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What is trauma bonding?

To get insight into what trauma bonding is, it can help to first understand the word “bonding”.

Bonding is essentially the process of nurturing connection – how we become emotionally attached to another person. It typically happens gradually – as we share more and more time with someone – and usually involves emotions like affection and trust.

Sometimes, however, these bonds can also be toxic.

The term “trauma bonding” was first used by Patrick Carnes to describe the misuse of “fear, excitement and sexual feelings” as a means to trap another person.

Trauma bonding is the glue that holds both victim and abuser together in a relationship. 

This toxic cocktail of “fear, excitement and sexual feelings” reinforces the cycle of abuse, and is how the abuser keeps their partner in the relationship.

It usually follows a pattern, characterised by four stages:

  • Build up of tension
  • Incident
  • Reconciliation
  • Calm

When we refer to an “incident” this might be in the form of a physical incident (i.e. domestic violence) or a verbal attack – which is therefore psychologically and emotionally damaging.

For those on the outside, it might be difficult to understand why the victim remains in the relationship. But leaving is often easier said than done. Not only is there likely to be a lot of fear involved in leaving but the relationship itself can feel like an addiction.

Types of trauma bonding 

Trauma bonds aren’t just limited to romantic relationships. They can happen between friends and family members too. They can even happen in the workplace – with a controlling or abusive boss, for example.

What are the signs of trauma bonding? 

The relationship feels like an emotional rollercoaster – The cycle of abuse is characterised by a lot of painful moments, interspersed with brief moments of calm.

Your arguments give you a “high” – the rush of cortisol when you argue, followed by the release of oxytocin and dopamine when you make up, can wrongly lead you to believe you’re in love. 

There’s breadcrumbing – the relationship isn’t completely devoid of “good” moments. There needs to be some level of affection to keep you hooked – but they are likely to be few and far between. These small moments of connection can end up feeling much bigger than they actually are because they’re in such stark contrast to how the relationship feels day-to-day

You feel stuck – you may fantasise about leaving your partner but you feel like you can’t. The support of a therapist can be crucial in this process as they can guide you in leaving the relationship in a safe way.

You find yourself justifying behaviour that you instinctively know is wrong – because you’re too scared to leave, you try to justify their bad behaviour. You might try to convince yourself that your partner will change or things will go back to “how they were”.

There’s a familiar dynamic to the one you had with a caregiver – trauma bonds tend to mirror toxic relationship patterns we had with a parent growing up.

Your friends and family have expressed their concern for you – you feel like you have to defend your reasons for staying.

Why does trauma bonding occur?

It’s all down to the reward system in the brain.

Living in such an emotionally-charged climate becomes intoxicating. The cycle of being devalued (and then rewarded) over and over can create a strong chemical bond between the abuser and the victim.

A cocktail of different hormones like oxytocin (bonding), opioids (pleasure, pain, withdrawal) and dopamine (reward) are responsible for this feeling.

When the abusive behaviour is happening, your cortisol levels are likely to be very high as you fear being hurt or abandoned. In this state, you’re desperate for dopamine – the reward hormone – which finally comes when your abuser calms down and “rewards” you with an apology or affection. It’s this cycle which reinforces the traumatic bond.

Trauma bonding in childhood – where it all started

Trauma bonding relationships in adulthood usually have their roots in childhood. 

If you experienced abuse, neglect or deprivation in childhood, you’re going to be more vulnerable to relationships that reflect this back to you in adult life.

A parent – or caregiver – is often the foundation of the original trauma bond. 

As children – and then as adults – we see the world through our experiences. The brain feels comfortable in the familiar, even if that familiar was unhealthy and painful. 

If your childhood was abusive or neglectful in some way – physically, emotionally or sexually – then there will be something familiar about this same behaviour in later life. It feels like “coming home”, even if home wasn’t a safe place to be.

The familiarity that comes with the relationship can mean you end up mistaking it for love.

How to break free from trauma bond relationships

As these kinds of relationship patterns are so often the result of unresolved past trauma, unravelling the roots of where it all started is usually necessary in order to heal. This will also enable you to heal the original trauma which left you vulnerable to the abuse in the first place – therefore ensuring it doesn’t happen again.

If you believe you’re in a trauma bond relationship right now, know that you’re not alone. A therapist can help you unpick what’s happening and guide you in navigating your way out of the relationship safely. As you work to heal this part of yourself, you will become more in touch with your authentic self, enabling you to form healthy, long-lasting and mutually-satisfying relationships.