Written by Sean Abraham, LCSW for Grow Therapy
Narcissistic Abuse Awareness and Guidance with Randi Fine
Domestic violence cases have increased recently, raising questions about what’s driving this trend. The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence reports that nearly 20 people in the United States are abused by their partners every minute. As a result, many of these victims develop trauma bonding, making it hard for them to leave their abusive relationship.
While trauma bonds may severely affect your health and well-being, finding the right support and resources can help victims recover. This post discusses trauma bonding, how to identify it, and how to heal and prevent it from happening again.
What is Trauma Bonding?
According to Jennifer Morris, a licensed therapist at Grow Therapy, “Trauma bonding is when a person feels an overwhelming feeling of connection, trust, loyalty, and dependence that has been developed between a victim and abuser. It often starts with emotional manipulation that is created by the abuser to build trust, which allows the victim to become attached or bonded. When someone is bonded by trauma, it can be extremely difficult to break, which will allow for the cycle to continue and the relationship even more challenging to leave.”
Trauma bonding may also coexist in any situation that involves one person abusing the other. For instance, it may occur in cases like:
While not all abusive incidents may trigger trauma bonding, certain indicators may help identify your situation. Common red flags that you can be on the lookout for include:
Feeling like the abuser is the only one who can meet your needs
Feeling grateful for the attention or affection given by your abuser
Justifying your partner’s behavior
Not believing threats made towards you by the abuser
Fear of expressing a burning issue because you don’t want conflict
Signs of Trauma Bonding
While trauma bonding may manifest differently, there are common telltales you can look out for. A trauma-bonded person may:
Deny abuse and feel it’s their fault they are abused
Avoid taking action despite repeated abuse
Experience manipulation, leading to isolation and secrecy from family and friends
Ignore red flags
Find it hard to leave the abusive situation
Think the abuser will change
Defend the abuser when someone tries to intervene
What Causes Trauma Bonding?
Trauma bonding may happen at any time during abuse, regardless of how long it lasts. The victim usually develops sympathy for the abuser, leading to repeated abuse and remorse. Additionally, trauma bonding may vary from person to person. However, in any person, trauma bonding may occur due to the following reasons:
Feelings of Attachment Towards the Abuser
In most cases, those who cause you pain may be people well-known to you. The Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network reports that 39% of sexual violence is committed by an acquaintance of the victim. In addition, they may be the same people who offer support and comfort in a time of need. Abusers could be your parents, close friends, or relationship partners.
Although they are abusing you, you may continue being with them to maintain the support and dynamics of your relationship. As a result, the abuser may take advantage of the situation to further manipulate you.
As you get attached to your abuser, you may develop deep bonds and emotional connections toward them. These emotions and the bond may make you vulnerable, leading to trauma bonding.
Relying On the Abuser
It’s possible to develop trauma bonds if you depend on the abuser to fulfill your emotional needs. The abuser may impose manipulative tactics that make you overly dependent on their support and security. As a result, the abuser may use your dependence on them to control you. As the cycle continues, you’ll develop strong bonds with them.
Power differentials between the abuser and the victim may also cause trauma bonds. It happens when the abuser has power, control, and authority over the victim. In such a situation, the victims may believe the abuser’s perceptions about themselves, leading to self-blames for the abuse.
Also, victims may feel incomplete without their abusers, making it hard to leave an abusive relationship.
Remorse After the Abuse
After the abuse, the perpetrator may be kind or show remorse and promise to change their behavior. As a result, the victims may be hopeful that the violence will end and the abuser will give the connection as promised.
Risk Factors for Trauma Bonding
The risk factors of trauma bonding may make victims develop empathy for their abusive partners. The following factors may make people susceptible to trauma bonding:
Insecure Attachment Styles
People with insecure attachment styles are likely to have trauma bonds as they don’t have the consistency and affection experienced in childhood. As adults, they may feel insecure in their relationships, worry about abandonment, and seek attention.
For instance, people with avoidant styles may feel the urge to be loved, even though they are somewhat uncomfortable with their relationships. Also, people with indecisive styles may want close relationships irrespective of a lack of security and find it impossible to create healthy boundaries.
Maltreatment During Upbringing
Because children are vulnerable, they may quickly develop emotional attachments with the perpetrators of their abuse. Their familiarity with repeated abusive situations may transition to adulthood. If they encounter an abusive relationship later in life, they may remember a similar situation in childhood. As a result, they may try to look for a comfort zone as they did during their younger days, even though it makes them unhappy.
Absence of a Support System
A support system helps to reduce the risk of violence and its adverse consequences in the future. However, overcoming a painful experience or an abusive relationship may be hard if you don’t have someone to help support and advise you.
Low self-esteem may result from unresolved emotional experiences, leading to a lack of confidence or inner growth. With low self-esteem, abuse victims may struggle to speak about their situation or seek help. Additionally, they may keep justifying the behaviors of their abusers, leading to more abuse.
Further, people with low self-esteem may develop a negative self-image about themselves. As a result, they don’t prioritize their needs and keep fearing abandonment, increasing the chances of trauma bonding.
History of Abuse
People previously exposed to abuse, such as childhood and sexual assault, are more likely to develop trauma bonds. Previous abuse may result in impaired self-growth and disrupted patterns, making it hard for them to identify and leave an abusive relationship.
