Trauma bonding: definition, signs, causes, stages, and risk factors
Table of content
- What is trauma bonding?
- What are the signs of trauma bonding?
- What causes trauma bonding?
- What are the stages of trauma bonding?
- What are the risk factors for trauma bonding?
- 1. Attachment insecurity
- 2. Childhood maltreatment
- 3. Exposure to abusive relationships growing up
- 4. Lack of social support
- 5. Low self-esteem
Trauma bonding refers to an unhealthy attachment formed between a victim and their abuser. Sharing a trauma bond with someone can be confusing and overwhelming to the person at the receiving end of the abuse.
The signs of trauma bonding include a cyclical pattern of abuse, power imbalance, feeling unhappy, and feeling physically and emotionally distressed.
The causes of trauma bonds include incest, domestic abuse, kidnapping, sexual abuse, cults, elder abuse, and kidnapping.
The stages of trauma bonding are love bombing, gaining trust, criticism, manipulation, resignation, distress, and repetition.
The risk factors for someone to be trapped in a trauma bonded relationship include attachment insecurity, childhood maltreatment, childhood exposure to abusive relationships, lack of social support, and low self-esteem.
What is trauma bonding?
Trauma bonding is a deep emotional attachment that an abused individual has for their abuser. The bond is formed in situations where there is a repeated cycle of abuse and intermittent reinforcement.
The term trauma bonding was introduced by leading sex addiction expert Dr. Patrick Carnes in his book The Betrayal Bond: Breaking Free of Exploitive Relationships (1997). Carnes coined the term to describe an emotional response to trauma that occurs in the presence of shame, danger, or exploitation, which is used to trap another person in a relationship.
Throughout the book, those relationships are examined in terms of their formation, who is most vulnerable to them, and how they grow to be so powerful. Carnes provides a checklist for evaluating relationships and demonstrates how to spot instances of traumatic bonding.
Carnes also explains that exploitive relationships are breeding grounds for trauma bonds – invisible chains that trap victim-survivors with their abusers.
How common is trauma bonding?
Trauma bonding is extremely common because it occurs in a wide variety of situations where there is betrayal of trust and abuse of power. According to a study on the physical and mental health effects of intimate partner violence (IPV) for men and women published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 29% of 6,790 women and 23% of 7,122 men experienced physical, sexual, or psychological IPV during their lifetime.
It is widely believed that children and young people are at the highest risk of developing a trauma bond because of the strong need for affection during childhood. According to the World Health Organization’s data on violence against children, around one billion children aged 2–17 years experienced physical, sexual, or emotional violence or neglect in the past year worldwide.
Those abusive situations during childhood make it even more likely for a child to be caught in a trauma bonded relationship with their parent/s.
What are the signs of trauma bonding?
The signs of trauma bonding should first be recognized in order for an abused person to make informed decisions about their situation. The signs of trauma bonding are listed below:
- A cyclical nature
- A power imbalance
- Feeling unhappy and may not even like your partner any longer
- Feeling physically and emotionally distressed
1. A cyclical nature
A cyclical nature refers to the pattern every abusive relationship follows. It typically occurs in a repeating cycle that involves intermittent reinforcement and abuse.
A cyclical nature is one of the most common signs of trauma bonding because it strengthens the emotional attachment between the victim and the abuser by making the abused individual think they can occasionally go back to the honeymoon phase of the relationship if they only know what to do to experience it again.
The cyclical nature of toxic relationships can be identified as a sign of trauma bonding by observing the existence of a pattern in which a person treats their partner. If random moments of affection only last for a while before returning to the usual cruel treatment all over again, this is a strong indication that you may be trapped in a pattern of abuse.
2. A power imbalance
Power imbalance is defined as the unequal distribution of control and power between partners, as stated by an article entitled, “Power in Relationships” from Counselling in Melbourne.
An unhealthy power dynamic in relationships is one of the signs of trauma bonding because it is used by the perpetrator to influence their victim and make them feel disempowered. This leads to the abused individual getting used to having their feelings and opinions invalidated to the point that they just go along with what the abuser wants in order to please them.
