How To Know If You're 'Trauma-Bonded' In Your Relationship

by Elizabeth Broadbent
Originally Published: 

You’ve probably never heard of trauma bonding, which usually occurs in the context of domestic violence. One partner, usually a narcissist, puts the other through a cycle of high highs and low lows, resulting in an ugly, abusive relationship that keeps the other person bonded to them. Trauma bonding usually starts with a bang: with total infatuation, with a whirlwind relationship. The narcissist showers the other person with love and affection.

And then it slams to a halt.

Suddenly the same person who showered you with love and attention is distant, cold, and abusive. You’re baffled, confused, and hurt. But then that same love and infatuation returns! It’s a brutal cycle, “a bond that forms due to intense, emotional experiences,” says Thought Catalog. Because of that intermittent reinforcement, the traumatized person keeps returning, hoping for a return to that first phase of love and attention. The narcissist doles it out intermittently, explains Psychology Today.

The Complex PTSD Foundation says that this intermittent reinforcement creates “a strong hormonal and chemical bond.” As Blessing Manifesting says on Instagram, “Healthy relationships give you a steady supply of dopamine. Trauma bonding withholds it, then gives it a sharp increase.” These chemical reinforcements make trauma-bonded relationships so hard to leave, even when the abused is staring their own abuse in the face.

Signs Of Trauma Bonding

Here are some signs that your relationship is based on trauma bonding, rather than a healthy give-and-take:

This person reminds you of some toxic relationship you’ve had in the past. The Complex PTSD Foundation points out that people involved in trauma bonding often have traumatic relationships in their pasts. If you had “attachment trauma” as a child, you’ll tend to act out the same pattern as an adult, seeking subconsciously to heal your own childhood wound: if I can only make it work with them, then I will be worthy of mom/dad’s love.

You know the person is manipulating you, but you can’t let go. Thought Catalog says that intellectually, you may know you’re being mistreated; you may know this person is manipulative and even narcissistic; you may even be able to label their behavior as abusive. However, when you get it together to leave, they reel you back in with more affection and love. It’s this intermittent cycle again that makes trauma bonding so hard to break. It doesn’t make you weak. It means you’re bonded on a chemical and hormonal level, and that bond is reinforced through childhood wounds.

You justify behavior you know is wrong—and often blame yourself for it. You’ll find yourself saying things like, If I had done the dishes, he wouldn’t have to rage at me like this. Anyway, he had a bad childhood. The Complex PTSD Foundation says this is a major sign of trauma bonding: because you want that affection again, you’re willing to excuse behavior that would send you begging a friend, sibling, or child to leave a relationship. Because of your own trauma wound from your childhood, you may have learned to associate being loved with being compliant, and if you weren’t compliant, you were “bad,” says Psych Central. Therefore, you stuff down your anger and resentment at your partner’s abuse, the way you did with your parents’ abuse, in order to continue to get love and affection.

How To Let Go And Get Help

It’s very, very hard to sever trauma-bonded relationships, because of the nature of trauma bonding. When you start to leave, you’re immediately drawn back. The system of rewards and punishments, doled out without rhyme or reason, keeps you hoping for the reward. No matter how debased you are, there’s always a hope for the return to that infatuation phase when the abuser will shower you with love.

But you are being abused.

The first step: therapy, therapy, therapy. Can’t afford therapy? 7Cups, an online therapy service, offers free volunteer “listeners” 24/7. They aren’t certified, but they’re an outside ear that may give you some perspective on your relationship. But you need more than a listener—that’s a stopgap. You need a real therapist who can look you in the eye and help you make a plan to get out.

Everything from the Complex PTSD Association to TalkSpace to Psychology Today recommends going no-contact. If kids are involved and you can’t go no-contact, keep it minimal. You need time to recover and heal and break the cycle. If you go back, you are not weak. You are not a failure. You can pick up and try again. Trauma bonding is very, very difficult to break, and while that’s not an excuse for returning, it doesn’t make you a bad person if you do cave to those hormones and chemicals and have to repeat the cycle of leaving again. Just take what you learned and do it again.

Psychology Today recommends developing a support network of people (you know, all those people who were telling you to leave the abusive relationship in the first place). They need to help you stay away from your abuser and support you as you make new goals and move forward in your life. Remember how your abuser was your whole world? You need new people to fill it.

You also need to “challenge yourself to do new things,” says the Complex PTSD Association. You need not only new people, but new things to fill the void your abuser has left. Take a class, start a new hobby… this will help you begin a new identity away from that person, and help to distract you from the loss of that relationship.

Letting Go Is Hard.

It’s difficult to extricate yourself from a trauma bond, and it’s important that you don’t blame yourself for falling into the trap of trauma bonding. It comes from a complex interplay between past abuse and the need for validation, between hormones and chemicals of all kinds.

With the help of friends and a good therapist, you don’t need to be involved in this abuse anymore. It will be hard. It will take a long time. But you can break free.

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