This is not a very well known term: trauma bonding. But if you are in an abusive relationship, or are supporting someone else who is in one, or if you experienced abuse as a young person then you will find this information to be a vital key in unlocking your recovery journey.
The issue of trauma bonding is a fascinating subject but also very difficult for those who are implicated in this kind of situation. Today we’re going to be looking at what it is, how it develops, how it can impact marriages and finally what you can do about it.
Trauma Bonding Explained
Trauma bonding is the formation of powerful emotional attachments in abusive relationships. These bonds are seen to develop in a range of situations including abusive marriages, and also in abusive families, in hostage situations and in cults.
It occurs where the abused or mistreated individual feels positive regard for their abuser[i], feels like they need the abuser or continually returns to the abuser despite the harm they do[ii].
It is often characterized by a sense of being unable to live with the abuser and being unable to live without them. It’s sometimes referred to as Stockholm Syndrome after a famous bank robbery in Sweden in 1973, in which the hostages began to develop feelings of trust and affection for their captors.
Given that the context of this website is marriage, we’re going to be talking about this in relation to abusive marriages. However, if you’re in a different kind of situation; maybe you experienced childhood sexual abuse, you will be able to better understand that from what you learn today.
So this is a very difficult subject. And in fact, relationships with trauma bonds often look like addictions. Just the idea of continuing to do something (being in the relationship) despite knowing the negative consequences, and sacrificing all other aspects of your life for the relationship, has close parallels with the behavior of drug or alcohol addicts[iii].
Like addictions, trauma bonds can therefore be a lifelong struggle as the abused person continues to fall into the same cycle over and over.
Bystanders such as a sibling who sees you in an abusive marriage can look into your situation and wonder why you don’t leave. Well, the research we look at today should help give some understanding as to why leaving is so difficult.
Why Do Trauma Bonds Form?
Abusive relationships are formed though a kind of “social trap” where the trauma bond makes it hard for the abused partner to leave the relationship.
Here’s an example of how it may go. The first instance of abuse in a relationship is seen as an isolated incident and the abuser’s attempts to reconcile and make amends end up strengthening the relationship bond. They are usually really good at winning the abused spouse back, at convincing them it was an isolated incident, often even convincing them it was their fault for inciting the anger that was involved.
And this works. The repeated incidents of abuse shift the abused spouse’s beliefs towards thinking that it must in some way be their own fault for causing or allowing the abuse. Here’s a quote: “By the time the woman realizes that the abuse is inescapable, the traumatically produced emotional bond is quite strong.[iv]”
Factors Contributing to Trauma Bonds
From the research, we identified five factors that contribute to trauma bonding in abusive relationships[v]:
A power imbalance in a relationship can produce negative self-beliefs and low self-esteem in the subjugated individual. In the oppressed or abused spouse.
This power imbalance makes them feel like they “need” the more powerful spouse because they are not capable or strong enough to live without them. They come to internalize the more powerful individual’s view of them as being weak, and the abuser therefore comes to see themselves as even more powerful, which increases the imbalance of power, forming a cycle of dependency. The sense that you need the more powerful spouse strengthens the attachment bond you have with them.
So the power dynamic is key to understanding this. The abused spouse sees him or herself through the abuser’s viewpoint: as needy and dependent. This feeds the power imbalance and perpetuates the problem.
In cases of trauma bonding abuse occurs intermittently, not all the time. Instances of abuse are separated by periods of positive behaviour sometimes called the “contrition” phase or the honeymoon phase, where the abuser promises to change and reaffirms their love. They often treat the abused spouse like royalty during this phase.
Over time the abused spouse is repeatedly subjected to abuse and then reconciliation and relief when it stops.
This cycle of building tension, then abuse, and then calm, loving reconciliation strengthens the bond for both abuser and abused. The reconciliation or contrition phase makes the abused partner more likely to stay in the relationship, as during this time the abuser is often especially loving and kind in order to make up for their abuse. This can start to play tricks on the abused spouse’s mind, distort their perception of their abusive spouse and even alter the abused spouse’s memory of the abusive instances and reduce the perceived likelihood of abuse happening again. “He’s such a loving husband, how could he ever hurt me? Was it really as a bad as I thought at the time? Maybe I brought it on myself in some way.” And so on.
