Trauma Bond: What to Know

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on June 14, 2021

What’s a Trauma Bond?

It’s when one partner misuses feelings of fear, excitement, or sexual attraction to trap another partner in an unhealthy relationship, typically an intimate one.

The “abuser” in such a relationship can make you feel intense love and excitement at times. But these alternate with periods when they may ignore, mistreat, and even abuse you.

And even though you may no longer feel any affection, trust, love, or attraction to your partner, you still turn to them for care and support. When you do get those things, your brain makes chemicals like oxytocin, dopamine, and others that help strengthen the bond with your partner.

This cycle between intense closeness and mistreatment creates a bond that has both an emotional and physical basis and tends to keep on growing over time. This is part of the reason why more time spent with an abuser can make it harder to leave.

Why Does It Happen?

Our brains are hard-wired from birth to turn to a close “attachment figure” when we feel threatened or abused. Parents are typically the first attachment figures, but this naturally changes in adulthood to a spouse or romantic partner.

As strange as it sounds, when abuse comes from an intimate partner, it is often our tendency to seek help and care from that same person. To start with, your history with the person, especially if it’s a long one, creates a strong bond whether you want it or not.

There is also a strong tendency in humans to resolve opposites in our mind. (Psychologists call this conflict of opposites “cognitive dissonance.”) For example, if the abuser is now the caretaker, our minds tend to rationalize their behavior: Maybe it was a misunderstanding, or they were having a bad day, or you did something wrong.

It probably doesn’t hurt that abusers are often experts at caring for the very wounds that they create in the first place and promising to completely change their behavior.

And of course, there are periods when the abuser acts with great care, support, and apparent affection. These might be some of the things that drew you to them in the first place. This further drives the tendency to explain away bad treatment and behavior in order to resolve cognitive dissonance.

What Are the Warning Signs of a Trauma Bond?

There are some things you might notice about your own thinking and behavior that may suggest a trauma bond relationship:

  • You justify abusive behavior that you know is wrong. If your partner calls you names or yells at or even hits you, you say it’s because they’re having a tough time or had an unhappy childhood. This is a very strong sign of a trauma bond.
  • You trust the untrustworthy. Here you continue to extend trust and goodwill to your partner, even though by any reasonable standard they have breached that trust over and over again.
  • You want to leave but can’t. You may even decide to leave and then find yourself drawn back. You may not even like to be around your partner. But when they’re not around, you feel a sense of panic that overwhelms you. Some mistake this feeling for love, but it’s often rooted in fear and previous trauma.
  • You wouldn’t wish your relationship on cherished friends and loved ones. Then why would you wish it for yourself? Some convince themselves that strong emotions make the relationship unique and different for you. This feeling is not love, but the trauma bond itself.

People who have had unstable or difficult relationships as children may be more likely to end up in trauma bond relationships. This could be especially apparent with an abusive partner who reminds you very much of a toxic caregiver or parent. You may be primed to respond in a certain way to very similar treatment and behavior patterns.

In addition, childhood trauma can make you feel emotionally numb. A toxic person or dangerous situation may attract you because the intensity draws away the numbness and stimulates feeling, even if it’s not healthy or rational.

What Can You Do to Break a Trauma Bond?

Learn about it. The more you know about how trauma bonding works, the easier it will be to see the warning signs both in yourself and in your partner.

Cut off contact. Though tough to do, it’s a very effective tool to help break the power of the trauma bond. It works because it ends the push and pull of emotions that helps the bond form and keeps it going. It may be very hard at first, but should get easier with time. You can also try “minimal contact” if you need to deal with necessary issues like child custody or shared property.

Get help. No matter how much you know that it’s wrong for you, it can be hard to take yourself out of an abusive, trauma-bonded relationship. A qualified mental health specialist may be able to help you to leave the relationship and understand the dynamics that allowed it to happen in the first place. Anyone in an abusive relationship can form a trauma bond, but the tendency to form them may stem from unexplored childhood issues.

Do something else. Truly “clear you mind” by doing things that interest you or make you feel good but have nothing to do with relationships. Take time to see a play, go to a museum, read, and do anything that gives you pleasure and disrupts the pattern of seeking pleasure from a relationship.

Nurture healthy relationships. If you have a habit of falling into abusive relationships in your intimate, social, and work life, you can learn a better way. Try to focus on safe, healthy relationships. Therapy, support groups, and religious communities can help foster these kinds of relationships. You can also volunteer or join a group that has a shared interest like books or sports. It’s important to stay busy and build a new way forward for yourself.

You may want to steer clear of dating for a while so that you don’t fall into a new relationship that follows the same pattern. Consider working with a therapy group or mental health specialist to figure out when you’re ready to start dating again.

Show Sources

SOURCES: “Trauma Bonding.” “Recognizing and Breaking a Trauma Bond.” “Trauma Bonding Using Real Life  Examples.”

National Domestic Violence Hotline: “Identifying & Overcoming Trauma Bonds.”

Psychology Today: “The Brain Can Work Against Abuse Victims.”

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