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Trauma Bonding: What Is It, How To Get Out Of It, How To Avoid It

How to handle trauma bonding? The guide to Trauma Bonding

Often, we see people who are victims of abuse sympathize with their abusers. For instance, we see wives continuing to have a relationship with abusive husbands, unable to leave them even when they could. We see them attached to the abusers. They love them, caring for them, even as the abusive relationship continues, sometimes even getting worse.

In our lives, we have probably seen some hostage-taking incidents. In a few instances, we saw some hostages expressing a positive view of the hostage-takers, if not outright sympathy for them. There were times even that the hostages would take the view of the hostage-takers themselves as if rationalizing the act itself.

And how about those kidnap victims who willingly take the outlook of the kidnappers themselves. Instead of being angry at them, some took a benevolent attitude, exhibiting kindness towards them. Many are perplexed by this seemingly strange behavior among kidnap victims, who sometimes show affection to the victimizers instead of hostility.

Indeed, what accounts for the bizarre behavior of the abused victims towards their abusers? What is common among those victims to exhibit almost the same tendencies towards their abusers, exploiters, and victimizers? What is it in the experience of the victims that makes them so much attached that they show unusual attitudes towards those who wronged them?

Psychologists and health experts are just beginning to unravel the mystery behind it. After decades of studies about thousands of victims, we now understand what happened to them and what phenomenon underpins all those strange behaviors. The phenomenon is now known as trauma bonding.

But what is trauma bonding exactly? How can the phenomenon account for all those bizarre acts of the victims towards their abusers? Are all victims of abuse susceptible to it? How can victims avoid falling into this trap, and if ever, how do you recognize if you or some other victims already have this kind of bonding with the abusers?

What is trauma bonding?

Trauma bonding is the bond, attachment, or feelings of affection and sympathy the victims of abuse have on their exploiters, abusers, victimizers. Though the definition is straightforward, the underlying mechanisms of how it happens are a bit complex, and we must understand this complexity to fully grasp the meaning of trauma bonding.

It is complex because many factors are involved in the phenomenon of trauma bonding. The factors range from physical to environmental, from instances of abuse and affection to brain chemistry and chemical addiction. Their interplay will, in large part, ultimately determine whether trauma bonding could ever occur or not in certain situations.

Forming the bond: How trauma bonding develops

The formation of a bond involves a cycle of abuse and affection lasting for a certain period. Individuals vary, and because of it, the needed time to develop trauma bonds may differ from person to person and vary depending on the kind of relationship involved. Some may develop trauma bonding after a short period, whereas others may take years before having one.

Nevertheless, the vital thing to consider is the cycle itself. As long as the elements are present, the possibility of trauma bonding occurring is ever-present. What elements in the cycle are there in the formation of trauma bonding?

Asymmetrical power relations

The nature of the relationship itself at the onset may as well determine whether trauma bonding is possible or not. A relationship involving power, dominance, and dependency is a significant factor in almost all studies concerning trauma bonding. As such, imbalance of power could always lead to abusive relationships, of which trauma bonding is the more prevalent type.

Lack of parity and imbalance leads to dependency, which is one of the root causes of trauma bonding. Those abused and victimized think that they still have to rely on their abusers, either for protection or affection, and thus will have trouble severing ties or bonds with those who victimized them.

The phenomenon of Stockholm syndrome is instructive here. Since that bank robbery in Sweden in 1973 and kidnapping of a granddaughter of a famous publisher by an urban guerilla group in the U.S. in 1974, the phenomenon has received wide attention, and so much has been written about it.

Simply put, Stockholm syndrome is when the victims feel affection and sympathy for their captors, usually kidnappers, during their captivity. Victims develop a bond with their captors, rationalize their actions, and eventually take the view of their captors. There were instances when the victims willingly joined their captors.

Studies that ultimately led to our understanding of traumatic bonding were an offshoot of the attention given to the Stockholm syndrome. So much so that Stockholm syndrome was usually given as an instance of trauma bonding. Their vital difference, though, lies precisely in the question of power, as well as affection.

In Stockholm syndrome, affection could be reciprocated by the captors and victimizers themselves. Not so much with trauma bonding. Here, power directly flows from the abusers to the victims. There is no reciprocity involved; it is always one-sided, the cards are always stacked against the victims.

But dependency, though, is comparable to that of the Stockholm syndrome. The victims feel that they can only rely on their victimizers for love, affection, protection. It makes them hesitant to sever ties with them. Worse, it encourages their feelings of attachment and affection, owing to their need to be loved and protected.

