What is trauma bonding? Here’s what it looks like in relationships

Warning: This article discusses relationship abuse, both physical and emotional.

There’s a common belief that love and relationships should be unconditional and all about compromise—but in reality, love should be conditional. Boundaries are important to maintain healthy relationships, and there are many things you should never have to compromise, such as your consent, safety, physical and emotional well-being, and mental health.

In a healthy relationship, these boundaries should be clear and defined. But in the context of an emotionally or physically abusive relationship, they are repeatedly blurred, compromised, and violated. When an idea of love gets entangled in a cycle of violence, it can form what’s called a traumatic bond, also called a trauma bond. In a 2018 study on intimate partner violence, traumatic bonding is defined as “the compelling emotional attachment forming despite abuse, and because of, power imbalance.”

Understanding the way this bond works can help explain why people stay in violent or abusive relationships. The common but harmful question, “Why don’t you just leave?” doesn’t account for the complexity of a trauma bond and the mental reprogramming it requires to break one. According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline as reported by CNN, it takes a woman in an abusive relationship approximately seven times to leave for good.

We talked with trauma expert and therapist Karen Landmann to help understand what trauma bonding is, what it looks like in relationships, and learn the steps you can take if you or a loved one are stuck in a trauma bond.

What is trauma bonding?

Landmann explains trauma bonding as a vicious cycle that a victim is trapped in by way of manipulation.

"Everything about a trauma bond is about [power, control, and manipulation.] Everything. And how the abuser's get control [is by being highly manipulative]," she says.

Even though the red flags and toxic nature of abusive relationships may seem clear to someone on the outside, the trauma bond that forms in these kinds of courtships distort the victim’s understanding of what is normal or healthy, making them question if they’re at fault.

Though it’s been said before, it forever bears repeating that victims of emotional, physical, or sexual abuse are never to blame for their suffering.

Landmann explains that those with a history of trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (PSTD)—especially from witnessing or suffering childhood abuse—can be more vulnerable to entering a trauma bond because abusive behavior has been more normalized in their lives. However, trauma bonding can happen to anyone.

"Anyone can get into a traumatic bond," Landmann says. "It doesn't discriminate in terms of gender, age, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, race, ethnicity, culture, and so forth. It can be anybody."

Landmann also compares the attachment of a trauma bond to Stockholm syndrome, and explains that a trauma bond can form without the presence of physical violence. More central to the trauma bond than the violence is the use of power, control, and manipulation that keeps someone trapped in an abusive relationship.

Is trauma bonding about connecting over a shared trauma?

Trauma bonding doesn’t simply translate to the bonding over a shared trauma. For instance, Landmann uses an example of people who have experienced a natural disaster together, and even though an experience like that could definitely cause strain on a relationship and potentially form a bond from a shared experience, it doesn’t involve the same traits of a power-control trauma bond. “It’s a traumatic event and they’re bonding, but they’re bonding in a healthy way because they’re supporting each other and they’re both equal,” Landmann says. “That’s the main deal. They’re both equal and there’s no power control and no cycle of violence.”

What does trauma bonding look like in a relationship?

If you’ve seen Big Little Lies, then you’ve seen the complex nature of a trauma bond play out on screen. From the outside, Celeste and Perry have a loving, picture-perfect relationship, but on the inside, it’s filled with violence and emotional and physical abuse. Celeste loves and is bonded to Perry despite the abuse she endures. As viewers, we see that it’s incredibly difficult for Celeste to leave the relationship because of the strength of this bond. In one episode, she vocalizes the reason it’s so hard to leave saying, “We are bound by everything we’ve been through, and breaking away from him is like tearing flesh.”

While the above is a great example for television, Landmann provided an example to help contextualize what trauma bonding can look like in real-life relationships, too. In her case study, the survivor of the abusive relationship was a 43-year-old woman who had a history of childhood sexual abuse. Landmann describes the first stage of the relationship as a “honeymoon,” where, at first, the abuser was “Mr. Perfect, Mr. Right, the Man of Her Dreams.” Landmann detailed a specific moment, about a month or two into this relationship, when she says the trauma bond was created.

