What Abusers Hope We Never Learn About Traumatic Bonding
By: Sarah Fader
Updated July 29, 2020
Medically Reviewed By: Kelly L. Burns, MA, LPC, ATR-P
Content/Trigger Warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include sexual assault & violence which could potentially be triggering.
When you're in an abusive relationship, you form a bond with your abuser. If you're reading this right now, and you're in a relationship with someone who is mistreating you, but you can't seem to get away-you are not alone. Many others have struggled with being trapped in an abusive relationship. They have also developed the coping skills and strengths to break free from the cycle of abuse, and move forward with their lives. It might sound almost impossible now, but you can too, with helpful resources and a support system.
What Are Traumatic Bonds?
A traumatic bond occurs when you are involved in an abusive relationship, and the abuser becomes an essential part of your life. Life changing abusive relationships are common, and the statistics are alarming. According to The Hotline, approximately 15% of women and 4% of men have experienced an injury as a result of IPV (Intimate Partner Violence) which includes rape, physical violence, and stalking. Most likely, many people in these relationships struggled to leave their partners for a variety of reasons. Perhaps they were afraid their partner would harm them. Maybe they stayed because they had children. But one of the common reasons for staying in an abusive relationship is the desire for love, and the cyclical promises of validation and affection.
Violence, abuse, and other issues happen in a cycle. Living with (or sharing space with) an abuser is not always bad, nor always good. If you were treated poorly throughout a relationship, you likely wouldn't stay. There are many abusive relationships where the abuser treats the victim kindly at times (usually after an abusive incident). The abused learn to follow the "rules" of their abuser in the relationship until the next "love" moment. But the reality is, abuse, domestic violence, and any other mistreatment is not real love.
Traumatic bonding is a phenomenon in which the victim feels connected to their abuser based on attachment, and hormones that are being activated amid the abuse. During the stressful points in the relationship, the victim has elevated cortisol levels. The victim feels like they're on the edge, thinking that they may be hurt or abandoned by their abuser if they don't listen to them. They're desperately seeking the reward hormone dopamine, which is a pleasure chemical. When the abuser gives the victim affection, they're rewarded with dopamine, which further reinforces the traumatic bond. How do you break the cycle? The victim can seek help in the form of therapy, or individual counseling to begin taking steps to leave the relationship and starting to heal. You don't have to go through this alone.
BetterHelp Values Healthy Relationships
Online counseling is an excellent place to work through the pain of traumatic bonding. The counselors at BetterHelp understand how hard it is to leave an abusive relationship. They're empathetic and want the best for you if you're struggling to get out of an unhealthy dynamic. You don't have to be ashamed for loving someone who treats you poorly. You want to be loved, and there's nothing wrong with that. It's a natural, human desire. You can talk to your counselor at BetterHelp and discuss the pain you've felt in your relationship, as well as the good times. Traumatic bonds can be tough to understand. By talking through it, you can get more insight into why you're feeling conflicted about your abuser. You don't have to figure these issues out on your own.
Many people who have endured abuse, domestic violence, or other similar issues in intimate relationships have worked through those issues in online counseling. You have a right to feel complicated feelings toward your abuser, and your counselor understands how difficult it is to heal from a relationship where you were continually hurt. BetterHelp is here to help support you in understanding and healing from your traumatic bonds. Read below for some reviews of BetterHelp counselors.
"Dr. Thompson is excellent. She keeps your goals in focus while discussing barriers, or other issues that may be holding you back. She has been a tremendous help to me."
"Dr. McCune has helped me navigate through some of the most difficult challenges in my life so far. I feel healthier and better able to handle things on my own as a result of her guidance and care. She has be so very available for me and easy to talk to. She listens and responds with wisdom and gives me great tools to use! Absolutely highly recommend."
Bonding vs. Traumatic Bonding
Bonding is a biological process which allows two people to develop a strong emotional connection with each other, often through positive experiences. When we think of the word 'bonding', we conjure up images of intimate moments being shared by loving couples and families. By contrast, traumatic bonding is a relationship created as a result of negative experiences such as physical, verbal or emotional abuse between victim and abuser. It's also possible to form a healthy bond with someone before they start abusing you.