A study from 1993[vi] investigated this, interviewing 75 women who had left physically and emotionally abusive relationships. They found that attachment to the abusive husband, lowered self esteem and levels of trauma experienced were all strongly inter-connected. Attachment was strongly predicted by the level of intermittent abuse and the level of power imbalance in the relationship prior to leaving. So both the power imbalance and this cycle of intermittent abuse and reconciliation were strongly connected to a sense of attachment to the abusive spouse.
This attachment bond was weaker but still present 6 months after leaving the relationship, showing that the trauma bonding effect can be long lasting and hinting at why many abused women return to their abusive husbands.
So this trauma bond is very real. It is measurable.
Another study[vii] identified 3 additional factors that contribute to trauma bonding:
“Core” cognitive components are these core beliefs or ways of thinking about the abuse that are so typical of an abusive marriage. They are:
- blaming yourself for the abuse
- rationalizing or justifying the abuser’s behavior
- minimizing its significance
You can see how those thoughts keep you invested in that trauma bond rather than help you see it for what it is and choose to move away.
There’s also psychological damage occurring in a relationship like this. Consider the depression often involved, the lowering of self-esteem and the interpersonal difficulties that come.
These psychological effects of the abuse create a sense of helplessness that can contribute to the abused spouse feeling dependent on their abusive spouse. That’s the “I can’t survive without you” part.
This is the belief that your very survival is dependent on your partner’s love and support. So you have to work hard, you have to invest into the relationship to earn this. Now you’re really buying into the trauma bond.
These 3 factors are separate but interlinked, and can reliably predict levels of abuse in relationships. Taking this one study, the more you have of these core cognitions, the psychological damage and the love dependency, the higher the level of abuse. And of course, the intermittent abuse and the power imbalance identified in the previous study also contribute to the issue.
Identifying Trauma Bonds in Your Marriage
We’ve created a bonus guide for our much appreciated supporters. If you want to pause and assess your current situation to see if you are involved in a trauma bond, you need this worksheet. It’ll help you confidently identify what is happening and then understand what you are experiencing. This is such an important first step. You can get this by becoming a patron of The Marriage Podcast for Smart People.
So that’s what a trauma bond is and how it can look in an abusive marriage. Now we need to look at what to do about it.
As an aside, we go into much more detail on abusive marriages and how to safely find recovery in that situation in our episodes on this subject:
Definitely check those out.
For this post, we’re really going to focus in on the trauma bonding itself and what to do about that, and not so much on what to do about an abusive marriage in its larger context and implications.
What to do About Trauma Bonding
Understanding the Issue
For women with abusive husbands (or any other form of abusive relationship) who want to leave the relationship, this bond may make it difficult. If you want to stay, it could make achieving change difficult. Because after the initial fear and danger of an abusive attack have subsided your feelings of attachment will typically resurface and cause you to downplay the severity of the abuse. As we saw before, this is such a powerful effect that it can even cause you to reinterpret your memories and give justification to your abuser’s actions.
At this point when the attachment has resurfaced you’re going to want to remain with the abuser or return to him and it makes you less likely seek help or independence or safety.
Understanding how this bond forms and understanding how it is maintained may therefore help you know what to expect. You can expect to feel the attachment come back to the forefront once you get back to the honeymoon phase.
But knowing how this all works should move you towards a more realistic view of the relationship. And from that vantage point where you are more informed you will be better equipped if and when you make a decision to leave for your own safety.
For those that are helping abused spouses make a decision like this, Dutton & Painter (1993)[viii] recommend repeatedly providing factual reminders of the severity of the abuse to prevent the trauma bond biasing the abused spouse’s memory of the relationship.
And if you’re the one who is in it: you can remind yourself of the factual realities of what has been going on. You can confront a rekindling of the traumatic attachment bond with these facts to help you maintain perspective on what is happening.
Attachment style should also be considered. Remember this is the nature of how you bond with your significant other. This style is most informed by the kind of care you received as a baby from your primary caregiver.
Traumas bonds are similar to an anxious-avoidant attachment style. In this style, security and safety are intermittently provided and the individual is unsure if their need for intimacy will be met with kindness or hostility. An insecure attachment, either as a child or as an adult, can be risk factor in the onset of abuse in relationships[ix].
So really considering what happened in your family of origin is going to give you some insight as to why trauma bonding is a reality in your life today.
The good news is that attachment style can be changed, and we looked at how in our episode Is Fear Wrecking Your Marriage. Changing from an insecure to a secure attachment style can be achieved through improving your self confidence and social skills, and enhancing your ability to cope with stress and conflict[x], and this may help alter the relationship to reduce the impact of a trauma bond.
