Breaking The Cycle: How To Recognize And Overcome Trauma Bonding

Medically reviewed by Julie Dodson, MA
Updated May 1, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include abuse which could be triggering to the reader. If you or someone you love is experiencing abuse, contact the Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Support is available 24/7. Please also see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

Healthy bonds are based on mutual respect, trust, and vulnerability when forming connections with other people. Bonds like this are usually characterized by overall positive feelings, and they’re indicative of healthy relationships and personal growth. Trauma bonding is a complex attachment often based on abuser’s behaviors of manipulation, control, and power, which is obtained through psychological abuse, violence, and/or sexual abuse. Trauma bonding is common in abusive relationships, and it can adversely affect an individual’s mental and emotional health through an unhealthy attachment to someone causing them harm. 

Learning more about what trauma bonding is, its characteristics, how trauma bonds compare to healthy bonds, and strategies for how to break traumatic bonds can help individuals cultivate positive intimate relationships and rid themselves of unhealthy emotional attachments.

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The effects of trauma bonding

There are many potential effects of a trauma bond. Because each person is unique and different experiences shape bonds, the effects of a trauma bond won’t be the same for everyone. However, many individuals with trauma bonds have noted an impact on their mental health and relationships. Others may experience related mental health disorders like depression, anxiety, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Trauma bonds can majorly affect how an individual views and forms attachments with those around them. Forming healthy attachments can be challenging after cycles of fear, isolation, shame, or mistrust. Those who have experienced trauma bonds may also have trouble setting boundaries, leading to potential responsibility for those around them. Trauma bonds can also affect how individuals operate in their daily lives if they become isolated from healthy connections. Feeling ashamed or afraid can make it more difficult to focus on tasks, maintain relationships, and “keep up appearances,” which can lead to further isolation.

One important trait of a trauma bond is the potential development of associated mental disorders like anxiety, depression, or PTSD. Anxiety and depression may be situational based on the emotional turmoil of the trauma bond. Individuals can develop PTSD after repeated exposure to abusive behaviors or traumatizing situations. Trauma-bonded individuals may have mental health issues, such as low self-esteem or negative self-worth, that makes it challenging to leave a difficult situation. 

Additionally, being in a relationship that is constantly in turmoil can lead to emotional exhaustion, increased anxiety, and an increased risk of intimate partner violence. Time explains how these repeated traumas can impact individuals physiologically, saying, “When the brain is under severe threat, it immediately changes the way it processes information and starts to prioritize rapid responses.” Regular neural pathways get “short-circuited,” according to professor of psychiatry Dr. Eric Hollander, and your ability to judge things logically – from a risk/reward standpoint – is deeply impaired. Instead, the information you receive travels through the emotional centers of the brain and rely on that sensory input, which can cause deep emotional connections even when the person to whom we are bonded is not a positive influence in our lives, making it very difficult to leave that situation. Understanding how the brain responds to trauma can be an important healing step for trauma bonds.

Healing from a trauma bond takes time, but recognizing the effects can be important in developing strategies to overcome it. Trauma bonds' negative impacts on mental health and relationships are significant but can be mitigated with the right support.

The root causes of trauma bonding

Trauma bonding is highly personal and complex, so each person's root cause is likely different. However, some potential reasons that a trauma bond develops can include childhood experiences, past abusive relationships, and societal factors. There are also common stages of trauma bonding, called abuse cycles, that are typical of these abusive situations.

Forbes cites Katie Moore, Psy.D., a licensed clinical psychologist based in Irvine, California, who specializes in trauma treatment, as saying, “Trauma bonding often occurs due to a specific type of abuse cycle that can look like the following:

  • The abuser establishes a positive relationship with the victim.
  • When the abuse occurs, the abuser follows the abuse with an act of kindness.
  • The victim believes the kind and non-abusive version of the abuser was the authentic version of them.
  • The cycle between abuse and kindness continues, leaving the victim feeling trapped in the relationship and eliciting complex and confusing emotions.”

The cyclical nature of trauma-bonded relationships and positive reinforcement can make it difficult for the abused person to identify that they’re a victim of domestic violence. Another Doctor of Psychology adds in this piece that trauma bonding may also have ties to the concept of cognitive dissonance, or the holding of conflicting beliefs or behaviors that one tries to reconcile to relieve the discomfort they cause.

