4 facts about trauma-bonding in abusive relationships

Trauma-bonding offers a compelling insight into why people struggle to escape abusive relationships. Here are four facts about what it is and why it works – and how to break the destructive bond.

1) Trauma-bonding is a real thing

Emerging research is shedding new light onto traumatic-bonding, and its role in abusive relationships. Also known as the ‘betrayal bond’, researchers have found it occurs in a variety of traumatic situations:

“the general phenomenon of victims developing emotional attachments to their abusers or captors has been observed in situations of intimate partner violence, child abuse, hostage situations, human trafficking, and cults.” (Reid, Haskell, Dillahunt-Aspillaga, Thor, 2013)

Typically likened to Stockholm Syndrome – named after a high-profile incident in which hostages sided with their captors rather than those that tried to rescue them – traumatic-bonding is an intense attachment to someone to upon whom we feel our survival depends. This could include our physical safety, emotional welfare, financial circumstances, relationship with the children or any other factor which believe is directly reliant upon the whims of our abusive partner.

Typically, the more extreme the abuse, the stronger the trauma-bond becomes. This offers an explanation as to why individuals may for many years stay in violent relationships without feeling able to break free.

2) Abusive partners deliberately cultivate trauma-bonding

Whether or not an abusive partner is aware of the term, most instinctively cultivate trauma-bonding because it gives them an advantage in:

  • Establishing and maintaining control over their partner
  • Eroding their partner’s self-esteem, confidence in their judgement, and ability to act independently
  • Compelling their partner to stay in an abusive relationship or to return if they have left.

They do this, according to Dutton and Painter (1981), by ensuring that there is a strong imbalance of power in the relationship, and with a pattern of abuse that includes rewards for ‘good behavior’ or times where abuse is lessened/ not present.

© Avalanche of the Soul 2013-14

© Avalanche of the Soul 2013-14

3) The trauma-bond maintains the abusive status quo

Many of us that have experienced domestic abuse will recognise this situation as familiar: a dominant, controlling partner is seen as all-powerful, with often unpredictable mood-swings – so we never know whether Dr Jekyll or Mr Hyde is walking through the door. We feel relief when they are nice to us, but are permanently wired waiting for the abuse to flare up again, as it inevitably does.

And, when we are abused again, we experience this as validation that yes, our partner does have God-like control over our emotional or physical wellbeing. As a result, we come to believe what our abusive partner wants us to believe, which is that we have no autonomy beyond that which they grant us, are dependent upon them, and literally could not survive without them – despite the pain and suffering we endure.

Photo by familymwr

Photo by familymwr

We may find ourselves covering up for our partner, or defending them when someone else challenges their abuse. We may – and often do – resist well-meaning attempts to ‘rescue’ us from the situation. It’s another reason that it is vital for concerned friends and family to learn as much as possible about domestic abuse/violence, and persist in reaching out to offer support.

4) The trauma-bond is breakable

Like a drug, the trauma-bond is addictive. Counter-intuitive as it may sound, we often become dependent on our abuser as the sole source of relief from abuse. We invest time and energy in strategies to mitigate or cope with the abuse, waiting for the ‘high’ when it temporarily ceases. These survival strategies are essential, but they change our thinking so that we become accustomed to the abuse (even whilst it terrifies and appalls us). Abuse becomes what we know, it becomes what we understand. This makes us resistant and afraid to be without our abusive partner.

Love is joy

Original photo by Doll Joints

When we do summon up the strength to leave, the trauma-bond manifests itself as an intense longing for our abusive ex. Sometimes we return to them because we genuinely feel we love them, we need them, and we miss them (I did, many times).

However, this is an illusion. It is the trauma-bond speaking to us. Those that have lived with domestic abuse are often more resilient, strong, resourceful and intelligent than their abuser allows them to believe. We are certainly stronger than our abuser: just look at everything we have done just to survive!

Learn more about traumatic-bonding. Make a safe exit plan and put it into action. Ignore the insistent pull back to your abuser. It hurts to resist, but the trauma-bond is not a permanent noose around your neck. Research shows that it reduces over time. And it really does.

