Written By: DiveThru Team
Reviewed By: Hannah Fuhlendorf M.A, LPC
Written By: DiveThru Team
Reviewed By: Hannah Fuhlendorf M.A, LPC
Okay, before we start talking about trauma bonding, we should give you a trigger warning! We’re going to be talking about abuse and how it affects victims. If this content is difficult for you to read, please take care of yourself and step away. All right, let’s get started!
Have you heard of Stockholm syndrome? It’s basically a psychological response to trauma, in which victims bond or sympathize with the perpetrator of their trauma. This is a specific type of trauma bond that is usually applied to very serious hostage or kidnapping situations. But trauma bonding can also happen in abusive relationships. So, we’re going to discuss what that means, how it shows up, and how to start breaking those bonds.
Trauma bonding happens when abusive relationships turn into a cyclical manner of abuse. This usually involves abusive behaviour followed by acts of kindness and affection and then the cycle repeats continuously. It can form after weeks, months, or even years, but not everyone in an abusive situation forms a trauma bond. You reeeaally struggle to make sense of what you’re feeling, because the abuse always goes hand-in-hand with love and intimacy, and you end up developing sympathy for the perpetrator. What the heck, right?! And it doesn’t just happen in domestic abuse, it can also happen in:
There are multiple factors that increase a person’s risk of trauma bonding. Low socioeconomic status, mental health issues, and not having a support system all increase the chances that someone can become trapped in an abusive relationship. A steady job, a safe place to call home, mental health care, and friends/family all boost self-worth, which can help reduce the risk.
Trauma bonding is a powerful emotional attachment that stems from the cycle of loving behaviour and abuse. The victim can struggle to make sense of the strong emotions they feel as the subject of both abusive behaviour and intense love and kindness. Oftentimes the relationship begins with intimacy and love before the abusive behaviours develop over time, making the victim struggle to reconcile the strong attachment they’ve formed with someone who also does bad things. People want to feel loved, so they can be inclined to stay with someone who does at times show them affection and kindness, even if there’s other unwanted behaviour.
Recognizing and deciding to leave a relationship can be easier when it’s all bad. But abusers don’t always treat their victims poorly; they can apologize, promise to change, profess to be in love, and do other things to try to keep their relationship. To be clear, there’s no excuse for abuse, but it’s this cycle of tension>abuse>reconciliation>calm that keeps people trapped because they think the calm might last this time. There are five main types of abuse that might be present:
Some of them can be easier to spot than others. When these behaviours begin to be repeated in a pattern, it becomes a cycle of abuse.
Another reason the victim might be hesitant to leave an abusive situation is when the abuser holds power over them. That can be financial power — i.e. the victim is unemployed and the abuser has a job and pays rent — or emotional power, where the victim’s emotional defences have been broken down and they feel defined by the relationship with their abuser.
The power imbalance can also explain why people sometimes return to their abuser after leaving — they feel unable to exist outside the relationship. Because trauma bonds are powerful, it can take outside help to break. That usually means therapy, but could also be friends or family members keeping the person accountable and supporting them as they work on breaking the attachment.
Another reason that could keep people from trying to leave: the threat of physical violence. Possibly the most dangerous time for a victim of domestic violence is when they’re in the process of leaving. The abuser could also threaten or do harm to others around the victim — children, pets, or even people who attempt to intervene. A study published in the Journal of American Health in 2013 looked at homicides related to domestic violence in 16 U.S. states. Researchers found that one-fifth of the homicide victims were not the initial victim of the abuse, but were their kids, other family members, new romantic partners, friends, or law enforcement who attempted to intervene. The fear of escalating violence can be a powerful factor that keeps people from leaving.
The victim can try to excuse away the abuse by downplaying the severity or by blaming themselves. Saying things like “it’s not that bad, they didn’t hit me very hard” or “I made them jealous, so I deserved it” are just attempts to justify abusive behaviour.
This can also happen because of gaslighting. The abuser tells the victim that the abuse never happened, wasn’t actually that bad, or they deserved it. Eventually the victim questions reality and starts to believe the lies they were told — and repeats them to themselves and others.
Remember, there’s absolutely no excuse for physical or emotional violence — no matter what. Nobody deserves that.
