and mirrors that keeps you mesmerised. You can step out of illusion into reality, then move forward into a better future. You can break free of the trauma bond for good and start properly living.
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