What do you think? What has been your experience? How did you escape a traumatic bond, and what advice would you offer to others struggling to get free?

© Avalanche of the Soul, 2013-14

39 responses to “4 facts about trauma-bonding in abusive relationships

  1. It’s a sick bond, between the abuser & abused. You described it so perfectly!

    It wasn’t until CPS was involved that I was able to successfully leave my abusive relationship. Nothing came of it, but this time when I left he didn’t pursue me. Having no contact with him gave me time to come out of the “fog” and become strong. Something I wasn’t able to do the first two times I left. The keys were 1) no contact and 2) seeing a counselor who specialized in domestic abuse and 3) finding blogs (like this) dealing with domestic abuse and breaking free from narcissists. Thank you for caring enough to reach out to others thru your blog. You DO make a difference. 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you for your encouraging words, and also for taking time to share your experience and insights. I can’t recommend No Contact enough – it is going ‘cold turkey’ but it literally saves lives by allowing space for the fog to lift, as you describe.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I know trauma bonding is real. I think when a victim/survivor wakes to the pattern, they are ready for change. I kept a log. Ironically, I kept the log so I could try to find a way to predict violent outbursts, I wanted to see if there was a pattern so that I could avoid it. When I looked at the log, over the course of six months, I finally realized I was in trouble. When you are living in between emergencies, you don’t really see it. You are surviving, only. Keep a log. I kept mine in code, at first, so it would not be discovered.
    When you leave, it really helps to resist the pull if you look at yourself from a third party view. When you think of your life in the context of it being your best friend’s life, you wouldn’t wish it on her, you would support her in no contact.
    Also, I kept in my pocket a list of his acts that were criminal, because I did not want my children to be raised in a home where illegal activities were taking place. Some women keep a list of each injury, each affair, etc.
    Lastly, if I can do it, so can you. That we are able to navigate the chaos and survive the violence is proof we are strong.

    Liked by 2 people

    • This is great advice, particularly as keeping a log serves as evidence (should it be needed for criminal or family court) as well as enabling us to see objectively, there on paper, the abuse that is being carried out. So glad to hear that this worked for you, and you are finally free from that destructive situation 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Great Post. Thank you for what you do. Trauma Bonding is the only explaination for why i stayed in a 22 year abusive marriage. Thankfully he wanted out. I was discarded. While i was in the discard phase i found out he had a secret life throughout our 22 year marriage. He is gay and living a double life. He tried to keep our relationship open to the possibilty of getting back together, if his new life did not work out. When i confronted him about information regarding his homosexuality he broke all contact with me. I am grateful he broke contact. I could not see things clearly while in the marriage, after being away from him the fog started to lift. I began to see every thing with clear eyes. It is so hard to break free from an abusive relationship. No Contact is absolutely the best way to go. This is hard when you have children, in this case limited contact that only relates to the children. Keeping your boundries is so important.

    Liked by 2 people

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  5. This is it, indeed. Especially how addictive it is. I have described it as like being addicted to a drug as well. It’s like I need people to restrain me and physically prevent me from returning. I need rehab to shake it off. I know it’s bad for me, for my health and well-being, but I keep returning, hoping that the high will remain.


    • Hi there

      Thank you for taking the time to share your experience here. It IS so addictive, when I left I found myself thinking, ‘This is what going cold turkey must feel like’. But hard as it is, it is possible to break the bond. Please don’t give up.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve experienced both (i became addicted to a substance while in the throws of my abusive situation as a means to cope with the destruction of my soul, which i didnt understand at the time was being perpetrated on me intentionally) and I literally did take myself to get help after years – and so ive experienced both kinds of withdrawals. from a substance leaving your body you feel like you are dying; from the person being stripped away, the sensation(s) is even worse. i remember many times saying how it was harder to go through withdrawals from him than it was to detox off a real substance. but what is real? emotional addiction is just as real. i am almost two years out now and what ive learned has compelled me to start work to help other women. someone told me once: your addiction is a living, breathing thing – that’s the hardest kind there is!! so true. keep fighting. for yourself! being on the other side is SO much better there aren’t even words to describe it. love and light,


  6. I am in a 22 year relationship I have left 6 times. This time I want to leave for good. At least now thanks to your post I know why I feel the urgent need to keep coming back. I hope to leave in about 4 months when my son finishes his A-levels so I have no more excuses to keep putting it off.