The couple was riding the subway in New York and the woman was eating a lollipop, “and then when they got off the train at their station he began screaming at her, saying she was eating a lollipop in a sexual fashion…and she didn’t know what that meant, but because she’d been abused sexually in childhood, she felt a great amount of shame, or like a childhood shame came up,” Landmann says. The man continued yelling at her in public, but instead of attempting to get away from him, the woman “let him come home with her and subdued him and tried to get him to calm down.”

Landmann makes an important note about the woman’s actions in this case: “She did it not because she was weak but she was in a vulnerable state and it was hard for her to recognize what was inappropriate and what was not,” she says.

After the first incident that Landmann says formed the bond, the abuse escalated to violent, physical abuse that went on for years. “The bond is more difficult to break as time progresses and the abuse escalates,” Landmann says. “So the longer someone is in a violent relationship, the deeper the bond and the harder it is to escape the bond.” After enduring near-fatal acts of violence, the woman managed to get her abuser arrested, but after he apologized profusely (which Landmann says is textbook abuser behavior following violence), she bailed him out twice.

Eventually, after ten years, the woman was able to free herself from the relationship. Landmann reports that she’s now celebrating a year of being free from her abuser, but her route to recovery will be a long one.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline gives this advice for survivors recovering from an abusive relationship: “Don’t put a time limit on getting past your pain. It’s ok to grieve. Even though it was an abusive relationship, it’s still a loss. You are allowed to feel what you feel at your pace.” With that being said, here are some ways you can help yourself or a loved one who may be involved in a trauma-bond relationship.

5 ways to help a loved one who’s stuck in a trauma bond:

1Don’t pressure them to leave.

Pressuring your loved one to leave their partnership is like putting oil on top of a stove fire—it’s not going to fix the issue. Instead, it’s important to listen to their concerns and offer input when they request it. While you may want to jump in and save them from this abusive relationship, shaming them for not doing what you want them to do could make things worse when they’re already experiencing shame and being controlled in their current relationship.

"It's important [survivors] don't allow themselves to feel pressured to leave before they're ready, because that's not going to work, because they'll go back—and when they go back, it's more dangerous," Landmann says.

2Allow and encourage your loved one to express their feelings.

Unhealthy and abusive relationships can be incredibly isolating. Being a supportive listener and creating a safe space for your loved one to express their feelings helps them build trust in relationships outside of their trauma bond.

3Establish an emergency word.

Establishing an emergency word gives the person in an abusive relationship a way to indicate that they need immediate help or want someone to call the police without alerting their abuser. Landmann recommends a word or combination of words that the person isn’t likely to use in everyday speech, like “chimpanzee,” or “blue elephant.”

4Develop a safety plan.

According to the The National Domestic Violence Hotline—which happens to provide in-depth resources for developing safety in various situations—a safety plan addresses ways for someone to remain safe for when they’re in a relationship, planning to leave, and after they’ve already left. The plans themselves “involve how to cope with emotions, tell friends and family about the abuse, take legal action and more.”

5Take care of yourself.

"Recognizing and[addressing needs], nurturing yourself emotionally, eating well, exercising, and engaging in enjoyable activities are very powerful and necessary, and they combat abuse," Landmann says.

It’s just as important here that the people supporting the person in an abusive relationship take care of themselves as well, because looking after and worrying about someone you care about can be incredibly draining and long-lasting.

"[This is] going to be [a] long [process]," Landmann says. "They have to think [this is going to take] years—maybe, [but] hopefully not—and they're going to have to be able to withstand hearing about this violence for years, and decide if they can handle that. That's why the self care is so important."

What to do if you think you might be in a trauma bond or an abusive relationship

If you’ve made it here, Landmann says the first thing to do is to pat yourself on the back “for having insight and questioning, because that’s very hard to do and much easier to ignore.” Next, it’s important to reach out for help—but friends and family may not always be the best resources.

"Talking to friends and family can be either helpful or harmful because they may or may not understand the complication of traumatic bonding," Landmann says. "...If they understand, it's great support, but it can be mixed. If they don't understand and pressure [you] to leave, it will [most likely] be negative."

But be aware that you can apply the same tips above to you and your situation. Just know that you’re not alone. While it’s a great step to acknowledge that you may be in a trauma-bond relationship, it doesn’t mean you have to endure these issues by yourself. Connect with one of the below hotlines if you want outsider help or connect with a mental health professional if it works for your lifestyle.

These hotlines and resources can help offer thoughtful support and guidance: