10 Minutes

November 1, 2021 by THE BALANCE
Fact checked

Ever wonder why some people find it so hard to leave a toxic relationship even after they are extremely abused? Leaving an abusive relationship is not as simple as walking out of a normal, non-abusive relationship. In certain abusive relationships, the survivor finds himself or herself tied to the abuser, assuming that there is no escape from the abuse they endure. Trauma bonding is an unhealthy bond that the abused person develops with their abuser and it is a psychological response to the abuse inflicted.

Trauma bonding is an emotional attachment that develops between the abuser and the victim of the abuse where the victim may feel sympathy and affection for the abuser. 

Trauma bonding is seen in a relationship where there are long phases of abuse with intermittent episodes of kindness, affection, and intimacy. It is normal to feel attached with someone who showers love at you and in the setting of an abusive relationship the abuser manipulates the victim into believing that they had a reason to abuse them saying they were upset or they might bring any other excuse for their behavior to gain the sympathy of the victim. 

The positive reinforcement that comes after abuse and devaluation is part of the abuse cycle that promotes the development of trauma bonds in a relationship. However, the victim falls into the trap when the abuser manipulates them with kind words, empty promises, and fancy gifts in the hope that the abuse would end and their partner would change once and for all.

Studies were done to find the impact of abuse on the brain and the reason for the development of trauma bond has shed light on the fact that constant abuse and trauma alters the neurochemistry which means that the levels of the neurotransmitter in the brain are disrupted after enduring abuse for a prolonged period. 

What is Narcissistic Abuse?

When abuse is inflicted on an individual, the stress hormone ‘cortisol’ surges in the blood and creates a flight or fright response to the situation. After the abuse has dissolved and the abuser shows kindness and intimacy, neurotransmitters like dopamine and oxytocin are released due to the stimulation of the reward center in the brain. This makes a person (the victim) enter into a state of temporary bliss and they often tend to ignore the trauma they have endured at the hand of their abuser and develop feelings of affection for them by giving them a margin for their past behavior. This is how trauma bonding develops between an abuser and the victim.

The trauma bond is so strong that if the victim decides to leave, they experience intense craving and longing for the abuser since their neurotransmitter levels such as dopamine and serotonin fall, causing low mood, depression, and anxiety. This makes it difficult for the victims to quit the relationship and they struggle with avoiding contact with the abuser as they seem to drawback to them after every attempt of breaking free from them.

For someone on the outside, it is easy to spot a toxic relationship and understand the trauma bonding between both partners. However, for someone who is in an abusive relationship, the red flags indicating toxic traits in a relationship are often overlooked and they miss the fact they have developed trauma bonding. 

Following are the signs and symptoms associated with trauma boding and one should be self-aware about these indications:

Constantly walking on eggshells out of worry that you might do something to upset them

Who wants to create trouble for their partner? Absolutely no one. But it is not normal to stay in fear for the reaction of your partner at any minor event. 

Individuals undergoing abuse and developing trauma bonding for their abuser are hyper-vigilant of their surroundings and super cautious about their actions since they fear something might happen that will disrupt the mood of their partner, leading to initiation of the abuse cycle. 

These individuals avoid all triggers and try to remove them from the surrounding that might upset their partners lest they do not have to face the trauma that sucks every bit of energy left in them.

Going at great lengths to protect the partner

Individuals who are trauma bonded with their abuser try all means to save their abuser. These individuals try all means to defend their partner when things go wrong against them. They try to bring reasons to excuse their partner’s behavior often stating that their partner had a rough childhood hence they are harsh sometimes. 

Overlooking bad behavior of the partner

It is a red flag if a victim ignores that extremely abusive attitude and bad behavior of their partner even after their friends and relatives are pointing at it.  

This is a clear sign that the individual has developed a trauma bond with the abuser making them overlook the mistakes of their partner. If you think that you do this, chances are that you are developing a trauma bond.

Finding it difficult to let the partner go 

Even though the partner causes the individual nothing but deception and hurt, these victims still find it hard to break free from the relationship and they choose to stay with their partner despite all the disagreements and their unarguably humiliating behavior. 

The abusive partner tricks the victim by showing some intimacy and showering words of praise and empty apologies, making the victim return to them; making an escape for the victim difficult.

Your emotions remain unshared 

Individuals with trauma bonding in the relationship are very cautious of how they present themselves in front of their partners (abuser) as they cover up their own emotions. In such a relationship usually, one partner is benefitting that is the abuser who generally lacks empathy and does not care about the suffering or achievements of their partner. 

Feeling addicted to the partner and craving for love crumbs

In an abusive relationship, one that has short instances of affection, support, and love after repeated cycles of abuse, the victim is often left yearning for love crumbs and for earning the love of their partner and hence these individuals try all means to please their abusive partners.