When trauma bonding occurs, it deeply impacts mental well-being and the victim’s trust in themselves and others. Understanding its root causes, such as negative childhood experiences, abuse by a primary caregiver or other family members, and social and cultural influences, is crucial for people who’ve experienced abuse who are working towards overcoming trauma bonds. Childhood experiences, including neglect or abuse, often lead to trauma bonding. Similarly, individuals with a history of trauma may use trauma bonding as a coping mechanism. Societal and cultural factors contribute to this phenomenon, including unhealthy power dynamics and social norms.

Recognizing these causes is vital for healing. Seeking professional help, examining personal beliefs, and challenging unhealthy attachment patterns can aid recovery. Developing healthy coping mechanisms, like exercise and self-care, helps build self-confidence and foster positive relationships outside of trauma bonds.

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How to recognize trauma bonding

Understanding how to identify trauma bonding is crucial for breaking unhealthy patterns and cultivating positive attachments. Key signs of trauma bonding include relationship patterns, power dynamics, love bombing, abuse-reconciliation cycles, and emotional responses.

Individuals with trauma bonding may be drawn to an emotionally unavailable or abusive partner and struggle to form healthy connections. Unhealthy power dynamics can create feelings of fear, isolation, and helplessness. Repeated cycles of abuse and reconciliation add confusion and instability, contributing to shame or self-blame. Emotional responses might include fear of abandonment or feeling responsible for a partner's actions.

Recognizing these signs is essential for breaking free from unhealthy relationships. Seeking professional help, developing healthy coping mechanisms, and finding supportive relationships can aid in the healing process. Patience and self-compassion are vital, as healing takes time and effort. A holistic approach to healing helps individuals build resilience and move forward positively.

Strategies for overcoming trauma bonding

Breaking free from trauma bonding is challenging, but effective strategies can help individuals create positive, supportive connections. These strategies involve cultivating self-compassion and self-care, prioritizing personal needs, establishing healthy coping mechanisms, setting boundaries, learning to say no, and seeking supportive individuals.

  • Developing self-compassion and self-care is vital for overcoming trauma bonding. Individuals can build self-worth and self-love by being kind to themselves and engaging in self-care activities, such as exercising and relaxing.
  • Prioritizing personal needs is essential too. Setting aside time for hobbies or self-care helps individuals develop a stronger sense of self and form healthy, positive connections with others. Healthy coping mechanisms, like exercise, journaling, or meditation, can manage stress, build resilience, and support overall well-being.
  • Setting healthy boundaries and effectively communicating them enables individuals to prioritize their needs and desires. Learning to say no and standing up for oneself contributes to a stronger sense of self-worth and fosters healthy relationships.

Lastly, surrounding oneself with supportive people, like friends, family, or support groups, helps build a robust emotional support system and promotes healthy, positive attachments.

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Professional support for trauma bonding

Individuals struggling with trauma bonding may find support and guidance from a trained online professional beneficial to set up strategies for moving forward. Online therapy is highly convenient and reachable, so individuals can reach the support they need according to their schedule. Those who want to speak about trauma bonding can schedule appointments when they know they will be alone. Online therapy also often offers a wide range of resources, so individuals can develop personal coping strategies to overcome their trauma bond effectively. By seeking professional help from a trauma-informed therapist, individuals can take steps to address the effects of traumatic bonding on their own and form healthier attachments. 

Psychology research has found that online therapist is often a good alternative to in-person therapy. For example, one study evaluated the perception regarding online therapy from a therapist’s perspective and found that online therapy let those who used it have mental health services more readily and therefore, allowed a greater number of people to actually seek treatment in the first place. The study recommended online therapy as an effective and viable solution to available mental healthcare. It is important to recognize the shame that traumatic bonds can cause in order to overcome it. Seeking professional help can be an effective part of this process.

Takeaway

Healthy bonds are characterized by trust, mutual respect, and emotional safety, while trauma bonds are rooted in cycles of abuse and manipulation. Trauma bonding can lead to significant adverse emotional effects and may include the development of associated disorders like depression, anxiety, and PTSD. By understanding trauma bonding, its characteristics, and how it compares to healthy bonds, individuals can work toward recognizing and breaking free of unhealthy patterns. With a good support system and healthy coping strategies, individuals can cultivate healthy bonds and move forward.

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