Every minute, roughly 24 people become victims of relationship abuse, which includes rape, violence, stalking, and more. Year after year, the violence alone creates 12 million victims. Physical and mental trauma typically result from an abusive, negligent, or unavailable partner. Leaving an abusive relationship is not easy, and people often stay for various reasons. Staying in an abusive relationship is known as trauma bonding. The phenomenon is more well-known across social media and the news in recent years, and it’s more common than people may realize. Learn more about the causes of trauma bonding, how it impacts mental health, and how to find help.

What Is Trauma Bonding?

Trauma bonding is a phenomenon where the brain seeks abusive relationships. As the name implies, it’s a bonding with a person that occurs via trauma. Trauma bonding most frequently occurs in romantic relationships but can also happen in parental relationships and close friendships. We might see a trauma-bonded relationship in the following cases:

  • An abusive caretaker or child
  • A hostage-kidnapper relationship
  • Abusive relationships among friends or colleagues

Trauma bonding can include physical trauma as well as mental trauma. People suffering from trauma bonding may not recognize it as abuse and pull themselves away from it. They dive deeper into the relationship, strengthening emotional attachment with their abuser rather than cutting it off.

Why Does Trauma Bonding Happen?

On the surface, it may seem nonsensical that anyone could grow stronger feelings for an abuser—the bond results in how the brain processes the trauma pattern and positive reinforcement. Simply put, a trauma bond occurs when the abused brain focuses on positive reinforcement. Conversely, the brain downplays any abuse, which outnumbers the positive moments. The victim begins to mistake inflicted trauma as a component of love or love itself.

Trauma bonding is a type of intermittent reinforcement. A person does not get a reward every time they perform a behavior. Still, they get it sometimes, with no predictability, causing them to repeat the action despite the apparent detriment.

How Does Trauma Bonding Work?

Trauma bonding occurs over a long period, and it’s a repeated cycle of abuse that leads the victim to feel a stronger emotional connection. Over time, the cycle reprograms the victim’s brain, and they tolerate repeated or increasing abuse, telling themselves it’s not a big deal.

Victims make excuses for abusive behavior, writing it off as a bad day or stress. If not, they falsely assume the abuser is in the process of changing, and it’s their job to be patient as the abuser improves, the victim reasons.

Elements of Trauma Bonding

No two trauma-bonded relationships are the same. The abuser may employ the following:

  • Love bombing
  • Excessive criticism
  • Gaslighting

Love bombing and gaslighting, in particular, are common abuse tactics. With love bombing, abusers frequently bombard their partners with affection and praise after abuse. In the process, they gaslight their partner. Gaslighting involves making someone question their sanity and reality. They make them feel like they are imagining things. As a result, the victim may feel the following:

  • Addiction to infrequent positive reinforcement
  • Loss of self
  • Surrender themselves to the abuser’s whims

When friends or confidants mention the abuse, the victim defends the abuser, often coming up with reasons why it’s not so bad.

Why is It So Hard to Escape?

One would think that all a victim needs is to see the evidence. For example, a friend or colleague points out that their partner is abusive. With their eyes open, they can logically decide to leave that person. Unfortunately, that rarely, if ever, is the result, and the victim often remains with the abuser.

The fundamental issue with trauma bonding is that it muddles the victim’s definition of love. In their mind, love necessarily involves this unhealthy abuse, and they begin to think abuse is love. Even if the victim does somehow escape the relationship, the damage is done. Former victims of trauma bonding may jump from abusive relationship to abusive relationship.

How to Address Trauma Bonding

How does one treat trauma bonding if it’s so deeply ingrained? The solution is straightforward: therapy. Many people with all different kinds of trauma, not just victims of trauma-bonded relationships, benefit from therapy. Through trauma processing, victims can recognize the trauma for what it is. Then, they can learn techniques for managing it. Treatment may include some or all of the following:

  • Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT)
  • Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)
  • Reconsolidation of traumatic memories

With therapy, it’s not just patient wellbeing that improves. A person learns what red flags to avoid in relationships, so if they end up in an abusive situation again, they know what to do.

Get Help with Comprehensive Wellness Centers

Trauma bonding is a cycle by which the victim in an abusive relationship gains stronger feelings for the abuser. Rather than escape the situation, the victim mistakes abuse for love. Fortunately, trauma therapy can help someone to reevaluate and protect themselves from abuse.

Comprehensive Wellness Centers provide therapy for substance abuse, mental disorders, trauma, and more. Learn about our admissions process so you can receive the help you need.