Trauma Bonding: What You Need to Know

Read our expert guide to discover why abuse survivors may feel affection for their abusers and how to get help.

Last updated: Jan 1st, 2023
Trauma Bonding

Have you ever wondered why someone would stay in an abusive relationship, even if they seemingly had all the resources and support to leave? Or maybe you’ve wondered what drives a person to join and remain in a horrific cult? Why would a survivor of sexual abuse have any desire to maintain a relationship with their abuser?

If any of these situations remind you of a dynamic in your life, you’re not alone. You may be experiencing trauma bonding. Trauma bonding refers to the complex interaction of emotions people experience toward abusers. This bond is a trauma response that ultimately keeps you feeling stuck in a trauma state.

We’ve compiled the essential info you need to understand trauma bonding, including key signs and ways to recover. Read on to find out what you need to know.

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What is trauma bonding?

Trauma bonding refers to the competing emotions — including positive ones — a victim feels toward their abusers. Trauma bonding can happen within any relationship, but it’s common in romantic relationships and between parents and children.

Trauma bonding isn’t necessarily logical. In fact, it’s usually conflicting and confusing. On the one hand, you may know how harmful and dangerous your abuser is. On the other hand, you may feel a profound sense of compassion, empathy, or love toward them. It’s possible to hold both realities at the same time.

When abusers make grandiose promises to change, trauma bonding becomes particularly problematic. The victim keeps “holding on” and hoping the situation will improve.

Sometimes, the abuser also keeps trauma bonds intact by making threats. They might, for example, threaten to kill themselves if you ever leave. They might also use guilt as a weapon. In doing so, they will blame external circumstances for their behavior or convince you that nobody else can understand them in the way you do.

What are the key signs of trauma bonding?

Attachment is a core human need. We are born entirely helpless — an infant needs ongoing and attentive caregiving to survive. As we grow, we still lean on others for support, love, security, and many other psychological needs.

But when someone who fulfills some of those needs also acts as an abuser, trauma bonding can occur. According to Parents Against Child Exploitation (PACE), trauma bonding may happen when the victim:

  • Is in real danger
  • Believes they cannot escape
  • Has become physically or emotionally isolated from other people’s opinions
  • Receives harsh treatment “mixed in” with some love or kindness

Here are some common signs of trauma bonding:

  • Defending their behavior (even if you aren’t sure why)
  • Blaming yourself for what happened to you
  • Rationalizing that the abuse was not intentional or “not that bad”
  • Assuming things will change or get better in the future
  • Lying or “covering” the abuser to make them look better than they are
  • Experiencing sympathy and high levels of affection for your abuser

Some of these thoughts and feelings may persist even if you leave the abusive situation. You might still feel a sense of loyalty, and that’s why people often return to their abuser.

How do you recover from trauma bonding?

Trauma bonding recovery takes time. There are no quick fixes or inherently easy answers when it comes to healing. That said, it is possible to break free from the abuse and live a meaningful life. Here are some tips.

Make a safety plan

Safety plans provide specific actions for protecting yourself and your loved ones from harm. It’s crucial to consider making a safety plan, but it’s especially important if your abuser is physically abusive or if children are involved.

Safety plans should include:

  • Alternative living arrangements
  • Local resources and services (shelters, food assistance programs, etc.)
  • Names and contact information for supportive loved ones
  • Therapist and primary care physician contact information

It’s crucial to keep your safety plan concealed and hidden from your abuser. You can use this safety plan resource from the National Domestic Violence Hotline as a reference point.

Minimize or avoid all contact

True recovery requires establishing an identity outside of your abuser. If you are still emotionally involved in one another’s lives, the trauma bond often stays intact. You remain vulnerable to their manipulative tactics.

In some situations, cutting all contact may not be possible. But as much as you can, aim to restrict and limit communication.

When you must talk, maintain strict boundaries about what you choose to disclose. Try to keep interactions brief and to the point. Finally, document anything that comes across as suspicious, cruel, or otherwise harmful.

Seek trauma-informed therapy

Trauma bonding sometimes results from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Likewise, even when leaving is the best choice, many people experience profound grief, sadness, or fear afterward. Therapy is often beneficial.

A trauma-informed therapist can help you cope with these intense feelings. They also provide a safe, non-judgmental space to learn new coping skills.

All therapists bring different types of expertise and interventions into their work. That said, you may benefit from the following therapeutic treatments:

Cognitive processing therapy (CPT)

CPT is a 12-session treatment that focuses on challenging and modifying negative beliefs about the trauma. There is significant evidence showing that CPT can reduce PTSD symptoms.

Prolonged exposure (PE)

PE helps people safely and gradually process trauma-related memories and situations. The treatment is approximately 8-15 sessions, and substantial evidence shows it can reduce PTSD symptoms.

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)

EMDR is a trauma-focused treatment model that helps process and release traumatic stimuli. The treatment entails bilateral stimulations. Research shows up to 80-90% of clients experience positive results in just three sessions.

Trauma-focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT)

TF-CBT is primarily used for children and adolescents. This therapy helps reduce the negative feelings and thoughts surrounding trauma. Treatment typically lasts between 12-16 sessions.

Consider attending a support group

Support groups offer validation and reassurance for people recovering from trauma bonding. Some groups are peer-led, but trained therapists or counselors facilitate most groups. They typically focus on topics like self-esteem, healthy relationships, boundaries, and self-care.

Keep reminding yourself of the facts

Emotions often blur data. Instead of relying on your feelings, consider focusing more on the facts of the situation. If it’s helpful, pretend you are a researcher reporting the objective information. This might sound like: He pushed me last night. He kicked the dog after he came home from work. He told me that I was a loser.

Some people find it beneficial to write these facts down on paper. It provides a reference point for documenting the truth, even if your emotions want to deny or rationalize the situation.

Increase self-compassion

Victims often blame and berate themselves for what happened. However, shame poses significant barriers to healing. It’s essential to treat yourself kindly during this vulnerable time.

Keep reminding yourself that you are only human. Moreover, nobody is completely immune to this phenomenon. Many people find themselves stuck in trauma bonds, and their situations do not reflect their capabilities or worth.

Blaming yourself may reinforce more gaslighting or abuse, especially if you’re still in contact with your abuser. When you start judging yourself, try to shift into more self-care and gratitude. Try using positive affirmations to remind yourself of your worth and goodness.

Final thoughts

Trauma bonding is complex, and the healing process takes time. It’s normal to experience heightened emotions as you recover. Try to be patient and kind to yourself and seek support if you are struggling.