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What Is Trauma Bonding and How to Cope

July 21, 2021

By Wesley Gallagher

If you’ve ever known someone who was in an abusive relationship, you’ve probably found yourself wondering, Why doesn’t she just leave? Clearly, the relationship is unhealthy — possibly even dangerous — so the obvious solution would be to get out, right?

Those who have been in an abusive relationship know that departing is a lot easier said than done. In fact, you may have asked yourself the exact same question: Why don’t I just leave? 

The answer to that question is a complicated one, but the reality is that most people in abusive relationships find it hard to leave. And one of the main reasons is a process called trauma bonding.

The cycle of abuse is what creates the trauma bond that makes leaving an abusive relationship so difficult.

What is Trauma Bonding? 

According to Healthline.com, trauma bonding is a powerful connection that happens as a result of the cycle of abuse, devaluation and positive reinforcement in an abusive relationship. Often the beginning of a dysfunctional relationship is full of intense love and affection. In fact, many people are surprised when abuse begins, which makes it easier to believe when the abuser apologizes and promises it will never happen again. The relationship then appears to return to its previous affectionate state, and everything seems to go back to normal. Until it happens again.  

This cycle — known asWhat Is Trauma Bonding? - Willow House the cycle of abuse — is what creates the trauma bond that makes leaving an abusive relationship so difficult. Abusive partners can be extremely controlling as well, contributing to the bond that makes it feel like you can’t leave them. They are often master manipulators, convincing you it’s your fault when they hurt you, or using your love for them to guilt-trip you when you try to end the relationship. This creates a power imbalance that can make you feel incapable of making decisions in the relationship, including ending it. 

Interestingly, trauma bonding isn’t limited to romantic relationships; it can also happen in fraternity hazing, military training, kidnapping, child abuse, cults and other situations of abuse. And within romantic relationships, physical abuse isn’t the only type of abuse that can cause trauma bonding. Psychological or emotional abuse can also drive the process and are just as unhealthy.  

Why Does Trauma Bonding Happen? 

Our body’s natural stress response plays a key role in trauma bonding. While you’ve probably heard of the fight-or-flight response, there’s also a “freeze” response to stress. When you’re in an abusive relationship, your stress response can be triggered by the abuse or the possibility of abuse. As a result of both the connection between you and your partner and the power imbalance created by the abuser, freezing — or staying in the relationship — is often the response that is triggered in order to protect yourself. 

Another tricky aspect of an abusive relationship is that the person often consoling you after the mistreatment is the abuser. Apologies, gifts, and affection are typical gestures after incidents of abuse. While these may help to ease your fear and anxiety, they also connect you further to your partner as they cue the release of dopamine and oxytocin within your brain.

Abusive partners can be extremely controlling as well, contributing to the bond that makes it feel like you can’t leave them.

Common Trauma Bond Symptoms

So, how do you know if you are in a relationship that has a trauma bond? Here are a few signs and symptoms that may be an indication:

  • The relationship’s beginning was committed and emotionally intense
  • Friends and family have been alienated because of the relationship
  • You’re unhappy in the relationship but still feel unable to end it
  • You make excuses for your partner or only focus on the good aspects of your relationship
  • Your partner’s abusive behavior is kept secret to protect him
  • You’re afraid to leave the relationship
  • You feel like your partner is the only person who can fulfill your needs

What Does Trauma Bonding Recovery Look Like?

The first step to recovering from a trauma bond is leaving the relationship. Unfortunately, trauma bonding makes leaving a relationship difficult, but the good news is it’s not impossible. It just takes some planning and a lot of willpower.

Before you leave your partner, make sure you have a support system in place. Have your friends and family help you through the process and let them hold you up when needed. If you do not have friends or family who can assist you, consider enlisting the help of a local domestic abuse agency or church. Plan where you will go, and if you’re concerned for your safety, take measures to ensure your partner won’t be able to easily find you once you leave. 

If you’re thinking of leaving an abusive relationship or have left one and are in need of support, seeking help from a professional counselor is a great way to aid your recovery. At Willow House, we offer counseling for emotional trauma of all kinds and can give you the tools you need to fully recover from a trauma bond and more. You don’t have to continue your journey toward healing and wellness alone. Allow us to come alongside you by reaching out today.