Are you currently in or withdrawing from an intense relationship that you need to leave, yet feel unable or unwilling to?
Do you find yourself trying to work things out with your partner despite constant patterns of pain, let downs, psychological/physical distress and/or abuse?
If so, you might be experiencing a traumatic bond.
Trauma bonding, also coined as “betrayal bonding,” can cause you to stay in a relationship regardless of having a partner who is abusive and/or treats you poorly.
The experience of those in a traumatic bond is often of cyclical shame and guilt that is often amplified by the lack of understanding from their loved ones.
One in a traumatic or betrayal bond may often hear: “why do you stay with him/her/them?”
In healthy relationships, ‘bonding’ refers to the positive sense of connection and attachment that grows between people when they spend time together.
When you work through or experience something either good or really difficult with a partner or friend, you tend feel closer to them after, thus the friendship and the loyalty in this relationship grows.
But when one bonds through trauma, one develops a trauma bond. A trauma bond often refers to a state of being emotionally attached to a toxic relationship with an abuser.
This harmful form of bonding as it keeps you loyal to a destructive person and/or situation.
The abuser uses cycles of reinforcement (often abuse followed by nurturing) attached to a form of reward (whether it be the promise of better times to come, having the “old them” back etc.) to keep you trapped psychologically and emotionally.
Some signs of trauma bonding are:
- Feeling stuck or even powerless in the relationship but trying to make the best of it even though deep down there are moments you don’t even know if you like or even trust the other person,
- A relationship that is intense and complex
- A relationship that offers a promise in exchange for enduring abuse (regardless of the kind of abuse): “I promise things will get better”, “When I get a job/move/get a handle on this drinking things will change”, “I promise we’ll get through this and have a family together”
- Your friends /family worry about you and urge you to you leave the relationship but you feel as though you cannot
- You are aware that they are ‘sometimes’ abusive, but find ways to focus on the ‘good’ in them
- You stay in the relationship because you think you can somehow change them, so they aren’t psychologically/emotionally/physically abusive; they might even tell you that you are the only one who can because you are unique or special.
- You feel like you will die, or your life will be destroyed if you leave
- Your partner constantly lets you down, but you still justify their actions and believe their promises.
- You find yourself defending the relationship if others criticize it
- You have tried to leave your partner, but you feel physically ill if and when you do
Early Wounds Make Bonds More Complicated
For example: a child being abused by an adult then telling him/her they are special, beautiful, maybe even buys them gifts—only to abuse them again.
After several cycles, the child is confused and may begin to confuse fear with excitement.
Eventually the child can develop behaviors such as choosing to go see the abuser even if she is afraid of him.
In adulthood, that abuse survivor may in turn may confuse feeling ill around someone or anxious as sexual excitement or mistake it for chemistry.
As adults, we may not pick up on the trauma in the more subtle forms such as being constantly verbally criticized, let down, exploited, lied to, and manipulated.
In narcissistic abuse, especially, our partner follows this up by showing their best sides or telling you what you want to hear in order to manipulate you into sticking it out.
The difference between this in a healthy and non-healthy relationship is the presence of abuse and the promise to change being fulfilled in a permanent way that shows growth and the presence of empathy.
In a traumatic bond, when one tries to leave, they tend to feel anxious or panicky without the abusive partner, and rush back—regardless of the worries and warnings of loved ones, or even despite the orders of police etc.
Helping a partner recover from addiction or who is in active addiction also led to a form of trauma bonding. We hold onto the promise of and moments of sobriety until the relapse occurs and the promise must be renewed.
Other examples of trauma bonding include spiritual abuse, cult relationships and hostages with kidnappers, i.e. Stockholm Syndrome (which traumatic bonding is a form of).
What should I do if I believe I am a survivor traumatic bonding?
Traumatic bonding is complex and may even involve addiction and early trauma or attachment issues.
If you think you are experiencing a traumatic bond, it’s highly recommended you seek the support of a psychotherapist.
While going “no contact,” is said to be the only way to truly diminish the bond, support groups are helpful and necessary during the early stages of withdrawal.