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What is Trauma Bonding? Is It Keeping You In a Bad Relationship?

by Andrea M. Darcy

Trauma bonding, or traumatic bonding, can mean you you unable to leave a relationship even when your partner treats you poorly.

Do none of your friends understand why you stay?

Did you perhaps have a childhood where you experienced a trauma?

What is trauma bonding?

In psychology ‘bonding’ refers to the positive sense of connection and attachment that grows between people when they spend a lot of time together. You might notice feelings of bonding after going through something both really good or really difficult with a partner or friend. You feel closer to them, and more loyal.

‘Trauma bonding’ refers to a state of being emotionally attached not to a kind friend or family member, but to an abuser. It’s a negative form of bonding as it keeps you loyal to a destructive situation. The abuser uses cycles of abuse and then some form of reward to keep you trapped psychologically and emotionally.

Are you in an abusive relationship? Need someone to talk to? Visit our sister site harleytherapy.com to book counselling easily and quickly, worldwide. Appointments are available online, by phone or in person.

Signs of trauma bonding

Not sure if you are or are not involved in trauma bonding? Look for these signs of traumatic bonding:

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  • you feel stuck and powerless in the relationship but try to make the best of it
  • deep down there are moments you don’t even know if you like or trust the other person, but you can’t leave
  • the relationship is intense and complex and involves a promise – “I promise things will get better”, “I promise when I get a job things will be different”, “I promise I’ll marry you one day”.
  • you know they are ‘sometimes’ abusive, but you focus on the ‘good’ in them
  • or you think you can somehow change them so they aren’t emotionally/physically abusive
  • your friends and/or family have advised you leave the relationship but you stay
  • you find yourself defending the relationship if others criticise it
  • you have tried to leave, but you feel physically ill if you do, or like you will die or your life will be destroyed
  • the other person constantly lets you down but you still believe their promises.

Examples of trauma bonding

One example is a child being abused by an adult. The adult abuses the child, then tell him/her they are special, beautiful, perhaps buys them gifts. Then the adult abuses the child again.

After several cycles, the child is confused by his or her might start to confuse fear with excitement. Eventually the child can develop behaviours such as choosing to go see the abuser even if she is afraid of him.

As adults, trauma bonding can be far more subtle. We can be in a relationship where we are constantly verbally criticised, let down, and manipulated. But sometimes our partner is ‘so wonderful’, we stick it out. Eventually, when we do try to leave, we can’t. We feel panicky without the abusive partner, and rush back, no matter the advice of friends and family.

Having a partner who is an alcoholic or drug addict who goes in and out of recovery can be a form of trauma bonding. We live on the good moments, and when they fall off the wagon we stick it out on the promise that one day they’ll get clean again.

Other examples of trauma bonding include a cult member with cult leaders, and hostages with kidnappers.

How does trauma bonding happen?

Traumatic experiences throw you into survival mode. Your primal fight, flight, or freeze response is triggered, and in this case, it’s the freeze response.

Your body will be on a constant or intermittent cortisol high, which will make you feel dissociated and unable to think clearly. And you will be working from your survival instincts, not logic, so you’ll look for what is good about the abuser and gloss over the horror.

Trauma bonding also happens in part because of the science of addiction. The brain is wired to repeat activities that cause a feeling of reward. And when we are suffering horribly, something small like a moment of kindness can seem such a reward we even experience a dopamine hit, which would also encourage us to be addicted to the abuser.

If you try to leave a partner you are trauma bonded with, you might feel exhausted and even sick, just like someone coming off a drug. You tell yourself you just need to see them ‘one more time’, and just like that, you are back in the relationship, hooked again.

Why are you more susceptible to trauma bonding?

Why are some people always hooked into abusive relationships, and others not at all?

If you suffered abuse as a child, or even neglect, and have never sought help to heal the wounding of childhood trauma, you are more likely to be attracted to relationships that repeat the cycle of trauma bonding.

Why trauma bonding matters

Hopefully, after reading about trauma bonding, you can start to see how trauma bonding can be because of unresolved past trauma, which is not your fault.

Nor does it make you weak or unintelligent if you can’t leave someone you are trauma bonded with. Your brain and physiology are in cycles of attachment and addiction that anyone would struggle to break.

What should I do if I worry I have traumatic bonding?

Traumatic bonding is not a simple thing. It can involve addiction and childhood trauma.

So it’s highly recommended you seek the support of a counsellor or psychotherapist. He or she can help you recognise what power you do have to step away.

You might also want to read the next piece in this series, “How to Break Free of a Trauma Bonds“.

Would you like to speak to a warm, friendly and experienced therapist who can help you with trauma bonding? We connect you with top therapists in central London locations.

Not in London, or even the UK? For affordable counselling worldwide, please visit our sister site harleytherapy.com to book therapy by online or phone quickly and easily. 

Still have a question about ‘what is trauma bonding?’. Ask below in our comment box, or share your experiences with our other readers. 


Andrea M. Darcy is a lifestyle and wellbeing writer as well as a coach who often writes about relationships. Find her @am_darcy



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Blog Topics: Relationships

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