Power imbalance can be identified as an indicator of a trauma bond by taking a step back and observing if your needs are being considered or your partner refuses to make compromises when you disagree with their opinion or decision about something.
3. Feeling unhappy and may not even like your partner any longer
Feeling unhappy and losing interest in your abusive partner means that you feel dissatisfaction with the lack of emotional support and difficulties with emotional connection that you experience in the relationship.
These negative feelings are indicative of the presence of trauma bonds because they tell you that the situation you’re in is unhealthy for you and your mental state.
Feelings of unhappiness and loss of interest in an abusive partner can be identified by listening to your inner voice, which may tell you that you could be happier living a different life, and by being in touch with your feelings when you feel like you’re withdrawing from your abusive partner.
4. Feeling physically and emotionally distressed
Feelings of physical and emotional distress refer to emotional overwhelm that triggers physical symptoms. Physical signs of high levels of distress often tend to interfere with one’s ability to function in everyday life.
Feeling physically and emotionally distressed indicates that someone is in a trauma bonding relationship because these experiences are typically associated with highly stressful events.
You can identify physical and emotional overwhelm by tuning into the signals that your body is sending you. If feelings of stress, frustration, fear, or helplessness are starting to manifest physically and cause symptoms such as increased heart rate, muscle tension, trouble sleeping, and fatigue, you may be having physical and emotional problems due to your abusive relationship.
What causes trauma bonding?
The causes of trauma bonding involve a variety of abusive situations and may differ from person to person. The causes of trauma bonding are listed below:
- Domestic abuse
- Sexual abuse
- Elder abuse
- Human Trafficking
1. Domestic abuse
Domestic abuse, also referred to as intimate partner violence, is defined as a pattern of behavior in any kind of relationship that is used to gain or maintain power and control over a victim, according to an article from the United Nations entitled, “What is Domestic Abuse?”.
It is one of the causes of trauma bonding because domestic abuse also follows a pattern of abusive behavior toward an intimate partner where the perpetrator instills fear to heavily influence the victim’s life and circumstances.
Domestic abuse can be identified as a cause of trauma bonding by looking for its warning physical and emotional signs, which include bruises, busted lips, black eyes, low self-esteem, being fearful, and thinking about or attempting suicide.
Incest is defined as marriage or sexual activity between family members or blood relatives. It is a notoriously underreported crime due to fear of tarnishing the image of the incestuous family.
Incest is one of the many sources of trauma bonding because someone well-known to the victim acts lovingly and regretfully after each episode of abuse, leaving the victim unable to tell on their abuser due to the intermittent positive reinforcement.
It may be difficult to recognize emotional attachment to a perpetrator stemming from incest, but a few signs to watch out for include a child having knowledge of adult sex behavior, poor self-esteem, social isolation, and the relationship between the child and the relative seems secretive.
Kidnapping is the unlawful restraint of a person without their consent. It is a serious crime that involves confining or moving a victim against their will, sometimes in order to demand ransom money before setting the person free.
A kidnapping situation can be a cause of trauma bond because captives can form an unconscious bond or develop sympathy with their captors. They may also experience feelings of guilt for forming this bond.
Kidnapping can be identified as a source of traumatic bonding by listening to a survivor and helping them deal with their own emotional reactions to being held captive. If they start talking about how they can identify closely with their captors, you may want to offer support by convincing them to seek help from a mental health professional.
4. Sexual abuse
Sexual abuse refers to any sexual act or activity that occurs without consent, according to an article entitled, “Sexual abuse” published in Psychology Today. This abusive sexual behavior includes unwanted touching, fondling, forced oral sex, attempted rape, and rape.
The main reason behind sexual abuse being a source of trauma bond is because the majority of the time, victims knew the perpetrator. In fact, according to statistics on perpetrators of sexual violence from RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), 8 out of 10 rapes are committed by someone known to the victim, including an acquaintance or family member.
When the abuser is a relative of the victim, it is likely that they will keep in contact with each other to maintain family dynamics. The abuser may see this as an opportunity to create trust and emotional connection so he or she can further manipulate the victim.
