Trauma Bond Addiction: Why Victims Return To Their Abusers

— Reviewed by Dr. Sandip Roy.

Trauma bonds are strong emotional connections that an abuser builds with the victim to make it hard for them to leave the relationship.

The victim develops a desire to please their abuser, even at the cost of more torture.

Like any addiction, where the addict knows repeating the behavior will harm them, but they can’t stop themselves.

“None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free.”– Goethe

Stop justifying an abuser’s actions with “hurt people hurt people” sentiments.

Addiction of Trauma Bonding

Trauma bond addiction happens in abusive relationships, where short moments of kindness interrupt long periods of harsh treatment. This pattern leads to an addictive cycle, with the victim craving their abuser’s occasional warmth, praise, and validation.

This keeps drawing them back into the abusive cycle, believing that they can change the abuser into a better person.

The victim acts like a drug addict, triggered by the release of dopamine and oxytocin in their brain. These chemicals make humans feel happy and rewarded. They get released during the brief periods when the abuser shows love and care.

Even though the victim knows they might face more mistreatment by going back, they feel a strong urge to go back to their abuser. They seek those brief moments of connection and validation, trying to re-experience their abuser’s love again.

Key Features of Trauma Bond Addiction

  • Repetition Compulsion: Repetition compulsion occurs when a victim of emotional trauma looks for similar situations in an attempt to resolve the original trauma. They enter new toxic relationships, aiming to “fix things this time.” However, since this urge is mostly unconscious, they end up repeating similar patterns with the new abuser. This often deepens the existing trauma instead of resolving it.
  • Toxic Dependency: Trauma bonding builds up a toxic dependency on the person giving the trauma, as victims often endure abuse out of fear, to avoid further abuse. It shows the unyielding nature of addiction, even creating the illusion of “getting better at walking on eggshells” around the abuser.
  • Similar to Drug Addiction: The intense mental and emotional reactions in trauma bonding are similar to those in drug addiction.
  • Craving for Approval: The victim’s urge to seek the abuser’s approval is so strong that they are often ready to overlook potential harm.
  • Cycle of Abuse and Reward: The abuser’s inconsistent pattern of punishment and reward creates a cycle that strengthens the bond, trapping the victim.
  • Driven by Brain Chemistry: Brain chemicals like dopamine and oxytocin, released during trauma bonding, reinforce the connection, much like chemical addiction.
  • Unpredictable Kindness and Cruelty: The abuser’s irregular shifts between being kind and cruel cause strong emotional responses in the victim, adding to the bond’s intensity.
  • Intense Desire to Please: The victim’s overwhelming need to please the abuser and earn occasional affection turns into an addiction-like compulsion, where the desire for validation overshadows the presence of abuse.
Trauma Bonding Addiction

What Causes Trauma Bond Addiction

These are the six possible causes of trauma bonding addiction formation:

1. Intermittent Reinforcement

Intermittent reinforcement, also known as inconsistent reinforcement, refers to the abuser’s unpredictable pattern of kindness and cruelty.

Instead of receiving a reward or punishment every time a behavior occurs, intermittent reinforcement involves receiving the reward or punishment only occasionally or at random intervals.

This inconsistency creates a “slot machine” effect, where the victim becomes addicted to the rare moments of kindness, making the bond difficult to break.

The “slot machine” effect occurs in gambling, where the occasional wins or payouts are examples of intermittent reinforcement. The uncertainty of when the next win will occur keeps people engaged and motivated to continue playing.

Examples of Intermittent Reinforcement:

  • The Unpredictable Partner: Imagine a romantic relationship where one partner showers the other with love and affection one day, and then becomes cold and distant the next. This unpredictable behavior keeps the victim on edge, always hoping for the return of the loving behavior. The rare moments of kindness become highly valued, and the victim becomes addicted to seeking those moments, despite the frequent cruelty.
  • The Inconsistent Parent: Consider a parent who praises their child for good behavior but also unpredictably lashes out with harsh criticism or punishment. The child never knows when they’ll receive praise or punishment, creating a constant state of anxiety. The child becomes desperate for the parent’s approval and affection, forming a bond that feels like an addiction.
  • The Manipulative Boss: Think of a workplace scenario where a boss gives an employee positive feedback and promises of promotion, only to later belittle them in front of colleagues. The employee becomes trapped in a cycle of seeking the boss’s approval, working harder and harder to please them. The intermittent reinforcement of praise and criticism creates a dependency that mirrors addiction, making it difficult for the employee to break free from the toxic work environment.

