How to Recognise and Break Traumatic Bonds
Updated: Nov 4, 2022
Leaving an abusive relationship usually isn’t as simple as walking out the door. Along with concerns about finding a place to live, supporting yourself, or being prevented from seeing your children or loved ones, you might feel tied to your partner, unable to break away.
This emotional attachment, known as a trauma bond, develops out of a repeated cycle of abuse, devaluation, and positive reinforcement.
The trauma of abuse might create powerful feelings you struggle to make sense of, especially when abuse alternates with kindness and intimacy.
It’s only natural to develop a bond with someone who treats you with kindness. Many abusive relationships begin with a shower of affection and assurances of love.
When the abuse begins, it may take you by surprise. Afterward, your partner might apologise, swear to change, or insist “I was just upset.”
These attempts to manipulate often succeed, since you remember the early days of the relationship and believe they can be that person again.
Trauma bonding can also happen between:
a child and an abusive caregiver or other adult
a hostage and kidnapper
the leader and members of a cult
Signs of a traumatic bond
Trauma bonds can look a little different depending on the type of relationship, but they tend to have two main characteristics:
1. A cyclical nature
First, they depend on intermittent reinforcement. In other words, a cycle of abuse.
It’s generally easier to leave a situation that’s entirely bad, one where the abusive person never offers any kindness or concern for your well-being. If you don’t believe someone will ever change, you probably won’t stick around.
But in abusive relationships, your partner occasionally does treat you well. They might bring you gifts, call you their soul mate, take you out, or urge you to relax.
These gestures can be confusing and disarming, especially if thought of as signs of permanent change.
Eventually, love begins to overshadow the fear of further abuse. As you slowly regain a sense of trust, you might ignore or suppress memories of their past behaviour until the cycle begins again.
2. A power imbalance
These bonds also rest on an underlying imbalance of power. In this dynamic, you might feel as if they control you to the point where you no longer know how to resist or break free.
Even if you manage to leave the relationship, you might have a hard time breaking that bond without professional help.
You might feel incomplete or lost without them and eventually return, simply because the abusive cycle is familiar and you don’t know how to live without it yet.
Other key signs
Here’s a look at some other characteristics of traumatic bonds:
You feel unhappy and may not even like your partner any longer, but you still feel unable to end things.
When you do try to leave, you feel physically and emotionally distressed.
When you say you want to leave, they promise to change but make no effort to actually do so.
You fixate on the “good” days, using them as proof that they truly care.
You make excuses and defend their behaviour when others express concern.
You continue to trust them and hope to change them.
You protect them by keeping abusive behaviour secret.
Trauma bonds can linger, even when the abuse happened long ago. You might struggle to stop thinking about someone who hurt you and feel the urge to reach out or try again.
Here’s a test that might help, though it’s not at all conclusive:
Ask yourself whether you’d encourage a loved one to leave a similar relationship. Answer honestly. If you answer yes but you still feel powerless to leave your relationship, that’s a good indicator of trauma bonding.
Why it happens
People who haven’t experienced abuse often struggle to understand why people remain in abusive relationships. They might believe you’re perfectly capable of leaving.
In reality, though, the trauma bond makes this extremely difficult.
People don’t choose abuse. They also can’t help the development of trauma bonds, which are driven by some pretty strong biological processes.
The freeze response
Perhaps you’re familiar with the fight-or-flight response, your body’s automatic response to any perceived threat. Maybe you’re even aware people respond to threats in four different ways: fight, flight, freeze, fawn.
When you face abuse or fear the possibility of future abuse, your brain recognises the impending distress and sends a warning to the rest of your body.
Adrenaline and cortisol (the stress hormones) flood in, jump-starting your survival instinct and triggering emotional and physical tension.
Here’s where the power imbalance comes into play: If you don’t feel as if you can safely escape or stand up to the person abusing you, freezing might seem like the best option, so you stay.
When thoughts of the abuse become too painful or difficult to bear, you choose to focus on the positive parts of your relationship and ignore or block the rest.
You might make excuses for them and justify their behaviour to rationalise your need to stay.
Each repetition of the cycle can reinforce this sense of powerlessness, the seeming certainty that you’ll never be able to escape. You come to believe the false reality they’ve constructed to control you: You need them. They need you. You’re nothing without them. No one else cares.
These lies can chip larger and larger blocks from your identity and self-worth, tying you more tightly to the relationship.