According to experts the sudden shower of praise and love after constant abuse triggers or stimulates the reward centers of the brain making the individual addicted to the abuser and their attention. 

Losing one’s self-worth and identity

In the tiring race of chasing an abusive partner, many individuals lose their identity. Since they keep masking their feelings and emotions, suppressing their desires to meet up to the expectation of their abusive partner so they soon evolve into a person they no longer recognize and this results in loss of self-worth and identity after being subjected to constant criticism and abuse in the relationship. 

These are some of the signs and symptoms associated with trauma bonding and its presentation varies in every relationship but certain key features remain the same because trauma bond has a similar impact on the person psychologically however the severity and intensity of symptoms differ in every one. 

Trauma bonding is seen in different settings.  The different types of trauma bonding are as follows:

  • Trauma bonding between the child and caregiver 
  • Trauma bonding between the hostage and kidnapper 
  • Trauma bonding between a leader and members of a cult

Although trauma bonds can develop in any abusive relationship with an imbalance in power dynamics, however, certain risk factors put a person on an edge to develop a trauma bond. The risk factors include the following:

  • Low self-esteem
  • Poor mental health
  • Past trauma
  • Financial hardships
  • History of being bullied and abused
  • Lack of personal identity and self-awareness 
  • Lack of support system
  • History of substance abuse
  • Poor coping strategies
  • Poor academic or work performance
  • Homelessness

If you are ambiguous about whether you share a trauma bond with your abuser or not, here is a list of questions that you can ask yourself to test trauma bonding in your relationship.

The questions are as follows:

  • Have you withdrawn yourself from family and friends?
  • Do you feel that your partner (abuser) is the only one who can satisfy your needs?
  • Do your relationships shift between extremes?
  • Have you been deceived in this relationship?
  • Do you feel like you have become obsessed with the relationship and with the person (abuser)?
  • Have your friends and relatives been worried about your relationship?
  • Do you feel like you are hyper-aware when the abuser is around?
  • Do you get excessively happy and excited at small words of praise from your partner?

If the answer to the above questions was in affirmation, you have likely developed a trauma bond with your abuser.

Trauma bonding can also happen in relationships with drug addicts such as alcoholics. There are potential negative traits in an alcoholic and living with them brings a plethora of problems such as financial issues since they never stick to earning and even spend the money of their partner on alcohol yet they are also controlling and in these circumstances, the abused partner is left to feel weak.

Individuals who have alcoholic partners tend to hide that their partners are drinkers from the world to save their reputation, however, it is not healthy to stay in denial about the bad habits of one’s partner as it is a sign of trauma bonding.

Individuals often blame themselves as the reason for their partner’s addiction to alcohol and this is another red flag of trauma bonding and these individuals should not blame themselves rather they should take their partner for professional help. 

Breaking free from trauma bond is not as easy as it sounds but it is not impossible either and is pretty doable once you muster the courage to leave the traumatic past behind and to start life afresh. 

Here’s how you can break a trauma bond:

  • Distance yourself from your abusive partner both physically and emotionally. Do not keep any contact with them as you decide to leave them for good. 
  • Analyze your situation and acknowledge all the manipulation, gaslighting, and humiliation that you have endured at the hand of the abuser. Realize that you do not deserve this treatment and deserve better.
  • Build a social group of friends and family who would know about your history of trauma and abuse so that they will back your decision and support you at a time when you will need them.
  • Redefine your boundaries and let the abuser know since they have quite frequently invaded your personal space, robbing you of your privacy. Tell them a ‘no’ means a ‘no’ and that your opinion would not change even after their verbal manipulation and sweet gestures.
  • Clear your head with the idea that trauma bonding is not love, since you deserve to be loved regardless of any conditioning and you should not be working so hard to please your partner if he or she claims to love you.

Recovering from a trauma bonding can be challenging but it should be done nonetheless. Healing from trauma bonding becomes smooth if the right strategies are adopted to deal with the situation. Going to a therapist can do wonders when trying to heal from a trauma boning, however, there are certain effective techniques that if practiced at home or therapy can yield astounding results and make the healing process less tedious. 

Here’s a list of things that you can practice at home or in therapy for better recovery:

  • Be easy on yourself and take one day at a time: It can be overwhelming to leave a person you had known for quite a time and had developed feelings for them regardless of the abuse you endured. Hence give yourself time to absorb the reality and try to take one day at a time. Healing demands patience and it does not happen overnight. Tell yourself that it hurts badly but it will be better in a matter of time.
  • Practice self-care: Be compassionate and kind to yourself in this phase of grief. Do not let negative emotions lead you to self-destructive habits rather give yourself time to recover from the trauma of the abusive relationship.
  • Allow yourself to grief: It is human to grief over a loss so allow yourself to mourn as this helps to heal.
  • Join a support group: Interacting with people who have been through similar trauma as yours encourages one to recover and look at life beyond a failed relationship.

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