A trauma bond is a relationship between two or more individuals where a cycle of abuse is established and reinforced through rewards or punishment inflicted on the victim/s. Trauma bonding can manifest itself in a romantic relationship, a child-parent relationship, between a cult leader and their followers, and even between a kidnapper and their hostage. There is a marked imbalance of power in such relationships, where the power is tilted in favour of the abuser, and victims feel a lack of autonomy and an inability to have an individual sense of self. Victims might feel emotionally addicted and go through extreme highs and lows in such relationships. Such bonds can result in severe emotional and psychological distress for the victims and can impact their mental health in the long run.
Victims of trauma bonding find it difficult to leave their abusers because they might not even recognize the abuse they’re undergoing. Trauma bonds are dangerous especially because of the subtle forms of manipulation that the abuser uses to trap the victim in this cycle. Trauma bonds do not always have a toxic, manipulative beginning but can rather have a loving start, until the abuser reveals their true colours. At this point, the victim might find it difficult to leave because any forms of abuse would be explained away manipulatively by the abuser. The victim could also be gaslighted into believing that they are the ones at fault, not their abuser, or that the abusive situation never took place. This then starts a dependency cycle wherein the victim starts becoming dependent on their abuser, and finds it hard to leave the relationship. Nostalgia from better days with their abuser could also serve as a reason for some victims to stay, along with empty promises from the abuser that they will change their behaviour. Victims are also brainwashed into believing that these toxic relationships with their abusers are ‘normal’, and thus they refrain from speaking out about it, believing that everyone goes through the same thing, or that it simply isn’t ‘bad enough’ and they must make the most of the situation (Raypole, 2020).
Abusers use several techniques to trap their victims. These techniques include moving too fast at the beginning of the relationship, where it feels like the other individual is being rushed, and this applies to engaging in sexual activity as well. Additionally, there will be a marked lack of respect for boundaries, and a tendency to enable bad behaviours, which will increase the victim’s dependency on their abuser. The abuser will also follow a cycle where firstly, tensions will rise between the victim and their abuser, and secondly, erupt in an abusive incident as tensions reach an all-time high. Thirdly, the abuser will try to pacify the victim and reconcile with them through manipulative routines such as gaslighting, victim-blaming, or downplaying the abuse. In the fourth and final stage, the abuse will be over for the moment, and this is where the abuser will offer the victim rewards or love bombing (shower with love and affection) as a supposed act of apology. On the abuser’s part, there will be a general pretence that the incident of abuse was not a regular occurrence, but rather something that occurred out of the blue, only because they were ‘stressed out’ or ‘upset’. This is called the honeymoon phase and is one of the reasons why victims stay in such abusive relationships (Fader, 2017).
Breaking trauma bonds can take time, and recognition of the bond’s existence is the foremost step. Breaking the bond will require the victim to spend a significant amount of time away from their abuser, and having other healthy relationships that they can turn to (“What is trauma bonding?” n.d.). Detachment from the abuser and the situation both is necessary so that the victim can focus on the facts and not the empty promises made by the abuser, or the honeymoon phases of the relationship. Getting help from a friend, parent or a therapist and not keeping the abuse a secret will help break the bond, as a third party can view the situation in a clear-sighted manner. Seeking professional help is vital in ensuring that the victim does not return to their abuser, as this may be a tempting recourse. Professionals can help the victim in setting boundaries, identifying the differences between abusive and healthy relationships, working on self-blame, recognizing the factors which sustain these bonds, and healing from the effects of mental health problems caused by these bonds (Raypole, 2020).
Fader, S. (2017, June 12). What Abusers Hope We Never Learn About Traumatic Bonding.
BetterHelp. https://www.betterhelp.com/advice/trauma/what-abusers-hope-we-never-learn-about-t raumatic-bonding/.
Raypole, C. (2020, November 24). How to Recognize and Break Traumatic Bonds. Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/health/mental-health/trauma-bonding.
What is trauma bonding? (n.d.). Pace. https://paceuk.info/child-sexual-exploitation/what-is-trauma-bonding/.