Is it a Trauma Bond? Recognising the Signs.



Psychological theories begin as complex, research-based concepts developed by experts, aimed at understanding human behaviour and mental processes. Some theories enter everyday language, where they are frequently simplified, misinterpreted, or altered to fit colloquial use, sometimes losing their nuanced meanings in the process. This transformation highlights the dynamic nature of psychological concepts, as they move from specialised contexts into broader public understanding, sometimes creating gaps between professional intent and popular interpretation.





The origins of Trauma Bonding


Trauma bond or trauma bonding is one such term. In 1981, Don Dutton and Susan Lee Painter published a paper in Victimology with the title Traumatic Bonding: The Development of Emotional Attachments in Battered Women and Other Relationships of Intermittent Abuse. The paper proposed a theoretical framework of traumatic bonding.


The paper highlights the behaviour of ‘battered women’ but makes clear that trauma bonds develop across various scenarios, including hostages developing affection for captors, abused children showing loyalty to abusive parents, and cult members remaining loyal to harmful leaders. In 1997, Patrick Carnes recoined the term with the publication of his book The Betrayal Bond to consider the betrayal associated with trauma bonding.




What is a Traumatic Bonding?


Trauma bonding is a psychological phenomenon where strong emotional attachments form between an abused person and their abuser. Key features of trauma bonding include a significant power imbalance, where the victim feels dominated by the abuser, and the abuse is intermittent. This power imbalance leads to a cycle of dependency and lowered self-esteem, strengthening the victim’s emotional attachment to the abuser. Periods of abuse split apart with kindness – intermittent reinforcement – create a confusing and intense emotional dynamic, leading to strong emotional bonds.


Traditional explanations for why battered individuals return to abusive relationships often fall short, as they either focus on the initial choice of the relationship or depict the victim as lacking motivation to change their situation. However, professionals recognise that individuals experience intense emotional states post-traumatically, which influence their decisions to stay or leave. Empirical support for trauma bonding comes from both human and animal studies, showing that severe arousal, especially when intermittently applied, strengthens emotional attachments. Psychological mechanisms like “identification with the aggressor” explain how victims adopt the abuser’s perspective, internalising aggression, and dependency. Interviews with battered individuals reveal a cyclical pattern of tension, battering, and reconciliation, making them vulnerable and dependent on their abusers.


A Trauma Bond Is Not


There is a trend to use the term trauma bonding to mean bonding over trauma. This refers to connections formed between individuals with a history of similar traumatic events. In these relationships, there is a shared understanding and empathy that arises from the mutual experiences of trauma, leading to a strong emotional connection.


Bonding over trauma creates several psychological and emotional dynamics, resulting in both positive and negative consequences. Shared trauma fosters deep empathy and understanding, creating a comforting and validating connection. This bond can lead to the formation of a supportive network, offering emotional support, practical advice, and companionship that aid healing. It helps normalise the experiences, generating feelings of togetherness and normality. Seeing others survive similar ordeals can inspire resilience. However, the negative aspects include the risk of re-traumatisation through constant discussion of traumatic events, leading to a reliving of pain.


Bonding through trauma can also lead to co-dependent relationships, where you feel overly dependent on each other, hindering independence. Additionally, these bonds might reinforce negative behaviours or unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as substance abuse, and make it challenging for you to move on from your past.




Trauma Bonding, Co-dependency, and Transference


Complex trauma during childhood often leads to a bond that persists into adulthood. This bond is typically formed with a narcissistic parent, or a caregiver struggling with addiction to drugs or alcohol. Growing up in a traumatic environment where you feel constantly threatened and controlled by another, such as a parent, can lead to the development of survival mechanisms and coping strategies.


The partner of a narcissist or addict is (according to historical theory) a co-dependent. They lack a sense of self and enable abusive behaviour in others. Complex trauma can lead to co-dependent personality traits and a magnetic pull towards narcissistic / addicted people. Additionally, the original trauma bond can significantly impact future relationships through transference.