Why Do People Develop Trauma Bonds?
The question often arises of why victims of abuse, domestic violence, and other issues willingly remain in hostile relationships, and the answer comes down to the psychological notion of survival. When we suffer traumatic experiences, we emotionally shut ourselves off and don't allow ourselves to take action. We become numb, and thusly resort to our primitive instincts to cope. To ensure survival, the victim subconsciously focuses on the positive attributes of their abuser, not their negative ones. How often do we hear people tell stories of their partner's violent streak, followed by "but apart from that, he's a nice guy"?
Warning Signs of An Abuser
When getting into a relationship, you may notice some red flags or other warning signs of psychological manipulation that may lead to a toxic trauma bond. Here are a few red flags to look out for.
- The person may take things too fast in order to entangle another person in a relationship. We should mention that all relationships increase bonding their own pace; some people have healthy relationships that take forever to take off, and vice versa. However, both sides agree to the terms of the pacing. If the partner is rushing you, this may be a sign of a problem.
- The person is always talking about how bad their exes are. You've probably known someone like this. Every ex is always crazy, and they were just an innocent victim in the grand scheme of things. It always feels like a smear campaign against the other person. We should note that sometimes, they may have actually been in an abusive relationship and this is their way of coping. However, if the person is always talking about the extreme situations their exes put them in, they may be the one who is the abuser.
- They rush you into sex. This may be a sign of future sexual violence or abuse. It's normal to feel intense sexual feelings and sexual desire in a relationship, but it's important that you don't have sex until you're ready.
- They have no respect for boundaries early in the relationship. Setting boundaries is always important but setting boundaries don't matter when the person in the relationship is crossing them. This may lead to a toxic trauma bond. A good partner will understand how people need boundaries.
- The person enables your bad behaviors, or bonding codependency. Their bonding codependency is a way for them to make your bad behaviors reach high levels so you have to depend on them. For example, drugs.
Techniques Abusers Use to Ensure the Trauma Bonds Stick
With a trauma bond, the abuser often uses different techniques to ensure that you stay in the relationship, be it manipulation, threats, or another constant pattern of abuse. Here are just a few examples.
You may wonder what love bombing is. It's something present in quite a few toxic relationships but may not necessarily have ill intentions. Essentially, the person you're in a trauma bond with will shower you with love and affection.
They may buy you gifts, write little notes of love, and do other ways to win you over. Sometimes, this is a dating technique, and other times, toxic people may use it as a way to seek forgiveness. When there was an abusive episode, abusive partners may use it to win you over. Because of the shower of love, many victims stay in the relationship because they may feel like the partner is truly sorry. However, this love bombing technique is often a way for narcissists or abusive partners to continue their cycle of
This technique is similar to love bonding, but it's a bit different, too. Intermittent reinforcement is part of the cycle of violence where a partner may abuse you, but have moments where they show you affection and give you a reward. Intermittent reinforcement makes you addicted to a narcissist or an abuser. You do not like the abuse and bad times, but you do crave the affection, and you may feel stuck in getting out of the cycle of violence. It's important you know when your partner is using affection as a way to counteract their abuse, and this is another way in the long list of breaking free of exploitive people. Intermittent reinforcement is never the way to go in all healthy relationships.abuse.
Another technique of toxic relationships is child abuse. When one thinks of child abuse, they may imagine violence against the child, but child abuse can be verbal abuse as well. Yelling at your child is something most parents should avoid, as it can affect the mental health of the child, and there are less toxic ways to discipline your child.
This is often a power and control technique. You may feel as though you need to be in the relationship to stop the cycle of narcissistic abuse towards your kid, making you feel unable to detach from a toxic relationship. Sometimes, a narcissist may even have had the child with you as a power and control move. You may feel like if you break free from your relationship, it will affect your kid, especially if the toxic person gets their way in court.
