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trauma bonding in relationships

6 Signs Of Trauma Bonding In Relationships and How To Break The Cycle

Have you ever found yourself inexplicably drawn to a relationship that seems to hurt more than it heals, yet the thought of leaving feels impossible? You’re most likely experiencing the confusing and often misunderstood phenomenon of trauma bonding in relationships. It’s a bond formed not out of affection but through repeated cycles of abuse, manipulation, and a desperate need for validation.

If you’re constantly justifying your partner’s harmful behavior or find yourself trapped in a rollercoaster of emotional highs and lows, it might be a sign of trauma bonding. Read on as we delve into the intricacies of trauma bonding and explore effective strategies to break free from its grip, helping you reclaim your emotional independence and well-being.

What Is Trauma Bonding?

Trauma bonding refers to the deep emotional connection that develops between individuals, often within an abusive relationship, with the abused partner feeling deeply connected to their abusive partner. This bond is forged through a cycle of abuse, devaluation, and intermittent positive reinforcement.

You feel a false sense of safety and comfort with someone who is actually causing you harm. This paradoxical situation arises because the abuser intersperses moments of kindness and affection with episodes of cruelty, creating a confusing, contradictory environment.

Trauma bonding isn’t exclusive to romantic relationships; it can occur in various types of connections, including familial, platonic, and even professional ones. In most cases, trauma bonding is prevalent in relationships where there is a significant power imbalance, and one person routinely uses manipulation, control, and abuse to maintain their power over the other.

Addressing trauma bonding is crucial for the development of healthier, more fulfilling relationships. The process requires a great deal of courage, support, and often professional guidance. It’s about relearning your worth, establishing boundaries, and reconnecting with your own identity, independent of the abuser.

Childhood Trauma and Its Effects on Adult Relationships

Childhood trauma, whether it’s emotional, physical, or psychological, leaves lasting imprints that can significantly shape your adult relationships. It’s like carrying an invisible backpack of past hurts and fears into every interaction, often without even realizing it. When these early wounds go unresolved, they can lead to trauma bonding in your adult relationships, echoing the dynamics you may have experienced as a child.

trauma bonding in relationships, childhood trauma
Childhood trauma leaves lasting imprints that can significantly shape your adult relationships

If you’ve had a rough past and had an invalidated childhood, it can reflect how you manage and deal with relationships, manifesting in signs like seeking other people’s validation. If your childhood was marked by instability, neglect, or abuse, these conditions might sadly feel familiar and strangely comfortable in your adult life.

You might unknowingly gravitate towards partners who, in some way, mirror the dynamics of your early caregivers. Most of this isn’t a conscious choic, but rather an unconscious drive to resolve past hurts. It’s like recreating the past, hoping for a different outcome.

Studies have shown that unresolved childhood trauma can significantly increase the risk of trauma bonding in adult relationships. One study showed that there is a positive correlation between childhood emotional abuse and insecure attachment in adulthood, which often leads to reduced relationship satisfaction.

Another study showed that there is a strong link between childhood maltreatment and the development of traumatic bonding toward abusive partners in a relationship. These studies show that the patterns established in childhood, particularly those rooted in emotional abuse or maltreatment, don’t just vanish as you grow older. Instead, they evolve, manifesting in how you connect with others, particularly in relationships.

6 Signs of Trauma Bonding In Relationships

Here are several key signs that may indicate the presence of trauma bonding in a relationship:

Denying Red Flags

If you find yourself frequently overlooking or denying obvious red flags in your relationship, it could be a sign of trauma bonding. This includes ignoring behaviors that are objectively harmful or toxic, such as verbal abuse, manipulation, or betrayal. The denial often stems from an intense emotional connection that makes it hard to accept the reality of the situation.

Secrecy and Isolation

Trauma bonding often leads to secrecy and isolation from friends and family. You might find yourself hiding the truth about your relationship from others out of fear of judgment or to protect your partner. This isolation can also be a result of your partner’s manipulative tactics to keep you away from those who might offer support and perspective.

Justifying or Rationalizing Abusive Behavior

According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, many victims report that their abusive partner is “perfect” or “wonderful” 90% of the time, with only 10% of the relationship being problematic. This predominantly positive behavior forms the basis of the trauma bond. It can also lead to justifying or rationalizing abusive behavior during that problematic 10%.

trauma bonding in relationships
You might find yourself making excuses about your partner’s abusive actions

In such situations, you might find yourself making excuses for the abusive partner’s actions, often attributing the person’s actions to external factors or even blaming yourself. You might say things like, “They’re just stressed” or “I provoked them.” This rationalization is a coping mechanism to make sense of and endure an abusive relationship.

