Trauma Bonding, an Unhealthy Attachment

Trauma bonding is fed by an attachment to a narcissistic abuser. The victim, instead of escaping the relationship, feeds back into it. It’s a similar condition to Stockholm syndrome.
Trauma Bonding, an Unhealthy Attachment

Last update: 17 August, 2021

Captive emotional relationships abound. They’re the kind where love hurts. Furthermore, happiness and self-esteem are annihilated. Nevertheless, despite this situation, the victim can’t break the bond. That’s because they’re blinded by their affection and attraction towards their partner. Trauma bonding has a profile similar to that of Stockholm syndrome.

To an outsider, this type of situation seems strange and contradictory. Why would anybody tolerate the intolerable? Why stay with someone who humiliates, mistreats, and emotionally abuses them? The truth is that, in the field of human relationships, there are hidden psychological processes that need to be understood.

Firstly, there’s no point in telling a person involved in this kind of relationship to leave their partner as soon as they can. Because co-dependency can be so intense that the mind stops functioning rationally. It actually becomes controlled by an unhealthy form of attachment and associated emotions. It’s a corrupt kind of bond. However, it still fulfills certain basic needs, such as quelling the victim’s fear of abandonment.

The two protagonists in a trauma bond are the victim and their emotional abuser. It’s the kind of bond where the victim yearns to be cared for, while the abuser seeks power.

Trauma bonding

Psychology only started to study trauma bonding in the 1980s. To this end, psychologists Donald G. Dutton and Susan L. Painter analyzed the cases of hundreds of battered wives living with their partners. They found, that in these cases, often fear doesn’t manifest itself in the usual way, ie. the flight or fight responses.

In fact, what’s seen in these cases is submission and a clear difference in power. In other words, one partner represses the other. You might ask why the victim tolerates this kind of suffering? Well, in reality, these relationships tend to follow a circular pattern. The abuser follows this type of pattern: “I’m nice to you, then I’m cruel, then you get angry, then you forgive me, and I start all over again.”

Trauma bonding is the glue that binds the victim to the abuser and feeds back into the cycle of suffering.

The problem of attachment and a narcissistic personality

Psychologists Donald Dutton and Susan Painter conducted a study in the 90s. They wanted to try and understand a little more about these kinds of relationships. As a matter of fact, they discovered that many of the women who tried to leave their abusive partners found they were unable to do so. This was because they exhibited an extremely intense attachment style. Added to this was their low self-esteem as well as the dominating personality of their abuser.

Trauma bonds are usually established with a narcissistic personality. These types of people are adept at manipulating, controlling, and draining their victims of all psychological and emotional resistance.

The cycle of abuse and the addiction to harmful affection

Added to the emotional, cognitive, and behavioral patterns of the victim is an addiction to this unhealthy kind of love. In fact, they exhibit an all-tolerating kind of attachment style. This form of codependency is characterized by low self-esteem, idealization of the other, fear of loneliness, and self-sacrifice towards the narcissistic partner.

In order for the trauma bond to be maintained, as we mentioned earlier, there’s a particular cycle of abuse. It tends to follow along these lines:

  • There’s a build-up of tension in the relationship. For example, arguments, mistreatment, humiliation, snubs, etc.
  • Eventually, a more serious event occurs and the victim reacts.
  • The abuser acts quickly by changing their behavior. In fact, they show affection, repentance, and willingness to change.
  • Reconciliation occurs. This is usually intense and rewarding. Then, there’s a brief period of apparent harmony.
  • Abuse and treatment reappear. Hence, the cycle starts over again.

One of the main characteristics of trauma bonding is that when the abuser harms the victim, the abuser expects to be forgiven and comforted. This feeds back into the traumatic bond.

A distressed man.

How to behave in these kinds of situations

What needs to be understood about trauma bonding is that it feeds back into the imbalance of power. Therefore, it’s crucial for the victim to break the pattern. However, this can be complicated because they’re often completely isolated.

As a matter of fact, narcissists tend to separate their victims from their families and friends. For this reason, it’s often difficult for them to leave. In these cases, they need social support. This might be from social services, co-workers, and neighbors.

Keys to leaving behind a traumatic bond

The following strategies are useful when escaping from a traumatic bond:

  • The victim must be separated from the aggressor. In addition, they need to be aware of the emotional abuse, mistreatment, and codependency, as well as their unhealthy attachment to their partner.
  • Development of a support network. Victims must have new people in their lives who can help them. People they can talk to and share their experiences with, hence start to feel a sense of worth. Indeed, closeness with figures other than their aggressor will help them to see their situation in another way. In fact, they’ll feel stronger and be able to look to the future.
  • Psychological therapy is essential. This is in order to treat the trauma wound and rebuild the victim’s identity and self-esteem. Furthermore, it gives strategies for them to use so they don’t fall back into their old patterns of forming emotionally damaging relationships.

Finally, it often seems that people who develop these kinds of relationships have had a troubled upbringing and childhood.

In these cases, any psychological treatment must be carried out in more depth and extremely sensitively. That’s because the treatment must heal the scars of a lifelong trauma that’s manifesting itself in the patient’s relationships. Naturally, these kinds of situations are extremely complex.

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  • Dutton DG, Painter S (1993). “Emotional attachments in abusive relationships: a test of traumatic bonding theory”. Violence and Victims. 8 (2): 105–20. doi:10.1891/0886-6708.8.2.105.
  • Dutton; Painter (1981). “Traumatic Bonding: The development of emotional attachments in battered women and other relationships of intermittent abuse”. Victimology: An International Journal (7).
  • Chrissie Sanderson. Counselling Survivors of Domestic Abuse. Jessica Kingsley Publishers; 15 June 2008
  • Schwartz J (2015). “The Unacknowledged History of John Bowlby’s Attachment Theory: John Bowlby’s Attachment Theory”. British Journal of Psychotherapy. 31 (2): 251–266.