This is another technique you may see in a relationship with a narcissist. This is when you reward someone for doing a behavior that you perceive as good, such as giving you a present for obeying.
Positive reinforcement can be a good way to raise a child, but it may be one of the many mind games and psychological abuse techniques as narcissist may use. A healthy relationship shouldn't involve reward for obeying. Withholding affection as a way to manipulate you until you do the right thing isn't a good way to have a relationship. It's important you recognize this. If you feel unable to satisfy your partner unless you do something they like, that's a problem.
Another technique of narcissistic abuse is victim blaming. This is essentially when a toxic person blames you for what happened. For example, if you were the victim of verbal abuse, the toxic person may tell you that it's your fault for provoking them.
It doesn't matter who started it, though, though often, a toxic person will be the one who is behind everything and not take blame for themselves. If you don't believe you did anything wrong, you may not have, and it's just another example of narcissistic abuse.
They Send You Cryptic Messages
Another narcissistic abuse technique you may see when a narcissist wants to regain power and control over you is that they may send you a vague or cryptic message. You may get a message such as "How's it going?" "How are you?" or another message that feels less like that of a toxic person and more like that of someone who is meeting you for the first time. Or they may pretend like they didn't mean to call you, but wouldn't mind saying hi.
But don't be fooled. Often, this is the abuser trying to test the waters after a big breakup by starting new and afresh.
The Silent Treatment
One of the many mind games an abuser may use is the use of passive aggression like the silent treatment. This form of abuse involves the partner not speaking to you as punishment, acting like they're part of a group of people more important than you.
This is a toxic health communications technique. The silent treatment is not someone needing a little space and not wanting to talk much after an argument. Usually, this is temporary and the person eventually returns to their normal self. Instead, the silent treatment involves not talking to a person for a long time until they break down and beg for forgiveness. This domestic violence technique should not be ignored just because it's passive aggressive. Instead, it should be called out on.
Moving the Target
Also known as moving the goalposts, this is when your abusive partner makes it difficult for you to satisfy their demands by always moving the requirements.
For example, when you apologize for being upset, they may move the target from one feeling you're showing to another or find another reason to point out a pattern of nonperformance that they are alleging you have. It's always important you notice when someone is moving the goalposts or interpersonally moving the target, as that person tends to have a physiology to entangle you in a world where nothing is good enough. You may feel mixed emotions after always moving the target, from trauma, bonding, codependency, and more. Even more positive feelings and sexual physiology.
Someone may use other methods as well, from complex methods like gaslighting and neurolinguistic programming to using other techniques such as the misuse of fear, excitement, and other emotions you may have against you. They may be conversational or interpersonally moving, but do not be fooled. These methods are dangerous and can keep you in these cycles of abuse longer. It's important that you realize this and leave a relationship should such abuse tactics be used, when it comes to a betrayal bond, breaking free is always your best option.
Don't ever feel bad for leaving an abusive relationship. It's never your fault, but instead the fault of your abuser.
Mental Health Reasons for Abuse
Sometimes, the abuser you're in a trauma bond with has a personality disorder, such as narcissistic personality disorder, that causes them to be abusive. This personality disorder can lead to narcissistic behaviors, or the personality disorder may make a person more violent. As a reminder, someone with a mental illness isn't excused from abuse. Someone prone to abusing needs to find a therapist or go to a treatment center.
Bipolar disorder may lead to intense mood swings, and someone who can't manage it through a support group or by seeking help may take it out on their spouse. Depression can lead to irritability and anger, while mania can lead to euphoria, which may be intensified from abuse. Of course, someone with bipolar disorder can easily be the victim of domestic violence, too, with the abuser taking advantage of their depression and mania and making the toxic trauma bond worse.
Often, Stockholm Syndrome, also called trauma bonding, doesn't have any red flags. Perhaps the partner was a great person and fell into substance abuse.
Sometimes, substance abuse can be because of innocuous reasons. For example, your spouse may have been injured, developed chronic pain and started taking medication for said chronic pain. However, they developed an addiction and didn't want to go to a treatment center, and the problems just continued from there.
