Abusive relationships are a prevalent problem in the United States, and it’s getting worse. On average, nearly 20 people per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner. This equates to more than 10 million women and men a year. And that only includes physical abuse, not emotional or psychological abuse, which also happens regularly.
Common rhetoric surrounding abusive relationships is, “Why didn’t you just leave?” But it isn’t that simple. Abusive relationships are characterized by a distorted power dynamic and can foster intense feelings of loyalty, despite the suffering. What are trauma bonds? It’s the intense emotional connection you develop with someone abusing you.
What are Trauma Bonds?
A trauma bond is a strong, emotional connection that develops between an abuser and the abused person. The abuse survivor develops an unhealthy attachment to the abuser that can have devastating and traumatic consequences.
“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.
Trauma bonds form in situations where a person has the power to exploit another. Abusers may seem charming initially, but their actions can be unpredictable and dangerous.
Trauma bonds may occur in situations such as:
- Domestic abuse
- Child abuse
- Elder abuse
- Boss/employee relationships
- Kidnapping or hostage situations
- Human trafficking
- Religious extremism or cults
Why Do People Develop Trauma Bonds?
Trauma bonds are rooted in a person’s innate need for attachment and security. They can cause you to develop sympathy or affection for your abuser. The abuser wields power over you, convincing you that you can’t live without them. You may turn to the abuser for comfort, even though the abuser hurts you.
“Trauma bonds are tied to deep and powerful levels of manipulation,” Mark said. “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.”
Many relationships exhibit a pattern of abuse, alternating between poor treatment and intense affection. The abuser may employ a tactic called “love bombing” in which they shower you with gifts, praise, love, and positive reinforcement. The abuser will then seemingly “flip a switch,” and return to their toxic nature. This behavior is often accompanied by a “promise to change,” despite continued offenses. Over time, you may believe the behavior is normal, and the toxic cycle continues.
“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. Abuse tends to happen in spurts that are buffered on either side by extremely affectionate behavior and grand apologetic gestures,” Mark said.
A key tactic in abusive relationships is manipulation. The abuser may convince you that their actions are rationalized and that you deserve it. Alternatively, the abuser may tell you that they didn’t mean to hurt you, but they just can’t control their behavior because of something in their past.
Trauma bonds often are strengthened when you rely on the abuser to provide for you emotionally or financially. You may believe you will be unable to find what the abuser provides elsewhere, so you must continue to stay. Children or other dependents escalate the need for stability and the fear of leaving.
Signs of trauma bonds include:
- Making excuses for an abuser’s actions
- Agreeing with the 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
- Growing defensive if a loved one attempts to intervene
- Feeling reluctant to leave the relationship
Breaking Trauma Bonds
An abusive relationship with trauma bonds can feel inescapable. You may fear for your safety or lack the finances to leave. There are steps you can take to break free and find safety.
To break free of trauma bonds:
- Create a Safety Plan. Determine an exit strategy that allows you to safely and quickly leave and get to a secure location. Tell one trusted person where and when you are going. If you can’t escape safely, contact a hotline or local resource center for help.
- Go No-Contact. It’s easy for an abuser to manipulate you into returning. It’s safest to cut off contact with them completely. If you must contact the abuser, utilize a therapist, social worker, or mediator as your communicator.
- Reflect on the Relationship. Learn to recognize the signs and dangers of the relationship and how to avoid them in the future. Make an “OK” and “not OK” list to establish what behaviors you will or will not allow again.
“The most important thing when you decide to leave is that you find a way to do so safely,” Mark said. “Don’t assume you can rationalize with your abuser, or they will permit you to leave. Make a secure plan.”
Healing From Trauma Bonds
Abuse can happen to anyone. It’s not your fault that someone you should have been able to trust betrayed you. Surviving abuse does not make you weak or damaged. It takes great strength to leave an abusive relationship. You can unlearn harmful behaviors, heal from the trauma, and find happiness.
How to find healing:
- Focus on Reality. You may be holding on to hope that the abuser will change. It’s important to recognize the reality of the present and all the negative ways they are treating you. Even if they promise they will do things differently in the future, their actions represent their true self.
- Take One Day at a Time. Make each step easier by focusing on one action at a time. Leaving an abusive relationship can be less frightening if you focus on several small steps rather than one giant step.
- Prioritize Self-Care. Resist the urge to turn to your abuser for comfort and instead focus on positive hobbies or activities you enjoy. Healthy habits include: journaling, meditation, yoga, exercise, or talking to trusted loved ones.
- Don’t Blame Yourself. The abuser may have manipulated you into thinking their actions were your fault. No one deserves abuse. Remind yourself that you are doing the right thing and you deserve better.
- Learn to Grieve. Leaving an abusive relationship is emotionally exhausting and traumatizing. It’s normal to grieve losing something that was once important to you.
- Surround Yourself With Positive Relationships. Invest in healthy relationships with people who will support you. It’s crucial to have trusted loved ones you can confide in and who can encourage you, empower you, and keep you safe.
- Consult a Mental Health Professional. Healing from trauma bonds takes time. Seeing a mental health professional can help you process the trauma and find healing.
“Abuse is traumatic. You can process what you’ve been through and heal with the support of a mental health professional and a community of loved ones,” Mark said.
You Are Not Alone
Breaking trauma bonds can be difficult, but it is possible. There are countless stories of survivors who have broken through and gone on to have successful, happy lives. With support from trusted loved ones, assistance from mental health counselors, or help from a treatment program, you can start to heal and begin your life anew.
At Integrative Life Center, we approach healing with compassion and care. No matter your circumstances, we can help you understand the trauma you’ve experienced and start the road to recovery. Contact ILC today to take back your life and find healing.