Sometimes in relationships, whether it be between couples, parents and children, or even in a group, abuse can be prevalent. When this happens, the solution is rarely as simple as the abuser leaving.
As a matter of fact, there is something at play known as trauma bonding. The abused feels an attachment to the abuser due to positive reinforcement despite the frequent verbal and physical abuse.
What Is a Trauma Bond?
Before we can worry about how to break the trauma bond, it helps to first know what a trauma bond entails. Trauma bonding is an attachment that an abused person feels towards their abuser. Specifically, this occurs in a relationship that has a cyclical pattern of abuse.
The bond is created when there is a cycle of abuse coupled with positive reinforcement. After each instance of abuse, the abuser will profess their regret and love, and try to make the other person feel safe and needed by the abuser.
For the abused person, trauma bonding can feel overwhelming and confusing. There are positive feelings, even feelings of love, which can make the abused person feel attached and even dependent on the abuser.
Trauma Bond Relationships
What does a trauma bond in a relationship look like? Well, trauma bonding can occur when there is any type of abuse at play. It does not matter how short or long that the period of abuse is. Generally, however, it happens when the abuser expresses love to the abused person.
The abuser frequently acts as if the abuse will never happen again. This happens after each instance of abuse. Between this and the positive reinforcement – telling the abused person that they are loved and cared for – a trauma bond is created.
Once the trauma bond has been created, it can be extremely difficult to break. For those who have been abused and have struggled to leave, that bond is what prevents them from leaving. Emotions can be difficult to process and fully understand, particularly when they are coupled with instances of abuse.
The most common instances of trauma bond relationships involve domestic violence but some can be more extreme. It is not uncommon to see trauma bonding in cults, elder abuse, sexual abuse, kidnapping, incest, and more.
The emotional attachments are very strong. There is nothing to be ashamed of, as they are the natural result of our brains simply trying to survive. It can feel as though that bond is the only thing separating regular violence from extreme violence.
Signs of a Trauma Bond
Not all abusive situations may result in trauma bonding. Because there is no clear template for what defines trauma bonding, those who are in a traumatic relationship may not even know that it applies to them.
There are some general signs and symptoms that come along with trauma bonding. One of the most common is that the abuse victim will cover up or make excuses for their abuser’s behavior. This is seen quite often, with reasons like, “Well, he really does love me.”
Because of the connection and the positive reinforcement involved, the abused person can feel like their abuser is being treated unfairly or that the abuse is so isolated that it really doesn’t make a difference. But they are trying to make sense of a difficult situation.
This can even devolve to the point that an abuse victim will begin to lie about the abuse to family and friends. Common situations involve marks or cuts from the abuse being hidden with clothing or jewelry or being blamed on a fall or accident.
Another major sign of abuse is that the victim won’t feel comfortable with the idea of leaving or can’t get themselves to do so even if they know something is wrong. This is in part due to the emotional attachment – “they will change” – or out of fear. Many of those who are abused feel as though they don’t have an out that is safe for them.
Finally, the abused person may feel like they are at fault somehow. “He gets mad when I don’t clean up.” “I made him angry, it’s my fault.” These instances are an attempt for the abused person to make sense of why they are being abused.
Part of the trauma bond is an attempt to make sense of why it is happening in the first place. It can be difficult to understand that someone is abusive. Trying to rationalize why they do these violent things is an attempt to grasp something rational.
Types of Trauma Bonding
When we think of abuse, we tend to think of a relationship between two people. But there are several examples where a trauma bond can be formed. These are the five most prevalent cases.
The most common example of trauma bonding is domestic abuse. In a relationship between two people, one becomes abusive, either emotionally, physically or both. In these relationships, the abuser will commit their acts then reinforce the bond with positivity – telling the abused person that they are loved and cared for, among other things. This is what continues the cycle of trauma.
Another frequent example of trauma bonding is child abuse. Children inherently trust their parents. When there is abuse, it can feel from the child’s perspective like it is justified. They are only hit because they “don’t listen” or they “made mom/dad angry”. There is justification on both sides for the abuse and it becomes the norm.
This case is similar to the child abuse bond. In this instance, a senior has inherent trust – either in a loved one or a caretaker – and is abused without even realizing it at times. This can be through physical violence, withholding of food or medication, and more. This is unfortunately quite prevalent in nursing homes since the tenants are so dependent on their caretakers.
Cults or Groups
Though this is not nearly as common, there have been more than a few groups to emerge throughout the years where trauma was apparent. The term “drinking the Kool-Aid” refers to the seemingly blatant lies being told that everyone in the group believes unquestioningly.
This case has often been linked to Stockholm Syndrome. During the course of the abduction, there is a bond between the two parties. Even though it seems impossible to imagine that the captive could feel anything for their abductor, there is a bond that becomes apparent. This happens when the abductor says or does things that show a love or concern, making it seem as though the relationship is normal and there is no wrongdoing happening at the time.
Timeframe to Break a Trauma Bond
Unfortunately, there are no clear timelines for when these bonds can be broken. Some of these relationships can last for years, even decades, because of the emotional connection that exists in these types of relationships.
The key to breaking a trauma bond is to have a healthy support system. There will be times where it feels like returning to the abuser is the only answer. Having a healthy support system means having somewhere to stay and someone who will listen to those thoughts and feelings.
Another key is to keep reminders of time and space when triggers arise. Trauma can rob the abused person of being able to stay in the present, instead returning to the past and re-experiencing the trauma. Being able to recognize both emotionally and physiologically is important.
Can a Trauma Bond Become Healthy?
The simple fact is that, no, a trauma bond cannot be healthy. Instead of wondering how to fix the relationship, the goal should be how to break the trauma bond. The trauma bond will not transform into a healthy relationship, no matter how much either party may want it to happen.
There is going to be a period from the start where both the abuser and the abused person will think that the relationship can be fixed. It is almost always the case that those who frequently abuse will continue to do so. Nothing will change that.
Getting out of the cycle of abuse and positive reinforcement can feel difficult. The positive reinforcement that comes immediately in the wake of the abuse makes everything feel confusing. Taking steps to end the relationship becomes imperative.
Trauma bonding is all too prevalent. In relationships with abuse involved, the abused person may not recognize that they are being abused. Even if they do, there may be a sense that they have to make excuses to justify the abuse.
Getting out of a trauma bond can feel impossible. But the fact is that there are thousands who are going through this type of relationship. There is help to be had no matter how bleak the situation seems.