Intermittent reinforcement is an operant conditioning technique that trains the desired behavior to take place (Alexander, 2013).

It is often exploited by abusers, who use a mix of kindness and cruelty, reward and punishment, or intermittent abuse and intermittent love. They make the victim repeat a certain behavior, making it more resistant to extinction.

For example, an abuser might plant in a victim the constant need to seek approval or validation. They may intermittently praise or criticize the victim for specific actions or behaviors, creating a pattern where the victim becomes increasingly desperate to please the abuser.

The victim becomes hooked on the moments of kindness and validation. But its inconsistency keeps them on edge, constantly trying to figure out what will please the abuser and avoid their wrath.

This need for validation becomes ingrained and resistant to change, even when the victim recognizes the harm in the relationship.

There are 4 types of intermittent reinforcement (Prof. Sam Vaknin, 2022. False hope of hot and cold: intermittent reinforcement, trauma bonding, Approach-Avoidance [Video (False Hope of Hot and Cold)]):

  • Fixed interval schedule(FI)
  • Variable Interval Schedule (VI)
  • Fixed ratio schedule (FR)
  • Variable Ratio Schedule (VR)

2. Emotional Dependence

The victim may develop a strong emotional dependence on the abuser for validation and approval of their ideas, choices, and opinions.

This dependence often begins subtly, with the abuser giving affection and attention, only to withdraw it unpredictably.

Over time, this creates an overpowering need in the victim to seek the abuser’s validation, equating it with self-worth and personal value.

The dependence becomes so intense that it overshadows the reality of abuse, blinding the victim to the ongoing emotional or physical harm being inflicted upon them.

This emotional dependence is not unlike the craving experienced in substance addiction, where the need for the substance becomes a central focus of the individual’s life.

The victim’s entire sense of identity and self-esteem may become entwined with the abuser’s judgments and whims, making it incredibly difficult to break free from the toxic relationship.

3. Fear And Anxiety

The constant fear and anxiety created by the abuser’s unpredictable behavior can trap the victim in the relationship.

The emotional turmoil reinforces the bond, making it feel like an addiction. The constant fear of displeasing the abuser and the anxiety around their reactions can create a stress response.

This stress response may lead to a heightened state of alertness, where the victim is always on edge, anticipating the abuser’s next move.

Over time, this continuous state of fear and anxiety can become normalized, making the victim feel that this toxic dynamic is an unavoidable part of their relationship.

The victim may even start to believe that they deserve this treatment since they failed at pleasing the abuser. It further entrenches them in the abuse cycle and makes escape feel even more difficult.

4. Chemical Responses in the Brain

The intense emotional highs and lows of a trauma bond can trigger chemical responses in the brain similar to those in addiction.

The specific brain chemicals at play are mainly:

  • Dopamine, known as the “pleasure chemical,” triggers enjoyment during moments of validation from the abuser.
  • Oxytocin, the “love hormone,” fosters strong emotional attachment, while cortisol, the stress hormone, contributes to anxiety and fear.
  • Endorphins act as natural painkillers, helping the victim cope with emotional pain.

Together, they create a complex cycle of pleasure and pain (reward and punishment), mirroring the dynamics of addiction and making the trauma bond difficult to break.

The pleasure centers of the brain become activated during moments of validation, while withdrawal from the abuser may trigger pain and discomfort.

5. Lack of Control

The victim may feel a loss of control over their life and decisions, leading to a sense of helplessness.

This lack of autonomy further deepens the trauma bond, making it more challenging to recognize the abuse and break free.

Just like addiction, trauma bonding can create a feeling of powerlessness and lack of control. The victim may feel trapped in the abuse cycle, unable to break free despite understanding the harm.

The abuser’s manipulation and control tactics often exacerbate this feeling, making the victim doubt their own judgment and ability to make decisions.

This erosion of self-confidence can lead to a dependency on the abuser for validation and guidance, further entangling the victim in the relationship.

6. Isolation and Lack of Support

The abuser often isolates the victim from friends, family, and support systems. This isolation increases dependency on the abuser and contributes to the addictive nature of the bond.

