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Imagine that you’re with a partner who’s abusive. They’re degrading you verbally, they’re playing psychological mind tricks, they’re gaslighting you into doubting your own memories and they’re even using violence, or threatening violence, in order to scare you.
Yet, you feel a pull to stay with them. You feel bad for them—they had a rough childhood, are dealing with mental illness or addiction, or they’re promising to change. What you’re feeling may not be as much sympathy as it is something else experts in the field of domestic violence refer to as “trauma bonding.” You’re not alone—it’s common for victims of domestic violence to find themselves trapped with an abuser because of this.
Definition of Trauma Bonding
Trauma bonding is a type of attachment that one can feel toward someone who’s causing them trauma. It brings with it not only feelings of sympathy, compassion and love, but also confusion, licensed mental health counselor Stefanie Juliano, LPCC told DomesticShelters.org.
“It can become a cycle of, if I’m loved, I’m abused; it’s my fault and I need to please them,” says Juliano. “Many don’t even make the connection that they are, in fact, being abused.”
Signs of Trauma Bonding
If you think you might be experiencing trauma bonding with an abusive partner, read through this list of signs and see how many sound familiar:
- You feel stuck and powerless in the relationship but want to make the best of it.
- You don’t know if you trust the other person, but you can’t leave.
- You’d describe your relationship as intense and complex.
- There are promises of things getting better in the future.
- You “focus on the good” in the person, despite behaviors you know are abuse.
- You think you can change your abusive partner.
- Your friends and/or family have advised you to leave the relationship, but you stay.
- You find yourself defending the relationship if others criticize it.
- The abusive partner constantly lets you down, but you believe them anyway.
How Does Trauma Bonding Happen?
There are a few suspected reasons why some survivors experience trauma bonding and others don’t.
Childhood Abuse. Trauma bonding can happen for a variety of reasons but some experts, including Mo Therese Hannah, Ph.D., chair and co-founder of the Battered Mothers Custody Conference, and professor of psychology at Siena College, believe it can have roots in childhood. Children whose parents were abusive may grow up to find familiarity in a partner who is abusive, feeling a sense of normalcy being abused.
“Many of these survivors were abused as children, often by their father, whom the abuser may remind her of on an unconscious level,” says Hannah. “She hopes that this time, as opposed to during her childhood, she will be loved and treated well.”
Obligation. Hannah says trauma bonding can also occur when the victim feels a sense of obligation to the abuser. “Certainly not all, but especially in instances where a female survivor became bonded to her abuser in her youth ... she feels dutiful and obligated to him and, in most cases, at least for a while, he has treated her well,” says Hannah. “He may have been her ‘first great love,’ making her reluctant to leave him, believing in his potential or his capacity to return back to the way he used to be."
Survival Technique. Hannah says trauma bonding has similar traits to Stockholm syndrome, a term originally created to describe how victims of kidnapping can begin to feel a connection to their captors over time. Psychotherapist Paul Hokemeyer says Stockholm syndrome, or trauma bonding, are survival techniques.
“Rather than place themselves in an escalating cycle of violence, [victims] consciously and unconsciously figure out ways to deescalate and resolve the conflict. In its most basic sense, this is seen as surrendering to win. The victim gives into the source of violence and aligns with it. In so doing, they feel protected by their perpetrator rather than hostile with them.”
Says Hannah, “Some women [who experience trauma bonding] actually defend their abuser, protecting him from others' criticisms; she may do this out of fear or misplaced loyalty, or maybe even out of magical thinking, that if she is loyal and protective of him he will be the same way toward her.”
A Dopamine Rush. Trauma bonding may also be a type of addiction—not to the bad parts of the relationship, but to the good. When something positive happens in the relationship, there is an increase in the feel-good chemical dopamine, as well as adrenaline and norepinephrine, two other chemicals that can make us feel excited by the prospect of loving feelings. While we aren’t technically addicted to dopamine or the other chemicals, our memory will remind us of the good feeling they create and we’ll seek out these experiences again.
In other words, victims of abuse may be waiting for that next “feel-good moment” in the relationship, keeping them trapped in a cycle of abuse and relief.
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How to Break the Bond
How can survivors break this bond, both during the relationship and after they’ve separated from their abusive partner?
- Start documenting. It may help to start keeping a record of the abusive incidents your partner is inflicting so you can more clearly see the cycle or frequency of abuse, or notice its escalation. Consider keeping a log at your place of employment or a relative’s house where the abuser can’t locate it. There are also smartphone apps that can help you safely keep your records handy. This may also come in handy as evidence in court later on.
- Reach out for help. Talk to a trained domestic violence advocate at a shelter near you for help with safety planning in order to separate from the abuser. Remember, you can call an advocate for reasons other than seeking shelter.
- Cut off contact. Once you’ve separated, avoid all contact with the abuser. Do not respond to texts, phone calls or emails. Delete or make private your social media accounts and do not check your partners’ accounts. Separation will help you to more clearly see what you may have been trapped in and give you time to figure out what you’d like to do next.
- Find Support. Who can you turn to in your support system? If it’s unclear, consider seeking out an online support group, such as the DomesticShelters.org Victims and Survivors Community, or explore virtual therapy options.
- Draw boundaries with future partners. Take what you’ve learned from previous toxic partners and go forward into healthier relationships in the future by drawing clear boundaries at the start. Read “Where Are Your Boundaries?” to learn what boundary drawing looks like.
We've prepared a toolkit "What Is Trauma Bonding?" to help you understand even more what trauma bonding is so you can better assess and understand your situation.
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