Trauma Bonding
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A cycle of abuse and affection

Another vital difference between Stockholm syndrome and trauma bonding is the cycle of abuse and affection shown by the abusers to their victims. The cycle itself could be that main difference, for bonding, trauma bonding that is could only be possible if there is a repetition of both instances of abuses and showing of caring and affection.

But how could the cycle create that bond that ties the victims to their victimizers? Dependency and power relations, of course, is one. The victim gets hooked up in the relationship, making them dependent on the abuser’s supposed goodwill, making them all the more dependent on the victimizer.

But we must explain the process itself. Here, the exploiter or abuser performs instances of abuse followed by instances of affection and care. Those instances of affection lull the victims into a false sense of security, thinking that the abuser has changed for the better. It will ultimately become a cycle that will eventually embroil the victim further into dependency and into the abusive relationship deeper.

And here, brain chemistry may play some part. After committing misdemeanor and then showing affection towards the victim, the victim, in turn, might be delighted, and this might trigger some responses from the brain. Experts know that the brain releases dopamine during those times of delight, happiness, and ecstasy.

The same thing may be at work in this cycle. The victims’ nervous system might be tuned to respond positively to those signals of kindness and affections after the abuse. It might trigger the brain to release dopamine, giving the victims feelings of joy and positivity, making the victims addicted and stick with the abusers.

This kind of activity brought about by brain chemistry and being genuinely independent of the subject’s free will could make it harder for the victims to severe the trauma bond tying him to the abuser. Worse, it could make the victim addicted to that kind of feeling and positivity. The victim will always look for that feeling generated by the cycle.

The dependency brought about by habit, which engenders emotional attachment, together with those feelings of joy brought about by affection or kindness from the abuser, will surely disarm the victim into making a move to sever whatever ties it has with the victimizer. The abuses and misdemeanors are being normalized and legitimized.

Maintaining the cycle and control

The cycle of abuse and affectation would be repeated throughout the relationship. With each repetition, there is a greater tendency on the victim’s part to be more hooked on the relationship. The brain chemistry and the body’s chemical reaction make the victim respond positively to affection and kindness.

Thus, the traumatic bond is strengthened, the emotional ties and attachment are cemented with each repetition. Therefore, the repetition and maintenance of the cycle truly make the trauma bond long-lasting, for it makes the victim accustomed to the abuse, normalizing it. The positive reaction and possible addiction to acts of affection is reinforced and cemented by repetition.

However, repetition would not be possible if the power relations between the abused victim and the abuser were not maintained. Therefore, the abuser keeps everything in place, keeps the victim dependent on the abuser’s good graces, and keeps the status quo, that is, the abusive relationship between them.

The abuser could maintain control and power through various means: maintaining the threat of violence and physical abuse, financial dependency of the victims, the threat of withdrawing affection and kindness, and others. Whatever the nature of the relationship, it is the idea of applying force, coupled with the withdrawal of affection or its equivalent, which will do the trick.

The asymmetrical power relations, the cycle of abuse and affection, and the maintenance of both allow for the formation of trauma bonding. Depending on the nature of each, on how strong or weak they are, or how continuous the cycle and the maintenance of power imbalance, the bonding could easily be severed or could be long lasting, damaging the individual for years.

But no matter how intense the trauma bond is, it could be severed and ultimately broken, and the individual could eventually heal. Before going to that, let us ask first the types of relationships that could be susceptible to trauma bonding.

Trauma Bonding And Personal Relationships

Whatever we do, we are always in some relationship with others, and some will even claim that power relations are inherent in any relationship. Be as it may, however, some relations are truly unequal compared to others, and some are genuinely in positions of power relative to others.

And though Stockholm syndrome is usually associated with trauma bonding, it is relatively uncommon, even if we say it is a form of that phenomenon. Kidnappings and hostage-takings are not your everyday phenomenon, and more common are relationships in families and domestic partnerships, and among them, there is so much prevalence of trauma bonding.

So aside from the usual captor-captive relationship in which the asymmetry of power is so apparent and thus more susceptible to trauma bonding, let us look at other relationships with much prevalence of trauma bonding.

Parent-child relationship

Despite the love and care, no relationship could be as dependent and unequal as that of a child to the parents. Children depend on their parents for almost everything, love and affection, food, shelter, finances. Because of this, children, especially the young, are helpless once subjected to abuse unless there is some outside intervention.

The statistics worldwide, of course, are glaring and chilling. And the nature of the relationship itself makes traumatic bonding almost automatic: abusive relationships notwithstanding, there is still so much affection because of them being relatives, offspring, or blood relations. Thus, any abuse is almost always followed by instances of love, care and affection.