It makes sense: if you see yourself as more capable, more independent, as having your own social network then you will not see yourself as needy. So you will lower the power imbalance in the relationship.
Bear in mind: this could be dangerous if your spouse is unlikely to accept the shift in power. You should only do this in the relationship if you believe it is safe to do so; if not, again, it is probably wise to seek safety and then work on your attachment style.
Addressing the Power Imbalance
As I just mentioned, the above factors of self-confidence, social skills etc, would also help address the imbalance of power, which is one of the central aspects of a trauma bond.
Let’s go over this dynamic again to illustrate what I mean.
When there is a trauma bond the abused spouse feels powerless and dependent. But understand the abuser needs you to feel like this in order to have any power. So changing the balance of power in the relationship helps stop the abusive cycle for both the abuser and abused.
For the abused spouse, taking control through setting limits on the spouse’s behaviour, renegotiating the relationship or physically separating yourself from them for a time — all the strategies we looked at in detail in our series of episodes on abuse — can restore the power balance and heal the trauma bond[xi].
Again, you need to understand and accurately assess your safety before trying this. Remember that even this podcast and website are just self-help tools and do not replace working with a professional counsellor. If you’re not sure, reach out to me for help or find a local counsellor or call a safety hotline. There are many resources for folks in this situation: you don’t have to figure this out alone.
Breaking Old Habits
Finally: you want to break old habits. Since trauma bonding is often influenced by your early experiences and attachment style it can become a long-standing pattern that you just fall into without deliberate thought. You can automatically slip back into this dynamic even if you want to change.
To counter this natural tendency to go back to the trauma you can develop habits to center yourself and act based on your current intentions rather than old cycles. Strategies include journaling and reflection, meditation and relaxation, setting boundaries for yourself, or therapy to help you process the trauma and develop the skills to separate yourself from it[xii].
These are all ways to bring you into the present, to help you face and accurately assess your current situation, and choose to respond in a way that is self-respecting and safe for you and, if necessary, your little ones.
So: that is trauma bonding. A terrible situation to be in, but not a hopeless one. Again: I have helped women in this situation in my practice so if I can help you please reach out to me through our website.
I thought it would be good to talk about our Patreon campaign for a moment. We started this back a while ago because we were putting so much financial and emotional resources into this podcast and there was so little feedback and really no financial return on the investment. We do see our podcast as more of a ministry, but money doesn’t grow on trees in our yard any more than the next person’s. So we changed our approach and made our bonus content available to those who would support our ministry.
Now: we have continued to grow and have over 10,000 downloads a week. Not all of those are listened to, but it is amazing to think that there are several thousand marriages a week being helped by our podcast and we are thankful for the feedback we do receive by email and through iTunes reviews that confirm that this podcast is changing marriages. That’s a beautiful thing.
It costs us about 400 dollars US per episode to produce this show. It’s a unique show with a very heavy emphasis on providing reliable research-based content that is presented through our shared wisdom: myself as a trained professional counsellor, and Verlynda who has her own deep well of wisdom and care for marriages too.
So we put ~$1600 a month into producing the show. Right now we have just over $500 a month committed on Patreon by our beloved patrons. We appreciate every dollar that is sent to us because we know your money doesn’t grow on trees either!
However, we are appealing to those of you out there who have been listening for a long time to come on board as patrons. It would be a huge blessing to us to be able to push toward our next milestone of $1600/month which is our basic break-even on hard costs. We want to keep doing this. We want to feel fully invested. But we also have our own financial realities to face, too, and your support will make a difference in our lives and in the lives of thousands of marriages. Please go to our Patreon page in your browser right now to make your pledge.
[i] Dutton and Painter, “Emotional Attachments in Abusive Relationships.”
[ii] Carnes, The Betrayal Bond.
[iv] Dutton and Painter, “Emotional Attachments in Abusive Relationships.”
[vii] George, “Traumatic Bonding and Intimate Partner Violence.”
[viii] Dutton and Painter, “Emotional Attachments in Abusive Relationships.”
[ix] George, “Traumatic Bonding and Intimate Partner Violence.”
[x] Corcoran and Mallinckrodt, “Adult Attachment, Self-Efficacy, Perspective Taking, and Conflict Resolution.”
[xi] Wuest and Merritt-gray, “A Theoretical Understanding of Abusive Intimate Partner Relationships That Become Non-Violent.”
[xii] Carnes, The Betrayal Bond.
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