Sometimes, the trauma bonding starts after increased drinking. Your partner may have started drinking more because of a loss, and rather than find a support group or find a therapist, they instead became addicted to alcohol, and their personality changed.
Drug addiction is a mental disorder, but it doesn't excuse someone abusing you. A person who has an addiction needs to go to a treatment center, find a therapist, or find a support group to help them cope. You should be supportive of helping them, but don't any abuse, and don't take any constant pattern of nonperformance when it comes to them skipping treatment.
Any Anger Issues
Finally, anger issues may cause abuse. Someone may have a short fuse, or another anger issue that makes anger unpredictable. Someone with anger issues may realize their problem and seek help for it, or if they have an abusive side, use their anger issues to intensify any trauma bonding codependency issues that the other party has.
Other Mental Illnesses
Other mental illnesses can lead to abusive behavior as well. Any disorder, such as autism, that can lead to explosive meltdowns, can be abusive. The abuser's own trauma and PTSD may lead to abusive behaviors as well.
There are some illnesses that make it hard to control, and you may love someone who has a mental illness despite how that illness makes someone. With that said, it's never okay to let the mental illness be your crutch. Someone who has one should always seek help and try to identify triggers that can cause them to have an explosion or be abusive. It's never okay.
How to Break Free from Abuse, Domestic Violence, and Traumatic Bonds
It is vital to understand and remember that the abuser is focused solely on maintaining power over their victim. They will use whatever methods they can - physical abuse, isolation, psychological manipulation, verbal degradation - in order to assert total control of a person. The powerful connection which comes as a result of the intermittent highs and lows felt by the victim makes it difficult for them to break free, particularly if the victim has become entirely dependent on them for their 'positive' experiences. This may have developed over time as the victim has become increasingly isolated and perhaps financially dependent, and the abuser has acted in caring ways as well. But it is important to understand that these happy and fun experiences do not reflect a true change in the abuser. The underlying rage and need for power and control over others are deeply rooted and do not come and go. Indeed, the good times are more of a smokescreen, making it harder for the victim to see the true nature of the abuser, and defend against the traumatic bond.
When the victim realizes that the abuser is in the quest for power and control and that he or she is not simply overcome with emotion or making a mistake, it will help them to separate from the internal confusion they have been manipulated to believe, and see the abuser as simply harmful. Once a victim understands the true underlying intentions of the abuser, they can begin to see and manage their responses more effectively. They can consider leaving. While a sudden quick departure is not always possible, the victim can begin to develop some internal resistance to the concept that they're weak, ineffectual, or incapable. Remember that this definition has been given by someone else, and it is a lie grounded on the abuser's self-interest. The victims can begin to see that they can redefine themselves, their value and understand that freedom is entirely within their own control. They have the ability to leave the abuser within them, and with the right help, guidance, and support they can break free of their abuser and learn to live a more fulfilling life without an abusive, controlling presence.
Of course, to many victims, it is never as simple as to just walk out and never look back - far from it. The idea of leaving an abusive spouse may cause fear, or trigger feelings of emptiness or loss of direction. Some victims may feel as though no one else could understand their ordeal and they may long to return to their abusive partners, seeking some form of resolution or change. Victims may feel as though they need to see their abuser "one last time," which offers the abuser another chance to manipulate and make false promises, which can then turn into another period of violent behavior.
Abusers will never change, despite their empty promises. Recognize that victims do not return to their abusers through romantic attachment but through desperation and resentment. The power to change their circumstances is always present. It can be difficult to make the decision to stop being a victim, but it is never impossible.
If you are experiencing an abusive relationship, try finding more literature to read about it to better understand what is happening to you. There are books and articles available in your public library, regarding both physical and verbally abusive relationships. You don't need to check them out and take them home; you can read in the library for an hour (or however long you want). If you have the ability to reach out to a counselor for help, you may be able to find one in your area or even a walk-in clinic depending on your location. Another alternative is online counseling platforms that can meet your needs for confidentiality and scheduling. No matter what, know that there is help out there.
