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  • Writer's pictureEmily Smith

How do I know if I'm in a Trauma-Bonded relationship?

Trauma bonding occurs when a person forms a strong emotional connection with someone who has been abusive, manipulative, or harmful in some way. It's an attachment that forms from a cycle of physical or emotional trauma. This bond often develops as a coping mechanism to survive the distressing experiences of complex trauma. These types of bonds are not isolated to romantic partners - they occur in many other relationships too, like with parents or children. This is often the case in situations of frequent and intense stress within the home, often leading to complex trauma.


Complex trauma, also known as complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD), is a condition that arises from prolonged exposure to traumatic events, often occurring during childhood or over an extended period. Unlike single incident traumas, such as car accidents or natural disasters, complex trauma results from chronic, repetitive, or interpersonal trauma. Common sources of complex trauma include:

  • Childhood abuse (physical, sexual, emotional)

  • Neglect or abandonment

  • Domestic violence

  • Bullying

  • Long-term incarceration

The key distinction between complex trauma and single incident trauma is the cumulative impact of multiple, interconnected traumatic experiences. Complex trauma survivors may experience a range of symptoms, including emotional dysregulation, dissociation, self-esteem issues, and difficulties forming and maintaining healthy relationships.


Complex trauma has a profound effect on an individual's ability to form and maintain healthy relationships. Survivors of complex trauma often carry a burden of unresolved emotional pain, negative self-beliefs, and unhealthy coping strategies into their relationships. These factors can manifest in various ways, making it challenging to engage in fulfilling and secure connections:


Emotional Dysregulation: Complex trauma survivors may struggle to manage their emotions effectively. This can lead to mood swings, heightened reactivity, and difficulty maintaining emotional balance within a relationship. This emotional instability can cause turbulence and stress for both partners.


Dissociation: Dissociation is a common coping mechanism for complex trauma survivors. During times of emotional distress, they may "disconnect" from their emotions, thoughts, and even their bodies. This can make it challenging for them to connect with their partners on a deep, intimate level.


Trust Issues: Complex trauma survivors often have profound issues with trust. Their traumatic experiences may have involved betrayal, and as a result, they may find it difficult to trust others. This lack of trust can impede the development of healthy, secure relationships.


Attachment Styles: Complex trauma can also influence an individual's attachment style. For example, survivors may develop anxious or avoidant attachment patterns, which can lead to difficulties in forming and maintaining close relationships.


Ok, but what is Trauma Bonding?


In short, trauma bonding is a psychological phenomenon in which a person develops a strong emotional attachment to someone that they know is going to cause them further pain. It can look like:

  • Obsessing about people who have hurt you, even though they aren't around anymore

  • Going above and beyond for people who have been destructive to you

  • Continually trying to get someone or a group of people to like you, even though they are using you

  • Being unable to escape unhealthy relationships

  • Choosing to stay in conflict rather than walking away

  • Remaining loyal to people who have wronged you

  • Developing a pattern of being drawn to people who are untrustworthy or abusive


This bond can be particularly intense in cases of complex trauma, where the abuser may be a parent, caregiver, or romantic partner. Trauma bonding can develop for several reasons:


  • Survival Mechanism: In the context of complex trauma, trauma bonding often emerges as a survival mechanism. You might have come to learn that the best way for you to get your needs met or escape more intense or immediate harm is through being in a bonded relationship with the person causing distress. This can happen without even knowing it.

  • Inner Conflict: You may experience inner conflict, and the fancy phrase for this is cognitive dissonance. It's the discomfort that comes up from holding conflicting beliefs or attitudes. It can be extremely difficult to hold both the beliefs of: "This person is harming me greatly, and this person is supposed to love me." To get rid of the discomfort from holding both of these conflicting beliefs, you might convince yourself that the person causing harm cares for you and what they say and do is a form of love and protection.

  • Isolation: In abusive or harmful situations, people are often cut off from their outside support systems, which can make the trauma bond that much stronger since it is the primary connection.

  • Positive Reinforcement: People causing this level of harm intermittently provide moments of kindness or affirmation, creating a sense of hope and attachment in the victim. These moments can reinforce the trauma bond and keep the victim emotionally entangled and connected.

Recognizing Trauma Bonding in Relationships


Trauma bonding can be difficult to identify, and there are some certain signs and patterns that often emerge:


Emotional or financial dependency

Fear of abandonment

Making excuses for the behavior

Loyalty to the person causing harm

Extreme emotional highs and extreme emotional lows, its a rollercoaster

Loss of sense of self and increased self doubt

The relationship feels like a drug addiction, you might know it's unhealthy but you go back for more


Breaking this cycle is possible. It requires building self awareness around the trauma being in existence, and the ability to see how the trauma bonds have grown roots in the relationship. This awareness is what often leads to the realization of the impact of these relationships on their lives. Once the awareness is there, we can rebuild that sense of self-esteem and self-worth in order to break free or heal from the lasting wounds that these relationships cause. Almost always, the development of boundaries is crucial in truly breaking the cycle that trauma bonding creates.


If these types of relationships are something that you feel you're dealing with now or some of these pieces feel familiar to your past, you are capable of flipping the script, breaking the cycle, healing the wounds, loving, and being loved.



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