Often, victims of trauma bonding become isolated from friends and family, either through their own withdrawal or the abuser’s manipulation.

This intensifies the craving for the abuser’s validation, as it becomes the primary source of emotional support.

The lack of external connections leaves the victim feeling trapped and alone, making the abuser’s influence even more powerful.

By cutting off alternative perspectives and sources of encouragement, the abuser ensures that the victim becomes increasingly reliant on them, further solidifying the trauma bond.

Why does a victim go back to their abuser or find a new abusive relationship after a breakup?

A victim may return to their abuser or find a new abusive relationship due to the intense emotional connection formed through trauma bonding.

Tactics like love bombing and inconsistent reinforcement create an addiction-like dependency that can make separation incredibly painful.

Also, because our brains want to heal past trauma, we tend to seek out similar situations hoping to “fix things this time” and resolve the situation.

But the new abuser finds new ways to hurt us, and this repetition compulsion actually deepens the existing trauma. Ultimately, we repeat the same patterns with this new abuser.

The abuser’s manipulation, such as gaslighting and exploiting vulnerabilities, often erodes the victim’s self-esteem and self-worth, leading to a belief that they deserve the abuse and the abusive person.

The complex interplay of these factors can create the mindset that the abuse is normal or deserved.

This sad “trauma-deservingness” mindset can further deepen the addictive pattern where the victim feels compelled to return to the abusive relationship or seek out similar abusive elements in new relationships.

Moreover, the abuser may socially isolate the victim and control their money, so the victim can’t leave or afford to stay on their own. This further entrenches the craving for the abuser’s “kindness.”

The Science Behind Trauma Bonding

Dutton & Painter developed the theory of traumatic bonding.

They used the term “traumatic bonding” to describe powerful and destructive emotional attachments that develop between a victim and a perpetrator in a unidirectional relationship.

Traumatic bonding is seen in battered women toward their abusers (Battered Women’s Syndrome, Dutton & Painter, 1993), maltreated children toward their caregivers, and survivors of sex trafficking (Casassa & Ploss, 2023). 

The victim and abuser’s connection in trauma bonding is complex and layered, involving both emotional and physical aspects. What we know, from a scientific point, are these:

  • Chemical Responses: Brain chemicals like dopamine and oxytocin released during trauma lead to intense emotional responses. They create strong emotional connections, similar to the mixed feelings of fear and excitement on a roller-coaster ride.
  • Addiction-Like Symptoms: In an abusive relationship, the continuous cycle of punishment and reward triggers addiction-like on-off symptoms. It mirrors the temporary escape found in substances like alcohol or activities like gambling.
  • Intermittent Reinforcement: The random pattern of punishment and reward, known as intermittent reinforcement, strengthens the trauma bond. What is powerful here is the unpredictability of the kind gestures. Since the victim isn’t sure when the next dose of validation and affection will come, they keep going through the pain with hopes for good moments. This deepens the bond.
  • Resistance to Change: The mix of chemical responses and intermittent reinforcement makes trauma bonding incredibly powerful and difficult to break. The victim keeps hoping that things will improve, and that they can bring about that positive change in their abuser. This creates a resilient attachment that can endure ongoing abuse.

Insecure attachment theory also provides insight into traumatic bonding. Dutton and Painter (1993) suggested that intermittent abuse corresponds to a traumatic bonding type of attachment.

This study suggests the three components that make a victim of intimate partner violence reluctant to leave their partner are:

  1. Core, justifying an abuser through cognitive distortions;
  2. Damage, ongoing psychological effects of abuse; and
  3. Love, the belief that one’s survival depends on the love of an abuser.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5; American Psychiatric Association, 2022) includes “Identity Disturbance due to Prolonged and Intense Coercive Persuasion” under its Other Specified Dissociative Disorder (OSDD) category. It may clinically describe traumatic bonding.

Final Words

A traumatic bond is created from a recurring abusive cycle that is occasionally broken up by small acts of kindness. So, it’s basically a series of many punishments with a few blips of rewards.

Stop justifying your abuser’s actions with “hurt people hurt people” sentiments.

It is a sick idea to resolve your trauma by hurting others in revenge. No matter how tough someone’s childhood was, it does not give them a right to hurt you or others.

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