Domestic Violence Hotline
Another way you can fight back against abuse is by calling a domestic violence hotline. A domestic violence hotline is a toll free way to deal with abusive behavior, especially in a moment when the violence has exploded and you don't know what to do. When you realize you are experiencing Stockholm Syndrome, something similar to Stockholm Syndrome, or you want to just escape from your relationship, a domestic violence hotline is the solution.
With a domestic violence hotline, everything is anonymous. When you call a domestic violence hotline, you may get advice and be able to explain your situation. A domestic violence hotline may give your resources, or the domestic violence hotline may point you to any solutions you need. Now, let's look at a few hotlines.
The National Domestic Violence Hotline
The National Domestic Violence Hotline, also known as the Hotline, is a toll-free hotline in the United States, giving United States citizens a way to speak out if they are a victim of abuse. The National Domestic Violence Hotline has an easy to remember number, which is 1-800-799-SAFE (7233).
In addition, the National Domestic Violence Hotline has a website, thehotline.org, which has more information and resources about domestic abuse.
You can learn more about whether or not your relationship is violent, look for resources such as ways to find a support group, find a therapist, or find a treatment center near you, and be able to read new blogs and new comments about domestic violence.
With that said, the National Domestic Violence Hotline is best known for their number. If you wonder what to expect out of a call from the National Domestic Violence Hotline, we will tell you. Read below for an example of a National Domestic Violence Hotline Call.
- A National Domestic employee will thank you for speaking to them. These trained National Domestic employees have dealt with many people who are abused, and they know how to approach you. Many people who are victims have depression and anxiety, or may find it hard to talk. The National Domestic employee will help with that.
- The National Domestic employee will make sure you can chat safely. You need to be in a discreet area, and the National Domestic employee may remind you to clear your browsing history before you continue with the conversation. This is vital.
- The National Domestic employee will then ask you to tell more about your situation. Explain to the National Domestic employee everything there is to know. Sometimes, you may just be calling to see if it's abuse. The violence hotline employee may ask about your family life or if you or your spouse have a personality disorder like bipolar disorder. These mental health questions give the violence hotline employee a better understanding of your personal and family life.
- The violence hotline employee may ask if you've been taking care of yourself. In an unhealthy relationship, keeping up with your mental health is important for any survivors of domestic abuse. It's hard work, and you need to make sure you're keeping up with your health. Have you been eating well, or have you developed any eating disorders? With eating disorders and other side effects of abuse, it's important you seek help for those as soon as possible.
- The violence hotline employee may ask what you've done about your unhealthy relationship. Have you tried to find a therapist who can provide many types of therapy? Have you tried to contact a support group? Have you spoken with any friends or family members? The violence hotline employee needs all of this information.
- Once the violence hotline employee hears this, they can begin to help. The violence hotline employee can help people in toxic relationships and survivors of domestic violence ways to figure out how to escape. This can involve survivors of domestic violence coming up with a plan.
- After the conversation is over, the employee may ask if there's anything else you need help with.
There is a hotline for quite a few countries. For example, the United Kingdom has the National Domestic Violence Freephone Helpline. If you live in the United Kingdom, that number is 0808-2000- 247.
Find a Shelter
Look for local shelters that can help you or find a treatment center if you're the victim of physical violence. If you find a treatment center, this can make sure you're physically and mentally okay. Domestic abuse shelters, especially when they are part of a non-profit organization, are a valuable tool when leaving an abusive relationship. People stay in treatment centers and people stay in shelters until they're ready to leave, for the most part.
Share Your Story
You don't have to if you don't want to, but once you're free of your situation, you may want to share your story, be it on forums or news media sites.
One site you may want to look into is Psych Central. Psych Central is a website that deals with psychological issues. You can go on Psych Central and read similar stories, or try to look into submitting one of your own. Even if you are not a victim, Psych Central is a nice website to look at, and Psych Central can be fun to read up on at times. You can also choose the option to get emails on news. If you ever said, "I want them to notify me when new stories come in," check it out.
