What Is a Trauma Bond?
Trauma bonds form as a coping mechanism in response to the cycle of abuse, where moments of affection and manipulation alternate with violence, intimidation, and fear.
Trauma bonds cause the victim to become emotionally dependent on their abuser. The victim develops misplaced feelings of loyalty and love for someone who is harming them. They believe their abuser truly loves them, even though the relationship is toxic. The bond creates cognitive dissonance, where the reality of the abuse conflicts with the victim’s attachment to the abuser.
Trauma bonding often occurs in relationships involving domestic violence, child abuse, sex trafficking, cult indoctrination, and hostage situations. The repeated abuse combined with intermittent affection confuses the victim and plants seeds of doubt whenever they consider leaving. The trauma bond keeps them trapped in the relationship through a warped attachment to their abuser.
Signs of a Trauma Bond
Though it may seem counterintuitive, people who suffer abuse can become strongly attached to their abusers. This traumatic attachment causes the victim to feel bonded to their abuser through trauma. Several signs indicate a trauma bond has formed:
1. Feeling attached to the abuser – Even after incidents of abuse, the victim feels a strong emotional bond with their abuser and is unable to break free from the relationship. They may make excuses for their abuser’s behavior due to this emotional dependence.
2. Feeling responsible for the abuser – Victims may feel an extreme sense of responsibility for their abuser, believing they must take care of them. This leads to enabling abusive behaviors. The victim feels guilt about leaving or upsetting their abuser.
3. Downplaying the abuse – A victim bonded to their abuser will tend to minimize or downplay abusive incidents. They alter their perception of reality to rationalize staying in the abusive relationship.
Trauma bonds are complex psychological phenomena involving dysfunctional attachment and abuse amnesia. However, psychological treatment and support can help trauma victims safely detach from their abusers.
Why Do Trauma Bonds Form?
Trauma bonds often form due to the complex dynamics of the relationship between the abuser and the victim. Several key factors contribute to the development and strengthening of trauma bonds:
1. Intermittent Reinforcement
The abuser utilizes what is known as intermittent reinforcement. They will alternate between being extremely loving and caring to being emotionally or physically abusive. This creates an addictive push-pull dynamic for the victim, as they are conditioned to seek the “high” of the loving behavior, even if they have to endure poor treatment to obtain it. The inconsistency and unpredictability of the abuser’s actions strengthen the trauma bond.
2. Power Imbalance
There is invariably a power imbalance that favors the abuser. They maintain control through exploiting vulnerabilities, fear, intimidation, threats, and manipulation. The victim becomes dependent on the abuser and may be made to feel grateful for any affection or positive treatment they receive from their abuser. This unequal power dynamic binds the victim closer to the abuser.
3. Manipulation Tactics
Abusers use various tactics to manipulate their victims, such as gaslighting, isolation, verbal attacks, and degradation. This slowly erodes the victim’s self-esteem, confidence, and sense of reality.
The victim starts relying on the abuser for validation, further entrapping them in the relationship. The abuse, combined with occasional positive reinforcement, creates a maddening cycle for the victim as they try to reconcile their abuser’s behavior and earn their approval.
What Happens When a Trauma Bond is Broken?
When a trauma bond is broken, whether by choice or circumstances, it can feel devastating. The intense attachment and addiction fostered by the trauma bond do not simply disappear when the relationship ends. Instead, the trauma bond leaves an imprint that can trigger powerful withdrawal symptoms.
The pull of the trauma bond may make you feel like you have lost your soulmate or someone vital to your existence. Even if you know rationally that the relationship was unhealthy, the grief and sense of loss can be overwhelming. Loving feelings don’t always disappear right away. Letting go of someone you’ve become so attached to, even if that person mistreated you, takes time.
You are also likely to experience severe anxiety at the thought of life without your former partner. Trauma bonds create emotional dependency, where you rely on the relationship for a sense of meaning and validation. When it’s gone, the loneliness and emptiness can feel unbearable. You may desperately crave reassurance from your former partner and fantasize about reuniting.
In addition to grief and anxiety, trauma bond withdrawal often involves depression. As the loss sinks in fully, you may feel hopeless about the future. Depression can also arise from feeling that the relationship gave your life purpose. Healing will take time, self-care, and professional support if needed.
Common Trauma Withdrawal Symptoms
When a trauma bond is broken, it’s normal to experience a range of difficult emotions and physical symptoms as your body and mind adjust to the loss of the relationship. Some of the most common withdrawal symptoms include:
1. Sadness and crying spells – You may feel profound sadness after losing someone you have developed an intense attachment to, even if the relationship was unhealthy. Don’t be alarmed by sudden crying spells or feeling down for extended periods. This deep grieving process is natural. Allow yourself to feel and express these emotions fully.