The nature of the relationship could also determine the intensity of the bonding and may subsequently determine whether it could be severed easily or with so much difficulty. Children usually live with their parents, so the cycle of abuse may be longer. Children also are more vulnerable and cannot simply or easily resist or fight the abusers.

Lovers, Romantic and Domestic Partners

Another far more common victims of abuse, prone to trauma bonding, are lovers, husbands, wives, or romantic and domestic partners. Both the intimacy and intricacies of a romantic relationship make them vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, making them susceptible to an abusive relationship, and thus, to trauma bonding.

There should be equality in a romantic relationship, for it is only possible through love and affection. But most of the time, diverse personalities, coupled with harsh realities about financial capabilities and other social differences, could lead to an unequal relationship between partners.

These differences and unequal relations, not fatal in themselves, could be exacerbated if the partner has sociopathic tendencies or an antisocial personality. It could lead to an abusive relationship, which could lead to trauma bonds if the cycle is established and abusive behavior becomes a regular fixture.

Employers-employee relationship

Employers have specific power and control over their employees due to their position in the workplace. Though everyone must be professional, sometimes, others are abusive and willing to exploit their position, and they take advantage of the situation by pouncing on their employees’ vulnerability.

Employees’ vulnerability could take many forms, from financial woes to alienation. Employees enter a dependency relationship with their employers, solve their financial problems, and sometimes protect themselves from a hostile environment and other employees.

In turn, the employees are vulnerable to abuse due to their professional setup. And as the abuse alternates with perks, the dependency goes deeper, making it hard for some to go out of the relationship. With the addiction and emotional attachment eventually coming into play, the victim will most likely be sucked further into the vortex of an abusive relationship.

Trauma Bonding: How To Get Out Of It

Knowledge is the first step to be able to break free from trauma bond, the first tool in the equally complex process of going out of the abusive relationship. So what is the trauma bond release formula? Here are the various strategies to finally cut loose from that predicament: trauma bonding.

Know the signs and symptoms

You must know, of course, whether you are already in that vortex of an abusive relationship. The signs are easy to know; it is not rocket science to know what is abusive behavior is. You then have to know if you exhibit symptoms of trauma bonding with someone. Here are some of the obvious signs that you are or someone is already are into it.

Rationalization

Those who experience trauma bonding will try to rationalize the bad behavior of the abuser. They will never blame the abuser for the acts, but they will blame themselves. Victims will justify the abuser mistreating them, thinking that they may have committed or done something, the reason why the abuser has done those things to them.

And as they do it, they will try to shield the abuser from those who may criticize them. They will explain to others that it is their fault, not those of the abuser. Any attempt to reason out with the victim will be met with counterarguments and denials.

Consequently, any acts of kindness or affection by the abuser will be taken by the victim as a sign that the abuser is not bad or not guilty of anything. Those acts are proof, available for further rationalizing bad behavior against the victim. The victim will claim that instances of abuse were isolated, citing those instances of affection and love as proof of it.

Distancing

The abused victims will distance themselves from those trying to help them, whether friends, families, or persons of authority. The victim will not seek their company, purposely avoid them, and rebuff any attempts by those people to help the victim out of their predicament.

In worst cases, they will even feel hostile towards those trying to help. Victims will think that those people are instead trying to rob them of their happiness,  which they think only the abusers can give. At this point, the addiction and emotional attachment are so strong, and it would take professional intervention to sever the trauma bond.

In this situation, the victim would resist any attempt by friends and relatives or authorities to intervene. They would be passive towards those attempts, or at worst, the victims would show hostility to anyone willing to help, intervene or intercede.

Reluctance and Hesitation

The victim will be reluctant and hesitant to cut ties and sever the bond with the abuser, even though the victim realizes an abusive relationship is going on and things are getting worse. Part of the reluctance is because of emotional attachment due to the cycle of abuse, addiction due to chemical reactions in the brain, and rationalization.

After knowing those signs, we must employ some strategies to help one break free from the trauma bond.

Analyze the pattern

Look for all the signs and symptoms, then analyze if you are in an abusive relationship and on your way towards trauma bonding or already have one. List down your activities and events as much as possible, those things you think are worth noting, to know whether there is a method to the madness or if there is a cycle going on.

It could be random notes with dates, a diary perhaps, or a journal. The important thing is that you can establish some pattern and recognize some details that may give you some clue or information about how things stand with you and your abuser or potential victimizer.