  7. Time does help…but the pull is still there…always – especially if we try to replace our abuser with someone just like them.
    Men hurt, too. Probably not a statement that needs to be made, but one I keep making. Maybe trying to convince myself that my pain is valid…

    Liked by 1 person

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  9. Thanks to everyone who has been so honest. I left an abusive relationship for the 3rd time a couple of months ago. I couldn’t understand why I kept going back, and why I find myself obsessing about someone who hurt me until I found this blog. I thought I was patethic and weak, but now I know about traumatic bonding I feel less weak and can talk myself out of contacting him. Love and strength to all, please remain safe and away from those who we trusted but violated our love and trust in them.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Glimmer. I’m so glad this blog has helped you. Experiencing domestic abuse makes us feel incredibly isolated, because although it’s an issue affecting a staggering number of people, as a society we’re conditioned not to talk about it. Feelings of shame, self-blame and powerlessness are common (and also misplaced). A huge ‘Well done!’ to you on getting out. You’re strong enough to stay out, too 🙂


  10. I’m so glad I’ve read this. After 5 year of repeated cheating, walking on eggshells, rejection, put downs and finally an assault I’ve have made it to 3 weeks without my ex. This last week he has thrown an avalanche at me from begging and pleading that he’ll change , to hatred and evilness to suicide and back to pleading. I’ve felt like I was going insane and literally have climbed the walls because I’m so desperate to comfort him and revert to where I feel safe. I know he’ll never change, I know if I take him back it’ll be the same treatment over and over again and I’ve stopped myself from caving, just. Now atleast I know I’m not going insane. It’s real and I have to get through it as best as I can.

    Liked by 1 person

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  12. I am so glad to have a name for it. My ex would actually use the term Stokholm Syndrome as a joke. Since the last breakup….fourth and final, I thought that fit. It also makes me think he knew what he was doing on some conscious level. I feel so stupid for still having feelings, still wanting desperately to fix him so we could “have a real shot”. My days vasilate between knowing it’s for the best that he isn’t in my life and feeling as though I have lost the love of my life and that I won’t ever find it again. Moving on is proving to be very difficult but maybe this will help. Thank you


  13. Despite everything i read about trauma bonding i still cant release myself. I keep wanting her back. We had a dream of the old rocking chair and cannot get it out if my head. My wife was verbally abusive towards me and our 7 year old boy. I in turn was verbally abusive too. Its like she has 2 sides to her. She can be the nicest most loving person but then can change in the hour. Moods swings of epic proportions. She is on anti depressants as am i. Please help


    • Hi Ian, So sorry to hear that this is happening for you. I left a DV relationship 3 years ago and have taken leaps and bounds in my own personal growth since. Having experienced depression and anti-depressants, i know what that is like – i found natural methods in probiotics and healing the gut. Explore this further as it’s vital to health and resolving depression. Let me know if you need further help or advice about probiotics. All the best


  14. No mention of sexism here though? Both my violent ex partners were sexist and the attacks invariably were to enforce male dominance/sexism in the home. Without discovering feminism I couldn’t have seen the pattern that male family terrorism contains. None of the domestic violence support networks talk about male hate crime against women and children or their view of women and children as their possessions, not people. Without this understanding it becomes very difficult to see the red flags and respect them as opposed to taking the viewpoint of the rest of society that it is somehow something you’re doing wrong that makes this calm man behave like this only towards you and no one else.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Trauma Bonding…

    I told my story on another site and though i’ve had numerous people suggest i read numerous books on abuse and controlling men (i read ALL of them!), i’d never heard the term “trauma bond” before this week.

    Potential trigger alert here. I am putting this into words because the more i say this stuff ‘out loud’, the more i feel it’s going to help me face reality. It’s also all very new and my thoughts are racing and, i think, changing for the better.

