• Trauma bonding is an intense emotional connection that is formed between an abused individual and their abuser. Abuse in a traumatic bond can be either physical or emotional.
  • While traumatic bonding can occur in all types of relationships (friends and family included) the strongest are typically romantic.
  • Traumatic bonds are hard to leave—these connections can be chemically addictive, altering our brain chemistry. They can also destroy our self-esteem, and the brief periods of peace and happiness that occur can sometimes make the abuse feel worthwhile.
  • A victim of trauma bonding is likely to feel emotionally dependent on their abusive partner who will usually blame their behavior on the other person. Because the victim feels responsible, it can become even harder to leave the relationship.
  • Lastly, it’s important to acknowledge that trauma bonding isn’t the same as trauma dumping, which is when we overshare overly personal information with friends, family, or strangers.
  • Being a victim of trauma bonding is a state of emergency, not oversharing. It’s essential to reach out for immediate help from loved ones or a mental health professional for your own protection.

As social stigma and perceptions surrounding mental health conditions continue to change, popular usage of mental health terms is increasing as well. Of these terms, “trauma bonding” has been among the most used, researched, and debated. A form of psychological manipulation, trauma bonding occurs when someone experiences cyclical abuse from another individual, followed by an apology and intermittent period of reconciliation, which is followed by more abuse.

This painful emotional rollercoaster leaves the abused individual wondering why they can never make their abuser happy. Like a bad gambling addiction, they take their chances continually on being able to improve the individual’s behavior, expecting an outcome that just won’t happen. 

Why are traumatic bonds so strong? And what does trauma bonding look like in a romantic relationship? These important questions don’t just allow us to understand the term when we hear or read about it; knowing and being able to recognize the signs and abusive patterns associated with trauma bonding can prevent us from falling victim to this behavior ourselves. 

Why Are Traumatic Bonds So Strong?

Traumatic bonds are created by periods of extreme emotional and physical stress followed by a period of peace when the abuse comes to a lull. The peaks and valleys of the relationship may create an unmatched and unbridled connection between the abuser and the abused. Because of the dynamic range of the abusive partner’s behavior, the good portions of the relationship seem amazing to someone who’s being abused, at least in comparison to the hurt that happened only just prior. 

This chaos plays a role in the creation of an unhealthy desire to finally “fix” the abuser. Those who are suffering from a traumatic bond often bank heavily on eventually experiencing a “breakthrough” with the person that’s hurting them, which can make traumatic bonds hard for people suffering from abuse to leave. And as Emily Simonian, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist at Thriveworks in Washington, DC, explains, low self-esteem may play a role in trauma bonding. “Inappropriate dependence occurs in victims and abusers—the victim may feel they need the abuser for emotional fulfillment, financial survival or safety, while the abuser depends on the victim to maintain a sense of control in their own life.” 

Unfortunately, traumatic bonding may potentially be chemically addictive. The extreme highs and lows of a relationship solidified through trauma bonding cause changes in our brain chemistry. Feelings of physical pain, fear, guilt, or shame contrast sharply with the feel-good brain chemicals released by a loving apology, a hug, or pleasurable sexual contact following abuse. 

Those who’ve suffered from childhood abuse, or who have pre-existing mental health issues may be at increased risk of being in a trauma-bound relationship. “Attachment can become inappropriate for a myriad of reasons, generally when one or both individuals in a relationship are vulnerable and/or experiencing mental health issues,” Simonian points out. 

What Are the Signs of Trauma Bonding?

Relationships aren’t one-size-fits-all—each romantic connection will have different dynamics at play, so trauma bonding can look different, depending on the individuals involved. Though generally, according to psychologists, trauma bonding is: 

  • Marked by an abused individual’s feelings of dependence on their abuser: Verbal and physical abuse can start to chip away at someone’s confidence and self-esteem. Those who stay with abusive partners often feel as though they’re unable to function without the abuser’s presence in their life. 
  • Identified by an abuser who refuses to take responsibility: As part of their manipulative tactics, abusers may convince their partner that they are responsible for their own pain and suffering. After some time, a victim may slowly believe that their actions are creating an abusive environment and that their mistakes are what is ruining the relationship. 
  • Not likely to transition into a healthy relationship, no matter how much effort is put forth: Trauma bonding doesn’t translate into a healthy relationship for several reasons. Traumatic bonds aren’t the same as love, a casual fling, or friends with benefits, though they may start out with those elements. Trauma bonding is based on fear and abuse-fuelled codependency

Regardless of the mirage created by the abuser, abuse of any kind is grounds for someone to leave their relationship. Abuse is not love: Verbal and physical harm can create lasting scars, both seen and unseen. 

Trauma Bonding vs. Trauma Dumping

Trauma bonding may be easily confused with trauma dumping: It may sound like trauma bonding happens when two people share traumatic experiences, and then bond over how similar their lives have been. Not true: Though both terms are related to traumatic experiences, they differ in important ways. Trauma dumping refers to oversharing intensely personal and unsolicited subject matter with friends, peers, or even strangers. 

When we’re suffering, it might seem alright to look for an opportunity to vent—but a captive audience isn’t always a consensual audience. It’s important to remember that our friends need their own space too; they may be going through their own trials and challenges. However, if we find ourselves caught in a relationship that’s violated our personal right to physical and emotional safety, then it’s not considered trauma dumping to tell our friends or family. In fact, it’s necessary. 

Abuse in a relationship isn’t a red flag—it’s usually a state of emergency in which requires immediate help and support from loved ones. And although loved cans can help support us after leaving an abusive relationship, a mental health professional is more likely to help you find long-term solutions and coping strategies as you begin to heal.