Trauma Bonding: What is it and How to Heal
Written by Christy Schaefer, MACP Graduate Intern
Trauma bonding is a term that defines a relationship where there are periods of turmoil (often physical, sexual or emotional abuse) inflicted by one individual onto another, intermixed with periods of positive reinforcement that keep the afflicted person in the relationship. Often there is a power differential that the individual with the upper hand takes advantage of and uses to control, manipulate and gaslight the other person.
Why doesn’t the person being abused leave?
It becomes difficult for the person in a trauma bond to leave the relationship because during times of traumatic stress, our bodies go into “fight or flight” mode – this is often when the abuser switches gears and offers love, kindness, apologies, etc. to the other person – creating a scenario where the person then reaches for this positive reinforcement like a lifeline, to help them feel safe once again and soothe their activated nervous system. This creates a strong, chemical bond between the two individuals, where the individual being abused starts to believe that they need their abuser to survive. Paradoxically, an association develops in their minds and bodies between that person and safety, comfort and love.
What are some potential signs of trauma bonding?
1. The relationship develops quickly and feels very intense
2. You place the relationship at top priority, at the expense of other relationships
3. You feel that this person is the only one who can meet your needs, and there is great fear of losing the relationship
4. This person will fluctuate between abusive, harmful behaviour and exaggerated care and attention, called “love bombing”, which can consist of excessive compliments, gifts, and affection
Those who find themselves in a trauma bond as adults often have a history of childhood trauma that has established a pattern for future relationships.
How does one break away from these patterns and begin to heal?
1. The first step is self-awareness: one must be able to consciously recognize if they are in a trauma bond, and be able to identify their own role in the continuation of the pattern
2. The next step is physically and emotionally separating or distancing oneself from the abuser: This is a tough process and is helped by having other social supports available.
3. The final step is developing and cultivating the self-love and self-compassion required to break the cycle. When we can care and love ourselves, we are more likely to seek out relationships with others that mirror this self-love.
Breaking harmful and abusive relationship patterns are difficult - it takes time and work. Finding a therapist you trust to help you process and begin to establish a healthier outlook on the self and relationships can assist you in the healing process.