Sexual abuse can be identified as a cause of trauma bonding by looking for its warning signs, such as nightmares or changes in sleeping patterns, sudden mood swings, new or unusual fear and avoidance of certain people or places, spacing out at odd times, running away from home, and suicide attempts.
Cults are a group of people held together by beliefs which many people view as extreme or atypical. These organizations also tend to isolate their members from friends, families, and the public.
Cults create a fertile ground for trauma bonding cycle because its charismatic leaders often use power to intimidate, coerce, seduce, or belittle members for the ultimate purpose of psychological control, enslavement, and exploitation.
You may be able to identify if a cult is the culprit for the development of trauma bond if a person has sudden, significant changes in their values and beliefs or if they have been isolated from their loved ones and the public in general.
6. Elder abuse
Elder abuse is the mistreatment of an older person, which is often carried out by a caregiver or someone the elder knows or trusts. This kind of mistreatment includes physical abuse and neglect, emotional or psychological abuse, financial exploitation, healthcare fraud, and violation of rights.
Elder abuse is one of the many situations that cause trauma bonding because the elderly person being abused depends on his or her caregiver for help with everyday activities, which means there is an expectation of trust, but this trust is betrayed by a family member, health care provider, stranger, caregiver, or a friend.
The abuse of an elderly person can be identified as a source of trauma by seeing signs of neglect when you visit the older adult at home or at an eldercare facility. These may include lack of basic hygiene, unexplained bruises or scars, sudden changes in behavior, difficulty sleeping, and unusual ATM activities or transactions.
7. Human Trafficking
Human trafficking refers to recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring, or receipt of people through force, fraud, or coercion to exploit them for profit, as stated by an article on human trafficking from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
Furthermore, according to a fact sheet on trauma bonding in human trafficking from the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, trauma bonding may develop in situations of human trafficking because when a victim sees his or her survival at the hands of a trafficker, any form of perceived or real help and kindness from the trafficker will be responded with gratitude and attachment.
Human trafficking can be identified as a source of trauma bonding by looking for its indicators, including showing signs of physical abuse and injuries, avoiding social interaction, being submissive or fearful, seemingly disoriented or lost, and not having a passport or ID documents in their possession.
What are the stages of trauma bonding?
The stages of trauma bonding explain the cyclical nature of an unhealthy relationship with a narcissist or abuser. The 7 stages of trauma bonding are listed below:
- Love bombing
- Gaining trust
1. Love bombing
Love bombing is defined as an attempt to control or manipulate a person by overwhelming them with romantic gestures, praise, and affection. The effects of love bombing include an initial sense of belonging, followed by low self-esteem, confusion, anxiety, feelings of guilt and shame, and emotional exhaustion when the love bombing stops.
This stage of trauma bonding can also affect the victim’s lifestyle by causing isolation from family and friends, lack of interest in activities once enjoyed, poor appetite, and changes in sleeping pattern.
Moreover, love bombing impacts the brain by triggering the increased production of the feel-good hormone dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter in the brain’s reward system which is associated with feelings of pleasure. This is why the victim associates the bombardment of affection from the abuser with a pleasurable experience.
2. Gaining trust
Gaining trust is a stage of trauma bonding, where the abuser gains his or her victim’s trust just enough to make the latter dependent on them for approval and other needs. This trust will, however, be tested by the abuser later on in the relationship, and the victim will end up getting flak if he or she tries to confront the abuser about the problem.
The effects of trusting your abuser include self-doubt, feelings of guilt and shame, low self-esteem, codependency, trust challenges, and feelings of powerlessness.
This phase of trauma bonding can also affect the abused individual’s lifestyle by causing eating disorders, fear when interacting with others, body aches, heart palpitations, and chronic stress.
Lastly, trusting an abusive partner can have damaging effects on the brain, including changes to the hippocampus which makes it harder to empathize with others, thinning of certain regions of the brain that help manage emotions, and epigenetic changes in the brain.
Criticism is defined as the act of noting the faults or bad qualities of someone or something. In the context of trauma bonding, emotional abusers at this stage start to criticize their victim by implying that something is wrong with their attitudes, behaviors, beliefs, and more.
