Call Now: 615.455.3903

Close this search box.

Breaking Free: Trauma Bonds in Abusive Relationships

Breaking Trauma Bonds

Abusive relationships are a prevalent problem throughout the United States and one that is progressively getting worse. On average, nearly 20 people per minute suffer physical abuse from an intimate partner, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. When we expand the time frame, we see that this implies that roughly 10 million women and men experience physical abuse each year. Keep in mind, this only accounts for physical abuse, not emotional or psychological abuse, which are just as prevalent, if not more so. 

These days, there is a public understanding that physical abuse is not acceptable behavior in a relationship. Still, large numbers of people continue to enter into abusive relationships and remain in them long after the signs are obvious. In many instances, this is due to trauma bonds formed between the people in the relationship. 

What are Trauma Bonds?

A trauma bond is a strong, emotional connection that develops between an abuser and the abused person. The abused person experiences an unhealthy attachment to the abuser, which may lead to horrific results.  Trauma bonds are formed when a person feels affection and trust for their partner when they are in a dysfunctional or abusive relationship. This can occur in a variety of different relationships. Common toxic relationships include domestic violence, dysfunctional marriages, and relationships with a narcissist or a person with an addiction. 

“Some survivors may view trauma bonds as a failure on their part, but they aren’t. Those bonds are how their brain helped them survive their situation,” said Mark Blakeley, MS, LPC, LAC, CSAT, Lead Therapist for Integrative Life Center. For the person suffering the abuse, it is common to feel as though they have no choice but to remain in the relationship, even though doing so hurts them. This can often come across as a trauma bond addiction. 

Trauma bonds may occur in many different situations, such as:

  • Domestic abuse
  • Childhood abuse
  • Incest
  • Elder abuse
  • Emotional Abuse 
  • Boss/employee relationships
  • Kidnapping or hostage situations
  • Human trafficking 
  • Religious extremism or cults

Trauma bonds can also occur in cult-like religious organizations, hostage situations and kidnappings, and relationships that involve child abuse or incest. 

Most of the time trauma bonding addiction forms in romantic relationships, but they can also happen with family members, friends, or colleagues. 

How Do Trauma Bonds Develop?

According to experts from Healthline, trauma bonds grow from a person’s innate need for attachment and security. A person experiencing long-term effects of childhood trauma may also seek out a relationship that feels familiar to them, mistaking “familiar” for “good.” While many people don’t realize they are in a relationship with an abuser at first, some people find themselves drawn to a chaotic or demanding individual. Once the relationship is established, the cycle of abuse begins. 

Trauma bonding involves loyalty to a destructive person and is an unhealthy type of relationship. They are very manipulative, and the partner who is the victim is given a promise of hope. These relationships are always intense, complex, and inconsistent. The abused partner will tolerate anything because whatever is promised will fulfill a deep personal need. It is hard for them to see that the relationship is unhealthy until they step away from it.


Once a trauma bond attaches, it can cause a victim of abuse to feel affection or even sympathy for the abuser, who may remind them of a parent or other figure who abused them at a young age. “Trauma bonds are tied to deep and powerful levels of manipulation,” Blakely says. “You are made to believe you can’t possibly live without the person providing you resources, whether it be love, money, shelter, or something else.”

Why Do Trauma Bonds Last?

In a relationship where a trauma bond forms, the partner first makes them feel loved and cared for. Over time this changes and the relationship becomes abusive. The abused partner often thinks they can fix the relationship if they can figure out what they are doing wrong. To keep them from leaving, the abusive partner will go back to the courtship phase to win them back. The cycle repeats over and over again.

A narcissistic person will manipulate their partner over and over again until they begin to believe the toxic behaviors are normal. The person being abused feels like they need validation from their partner, which gives them more power. 

Abuse is alternated with positive experiences, and this leads to trauma bonds, which are strengthened over time. Positive reinforcement is used to ensure the person will stay, and it becomes difficult for them to recognize clear signs of physical or emotional abuse. 

Even when the person is aware they are in an abusive relationship, they may have been manipulated to continue forgiving the abusive partner. 