Stages of Trauma Bonding
Trauma bonds begin in what may seem to be an excellent, healthy relationship before it changes to an abusive dynamic. While every trauma bonding situation is unique, they all tend to follow a pattern. Understanding these patterns can help victims identify their situation and break the cycle. The following are seven stages of trauma bonding:
1. Love Bombing
At first, you may deeply connect with your partner and experience euphoric moments. They may show you love and affection, making you think they’re your ideal partner.
2. Attaining Trust
At this stage, the abuser may do everything to ensure you fully trust them. They may propose commitment suggestions like getting married, making you feel guilty if you turn it down.
Over time, you’ll start feeling attached and dependent on them. Upon noticing, they’ll back up and distance themselves from the commitment. Eventually, you’ll crave their attention, indicating the start of a trauma bond.
3. Change to Criticism and Belittling
You may start noticing criticism and belittling after the love bombing. However, abusers might wait until you have trusted them fully. At this stage, your abuser may identify, criticize, and devalue some of your qualities.
Additionally, they might become more demanding and appear as if they are always uncomfortable with you. They will also make you feel it’s your fault and you deserve how they treat you.
4. Manipulative Gaslighting
Gaslighting makes you doubt your reality, beliefs, and perception. Your abuser may continuously give false information, causing you to question your feelings and experiences. Additionally, they may deny their abusive behaviors and blame all issues in the relationship on you.
While you may want to leave the relationship, it might not be easy, as you’re still wondering if you are to blame. You might realize there’s no noticeable progress despite your efforts to work things out in the relationship. As a result, you may give in to prevent further conflict.
6. Losing Yourself
With time, you’ll be exhausted from trying to work things out, and you may decide to do anything to keep the relationship alive. In addition, your self-esteem will be broken, and you’ll lose self-awareness and let go of your needs and desires. Also, you’ll start focusing on the needs and desires of your abuser.
7. Cycle Addiction
After a continuous conflict, the abuser may show remorse and apologize for their behaviors. They may also reintroduce love bombing, tricking you into staying in the relationship.
How to Heal From Trauma Bonding
While trauma bonds may seem challenging to break, healing is possible. You can overcome trauma bonds with time, patience, and great care. Also, using suitable therapies and support can help you heal.
According to Morris, “With the help of a licensed mental health professional specializing in trauma, the healing can begin with an acknowledgment of the bond and the results of the bonding. Individual therapy, self-esteem building, and self-care are vital in the healing process. Group therapy can be essential when viewing the situation from the lens of others. New boundaries and goals will need to be established to focus on forward personal growth instead of all of the past traumas. This is truly a journey, and it takes time, but healing can take place.”
Aside from professional help, there are other individual measures you can take to heal from a trauma bond. They include the following:
Educating yourself on what an unhealthy or abusive relationship looks like
Being aware of the present moment to identify any issues and move out of the relationship when needed
Give yourself some time to understand what the relationship is like and how abusive your partner can be
Observe self-care to relieve stress and anxiety and improve your mental health. Eat well, have a good sleep, and exercise.
Be honest with yourself. Abusive relationships can adversely affect your self-esteem. So, mind what you say to yourself. Remember, you have many positive qualities, so focus on them.
Ways to Prevent Trauma From Happening Again
While a history of trauma may make it harder for you to break trauma bonds, you can surely stop the cycle from happening again. Here are various ways you can break the cycle of trauma bonding:
The initial step of breaking a trauma bond is to realize your situation and what you are dealing with. Be sure to educate yourself on identifying signs of trauma bonding and what you can do before it’s too late. You may try the following:
Journaling what happened to you
Reading books or listening to podcasts about trauma bonding
Finding support from friends and loved ones
Refusing to blame yourself
Cutting off communication to avoid thoughts of going back
Shift Your Perspective
As you suffer from trauma bonding, you may spend time working on yourself and missing out on what’s happening with the relationship. So, pause for some time and focus on how your partner has treated you at every stage of the cycle. As a result, you’ll understand the specific behaviors that harm you in the relationship.
Accept the Reality
Thinking that the situation will change will only make things worse. While you might hope your abuser will stop the behavior, it’s time to accept the reality. Your abuser may not change, and trauma bonding will continue if you don’t take action.
Seek Help From a Professional
Trauma bonds may adversely affect your physical and mental health. It may lead to low self-esteem, stress, anxiety, depression, and PTSD. Find a therapist that’s right for you to help you overcome your situation and prevent related consequences.
Create a Safety Plan
According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, a safety plan allows you to outline measures for avoiding future abuse. It also includes personal information that helps to increase your safety in everywhere you are.
For immediate help, you can contact the National Domestic Violence Support Hotline at 800-799-7233, where someone can help you determine next steps.
How a Therapist Can Help
Trauma bonding may severely affect your health and overall well-being. However, understanding how to identify red flags and knowing the causes of trauma bonds can help you overcome them. In addition, identifying common patterns and seeking professional support is an effective method of overcoming them.
A therapist can use treatment options such as cognitive behavioral therapy and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, which can be helpful in processing through trauma and addressing trauma triggers and responses.
If you, a loved one, or someone you know is experiencing trauma bonding, a professional therapist can help you heal. At Grow Therapy, we can help you find a therapist — online or in-person — who specializes in your needs.
Sean Abraham is a licensed clinical social worker who works with those who have struggled with substance use, depression, anxiety, loss, communication problems, student life, as well as other mental health concerns.