The effects of harsh criticism in an abusive relationship include reduced self-esteem, feelings of rejection, loneliness, negative self-image, and decreased self-confidence.
Constant criticism from a partner can also affect the victim’s lifestyle by causing stress, worse health outcomes, and a higher risk for an earlier death, according to a study that investigated how concurrent stress and depressive symptoms increase risk of myocardial infarction or death published in the journal Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes.
Furthermore, study findings from Jill M. Hooley, Greg Siegle, and Staci A. Gruber published in the journal PLOS ONE proves that repeated exposure to harsh criticism alters the brain, as the authors assert that higher perceptions of criticism are associated with higher levels of limbic reactivity and decreased prefrontal control.
Manipulation is an indirect tactic that is used to gain control or influence over others. This deceptive form of influence includes attempts to emotionally exploit and negatively influence a victim’s perceptions or belief.
The effects of manipulation include trust issues, intimacy problems, constant feeling of uncertainty, anxiety, hypervigilance, feelings of resentment or anger, and self-doubt. Psychological and emotional manipulation can also impact one’s lifestyle by causing a lack of interest in daily life, stress, and social isolation.
Being on the receiving end of manipulation can negatively impact the brain by causing changes to the hippocampus, which is responsible for empathy. This stage of trauma bond can also cause thinning of the prefrontal cortex and temporal lobe, which are brain regions critical for self-awareness.
Resignation is a type of coping mechanism where the abused individual resigns themselves to the abuse in order to avoid conflict. It is also called the fawn trauma response, or please-and-appease. The victim develops people-pleasing behaviors in this phase to have some sense of safety in the relationship.
The effects of resignation include having trouble with personal boundaries, emotional outbursts, over-apologizing, fear of saying no, and assuming responsibility for other people’s emotional responses.
Resignation can also affect a victim’s lifestyle by causing increased stress, physical exhaustion, lack of self-care, inactivity and weight gain, and chronic pain or illness, while its effects on the brain include increased anxiety, difficulty concentrating, and a higher risk of developing clinical depression.
Distress refers to a state of physical or emotional discomfort due to varying difficult situations. In the context of trauma bonds, severe psychological distress due to the abuse often leads to a loss of self.
The effects of distress include loss of self-confidence, social withdrawal, moodiness, anger, and even suicidal ideation. It can also affect the abused individual’s lifestyle by increasing the risk of various chronic conditions, such as arthritis, cardiovascular disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and diabetes, according to a study on the effects of psychological distress and its interaction with socioeconomic position on risk of developing four chronic diseases published in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research.
Lastly, severe distress can influence the brain by changing its structure, impairing memory and decision-making, and causing certain parts associated with metabolism and emotions to shrink.
Repetition is a defining feature of the cycle of abuse, where the abuser may go back to the love bombing stage all over again and make their victim trust them once more. The victim may see this as the relationship returning to normal, and they might make excuses for the abuser’s past behaviors as a result.
The effects of repetition in trauma bonding include emotional addiction, unwise decisions, faulty self-management, and impaired relationships. It can also affect the abused individual’s lifestyle by causing lack of motivation, changes in sleep pattern, eating problems, and inappropriate behaviors in social situations.
Additionally, the cycle of abuse affects the brain by causing chemical imbalance, a smaller hippocampus, reduced grey matter in certain cortical regions, and increased reactivity in the amygdala, which results in a heightened response to threat.
What are the risk factors for trauma bonding?
The risk factors for trauma bonding may increase the risk that people will develop empathy for their abusive partners. The risk factors for trauma bonding are listed below:
- Attachment insecurity
- Childhood maltreatment
- Exposure to abusive relationships growing up
- Lack of social support
- Low self-esteem
1. Attachment insecurity
Attachment insecurity refers to a relational pattern where the bond lacks trust and consistency. People with this attachment style may behave in anxious or unpredictable ways, according to Verywell Mind.
