Instead of chucking them from your life, your feelings grew?
If so, you might have experienced a trauma bond. These typically happen in toxic or abusive relationships where a person finds it hard to leave despite repeated bad behavior. Although you might have felt alone in this, it’s a conflicting feeling experienced by others in many types of relationships.
It’s not always easy to know when you have a trauma bond though.
In this guide, we’re discussing what it is, who it can happen to, trauma bonding narcissism traits and trauma bonding signs to look out for.
A trauma bond is the bond between a person and their abuser. Most often, the relationship deepens when the person begins feeling sorry for their abuser. They might also develop feelings of love. Trauma bonding typically happens over time as a trauma is reinforced through an abusive cycle. A trauma bond can be created over days, weeks, months or years. It depends on the situation and the person involved.
A common example of a trauma bond is “Stockholm syndrome.” This psychological response involves a person developing positive thoughts or feeling toward their abuser. Even if the victim wasn’t held captive, they may choose to stay because their mind has shifted to loving or trusting their captor.
Most trauma bonds aren’t as extreme as Stockholm syndrome. Many involve partners who are reluctant to leave their abusers because they love them, despite the abuse.
Even on a human level—without even being in an abusive relationship—you might be able to understand this push-pull dynamic.
Love isn’t healthy by default. There’s many factors and brain processes at play. We can love someone who is perfect for us. But we can also love people who are horrible for us. Knowing they’re horrible for us doesn’t always make us stop loving them. Many of us have been in relationships where this is true. The difference with a trauma bond is that the cycle is powered by the effects of abuse.
If you’re in a trauma bond, you should talk to a counselor or therapist.
Trauma bonding relationships can be that of friends, family members, romantic partners or coworkers.
It can develop over, start or occur during childhood. An example of this would be a family member who grooms a child. The child might grow feelings of love toward the abuser, even if they are hurt by them. Over time, this can grow into a bond that leads them to keep the abuse a secret in order to protect the abuser.
Sometimes, trauma bonds are only revealed through therapy. For example, if you grew up with positive feelings toward a family member, you might not have realized their hurtful behavior was abuse. After years of therapy, you might see realize that a trauma bond exists.
Trauma bonding relationships also occur during adulthood. The most common example is in romantic relationships. A boyfriend might be emotionally abusing a girlfriend. Despite the pain, she might rationalize his behavior and have a difficult time leaving.
You can also have trauma bonds with coworkers. Trauma bonds might be more common with people in positions higher than you, since the power imbalance makes abuse more likely. A coworker may manipulative you or abuse you emotionally, physically or sexually. Over time, you might form a trauma bond where you feel loyal to them.
Another overlooked trauma bonding experience is that faced by our elders. Although many people know about elder abuse, it’s not talked about as much because the victims are often sick or silent.
Elder can form trauma bonds with the person who abuses them. This might be a family member or a staff member at a retirement home. If the person is dependent on care from their abuser, the conflicting feelings can cue a bond to form. Another factor is their mental state. If an elder’s mental capacity is deteriorating, the abuse might be confusing, also contributing to a trauma bond.
In theory, you can have a trauma bond with anyone who abuses you at any time. In other situations, trauma bonding can happen when someone is the victim of human trafficking, kidnapping, or a cult.
Since abuse is manipulative, it can shift your thinking about a person. You might consciously realize why this happening and be unable to stop the flood of positive emotions. Some people know the trauma bonding signs but still can’t break away from the person. Others form trauma bonds unconsciously.
Trauma Bonding and narcissism often go hand in hand.
Not all abusers are narcissists but many are. Keep in mind that narcissism is a personality trait and can be plotted on a spectrum. In this way, everyone falls somewhere on the narcissism scale, whether at the low end or the higher end. The higher-end encompasses the clinical diagnosis, Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
Since narcissists have a lack of empathy, this makes them more likely to continue abusing someone. Since they don’t care about the other person, they might not have a reason to stop. This repeated cycle of abuse can cause a trauma bonding.
Trauma bonding through narcissism can be hard to break because the person might manipulate you into not wanting to. This reinforces the bond, possibly making it harder to break each time.
Clinically, when many therapists talk about trauma bonds, they are referring to an abuser and their victim. The trauma involved in these situations was abusive. However, not all trauma is necessarily abusive. You can have “smaller” traumas too.