Transference involves the unconscious redirection of past feelings and attitudes, both positive and negative, onto current individuals in your life. While transference can serve as a therapeutic tool to explore and process past experiences, it can complicate interpersonal relationships. Even in non-abusive relationships, you may unconsciously expect patterns of abuse and reward, mirroring behaviours seen in trauma bonds. This can lead to confusion and misunderstanding for partners or friends who do not harbour ill intentions, as you meet them with responses that do not align with their actions.


Signs of Trauma Bonding


Some signs to look out for if you think you may have a trauma bond.


Constant Thinking About Your Abuser: One of the key signs of trauma bonding is your preoccupation with your abuser. You may spend a lot of time thinking about your abuser, even when you are not together.

Rationalising your Abuser’s Behaviour: You often make excuses for your abuser’s actions, minimising the abuse or convincing yourself they didn’t mean to cause harm.

Feeling Responsible for your Abuser’s Actions: A common sign of trauma bonding is feeling responsible for your abuser’s behaviour. You may believe you can stop the abuse by changing your behaviour.

Fear of Abandonment: The fear of being abandoned by your abuser can feel overwhelming. You may stay in the relationship because you fear being alone more than you fear the abuse.

Defending your Abuser to Others: When friends or family express concern, you may defend your abuser and downplay the severity of the abuse.

Difficulty Leaving the Relationship: Despite the harm, you find it incredibly difficult to leave the relationship. You may leave and return multiple times, struggling to break the bond.

Isolation: Abusers often isolate their victims from friends and family, making it harder for you to seek help or support. This isolation strengthens the trauma bond.




Strategies to Break Free from Trauma Bonding


If you need to break free from a trauma bond, there are some things you can do.


Acknowledge the Reality: The first step in breaking free from trauma bonding is acknowledging the reality of the situation. This means recognising the abuse and understanding it is not your fault.

Seek Professional Help: Therapy is beneficial when dealing with trauma bonding. A therapist can help you understand the relationship and create strategies to break the bond.

Build a Support Network: Reconnect with friends and family who can offer support and encouragement. Having a strong support network can make it easier to leave the relationship and stay away.

Educate Yourself: Learning about trauma bonding and abusive relationships can help you understand your experiences and empower you to make informed decisions. There are many resources available, including books, articles, and support groups.

Set Boundaries: Establishing and maintaining boundaries is crucial. Limiting or cutting off contact with your abuser can be challenging, but may be necessary for healing.

Practice Self-Care: Your physical and emotional well-being is a priority. Engage in activities that make you feel good, whether it’s exercise, hobbies, or spending time with loved ones.

Develop a Safety Plan: If you’re planning to leave the relationship, create a safety plan. This should include finding a safe place to stay, having access to money, and knowing who to call for help.

Use Affirmations: Positive affirmations can help rewire your thinking and boost your self-esteem. Remind yourself daily that you deserve love and respect, and that it’s okay to prioritise your well-being.


Moving on from A Trauma Bond


Trauma bonding is a complex and painful experience, but it is possible to break free and heal. Recognising the signs and implementing strategies to overcome the trauma bond can lead to a healthier, happier life. Remember, you are not alone, and there is support available to help you navigate this journey. If you or someone you know is experiencing trauma bonding, ask for help and take the first step towards reclaiming your life.

Dutton, Donald & Painter, S.L.. (1981). Traumatic bonding: The development of emotional attachments in battered women and other relationships of intermittent abuse. Victimology. 6. 139-155.


By combining the techniques I have learned over the years with my intuition and the potential of my clients, I have successfully helped many people move away from their problems and live the life they deserve. I work in a humanistic way, using hypnosis, mindfulness, transpersonal psychology, and psychotherapy to help you. Regardless of the modality, I believe therapy is a two-way process. The relationship between you and I is most important. I consider us equal and connected. In therapy, we share the experience. Alongside my analytical stance to the sessions, there is empathy and insight. You can read more about the different modalities I combine in my therapy sessions here.