An insecure attachment can become a risk factor for trauma bonding due to the lack of consistency and affection that some people experience during childhood. As adults, these people tend to become needy in their relationships, engage in manipulative behaviors, or simply reject intimacy altogether, as stated by an article entitled, “How Attachment Styles Affect Adult Relationships” from HelpGuide.org.
Attachment insecurity can be identified as a source of trauma bonds by looking out for its defining features, which can vary depending on the form of insecure attachment one has.
For instance, people with an avoidant attachment style are uncomfortable with close relationships and prefer to be alone, while those with ambivalent attachment styles crave close relationships yet feel unable to trust others and have problems setting healthy boundaries, and individuals with a disorganized attachment style have a poor self-image and have frequent outbursts.
2. Childhood maltreatment
According to the World Health Organization (WHO)’s fact sheet on child maltreatment, childhood maltreatment is the abuse and neglect that occurs to children under 18 years of age.
It is a risk factor for developing traumatic bonding toward an abusive partner because children are vulnerable, and they often tend to form an emotional attachment with their abusers. This pattern of abuse familiar to them can extend into adulthood, leading childhood maltreatment survivors to also develop trauma bonds with a controlling adult romantic partner.
Childhood maltreatment may be identified as a source of trauma bonds if the abusive relationship reminds the abused individual of their relationship with their parent or another caregiver as a child.
People who experienced abuse at an early age tend to seek out a familiar “comfort zone,” even if it is something that makes them deeply unhappy.
3. Exposure to abusive relationships growing up
Exposure to abusive relationships growing up means that someone has seen, heard, observed the aftermath, or engaged in an altercation in an abusive relationship.
Childhood exposure to abusive relationships is a risk factor for trauma bonding because being surrounded by negative experiences means a child did not learn healthy ways to resolve conflict and therefore may grow up with a skewed view about relationships.
Witnessing abuse as a child can be identified as a cause of trauma bonding if the child walks the same path in adulthood by being an abuser themselves or by entering an abusive relationship.
In fact, according to an article entitled “Effects of domestic violence on children” from the Office on Women’s Health, male children who witnessed their mother being abused are 10 times more likely to physically abuse their partners as adults. On the other hand, female children who witnessed domestic violence are more than six times as likely to be sexually abused by their partners as adults.
4. Lack of social support
According to the data on lack of social support from The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), lack of social support indicates the share of individuals who reportedly have no friends or relatives they can count on during difficult times.
Lack of social support can be a risk factor for trauma bonding because, as Cohen et al., suggests in their book, “Social Support Measurement and Intervention: A Guide for Health and Social Scientists,” adequate social support reduces the risk of violence in a relationship and its negative effects if present.
Limited social support can also be identified as the reason behind a trauma bond if the abused individual is being isolated from his or her loved ones and has no friends or family members to talk to about their painful experiences.
5. Low self-esteem
Low self-esteem means that an individual lacks confidence and has a poor sense of inner worth. Having low self-esteem often stems from unresolved past emotional experiences.
Lack of self-esteem enables trauma bonds to form because it causes the victim to normalize, rationalize, and justify abusive behaviors, according to an article entitled, “The Four Most Common Reasons That Trauma Bonding Occurs” published on Unfilteredd.
While low self-esteem commonly exists in abused individuals, abusers also have low self-esteem, they just project this negative self-image onto their scapegoats – in this case, their victim.
A negative self-image can be identified as a source of trauma bonding in a relationship by looking for its signs, including pleasing your abusive partner, being needy or clingy with your partner despite their abusive behavior, difficulty being yourself, not putting your needs forward, and fear of abandonment.
What triggers trauma bonding?
A pattern of cruel treatment combined with random periods of intense love projection is what triggers trauma bonding. In the context of abusive relationships, this is called intermittent reinforcement, which sets the stage for the cyclical pattern of abuse.
These intense highs and lows cause an addiction to the unpredictability of the toxic relationship, leaving the victim to invest more in the relationship in the hopes of going back to the honeymoon phase of the abuse cycle, despite risking their physical and mental well-being.
How to break trauma bonding?