Support of loved ones

Once you recognize you have the signs or see them in others, getting the support of loved ones is of utmost importance. You must either actively seek it if you have trauma bonding or give support to others who are experiencing it. Relatives and friends are always the first ones to give all the emotional help we need.

Support could be in various ways. It could be in the form of advice, giving counsel, and helping one get the help of authorities and professional help. We need to give comfort, affection, and love to the victims, and the need to provide alternative support outside of the one given by the abuser is essential.

Seek the help of authorities

Sometimes, drastic intervention is needed, more so if the abusive relationship has spun out of control. It would be best to ask authorities to intervene to separate the abuser and the abused and break the bond and the ties as quickly as possible.

Distance could be of great help, and it allows the victim to hear out others who would give the necessary, needed advice and counseling. Sometimes, only the authorities have the legitimacy to enforce certain things, law, for instance,  to protect the victims from the abusers. Ask for their help if needed.

Seek counseling and therapy

Healing could be challenging for many, especially with the intense and prolonged trauma bonding. Some developed addiction even to violence and suffering due to normalization and desensitization the victims experienced as they were abused and developed trauma bonding with the abusers.

Therefore, one may need professional help from psychologists or other medical experts to facilitate recovery and healing. To those who have suffered deep emotional trauma because of it, medications and therapies must be administered for them to recover from addiction, cut the emotional ties that bind, eventually heal and recover.

How to prevent trauma bonding in future relationships

Here are some of the tips to avoid trauma bonding with potential abusers. Treat it as a trauma bounding prevention program that will help you in your future relationships, or stop the trauma bond cycle before it gets rolling.

Know fully well the individual

Whether it be a romantic partner, boss, or superior, it is better to know that person well before engaging or being close to them. It would help to do a background check to see if those persons you are dealing with have a history of being abusive or have tendencies to become abusers.

Be always on guard

Be constantly alert about the tell-tale signs of an abusive person, no matter how much you love that person. Be always wary when things go out of hand. Never let your guard down as the person tries to show affection to you, especially after fits of abusive behavior, like physical violence or verbal abuse. It may be the start of the cycle that may eventually lead to trauma bonding.

Better still, if you can prevent instances of abuse at the onset. It will make clear to you and your potential abuser where things stand between you and that person. On the one hand, you can nip in the bud the possibility of an abusive relationship and trauma bonding. On the other hand, you can also help the other realize if he has gone overboard, allowing him to check his abusive tendencies.

Be open-minded and listen to others

Part of being constantly on guard is to have an open mind and listen to the advice of your friends, relatives, and experts, especially when things go a bit tricky for you to even make sense of it. Always think that those people are out to help you in every way possible, and in no way will they put you in harm’s way. So always consider what they are suggesting.

And if things go highly complicated, try to reach out to those people and actively seek their advice. Even the best of us can have it wrong, and it is best if we seek the help and understanding of those who have the expertise and seek those we know are more than willing to help us out of our predicament.

Form a true, lasting bond

Build intimacy and connect with people based on mutual trust, friendship, camaraderie, respect, recognition, and love. Doing so will allow you to recognize between a true bond and trauma bonds, and it will give you the perspective, the vantage point from which you can analyze things in the event relationships suddenly go blurred and tricky.

Conclusion: Why is Understanding Trauma Bonding Important?

Trauma bonding in relationships is indeed far common than most people think. It often goes under the radar, unnoticed by the abused victims, until they are genuinely hooked in an abusive relationship, making it too difficult for them to go out of that relationship. That is why we must know about it.

And trauma bonding is a serious matter, and it could negatively impact the victims long after the event. Sometimes, it could take a while, even years, for someone to eventually heal and recover. Therefore, it is significant that every one of us knows how to avoid being in an abusive relationship and knows how to prevent developing trauma bonding with potential abusers.

Understanding how it works is part of the solution, for once we understand the complex process and the factors in play, we can address each of them and apply various strategies to sever the ties that bind. Finally, we can also know how to avoid being entrapped in this kind of relationship and help others do so.

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What is Trauma Bonding?

Trauma bonding is the bond, attachment, or feelings of affection and sympathy the victims of abuse have on their exploiters, abusers, victimizers. Though the definition is straightforward, the underlying mechanisms of how it happens are a bit complex, and we must understand this complexity to fully grasp the meaning of trauma bonding. more on Diversity for Social Impact

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About the author

Naia Toke

Naia has over 15 years of experience advising Fortune 1000 employers in Diversity and Inclusion. Naia holds a Master's degree in Human Resource Management with a research focus in workplace equality.