There are many types of therapy you can look into when you're recovering from domestic violence, and one of the types of therapy is a support group. A support group is a gathering of people, sometimes anonymous, who are also abuse victims. Sometimes, they are led by a therapist, but they don't have to be. They can be in-person or online.
You can read news media stories about people manipulating their partner’s fear, excitement, and sexual feelings during a relationship. You may hear tales from friends and family members about spouses using their sexual physiology to entangle a person, using excitement, sexual feelings, and trust to keep them trapped. You may learn on social media or news media why others did stay in abusive relationships for a long time, and how they become free of exploitative relationships afterward. But you don’t have to rely on social media or news media alone to realize that there are others out there who are struggling with the same issues as you. Support groups provide a safe atmosphere for people like you to share their stories.
In addition, support groups can be used for more than just abuse; they're great for an interactive disorder treatment. Those who have high functioning autism may find support groups as an effective autism treatment. Support groups can be a gathering to discuss other parts of life, from Stockholm Syndrome, male privilege, trauma, PTSD, and why one experiences fear, excitement, and sexual feelings.
The Duluth Model of Abuse
Named after the Minnesota community of Duluth, the Duluth Model is a way to help keep victims of abuse safe and the abusers accountable. A community who practices the Duluth Model can make everyone safer. Here are some signs of a good Duluth Model.
- No victim blaming. Instead, they realize that the partner is the abuser, exploiting the misuse of fear, excitement, and creating a trauma bonding codependency that is hard to escape from.
- Listens to the abused when they create policies to help the abusers get the help and justice they need.
- Realizes that the trauma bonding codependency needs to end and the community always needs to improve their response to any trauma that a battered person may face.
Frequently Asked Questions
Dealing with an abuser presents its own unique challenges. Check out these conversationally or interpersonally moving questions to learn more about dealing with one.
What does trauma bonding mean? Trauma bonding occurs when a narcissistic partner uses fear, excitement, sexual feelings, and physiology to manipulate another person. Victims of trauma bonding feel trapped in their relationship.
Is trauma bonding the same as Stockholm Syndrome? Stockholm Syndrome is actually a form of trauma bonding. Victims will often develop a sense of loyalty to their abuser despite how damaging their relationship is to their health.
Can you heal a trauma bond? Healing from a trauma bond requires you to practice kindness and compassion toward yourself. You can also do a number of activities, such as listing self-defeating behaviors so you can easily address them and writing your thoughts and feelings in a journal.
What are the three types of trauma? There are three main types of trauma: acute, chronic, and complex. Acute trauma results from a single incident while chronic trauma results from recurring violence or abuse. Someone experiences complex trauma when they are exposed to a number of traumatic events that are invasive in nature.
How can friends and family help someone who is a victim of abuse? Friends and family members of abuse victims can help them in a number of ways. It is important to show your support for them and to remain judgemental when they discuss their situation. You can also help them develop a safety plan when they choose to end the relationship and encourage them to seek professional help.
Can people develop post traumatic stress disorder from abusive relationships? Post traumatic stress disorder can develop from a number of situations, including relationships plagued by domestic violence. While not everyone who experiences abuse develops PTSD, it is important to remain aware of any possible signs or symptoms that you may have developed it.
Seek a Therapist
When you stay in abusive relationships for a long time and decide to leave, you may have issues that you need to address. Trauma, PTSD, remnants of Stockholm Syndrome, and other issues. It's important that you seek disorder treatment for any of these issues, or have a therapist handy who can talk to you about any issues you have. A therapist can help. If you have a friend or family member who is stuck in an abusive relationship, it is important to support them through their treatment.
BetterHelp's services can make it much easier for you to cope. BetterHelp is an online therapy outlet that lets you talk to an online therapist about anything. It's discreet, allows you to communicate for anywhere, and is useful for anyone who is leaving a relationship or is the victim of abuse.