The answer to how to break a trauma bond may not be easy and straightforward, but it is possible with adequate social support and professional help. The ways on how to break trauma bonding are listed below.
- Educate yourself: To break a trauma bond, one has to first educate themselves about the topic, including what it really is and how it develops in the first place. This comprehensive understanding is necessary for a victim to have, so they gain an awareness of their situation and how they can possibly get out of it.
- Cut off your abuser: Second, you need to cut off ties with your abuser and go no contact with them. If this is not possible because of shared properties or children, it is recommended to go minimal contact with your abuser instead. However, if your former partner has a tendency to stalk or harass, then cutting them off entirely may be the best option.
- Redirect your focus on new activities: Third, distract yourself from having negative thoughts by redirecting your focus on new activities and engagements. You can either channel your energy on a project you have been putting off for a while now or challenge yourself to do new things and meet new people in the process.
- Start making healthy bonds: Fourth, start making healthy bonds or relationships by taking a class, going out with friends, eating at a new restaurant, or anything that fosters safe and secure connections. This is an important part of rediscovering yourself after losing it to someone during an unstable relationship.
- Join a support group: Fifth, it can be helpful for you to join a support group, where you will also meet people who share similar experiences and struggles with you. This can help you realize that you are not alone and that someone is available to listen to you.
- Talk to a professional: Lastly, talk to a trauma-informed therapist, who is an expert in treating trauma bonding. While self-help strategies are an essential part of moving forward, a professional can provide more clarity about your situation and the factors that may have contributed to your being trapped in it.
When to seek help for trauma bonding?
If someone you know or care about is experiencing trauma bonding, we recommend seeking help as soon as they communicate they’re ready to receive help. It is worth noting that asking for help is difficult for many survivors of abuse because it requires someone else to have control over the situation.
That said, you can encourage them to seek support in their own time. This way, you let them navigate their feelings at their own pace, and you also give them the space and all the time they need to assess their situation.
How is trauma bonding diagnosed?
There is no specific diagnostic or screening test that can diagnose trauma bonding. It is not a diagnosable condition recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5).
Even Stockholm syndrome, a term for a psychological phenomenon that is being used interchangeably with trauma bonding, is not recognized in the psychiatry text. With that being said, it is important to take note of the signs of trauma bonding we listed in this article in case you are unsure if the term applies to you.
How is trauma bonding treated?
While there is a lack of prior research studies on the topic of treating trauma bonding, there are evidence-based forms of psychotherapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), trauma-focused CBT, and cognitive processing therapy (CPT), which can help individuals impacted by trauma bonded relationships.
CBT is a type of psychotherapy that helps a person identify and challenge negative thought patterns, behaviors, and emotions that can perpetuate destructive beliefs. CBT can be a good way to address the underlying issues and change negative core beliefs that may have been instilled in a victim’s mind by the abuser.
Trauma-focused CBT (TF-CBT), on the other hand, is an evidence-based form of CBT that specifically aims to address the negative effects of a traumatic event in children, adolescents, and their families. Survivors can benefit from TF-CBT because it can help them better process traumatic memories as well as the feelings and emotions related to the distressing experience.
Cognitive processing therapy (CPT) is another type of CBT that helps patients modify self-defeating automatic thoughts that can lead to self-defeating coping skills. The most common example of these unhelpful thoughts are the self-blaming thoughts that abused individuals tend to have. The therapist makes the victim question and modify their own maladaptive thinking to change their perception of their own selves, the world, and others.
Is trauma bonding treatable?
Yes, trauma bonding is treatable with the help of evidence-based trauma therapies and a strong social support system. Self-help strategies on how to heal from trauma bonding that we have listed above provide opportunities for positive self-talk and for altering negative thoughts and behaviors.
A strong social support network is also important in creating a new, safe space that fosters secure and healthy connections. Above all, however, seeking professional help is the most helpful way for a survivor to gain clarity about the traumatic experience and process the memories related to it.
Through evidence-based trauma therapies, the negative thoughts, feelings, and emotions that may have contributed to the development of the trauma bond can be changed into positive ones, which results in more helpful and adaptive responses to trauma.