Traumatic Bonding

Updated October 7, 2022 by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Content/Trigger Warning: The below article might mention trauma-related topics that include sexual assault & violence which could potentially be triggering.

Abusive relationships often involve forming a trauma bond with your abuser. We will discuss what trauma bonds are and how to recover from different trauma bonds. 

If You Feel That You're In An Abusive Relationship - There Is Help

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. 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. People in these relationships struggled to leave their partners for a variety of reasons. Additionally, if you are dating someone with PTSD, it's important to understand the condition and it can impact your relationship. 

Traumatic bonding is a phenomenon in which the survivor feels connected to their abuser based on attachment amid the abuse. During the stressful points in the relationship, the survivor has elevated cortisol levels. The survivor 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 survivor affection, they're rewarded with dopamine, which further reinforces the traumatic bond. How do you break the cycle? The survivor can seek help in the form of therapy, or individual counseling to begin taking steps to leave the relationship and start to heal from trauma. You don't have to go through this alone. 

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. 

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If You Feel That You're In An Abusive Relationship - There Is Help

Healthy Vs. Unhealthy Bonding

Bonding is a biological process that allows two people to develop a strong emotional connection with each other, often through positive experiences. By contrast, traumatic bonding is a relationship created as a result of negative experiences such as physical, verbal, or emotional abuse between survivor and abuser. It's also possible to form a healthy bond with someone before they start abusing you. While it may seem difficult to ask for help, online therapy has proven to be effective in managing symptoms of trauma. 

Why Do People Develop Trauma Bonds?

The question often arises of why survivors 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 survivor may subconsciously focus 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

If you notice red flags or other signs of psychological manipulation that may lead to a toxic trauma bond in your relationship, seek help. Here are notable red flags:

  • The person may take things too fast to entangle another person in a relationship. 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. It always feels like a smear campaign against the other person. Sometimes, they may have 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 you mustn't have sex until you're ready.
  • They have no respect for boundaries early in the relationship. 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.

Here are just a few examples of ways an abuser may traumatize you and try to keep you in a relationship:

Love Bombing

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. Because of the shower of love, many survivors 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

Intermittent Reinforcement

Intermittent reinforcement is part of the cycle of violence where a partner may abuse you, but have moments where they show you affection and reward you. 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. You must 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.

Child Abuse

Another technique of toxic relationships is child abuse. When one thinks of child abuse, one 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 movement. You may feel like if you break free from your relationship, it will affect your kid, especially if the toxic person gets custody.

Positive Reinforcement

This is when you reward someone for doing a behavior that you perceive as good, such as giving you a present for obeying. A healthy relationship shouldn't involve rewards 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. You must recognize this. If you feel unable to satisfy your partner unless you do something they like, that's a problem.

Victim Blaming

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 survivor of verbal abuse, the toxic person may tell you that it's your fault for provoking them. 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.

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 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. 

Moving the Target

Also known as moving the goalposts, this is when it is difficult for you to satisfy their demands because they always change the requirements. For example, when you apologize for being upset, they can 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. You might feel mixed emotions after always moving the target, from trauma, bonding, codependency, and more. Don't ever feel bad for being in or leaving an abusive relationship. It's never your fault, but the fault of your abuser.

Mental Health Reasons for Abuse

Some personality disorders can lead to narcissistic behaviors, which can make a person more violent. As a reminder, someone with a mental illness isn't excused from abuse. Someone prone to abuse needs professional treatment.

Substance Abuse

Sometimes, substance abuse can be because of innocuous reasons. For example, your spouse might have been injured and prescribed medication. They may have slowly developed a tolerance to their medication, leading to an addiction. Sometimes, the trauma bonding starts after increased drinking. Your partner may have started drinking more because of grief, and rather than find a support group or find a therapist, they relied on alcohol to feel better. Drug addiction is a mental disorder, but it doesn't excuse someone's abuse. A person who has an addiction needs to go to a treatment center or find a therapist.

Other Mental Illnesses

Other mental illnesses can lead to abusive behavior as well. Any disorder, such as anger issues or autism, that can lead to explosive meltdowns, can be abusive. With that said, abuse is never ok. 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 Recover From Abuse, Domestic Violence, And Unhealthy Relationships

An abuser will use whatever methods they can - physical abuse, isolation, psychological manipulation, verbal degradation - to assert total control of a person. These behaviors may have developed over time as the abuser has a chance to increasingly isolate the other person and perhaps make them financially dependent, and the abuser has acted in caring ways as well. The underlying rage and need for power and control over others are deeply rooted. 

When the survivor 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 what they have been manipulated to believe, and see the abuser as an abuser. Once a survivor understands the true underlying intentions of the abuser, they can begin to see and manage their responses more effectively, and even consider leaving. It can be extremely difficult or even dangerous to leave an abusive relationship, but survivors can begin to develop some internal resistance to the abuse. They can 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. If you or someone you know is being abused, reach out to a therapist or loved one. External support is one of the biggest resources used in leaving abusive situations.

Of course, to many survivors, it is never as simple as walking away. Many might fear an escalation of violence if they try to leave. Some survivors may feel as though there is no place for them in the world, and that their old friends and loved ones won't accept them anymore. This is due to the shame that comes with being abused.

If you can 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

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. 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 point you to any solutions you need. 

The National Domestic Violence Hotline, also known as the Hotline, is a toll-free hotline in the United States. The National Domestic Violence Hotline has an easy-to-remember number, which is 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). The National Domestic Violence Hotline also has a website, thehotline.org, which has more information and resources about domestic abuse. 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 survivors have PTSD or maybe depression or 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, you must 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? 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.

Other Hotlines

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've experienced 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.

One site you may want to look into is Psych Central. You can go on Psych Central and read similar stories, or try to look into submitting one of your own.

Support Groups

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 abused, victims. Sometimes, they are led by a therapist, but they don't have to be. They can be in-person or online.

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 that practices the Duluth Model can make everyone safer. Here are some signs of a good Duluth Model.

  • No victim-blaming or judging. 

  • Creates policies based on input from survivors-this ensures that abusers get the help and justice they need.

  • Realizes that the trauma codependency needs to end and the community always needs to improve their response to any trauma that a survivor may face.

Conclusion

Help is available to help you overcome abuse. Reach out to start therapy today.

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