    My story from my perspective:
    For the last 5 years, on average about twice a month, I’ve dealt with violent incidents that made contact (i evaded numerous more, or he just pounded his fists on my door frame but it didn’t go further). Usually just a small bruise or two. However there is no lock on the bathroom door and I have no lock on my office door after several replacements, and the panels are almost broken through due to him trying to get at me.

    I left him twice for a day, and two more times for 4 – 7 days and went back. I had safety plans and an ’emergency’ suitcase that I could just grab if necessary. Months ago I was secretly packing boxes of my stuff so I could make a quick exit.

    I have had to cut a ring off my own finger because he smashed my hand repeatedly on the ground and my finger got swollen. Black eye after he smashed my computer, dragged me to the ground and kicked me in the face. One time he sat on me, pinning me to the ground, telling me to shut up. I would not and just kept saying “no”. Every time he would hit me in the side of the head. He thew a glass that smashed on the floor and then tried to pull me off the couch so i’d understand what “real” sexism was… He considers himself a feminist – I’m just an entitled princess.

    But through all of this, i think, in earnest:
    My poor guy. He has problems. He’s depressed. He has mental health issues. He’s been through so much. If i can just figure out what he needs. If I can just read 800 books to figure out how to support him. I’ll go to counselling to sort myself out so I can be the best me i can and then maybe things will be better. And if I’m the best me and things still aren’t working then i can go, knowing i did all i can.
    But he’s not *that* bad.
    But i’m not actually scared of him.
    But he’s never held a weapon to me or threatened my life.

    10 days ago, i called 911 because he was threatening to kill himself (again). When i called, he hit me in the head with a glass which broke. I only got a few small cuts on the side of my head and a few on the crook of my neck. But the head ones bled like crazy (of course). When the ambulance and police came, they saw my face full of blood. They insisted that they were only worried about his safety (again, because he’d threatened to kill himself) and that he’d go through the ‘Mental Health’ courts, but when they found him, they arrested him. I thought it was just going to be some kind of small ‘domestic’ charge (if any), but they charged him with three different charges of assault. Now he has a restraining order until… not sure when.

    As he’s not allowed to have any contact i moved out. It’s his house and i have more places i can stay.

    His (first?) court date is in about a month and a half. I was told i can speak to the crown if i want the bail terms changed. (OF COURSE I DO!!!)

    I have ping ponged on every angle, every emotion, every possible way to make this awfulness end – for him… and then me.

    At very, very first I told everyone “I don’t think our relationship is strong enough to survive no contact for upwards of 2 months.” Then almost immediately, as i was packing my stuff, i was strategizing what i was and not going to bring, because i was only going to be gone until the end of next month. I was in physical pain thinking of him being in jail by himself. I am still a bit now as i write this. Then I decided not to make it quite as ‘easy’ for myself to return and i took more than i thought i needed. Then i thought i’d stay where i am and we’d date for a bit since now he has to get help and i’ll be working on me… We’ll keep it light.

    Today I think it’s best for both of us that I don’t lift the restraining order right at the end of next month. But even writing this, my stomach is churning. Again, my thought is still about how to make it the best possible reality that he and i can be together as opposed to how to get away permanently. But it’s a step in the right direction, regardless. Assuming i can follow through when it comes down to it.

    It really hasn’t been that long and i already feel myself getting stronger, but in my mind, we’re still eventually going to be together. It’s all i want. After secretly planning to leave. After being so unhappy and knowing this is unhealthy and not reasonable. After self medicating and stopping doing (or just not inspired to do) the things i love… If the separation wasn’t court mandated, I KNOW I’d be right back there.

    I am cognizant of what my brain and heart are doing, and know the statistics are ABYSMAL regarding partners who change their ways permanently, but i can’t help but think: What if he’s one of the dedicated few? What if he manages to beat the odds? How can i give up on him now that he’s getting real help?

    Trauma bond, or what?!


  16. So how do you stop a trauma bond? It has been almost 6 months and I still feel I miss him and need him. What is wrong with me? Everything I read says time heals, but 6 months and I still feel like this? I have no contact with him, apart from when he tries through his mother. When will it end? It is unbearable at times. All I can do is lay and cry until it passes.


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