This is part of why people stay in toxic relationships. It is difficult to see the other person clearly when they alternate love and abuse and often use techniques like gaslighting to make the person feel like it is all in their head.

A Cycle of Manipulation in Mentally Abusive Relationships

Often, mentally abusive relationships exist in an ongoing cycle, alternating between intense affection and abusive treatment. Abusers often employ behavior called “love bombing,” in which they shower their partner with various forms of affection such as gifts, praise, love, and positive reinforcement. At some point, however, the abuser suddenly changes and begins the abusive part of the cycle. Commonly, the abuser will offer a “promise to change” but continue their poor behavior. 

It is very difficult to see these cycles for what they are while in the relationship, particularly for individuals raised by one or more abusive parents or guardians. After all, if a person has only ever experienced relationships that include abuse, the abuse seems like a normal part of daily life. 

“Abuse might be easier to spot if the abuser was a terrible person who was bad all the time, but that’s rarely the case,” says Blakely. “Abuse tends to happen in spurts that are buffered on either side by extremely affectionate behavior and grand apologetic gestures.”

Trauma bonds are all the more difficult for a victim to recognize and break free from when the abuser provides emotional or financial security. Many victims of abuse believe that they cannot find the protection they need without their abuser or that they don’t deserve better treatment. These are dangerous lies to tell oneself and only serve to strengthen the trauma bonds that a victim deserves to break. Examining a relationship with a trauma-informed lens can help you identify the true nature of your relationship and help you determine whether you need help. 

Common Signs of Trauma Bonds

Now that you know what a trauma bond is, it is important to understand some of the common signs that a relationship may include abuse and trauma bonding. These include: 

  • Trying to change your partner’s destructive behaviors
  • You have repeated fights that damage your relationship and no one ever wins
  • You feel attached to them even if you can’t trust them and don’t like them
  • If you try to leave, you long for them in ways that feel unbearable
  • Hiding your negative emotions from them so they won’t try to make you feel guilty for having them
  • Taking on multiple roles for the abusive partner, like a lover, best friend, therapist, or parent, which strengthens the trauma bond and weakens your personal identity
  • Making excuses for an abuser’s actions
  • Supporting an abuser’s justification for the abuse
  • Changing your behavior so as not to upset the abuser
  • Becoming numb to emotional or physical abuse
  • Lying to loved ones about the relationship
  • Acting defensively if a loved one attempts to intervene
  • Feeling reluctant to leave the relationship
  • Continuing to believe promises even though past promises were not kept
  • Others are concerned/disturbed by something that happened with your partner, but you are not

Trauma Bonds: Common Risk Factors

There are a number of risk factors that make trauma bonds more likely, although it can happen to anyone.

  • Poor mental health
  • Low self-esteem
  • Past trauma
  • Lack of personal identity
  • No social support system
  • History of being bullied
  • Financial issues

Breaking Trauma Bonds

Trauma bonds often make it feel as though it is impossible to get out of an abusive relationship, so it is crucial to examine the situation with care. Victims often feel overwhelmed at the thought of leaving an abuser or worry that, even if they do leave, they cannot make a better life for themselves.

Fortunately, this is rarely true in the long run. The following steps can help victims break free from an abusive relationship: 

  • Create a Safety Plan. The victim should start with an exit plan to safely and quickly leave the abuser and go to a secure location. They should tell one trusted person where they are going and when they plan to leave. This creates greater safety and also accountability. Victims who can’t leave the situation safely should contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline or a local resource center for help. 
  • Go No-Contact. Many abusers can easily manipulate a victim into returning if they remain in contact. The safest way to leave is to cut the abuser off completely. If a victim absolutely must contact an abuser, they should use a mediator, such as a therapist or some other trusted and responsible party.
  • Reflect on the Relationship. Once a victim breaks free from an abusive partner, they are still in danger of heading straight into another abusive relationship unless they take time to identify signs of abuse beforehand. It is a good practice to create an “OK Behavior” list and a “Not OK Behavior” list to establish what behaviors to avoid in the future.