Emotional Dependence

You might feel that you can’t live without the person causing you trauma despite the pain they cause. This dependence often feels like an addiction, where the highs of the relationship, however brief, are enough to make you endure the lows.

Intermittent Reinforcement of Affection

Trauma bonds are strengthened by a cycle of abuse followed by affection or kindness. This intermittent reinforcement creates a powerful emotional bond. You find yourself clinging to the hope of those positive moments, which makes leaving the relationship seem even more daunting.

Feelings of Worthlessness without the Abuser

You might start to feel that you’re worthless or incapable without your abuser. This feeling is often a result of the abuser’s manipulation, making you believe that you need them to survive or be worthy of love and attention. As a result, you fear ending the relationship with the belief that you won’t find someone else who understands you like your current partner do.

Manifestation of Trauma Bonding in Different Relationships

Trauma bonding can manifest uniquely across different types of relationships, yet the underlying dynamics of power imbalance and emotional manipulation remain consistent. In romantic relationships, trauma bonding often appears as an intense connection mistaken for love. In this case, cycles of abuse are interspersed with moments of affection, creating a confusing blend of fear and attachment.

In familial relationships, trauma bonding might be seen in unwavering loyalty to a family member who is abusive or neglectful. The person could be a parent or sibling, where the bond is maintained not out of love but out of a sense of duty or fear.

In platonic relationships, the bond can emerge in one-sided or exploitative friendships. Here, the bond is maintained through a skewed sense of loyalty or the belief that enduring mistreatment is a necessary aspect of the friendship.

How to Break the Cycle

If you’re caught in the web of trauma bonding, it may feel like you’re trapped in an endless cycle of emotional turmoil. But there is a way out. Here are strategies and tips to help you, or you and your partner, recognize and address trauma bonding:

Acknowledge and Accept

The first step is acknowledging the presence of trauma bonding in your relationship. This means accepting that the bond you share, though intense, is rooted in unhealthy patterns. It’s difficult to face this reality, but acceptance is crucial for healing.

Prioritize Self-Awareness

Self-awareness involves reflecting on your feelings, reactions, and choices within the relationship. Take a moment to reflect on your relationship patterns and understand how your past experiences, especially childhood traumas, might be influencing your current relationships.

Recognize your patterns of justifying or rationalizing abusive behavior. This understanding can be challenging to attain, so consider journaling or mindfulness practices to help in this process.

Establish Boundaries

Establishing boundaries means determining what behaviors you can and cannot accept from others and communicating these boundaries clearly. Remember, it’s not just about setting them but also about respecting and enforcing them consistently.

Cultivate a Supportive Network

A strong support network of friends, family, or support groups can provide emotional support and perspective. Sharing your experiences with trusted individuals can help reduce the sense of isolation that often comes with trauma bonding.

Communicate with Your Partner

If both you and your partner are committed to addressing trauma bonding, open and honest communication is crucial. Open, honest dialogue can help illuminate the unhealthy patterns in your relationship, creating an opportunity for change.

trauma bonding in relationships, open communication between partners
Open communication can help illuminate the unhealthy patterns in your relationship.

Express your feelings and concerns clearly and listen to your partner’s perspective. This mutual understanding can lay the groundwork for healthier interactions and a more respectful, supportive relationship.

Practice Self-Compassion and Patience

Breaking a trauma bond doesn’t happen overnight, so be patient with yourself and practice self-care as you work hard to break the bond. As our founder, Dr. Dana McNeil, says, “Self-care represents that you deeply care about all the members of the relationship team, including yourself.” This mindset is essential in the healing process as it helps you acknowledge your worth and give yourself the same kindness and understanding you would offer to others.

Embrace Healing and Growth

Focus on your healing and personal growth physically, emotionally, and mentally. Engage in activities and hobbies that bring you joy and fulfillment. Rebuilding your sense of self outside the relationship is essential for long-term well-being.

Seek Help From A Gottman-Trained Therapist

Dealing with trauma bonding is complex and often requires professional guidance. A Gottman-certified relationship therapist, especially one experienced in trauma and relationships, can provide you with the tools and support needed to untangle the emotional knots. They can help you understand the roots of your bonding and guide you toward healthier relationship dynamics.

At The Relationship Place, we will offer you expert support tailored to your unique situation in a safe, supportive environment. They will use proven Gottman techniques to help you navigate the nuances of your relationship, focusing on communication, conflict resolution, and rebuilding trust with your partner.

Whether you’re dealing with the aftermath of trauma bonding or striving to improve your relationship dynamics, The Relationship Place can offer the guidance and support you need to navigate these challenges. Book an appointment today and take the first stride toward healthier, more fulfilling relationships.


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