What is a trauma bonded relationship?

A trauma bonded relationship is an emotionally intense bond between two people, where at least one person exhibits abusive, manipulative or exploitative behavior towards the other. This can lead the victim feeling trapped in the relationship, similar to the effects of Stockholm Syndrome or PTSD.

What are the signs of a trauma bond?

There are several common signs that a relationship may involve trauma bonding:

  • One partner is manipulative, controlling or abusive towards the other.
  • There is an extreme power imbalance in the relationship.
  • The victim feels they cannot leave or end the relationship, even when it is clearly unhealthy.
  • The relationship involves a repetitive cycle of abuse, reconciliation and calm.
  • The victim feels intensely loyal to their partner, even after mistreatment.
  • The victim feels they cannot survive or cope without their partner.
  • The victim excuses or rationalizes their partner’s harmful behaviors.
  • Outsiders often see the relationship as unhealthy, even if the victim cannot.

Overall, trauma bonded relationships involve a power imbalance where one partner maintains control through manipulation or abuse. This leaves the victim bonded to their partner through emotional or psychological dependence.

What causes a trauma bond to form?

There are several key factors that can cause a trauma bond to develop in an unhealthy relationship:

  • Intermittent reinforcement: The manipulative partner utilizes a cyclical pattern of abuse and kindness to keep the victim off-balance. The random positive reinforcement increases the victim’s dependence.
  • Isolation: The abusive partner may isolate the victim from friends, family or outside support. This enhances dependence on the abuser.
  • Power imbalance: One partner holds significantly more power in the relationship, causing an unhealthy dynamic of control.
  • Unmet childhood needs: If the victim experienced childhood trauma or insecure attachment, they may be more vulnerable to trauma bonding as their emotional needs go unmet.
  • Intensity: Trauma bonds are fueled by intense feelings and experiences. Dangerous situations can heighten this emotional experience.
  • Cognitive dissonance: To cope with the abuse, the victim may rationalize their partner’s behaviors, creating conflicting beliefs and confusion.

In essence, trauma bonding occurs through a combination of abuse tactics and emotional/psychological vulnerabilities that keep the victim attached to their abuser.

What happens in the brain during a trauma bond?

Trauma bonding has several effects on the victim’s brain and biochemistry:

  • The neurotransmitter dopamine is released during positive interactions with the abuser. This reinforces an addiction-like reward response.
  • Levels of oxytocin and vasopressin rise after abusive episodes, increasing attachment and trust despite mistreatment.
  • Endorphins are released to help cope with abuse, creating a kind of high.
  • The amygdala triggers heightened emotional responses to the abuser, both positive and negative.
  • The rational pre-frontal cortex is suppressed, making it harder to recognize the abuse.
  • Brain scans show the trauma bond creates similar changes in the brain as drug addiction. The victim craves their partner when in withdrawal.

In effect, the victim becomes biochemically dependent on their abuser through neurotransmitter shifts that enhance attachment and suppress rational responses to abuse.

What are the stages of a trauma bonded relationship?

Psychologists have identified a three-stage cycle that occurs in trauma bonded relationships:

Stage 1: Tension Building

  • The abuser starts to exhibit anger, control or manipulation over the victim.
  • The victim feels like they are “walking on eggshells” to avoid upsetting their partner.
  • The victim often suppresses their own needs or dampens their self-expression to keep the peace.

Stage 2: Explosion

  • The abuser lashes out through emotional, verbal, physical or sexual abuse.
  • This destructive release provides a sense of relief or euphoria for the abuser.
  • The victim is harmed, feels victimized and often blames themselves.

Stage 3: Honeymoon

  • The abuser apologizes, shows kindness and vows to change.
  • The victim feels hope the relationship will improve and their partner still loves them.
  • The calm period reinforces the trauma bond, before tension starts mounting again.

This cycle repeats over and over, embedding the trauma bond deeper each time the victim reconciles after abuse. The honeymoon period gives just enough positive reinforcement to maintain the attachment.

Why do people stay in trauma bonded relationships?

There are many complex reasons why trauma bonding can compel victims to remain with their abuser:

  • Fear: The victim may be terrified of retribution or violence if they leave, or fear they cannot survive on their own.
  • Low self-esteem: The abuse chips away at the victim’s self-worth, making them feel unworthy of love from others.
  • Shame or embarrassment: The victim feels too ashamed to tell others about the abuse.
  • Uncertainty: The victim hopes their partner will change or feels too confused to make a decision.
  • Learned helplessness: Repeated abuse makes the victim feel helpless to change their situation.
  • Isolation: The abuser has cut the victim off from outside support systems.
  • Financial dependence: The victim relies fully on their partner for housing/income.
  • Love: Out of love, the victim clings to glimpses of the person they once knew.
  • Duty: The victim feels obligated to help their troubled partner, even at personal cost.
  • Children: The victim stays to protect shared children from instability/harm.

In the fog of trauma bonding, leaving may feel impossible or even wrong to the victim. They feel both trapped in the relationship and addictively bonded to their abuser.

What are the long-term impacts of trauma bonding?

Trauma bonding can have serious psychological consequences if it continues long-term:

  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Depression, anxiety disorders
  • Low self-esteem and lack of self-worth
  • Trust issues
  • Substance abuse as a coping mechanism
  • Isolation from friends and family
  • Financial ruin or poverty
  • Physical health issues from chronic stress
  • Acceptance of abuse as normal
  • Intergenerational cycles of abuse

The trauma bond distorts the victim’s sense of self and reality. Over time, untreated trauma bonds can destroy lives and mental health. Psychological counseling is extremely beneficial to recover.

How do you break a trauma bond?