Broadening the definition of “trauma bonds” might lead you to better understand your attachment to someone. For example, maybe your partner didn’t traumatize you but the arguing between you has traumatized the relationship. Even though there’s no abuse, there’s a cycle of arguing and getting back together that is toxic and tears at the relationship.
Over time, repeating this pattern might make you pulled to each other through a different type of trauma bond. Although you aren’t abusive toward each other, you’re still not healthy together. Yet, it’s hard to leave.
Sometimes, we may not be sure if we have a trauma bond with someone. As discussed above, this can be particularly true if the relationship is with a narcissist, who convinces us they’re not abusive.
If you’re not sure, the first step is to look for any signs of emotional, physical, sexual or financial abuse. For resources or help making a safe plan to leave, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233.
If you’re going through or have been through something traumatic, speak with a counselor or therapist.
Trauma bonding signs may include the following.
When the person does the smallest thing, you’re taken aback by their kindness. Sometimes, the action might not even be kind. It might just be normal or neutral instead of their usual awful.
When they say something nice about you, you’re elated. They usually don’t care or are mean. If they ask about you or show any sign of care, you’re surprised.
You know all these things might be considered normal in another relationship, but you’re just happy the person is having a good day.
Any type of manipulation may be a sign of a trauma bond. Since manipulation is confusing, it’s not always taken in as negative. This can lead positive feelings to flourish into a bond.
Manipulation can be a coworker who convinces you to do more than your fair share of work. It could be a partner who encourages you to do things you’re not sexually comfortable with. Or it could be a family member who takes control of your finances.
In other words, manipulation can be abusive or non-abusive. Both may be a sign that a trauma bond has or will form.
Maybe you know your relationship is unhealthy or at least has unhealthy parts. But in some ways, the good parts are hard to turn down.
It seems like you’re on a roller coaster and although you hate the lows, you’ll ride for the “highs.”
Maybe you don’t want to be on the roller coater, and nobody is keeping you there, but you can’t make yourself hop off. You’re addicted to the highs, despite the low lows. You might know the consequences of staying, but never experiencing the person again might seem more painful.
If you feel this way, try not to blame yourself. Keep in mind that there’s many chemicals at play that alter your thinking. After you’ve gone through something traumatic, a boost of the love hormone oxytocin—provided by your partner—can feel really good. Like someone addicted to a drug, your brain can become wired to seek out that sensation after every explosion. In this way, the brains of abuse victims can actually work against them.
Do you ever feel like the only person who can make you feel better is the person who caused the pain? They often are. This leads us to go running back to them. This twisted dynamic leads the perpetrator to also be the ‘fixer’. One moment, they hurt you, the next, they console you.
When you become accustomed to them soothing you, it can feel natural to bond with them. Even though they’re unsafe sometimes, they feel like healing the next. Even though it’s unhealthy, it might feel natural in the moment.
The theory of cognitive dissonance states that when two thoughts are at odds, usually something changes to even out the mental discomfort.
This is how we can explain a lot of things. For example, why do you get drunk when you know you’ll be hungover? You might rationalize it in many ways, like that you earned it after a tough week.
Similarly, trauma bonds can happen when we rationalize a person’s behavior. Why did they treat us so horribly? We might rationalize it’s because they’ve had a bad day or tough childhood. In this, we have feelings of sympathy and begin to feel closer to them, sealing a connection.
In normal relationships, when something happens, it’s normal to worry whether things are okay or not. But in toxic relationships, you might be in a constant state of worry. Rather than the rare bad argument, you’re walking on eggshells each day.
Even when you try your best, it seems like small things can cause the person to lash out or act angry or inappropriate.
Many people in trauma bonds deeply understand their partner in a way nobody else will. They might know their own traumas or hardships and feel sorry for them. They see them for their faults and love them for it anyway.
This elevated level of compassion can lead a person to rationalize or excuse another’s behavior.
Has anyone else noticed the person’s bad behavior toward you? If they’ve said something, have you downplayed it?
This is often a sign that you’re in a trauma bond. When you’re deeply attached to a person, the tendency is to defend their actions, even if you know they’re wrong.
A friend or family member might point out that your partner is acting rude toward you. In response, you might argue that it’s not too bad or lie and say it’s out of character.
Trauma bonding usually happens when someone repeats an inappropriate or abusive behavior. The victim grows attached and positive feelings are developed. This makes it hard to leave, even when the hurtful actions continue.
Knowing trauma bonding signs can help you determine whether you’re in that type of relationship yourself. It might also give you points to think about when trying to assess whether a loved one is experiencing a trauma bond.
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