Why would the victim of abuse try to keep it a secret? They could be excusing the behaviour and think that others wouldn’t understand why it wasn’t a big deal; fear the consequences of it becoming public; feel ashamed of being abused — or all of the above. Not to mention that trauma bonds lead to powerful emotional attachments… meaning the victim likely feels something they think is love towards their abuser, and wants to protect them. If you’ve seen Big Little Lies then a good example to draw on is Celeste’s relationship.
Someone who is being abused might believe that pleasing the abuser will keep things from escalating… or genuinely want to please the abuser because “they do things for me” (like provide financially). Hormones also can play a role — the intense love shown during the cycle of abuse causes the release of dopamine, which serves a “reward” for the abuse. It’s similar to how people become addicted to any other high dopamine-producing process like gambling or sex . Most know that their addiction isn’t a good thing but they’re dependent on dopamine to feel the reward they’ve come to associate with the behaviour.
Physical intimacy also causes the release of oxytocin. It’s essentially a distorted version of the chemical process that happens when people fall in love. Normally, it’s a good thing that kindness and intimacy create strong relationship bonds… but trauma bonds are actually created by kindness and intimacy being used to override our natural negative feelings that result from abuse.
Abusers work to distance their victims from their support system. The abuser might position themselves as the only trustworthy person in their victim’s life — “you know your mother doesn’t want you to be happy” — or by forcing the victim to cut off friendships — “I don’t want you to see that friend anymore.” The less people around, the lower the chance that the victim can be reminded that the abuse they experience is unacceptable.
We’ve talked about the cycle of abuse and how it can cause victims to feel love for their abuser. In a healthy relationship, you don’t have to like everything about your partner. But focusing on the common interests and having separate hobbies is one thing; focusing on the good days and ignoring domestic violence or other types of abuse is another thing entirely. No amount of kindness or affection outweighs emotional or physical abuse. Period. No matter what trauma bonding would have you believe.
“If they would just stop [abusive behaviour], we’d have the perfect relationship.” Because there are good times in the relationship that cause the victim to feel love, it may feel like change is possible. But those good times aren’t signs that the abuser is capable of changing — they’re attempts to coerce the victim into staying. Often abusers will temporarily make the changes their partner requests of them only to return to perpetrating the abuse shortly after. No relationship is perfect, but there’s a key difference between encouraging your partner to learn how to clean up after themselves or cook for themselves and hoping they stop abusing you.
In Perks of Being a Wallflower, the main character asks his teacher why people stay with people who don’t treat them well. The teacher answers that “we accept the love we think we deserve.”
People who are being abused often have low self-esteem and they want to feel loved, even if that love is part of the cycle of abuse. Feeling worthless might make someone feel like no one else will love them, so they can think they might as well accept the love being shown by their abuser.
Now, even though we’ve just spent hundreds of words explaining why traumatic bonds are so hard to break, it’s not impossible. There are a few key ways to help get through the break-up process.
This means leaving and cutting all methods of contact. It might also mean moving to a different city. As mentioned, the time of leaving can be very dangerous, so it’s important to plan ahead and know what you’re going to do. There are resources available to help you (see below).
Maybe it’s your best friend, parent, or coworker. But finding someone you can trust, who knows the situation, is important. They can keep you accountable when it comes to cutting off contact, and you’ll have someone you can lean on for advice or a shoulder to cry on when you need it. As with any other breakup, it will take time to recover. Having a friend there for you will help you heal and see that there’s more to life than one relationship.
It’s important to understand the seriousness of your experience. Trauma can manifest in a number of ways, and it’s important to work through your feelings.
If you have access to therapy, that’s the best option. Look for a therapist who has experience in trauma. Therapy can help you heal and prevent you from coping in more dangerous ways, like substance use.
Ask yourself what you would say to a friend who was telling you about their relationship. By exploring the trauma in a detached way, it might be easier to recognize the different problems and understand the ways you’ve been abused.
It can also be helpful to write things down. Keeping a diary or journal to document your progress can help you see how far you’ve come and motivate you to keep going.
Please remember — abuse is not the victim’s fault. Trauma bonding is not the victim’s fault.
If you’re experiencing abuse in your relationship and feel you are in danger, you can call domestic violence hotlines at 1-604-875-0885 (Canada) and 1-800-799-7233 (United States). You can also find resources online here (Canada) and here (United States).
Here are some tips to minimize the risk of someone knowing that you’re researching domestic violence-related topics (via Tech Safety):