It takes courage and support to overcome trauma bonding, but it is possible. Some key steps include:

  1. Leaving safely: With help from loved ones or domestic violence resources, establish a plan to safely exit.
  2. No contact: Completely cut contact with the abuser, including changing phone numbers/addresses. This helps weaken the trauma bond.
  3. Support network: Surround yourself with people who remind you of your worth and that you deserve better.
  4. Therapy: Work with a counselor experienced in trauma bonding and domestic violence recovery.
  5. Self-care: Focus on your needs through healthy habits, hobbies, exercise, etc. Nurture and rediscover yourself.
  6. Time: Be patient and allow yourself time to fully process and heal from the relationship.
  7. Acceptance: Acknowledge you were manipulated by forces beyond your control, and do not blame yourself.

With distance and time away from the abuser, trauma bonds do dissipate. Believe in your ability to forge a healthy, happy life beyond the relationship.

Are some people more prone to trauma bonding?

Certain factors can make someone more susceptible to developing trauma bonds if they are in an abusive relationship:

  • Childhood trauma or abuse
  • Insecure attachment styles
  • Low self-esteem
  • Depression or anxiety disorders
  • Age – younger people are often more vulnerable
  • Social isolation or lack of support network
  • Financial dependence on partner
  • Limited relationship experience
  • Growing up witnessing abuse

Having a background of unmet emotional needs, limited resources, and exposure to prior abuse are all risk factors. But anyone can potentially develop trauma bonding under the right circumstances of manipulation.

How can you identify a trauma bonded relationship from the outside?

As a concerned friend or family member, these are some signs to look for:

  • Your loved one’s partner isolates them from family/friends or has few outside relationships themselves.
  • You sense your loved one is walking on eggshells to appease their partner’s moods/demands.
  • Your loved one makes excuses for their partner’s harmful, controlling, or abusive behaviors.
  • Your loved one’s self-esteem and confidence has eroded since the relationship began.
  • The relationship follows a cyclical pattern of blow-ups, apologies and honeymoon periods.
  • Your loved one expresses feeling trapped or depressed in the relationship.
  • You have witnessed or learned of the partner humiliating, manipulating, sexually coercing, or physically abusing your loved one.

In a trauma bond, the victim is not able to see the relationship clearly. As an outside observer, gently raise concerns by pointing out signs of unhealthiness, imbalance, and abuse.

What should you avoid saying to someone in a trauma bonded relationship?

If trying to support someone you think may be trauma bonded, avoid:

  • Ultimatums: “Leave now or you’re on your own.” This usually backfires by isolating the victim further.
  • Judgment: “Why do you let him treat you like that?” This shames the victim and ignores the complex psychology of trauma bonds.
  • Misplacing blame: “You should know better than this.” The abuser is fully responsible for the abuse.
  • Minimizing danger: “He just loses his temper sometimes.” Downplaying threats puts the victim at greater risk.
  • Giving simple solutions: “You just need to leave.” Ending trauma bonds is an extremely challenging process.

Avoid any language that makes the victim feel attacked, patronized or blamed. This can push them closer to their abuser.

What are helpful things you can say to someone in a trauma bonded relationship?

If you want to support someone in a trauma bonded relationship:

  • Express concern: “I’m worried about you and want you to be safe/happy.”
  • Remind them of their value: “You deserve so much better than this.”
  • Validate their emotions: “This must be so painful and confusing for you.”
  • Provide non-judgmental listening: Let them open up without attacking their partner or decisions.
  • Share useful resources: Provide contact information for domestic violence hotlines, counseling, support groups, etc.
  • Offer practical assistance: Help them develop a safety exit plan, take care of pets, find housing/childcare if they leave, etc.

The key is providing validation, compassion and non-judgmental support. Do not make demands, but let them know you care and are there to help when they are ready.

How can therapists help clients break trauma bonds?

Therapists use various techniques to help clients safely end trauma bonded relationships and recover:

  • Holding the client’s experiences in non-judgmental compassion
  • Processing trauma and emotions from abuse
  • Cognitive restructuring around unhealthy relationship beliefs
  • Boosting self-esteem and instilling self-worth
  • Teaching coping skills and emotional regulation
  • Working with clients to establish safety plans
  • Providing resources and liaising with other support services
  • Helping the client realize they are not to blame and do not deserve abuse
  • Uncovering the psychological roots of the trauma bond through talk therapy
  • Treating co-morbid issues like depression, anxiety and PTSD

With professional support, trauma bonds can successfully be dissolved, allowing clients to recover, gain perspective, and develop healthy relationships.

What are some healthy ways to relate in non-abusive relationships?

After escaping a trauma bonded relationship, survivors can benefit from learning skills for healthy, non-abusive relationships:

  • Set strong personal boundaries and do not accept behaviors that cross them.
  • Communicate your needs clearly, and listen/affirm your partner’s needs.
  • Aim for mutual respect, caretaking and compromise.
  • Make decisions as equals.
  • Give each other space for independent hobbies/friendships.
  • Appreciate each other’s differences.
  • Support each other’s growth and goals.
  • Resolve conflicts through open discussion, not anger/abuse.
  • Maintain honest, non-judgmental communication.

Healthy relating prioritizes mutual empathy, growth and freedom – not control. Therapy can help trauma survivors unlearn dysfunctional relationship habits and forge new bonds.


Trauma bonded relationships form through manipulation and cycles of abuse, creating an unhealthy bond for the victim. Although conditioned through trauma to stay, it is possible to break free with courage, support, and time. Psychological counseling and connection with loved ones can help victims regain their self-worth and capacity for true intimacy. For survivors, the journey of healing teaches them they deserve mutual love, respect and freedom.

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