Trauma Bonding Relationships Are Toxic and Incredibly Hard to Leave
There can be various barriers in place that prevent you from ending an abusive relationship, no matter how destructive it is.
One of the major reasons why people find it difficult to leave is that they have unknowingly developed an emotional attachment to their abuser. This response, known as a “trauma bond,” is formed through a repeated cycle of abuse followed by intermittent positive reinforcement and kind or remorseful behavior. In other words, just when you’re finally ready to walk out the door, the abuser pulls you back in by showering you with affection and reassurance of their love — but only until they’re back in control and can return to their usual routine of mistreatment.
“There is often a period where the abuser feels remorse, promises to not engage in the abusive behaviors, and is able to treat the abused in a respectful, healthy manner,” says Joshua Klapow, PhD, a clinical psychologist. “During this time, the abused sees a ‘glimmer of hope’ and reconnects emotionally with the abuser. As the abuse ramps up again, the abused person relies on these periods of non-abuse behaviors as justification for staying connected to the abuser.”
In a trauma bonding relationship, you may feel a strong sense of connectedness or even empathy for your abuser. Klapow notes that this often stems from the fact that your physical and emotional state, as well as a sense of safety or danger, is all dependent on the abuser.
“This complete dependence is so detrimental to one’s psychological well-being that the abused often uses defense mechanisms to cope with the experience,” he explains. “One of these is to find a way to see the abuser in a better light so that you’re able to rationalize the unthinkable behaviors.”
There are some pretty powerful biological processes at play here. According to psychotherapist and relationship expert Laurel Steinberg, PhD, the lows (fueled by stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol) during the abusive phase of the cycle make the highs (caused by an influx of feel-good hormones like dopamine and oxytocin) during the following phase feel so much higher.
“The highs experienced are so high that blind optimism for a happy future is restored so intensely that awareness of the abusive pattern is completely disregarded.”
Since it can be extremely challenging to identify this type of dynamic while you’re participating in it, experts say you should look out for the following tell-tale signs of a trauma bond.
5 Ways to Tell If You’re in a Trauma Bonding Relationship
1. You Feel Bad for Your Partner After They’ve Abused You
2018 research examining Stockholm syndrome — a specific type of trauma bond between a hostage and captor — suggested that it’s characterized by rationalizing the actions of the abuser.
According to Klapow and Steinberg, this is due to the fact that an abuser is often able to emotionally manipulate their partner into feeling compassion and understanding for their unacceptable behavior.
If the abuser has their own mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder, you may find yourself feeling sorry for them, or even dedicated to helping them “get better.” In other words, you feel needed by your abusive partner, which makes it even more difficult to leave.
2. You’ve Become More and More Isolated
When was the last time you spent quality time with your family or had a long catch-up with a friend? Can’t remember? Well, increasing isolation from social networks is a major sign that you may have a trauma bond relationship.
An abuser will try to limit your time with others, allowing them to maintain as much control over you as possible (and being privy to other people’s perspectives could empower you to leave). In fact, the force of a trauma bond is so strong that you may find that you’re actually distancing yourself from loved ones to keep the peace in your chaotic relationship.
“You may find yourself less interested in, or trusting of people other than the abuser,” notes Klapow.
3. You Often Edit Your Stories About Your Abusive Partner to Loved Ones
If you actually told the truth to your friends and family about your relationship, odds are they’d be incredibly concerned about your safety and try to convince you to end it. However, in a trauma bonding relationship, you may start strategically editing out certain details in order to present your abuser in a better light.
“More than rationalization, this is a blatant lie to others about the abusive behavior,” says Klapow. “You might tell others the abuse didn’t happen, lying about the causes or the damage or make excuses for them.”
For example, if your sister asks why she heard yelling outside your house the other day, you might tweak your explanation to make it look like the fight was your fault, make light of the argument, or neglect to share exactly how your abuser is the one who escalated things.
4. You Only Focus on the Good Stuff, Ignoring all the Bad
According to The National Domestic Violence Hotline, many survivors of relationship abuse claim that their partners are “perfect” or “wonderful” 90% of the time, and only behave badly 10% of the time. Fixating on all the times that your partner is kind to you can make it much easier to minimize or brush off the times that they’re not.
Being in an abusive relationship can constantly bring up negative emotions such as sadness, anger, frustration, hopelessness, and confusion. Still, you may hide these feelings from your abuser and others, only letting them out when you’re completely alone and it feels safe to release them. Meanwhile, you remind yourself of your partner’s loving behavior last weekend to make up for their harsh words, or the gift they bought you after a fight. You start to use all of their intermittent reinforcement as proof that they really do care about you while ignoring all the signs that they don’t.
“You tell yourself to hold on and not pay too much attention to the abuse, as ‘this, too, shall pass,’” explains Steinberg. “And perhaps you find happiness in the fact that your partner is paying attention to you, even if the attention is abusive.”
5. You Find Yourself Looking for Things You’ve Done Wrong
If you tolerate mistreatment by telling yourself that you’re the one who has been making mistakes, Steinberg says that’s a big red flag regarding formed trauma bonds. This justification isn’t only to yourself, either — it’s to others as well.
“You either explain why it wasn’t really abusive behavior, take the blame for the behavior, or find a reason for why it’s taking place,” says Klapow.
Believing you brought the abuse on yourself effectively cancels out the abuser’s need to change. In reality, abuse is never your fault.
One of the top signifers that you’re in a trauma bonding relationship is if you feel completely incapable of ending things, leaving you distressed at the thought of trying to even if you’re unhappy. Your abuser has used trauma bonding to effectively keep you feeling indebted to them, dependent on them, protective of them, and connected to them.
“Begin to examine how you are reacting to the abusive behavior,” says Klapow. “Are you seeing the abusive behavior or are you explaining it away?”
It can be helpful to start unpacking the relationship and your dynamic in therapy. An unbiased professional may be able to help you identify abusive tactics and regain your own sense of reality, which can get warped by gaslighting and other forms of manipulation. Once you’ve acknowledged that you’re trauma bonded to your partner, experts say it’s time to start thinking about your safety plan. This may include finding a safe place to live after moving out, changing your phone number, and making a list of organizations that may be able to assist you in leaving.
The National Domestic Violence Hotline emphasizes the importance of prioritizing self-care and positive self-talk while rebuilding your sense of self.
Lastly, keep in mind that developing a strong support network is key to breaking a trauma bond and healing from the abuse. Knowing that you can rely on trusted friends, family members, and mental health professionals will make it much easier to regain a sense of autonomy and make the best decision for your own safety and well-being.