The Trauma Bond

When you seek security and relief in a person who assaults or abuses you, you face a trauma bond. Find out why it's so hard to quit these kinds of relationships.
The Trauma Bond
Elena Sanz

Written and verified by the psychologist Elena Sanz.

Last update: 09 April, 2023

Have you ever known someone who’s trapped in an unhealthy relationship that they can’t seem to get out of? Or, have you seen how someone who was or is being abused by their parents insists on maintaining the connection between them and justifying their actions? Before judging those who are immersed in this type of dynamic, it’s important to know how the trauma bond is created and how it works.

We’re governed by reason. Therefore, none of us want to be mistreated or suffer abuse. However, our brains and the mechanisms that regulate mental functioning are complex. For this reason, they can become our main enemies when it comes to leaving toxic relationships. This is even more apparent if we don’t really understand how they operate.

If you want to discover more about this type of relationship and the reality experienced by its victims, keep reading.

sad teen girl
In trauma bonding, the victim usually presents cognitive distortions. Among other effects, they prevent them from leaving the relationship.

Trauma bonding

People learn to bond in early childhood through interaction with their parents or primary caregivers. Ideally, these adults provide the care, security, and responsiveness necessary for them to develop trust and healthy self-esteem, and bond in a healthy, interdependent way.

However, when these figures in which the child seeks safety are also their aggressors, the dynamic goes wrong. The child grows up considering that abuse is natural. In addition, they learn to relate via the dynamics of fear, humiliation, or abuse of power. Moreover, they can’t run away or set physical or emotional boundaries with their caregivers since they’re totally dependent on them. For this reason, they activate a series of psychological mechanisms to cope with the situation that binds them to the perpetrator through the trauma bond.

This occurs when parents physically or psychologically abuse the child, when they’re narcissistic or negligent, only offer conditional love, or use manipulation to the fullest extent. Since the individual’s foundations are laid down in childhood, it’s likely that they’ll repeat these patterns in adulthood. In effect, they relate to others via imbalance, low self-esteem, and dependency. Furthermore, they tend to choose similarly narcissistic or abusive partners.

The trauma bond is a dependency that’s generated between two people, in a relationship characterized by abuse, imbalance, and a feeling of intense connection. An attachment is created toward the perpetrator of the damage. In addition, a series of mechanisms take place. They perpetuate this dynamic and prevent the victim from leaving the relationship.

Why do they maintain the trauma bond?

When asking why an individual continues in this type of relationship, we might tend to oversimplify the answer. In fact, we may believe it’s due to economic, social, or emotional dependence on the partner. However, while these factors undoubtedly contribute, it’s the organic and cognitive processes that really maintain the trauma bond.

In other words, it’s the victim’s body and mind, and what happens in them, that prevent them from leaving. The following elements usually have an influence:

The cycle of abuse

In this type of relationship, a dynamic is often repeated that increasingly traps the victim and keeps them captive. It’s known as the cycle of abuse or cycle of violence. Tension accumulates until it explodes in aggression and then ceases for a while.

When the victim reacts to an act of the perpetrator and wants to leave, forgiveness, reconciliation, and promises of change appear. But, the cycle soon starts all over again.

Despite noticing that the pattern is repeated, the satisfaction of the reconciliation and the effect of the intermittent reinforcement makes it extremely difficult for the sufferer to take action. In effect, their executioner also acts as their savior. They cause great discomfort and, at the same time, provide relief. This creates great mental confusion and a trauma bond that becomes increasingly stronger and difficult to break.

Cognitive distortions

On the other hand, a series of biases and cognitive distortions take place in the victim as they seek to make sense of their chaotic and painful experience. It’s mainly cognitive dissonance that intervenes. This is a psychological tension generated due to the abuse suffered. It ends in a series of justifications, rationalizations, and other mechanisms that defend the aggressor and the relationship.

An individual with low self-esteem, insecurity, and a great need for validation, tends to belittle their suffering. They might tell themselves that they’re exaggerating, that it’s no big deal, or that they can make their partner change, among other self-delusions. This is reinforced by the manipulation and gaslighting that the other party exercises and by their repetitive and empty promises of change.

The biological addiction to bonding

In addition to the above, it’s been discovered that biology also plays a part where the trauma bond is concerned. In fact, during primary relationships in childhood, the brain gets used to a certain pattern of organic reactions. Consequently, it continues to seek the same sensations in adulthood via new connections.

As a rule, the individual who had a childhood characterized by the trauma bond constantly or repetitively experiences high levels of stress (cortisol)  In addition, the secretion of endorphins that occurs as a result of episodes of aggression or stress becomes somewhat addictive. Consequently, in the future, this individual will seek to establish relationships with similar dynamics that allow them to obtain the same reactions and thus regulate their hormonal levels.

For the brain that’s become addicted to these emotional and hormonal swings, leaving the relationship seems almost impossible. As a matter of fact, it’s as complicated as overcoming substance addiction.

Woman crying
in cases of trauma bonding, psychological therapy is necessary.

How to escape the trauma bond

As a rule, if an individual suffers assault or abuse, they tend to flee from the perpetrator and seek support in healthy relationships to achieve internal regulation. But, in the case of the trauma bond, they seek security and established attachment with the same person who perpetrates the violence. Thus, faced with this internal tension due to inconsistency, the victim rationalizes and justifies what’s happening in a certain addictive way, due to the impossibility of escaping from the situation

Since this bonding pattern often originates in childhood and is deeply rooted, psychological support is usually necessary to achieve change. It doesn’t only involve leaving the harmful relationship (which is, of course, essential), but preventing what’s leading them to continue relating in this way. Finally, if you find yourself in this kind of situation, don’t hesitate to seek professional help.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.