2. Trouble concentrating – Trauma bonds flood your body with hormones that impair your ability to think clearly. After the source of those hormones goes away, you may initially struggle to concentrate, focus, or remember things. Don’t beat yourself up. Your brain needs time to readjust. Be patient with yourself and lower your expectations temporarily.
3. Physical pain or illness – Recovering from a trauma bond can manifest physically through headaches, stomach aches, tightness in your chest, changes in appetite, fatigue, insomnia, etc. The neural pathways that form the bond are deeply rooted in your body. As they unravel, your body needs nurturing and care. Get lots of rest, eat healthy foods, and treat any symptoms gently. This, too, shall pass.
How to Cope with Withdrawal
The loss of an abusive relationship can be incredibly challenging, even if, rationally, you know ending the relationship was the best decision. Here are some tips for coping with this difficult transition period:
1. Seek professional help: Consider speaking to a mental health professional, like a therapist or counselor. They can provide support and help you process the complex emotions you may be experiencing. Having an objective third party to confide in can make a big difference.
2. Join a support group: Know that you’re not alone. Consider joining a support group, either in-person or online, to connect with others who have gone through similar experiences. It can help to share stories and advice for coping.
3. Practice self-care: This is a crucial time to nurture yourself and prioritize healing. Get plenty of rest, eat healthy meals, avoid excessive alcohol consumption, and lean on your social support system. Engage in activities that bring you joy and comfort. Be extremely kind and patient with yourself during this challenging transitional time. With effort and compassion, you will get through this.
4. Find a new purpose. Reflect on your hopes, talents, and strengths. Set goals unrelated to the relationship. Volunteering, taking a class, adopting a pet – find a new purpose apart from the trauma bond.
Healing takes time, but it is possible. You can break free and reclaim your life with support, compassion, and effort.
Avoiding Future Trauma Bonds
The best way to avoid forming new trauma bonds is to recognize the warning signs early in a relationship. Trauma bonds often develop subtly over time, so pay close attention to any behaviors that seem controlling, emotionally abusive, or that undermine your self-worth. Notice if a new partner tries isolating you from friends and family or makes you feel like you can’t be yourself around them. These are red flags that could lead to an unhealthy attachment.
Focus on building your self-esteem and confidence through supportive relationships, therapy if needed, and exploring your interests and passions. When you have a solid sense of self-worth, you’ll be less vulnerable to manipulative or abusive people. Ensure you keep close friends and family who can provide reality checks when needed.
Having a strong support system helps you avoid falling into toxic relationship patterns again. While it takes time to heal from trauma bonding fully, you can break the cycle and find healthy love. With self-care, professional help if needed, and commitment to your growth, you can move forward to create the life you deserve.
When to Seek Help
Trauma bonds are extremely difficult to break, and professional support is highly recommended. However, there are times when it is essential to seek help from a mental health professional or call a crisis hotline:
1. If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts: The loss, grief, and trauma that comes with ending an abusive relationship can be overwhelming. Suicidal thoughts and feelings may emerge, especially during withdrawal. Do not hesitate to call a crisis hotline or visit an emergency room if you are concerned for your safety. There are caring people who want to help you get through this.
2. If you are unable to function: The emotional turmoil caused by trauma bond withdrawal may make it very difficult to get through your daily routines. If you cannot get out of bed, care for yourself, go to work/school, or complete other basic tasks, seek support immediately. A counselor can help you develop healthy coping strategies.
3. If you have an irresistible urge to contact your abuser: It’s common to miss your abuser desperately and want to get back in touch, even after horrific abuse. This urge may become so strong during withdrawal that you can’t resist acting on it. If you feel you are in imminent danger of contacting your abuser, tell a friend or loved one and have them help you resist. Getting professional help to overcome this urge is also recommended.
You don’t have to suffer through trauma bond withdrawal alone. Support and help are available, and you deserve to heal.
You Can Heal and Move Forward
Breaking a trauma bond is incredibly difficult, but with time, support, and self-care, you can move forward to healthier relationships. Though it may not seem like it now, the trauma bond will fade, freeing you from the attachment you currently feel. This process takes time and patience.
Focus on your growth and healing first. Make time for activities and people who bring joy, comfort, and stability. Attend support groups, seek counseling, or confide in trusted friends and family. Prioritize your needs, like getting enough sleep, eating well, and exercising. Practicing self-care will help you regain your sense of self outside of the trauma bond.
Your sense of attachment to the other person will lessen with concerted effort. In its place, you’ll start to rediscover your self-worth, confidence, and freedom. Though the road is long, take it one day at a time. Mark and celebrate your progress. Over time, it will get easier.
There is hope for healthy relationships in your future. For now, be gentle with yourself. This pain and loneliness you feel is only temporary. You have the strength to move forward and heal. Brighter days are coming. You deserve to be treated with respect, care, and love – and you will find it again. Have faith in yourself.