Safety is the most important part of leaving an abusive relationship. Avoid the temptation to try and reason with an abuser. That can be done with a professional mediator at a later time. Once a victim understands that they are in an abusive relationship, breaking free and removing themselves to a place of safety are the top priorities. ILC’s approach to trauma-informed care creates room for victims to examine these patterns and work toward a path of healing. 

Healing From Trauma Bonds

Abuse can happen to anyone, and it does; it is not the fault of the victim. After a victim removes themselves from abuse, they have the opportunity to find healing and happiness, even if they can’t see it at first. 

Rebuilding one’s life after experiencing abuse takes time and can be difficult. It can be tempting to wonder why trauma therapy is so hard. It takes time and effort to unwind the threads of attachment with a former abuser. We have seen thousands of victims recover and reclaim their power, one step at a time. Here are some of the key patterns we have seen that allow victims to heal and find joy after escaping abuse: 

  • Focus On What Is True: Victims often hold on to hope that an abuser will change. Unfortunately, most do not. Even if they promise they will do things differently in the future, their actions represent their true self.
  • Take One Day at a Time: Many victims get overwhelmed trying to imagine the entire journey to freedom and happiness and fail to take the first step. Leaving an abusive relationship is very much like breaking an addiction – one step at a time, not all at once. Victims build sustainable living patterns by making good choices for themselves TODAY.
  • Prioritize Self-Care: Abusers may also fill the role of counselor and comforter for a victim, and once a victim leaves, they may need to relearn how to show themselves love and care. Healthy habits include journaling, meditation, yoga, exercise, or talking to trusted loved ones. 
  • Learn to Grieve: Leaving an abusive relationship is emotionally exhausting. It’s normal to grieve losing something that was once important, even an abusive relationship. Victims can build a solid foundation for healthy living by taking time to experience grief about the relationship. This helps separate them from the past and creates closure.
  • Consult a Mental Health Professional: Healing from trauma bonds takes time. Working with a mental health professional allows victims of abuse to process their experiences, identify flaws in their thinking, and establish healthy boundaries as they move forward. 

Victims of Abuse Are Not Alone

Breaking a trauma bond is hard to do, but it is very possible. At ILC we’ve witnessed countless stories of survivors who broke away from their abusers and went on to have successful, happy lives. With support from trusted loved ones, assistance from mental health counselors, or help from a trauma treatment program, you can start to heal from abuse and reset your life on a healthier path.  

Working with a therapist can be beneficial to healing from trauma. A therapist can help you identify your feelings and recognize the unhealthy cycle that keeps repeating in your toxic relationship. 

A therapeutic technique that is commonly used with trauma is Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). A therapist trained in EMDR can help you work through traumatic experiences using bilateral eye movements that are similar to REM sleep. The memory is then stored in the past where it belongs. The person then feels less distress when they think about it.

Another type of therapy useful when healing from a trauma bond is Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), which uses a variety of skills including emotion regulation and mindfulness.

ILC approaches healing of all kinds with compassion and care. If you’ve suffered abuse by a partner, we can help you understand the trauma you’ve experienced and start the road to trauma recovery. Contact ILC today to begin taking back your life and healing from abuse.

Related Post

Contact Our Team

"*" indicates required fields

First Name*
Last Name*
Voice Confirmation
By checking this box you are providing your expressed written consent and willingness for ILC to call you. We will never share your information.
SMS Confirmation
By clicking this box you are providing expressed written consent to have ILC contact you via SMS messages 2-4/mo, or in varying amounts. We never share your information. Standard message and data rates apply. Text Opt-Out to be removed at any time.

This is an invitation to take that next step if you need...

Start Your Healing Journey Today

Contact Our Team

"*" indicates required fields

First Name*
Last Name*
Voice Confirmation
By checking this box you are providing your expressed written consent and willingness for ILC to call you. We will never share your information.
SMS Confirmation
By clicking this box you are providing expressed written consent to have ILC contact you via SMS messages 2-4/mo, or in varying amounts. We never share your information. Standard message and data rates apply. Text Opt-Out to be removed at any time.

This is an invitation to take that next step if you need...