Trauma bonding is a hard-to-break psychological connection that is similar to Stockholm syndrome.
We know Stockholm syndrome from movies, as an unexplainable emotional attachment that the kidnapped and traumatized victim grows toward their abuser.
However, trauma bonding is more sinister because the abuser here is related to the victim via dating or partnership, or marriage.
Moreover, the trauma inducer does not reciprocate the victim’s good behavior with positive feelings or actions.
What is trauma bonding in relationships?
Trauma bonding is a result of interpersonal trauma in which the victim interprets the perpetrator’s fear-causing behavior as venerating gratitude for being allowed to survive (Reid & Haskell, “Trauma Bonding and Interpersonal Violence,” 2013).
Reasons why trauma bonding occurs in relationships
There is no widely accepted psychological theory to explain how perpetrators of trauma emotionally bind their victims to them.
However, it has been proposed that trauma bonding may occur when the abuser alternately showers the victim with love and compassion and then subjects them to cruelty and abuse.
Trauma bonding is also seen as a coping mechanism that allows the victim to rationalize the abuse and maintain a sense of hope that the abuser will change their behavior.
Even in the face of ongoing abuse, the victim may feel a sense of loyalty or love for their abuser. It is because the intermittent positive experiences create a strong emotional bond.
The victim keeps seeking the love that they assume the abuser is capable of giving. They further assume that if they loved the abuser, the abuser would love them back. This may cause the abuser to soften, stop further trauma, and eventually release them.
Types of relationships that develop trauma bonding
Trauma bonding can occur in any type of relationship, including romantic, familial, and professional relationships.
However, the general phenomenon of victims developing emotional attachments to their abusers or captors has been seen in situations of intimate partner violence, child abuse, hostage situations, human trafficking, and cults.
It is often a coping reaction to endure constant abuse in the expectation that the abuser will change for the better and the relationship will not fall apart.
Signs of trauma bonding in a relationship
Here are some common signs of trauma bonding in a relationship:
1. Emotional turmoil
Feeling like you are in a constant state of emotional turmoil. You may feel like you are walking on eggshells around your partner, or that you never know what mood they will be in.
Difficulty making decisions or standing up for yourself. You may feel like you have to constantly defer to your partner’s wishes, even if it goes against your own values or beliefs.
3. Inability to break up
Finding it hard to leave the relationship, even if you are unhappy. You may feel a deep emotional attachment to your partner, or fear for your safety or well-being if you try to leave.
4. Rationalizing abuse
Rationalizing your partner’s abusive or neglectful behavior. You may make excuses for your partner’s mistreatment, or believe that they are going through a tough time and will change their behavior eventually.
5. Social isolation
Feeling isolated from friends and family. Your partner may try to control who you see and talk to, or discourage you from spending time with people who could support you.
6. Low self-esteem
Experiencing low self-esteem or self-worth. Your partner may constantly criticize or belittle you, leading you to feel like you are not good enough.
If you are experiencing any of these signs, it is important to reach out for help and support.
There are resources available to help you get out of an abusive or unhealthy relationship and rebuild your life in a healthy and safe way.
Stages of trauma bonding in relationships
There is no established framework for the stages of trauma bonding in a relationship.
However, some experts suggest that trauma bonding can involve the following stages:
1. Attraction and infatuation (Love Bombing)
At the beginning of the relationship, the abuser may shower the victim with attention and affection, leading the victim to feel a strong emotional connection to them.
2. Trust Building & Co-Dependency Creation
The abuser may become servile to their intended target to impress them and win their trust. Gradually, they may take away most of their responsibilities to make the other person dependent on them.
3. Manipulation & Gaslighting
The abuser may start to mistreat the victim, either through verbal abuse, physical abuse, or neglect.
The victim may try to rationalize the abuse and believe that the abuser will change their behavior.
They usually put the victim through intense and incessant criticism.
4. Neglect, isolation, and discarding
The abuser may suddenly stop paying attention to the victim, leading the victim to feel abandoned and alone.
This may be followed by a return to the “honeymoon” phase, where the abuser again showers the victim with affection.
Victims of narcissistic abuse may feel isolated and alone, as the narcissist may try to control who they see and talk to, or discourage them from spending time with people who could support them.
They may also experience low self-esteem or self-worth, as the narcissist may constantly criticize or belittle them.
This may lead to a state of resignation and a loss of self-identity in the victim.
5. Addiction To Trauma Cycle
As this cycle repeats over time, the victim may become deeply emotionally attached to the abuser, even in the face of ongoing abuse.
They may feel a sense of loyalty or love towards their abuser and have a hard time leaving the relationship.
However, not all relationships involving abuse or neglect will follow this exact pattern, and the stages of trauma bonding may vary from person to person.
Trauma bonding in narcissist relationships
A trauma bond with a narcissist can involve a range of emotions and behaviors.
Narcissistic individuals are characterized by a lack of empathy, an inflated sense of self-importance, and a need for admiration from others.
They may manipulate and exploit others to achieve their own goals, and often have a distorted sense of reality.
In a relationship with a narcissistic partner, the victim may feel a strong emotional attachment to the abuser, even in the face of ongoing abuse or neglect.
The narcissist may alternate between showering the victim with attention and affection, and then subjecting them to criticism, manipulation, or abuse.
This cycle can create a strong emotional bond, as the victim may feel a sense of loyalty or love towards the abuser and hope that they will change their behavior.
It can be very difficult for the victim to break the trauma bond and leave the abusive relationship, as they may feel a deep emotional attachment to the abuser and fear for their own safety or well-being if they try to leave.
If you are in a relationship where you feel like you are being mistreated or abused, seek help from a trusted friend, family member, or professional. There are resources available to help you get out of an abusive or unhealthy relationship and rebuild your life in a healthy and safe way.
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Author Bio: Sandip Roy — a medical doctor, psychology writer, and happiness researcher, who writes on mental well-being, happiness, positive psychology, and philosophy (especially Stoicism).
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