Hormones play a part, too
Hormones can be powerful reinforcers. You only have to look at dopamine’s role in addiction to find support for this.
Dopamine has a similar function in trauma bonding. After an incident of abuse, the period of calm that often follows can ease your stress and fear.
Apologies, gifts, or physical affection offered by the abusive person serve as rewards that help reinforce the rush of relief and trigger the release of dopamine.
Since dopamine creates feelings of pleasure, it can strengthen your connection with the abuser. You want the dopamine boost, so you continue trying to make them happy to earn their affection.
Physical affection or intimacy also prompt the release of oxytocin, another feel-good hormone that can further strengthen bonds. Not only does oxytocin promote connection and positive feelings, it can also ease fear.
Physical affection from an abusive partner, then, might dim distress and emotional pain, making it easier to focus on the positive treatment.
Breaking the bond
People who experienced abuse in childhood often feel drawn to similar relationships in adulthood, since the brain already recognises the highs and lows of the cycle.
A history of trauma can make it even harder to break trauma bonds, but you can learn to stop this cycle. The tips below can help.
Know what you’re dealing with
Recognising the existence of the bond is an important first step. When it comes to abuse, of course, this is often easier said than done.
To find evidence for abuse and recognise signs of trauma bonding, here are some things to try:
Keep a journal
Writing down things that happened each day can help you begin to identify patterns and notice problems with behaviour that may not have seemed abusive in the moment.
When abuse does happen, note what happened and whether your partner said anything afterward to excuse it.
Consider the relationship from another perspective
Pretend you’re reading about your relationship in a book. It’s often easier to examine negative events when you have some level of detachment.
Pay attention to the small details that make you uncomfortable or give you pause. Do they feel healthy to you?
Talk to loved ones
It’s not easy to open up about abuse. Maybe you got angry or brushed off friends and family when they expressed concern in the past.
Yet loved ones can offer essential perspective. Challenge yourself to listen and make a real effort to consider the accuracy of their observations.
Believing you caused the abuse or brought it on yourself can make it harder to exercise your autonomy, effectively keeping you in the relationship.
Remind yourself that abuse is never your fault, no matter:
what you may or may not have done
how deeply you fear loneliness or a life without them
how many times you’ve already gone back
You do deserve better. Replacing self-criticism and blame with affirmations and positive self-talk can help this truth begin to take hold.
Cut off contact completely
Once you make the decision to leave, disrupt the cycle completely by stopping all communication. If you co-parent, this might not be possible, but a therapist can help you establish a plan to maintain only necessary contact.
Create physical distance by finding a safe place to stay, such as with a relative or friend. Also consider changing your phone number and email address, if possible.
If you can’t do that, block them completely. They might get through with a new number, but ignore these messages and calls.
They might insist they’ll change, go to therapy, do anything, as long as you’ll just come back. These promises can seem pretty tempting.
Remind yourself, though, of just how many times they’ve already promised to change.
Get professional help
While you can take action to begin weakening the trauma bond on your own, these bonds tend to hold fast. You might not find it easy to break free without professional support, and that’s absolutely normal.
A therapist can teach you more about the patterns of abuse that drive trauma bonding, and this insight can often provide a lot of clarity.
In therapy, you can also:
explore factors fuelling the bond
work on setting boundaries
learn skills for building healthy relationships
confront self-criticism and self-blame
develop a self-care plan
address mental health symptoms related to long-term trauma and abuse
It’s generally recommended to work with a trauma-informed therapist. Professionals who specialise in recognising and treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), particularly complex PTSD and the aftereffects of abuse, can often have the biggest impact for people working to overcome this specific trauma.
Resources for extra support
If you need help recognising abuse, leaving an abusive situation, or beginning the healing process after leaving an abusive partner, these resources can offer a starting place:
National Domestic Violence helpline - (free, open 24/7) Phone: 08709 220704
Refuge - Advice on dealing with domestic violence / abuse Phone: 0808 2000 247 (24-hour helpline) Website: www.refuge.org.uk
Women’s Aid - Support for women and children exposed to domestic violence Phone: 0808 2000 247 www.womensaid.org.uk
Men’s Advice Line - Helpline for male victims of domestic abuse Tel: 0808 8010 327 Website: www.mensadviceline.org.uk
The bottom line
Abuse is never your fault. Neither is the development of a trauma bond.
It may take some time to regain a sense of self-worth and feel as if you’ve finally broken free, but support from a trained professional can make all the difference.