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When you're in an abusive relationship, leaving your partner is the best course of action to take. But what happens if it feels impossible to extricate yourself from the toxic union? When you can't seem to end it or find yourself coming back time and time again?
If you've ever questioned why it's hard for people to leave painful partnerships, it's important to understand the concept of trauma bonding—which points to an abusive and distressing relationship with brief moments of positive reinforcement.
What is trauma bonding?
"Trauma bonds are the attachments we have with our abusers. It's when we have fond feelings or miss individuals who have abused us because we've developed a connection to them. One minute things are good, and then the next, they're not," psychotherapist Jourdan Travers, LCSW, tells mbg.
Trauma bonding frequently shows up in romantic relationships but also extends to dynamics with power imbalances including, but not limited to, abusive parent-child relationships, sex trafficking, military training, fraternity hazing, kidnapping, cults, and hostage situations. The situation can vary, but fundamentally, it's about dependency and having someone abusive fulfill your emotional and spiritual needs. The attachment pattern alternates between devaluation and intimacy. The person you want to console you the most is the one hurting you.
In practice, trauma bonding looks like a compulsive cycle of wanting to please your partner to avoid setting them off, followed by an incident of physical, verbal, or emotional abuse, and then a honeymoon period where all seems well. Your partner may remorsefully cry to you saying it wasn't their character and they'll never do it again, equally fueling your fear and trust in them. You want to believe it will get better, which is why you stay. Yet the pattern continues.
What trauma bonding is not.
Trauma bonding has become a bit of a trendy term, but according to psychologist Nadine Macaluso, LMFT, it's often misunderstood, minimized, and even romanticized. People sometimes think trauma bonding is simply bonding over shared traumas, she notes, or that it's simply about overcoming obstacles and hard moments together. In truth, trauma bonding is a feature of abusive relationships.
"Because we tend to think of bonding as beneficial and romantic love as transcendent, we don't understand the prevalence of trauma bonds in modern-day," she says. One in four women and one in 10 men are victims of intimate partner violence, according to CDC data.
Signs of trauma bonding.
A trauma bond can happen so subtly that it might be surprising when you realize some of your partner's hot-and-cold behavior isn't random but actually indicates an unhealthy pattern. Here are some common indicators to keep in mind:
Looking past red flags for the allure of the honeymoon phase
"A trauma bond begins with promises of love, trust, and safety. During the sweet beginnings phase, you are tricked by their mask of confidence, dominance, and charisma, which inspires you to believe you will be loved and protected," Macaluso says.
When you bond with a partner, your body releases happy chemicals like dopamine (released through attraction) and oxytocin (released through orgasm and hugging), which cements your attachment. However, in a trauma bond, it can keep you "addicted" to them and holding on to the instances they are kind to you.
"Passion and seductive pledges push intuitions aside," she explains. "Your pathological partner may lure you in using specific psychological tactics such as lying, deceit, love-bombing (showering you with excessive gifts, affection, or attention), and twinning, which is appearing interested in all of the same things as you. Then the mask slips off, and the boundaries are crossed."
You feel drained and avoid open communication
While the relationship has some happy interludes, for the most part, being with your partner doesn't make you feel alive and rejuvenated. On the contrary, you feel depleted. The toxic relationship is filled with crazy-making behavior because your reality and truth are usually reinterpreted to frame their actions as acceptable. As a result, you fear openly sharing your thoughts, so over time, you say less and share less.
It's important to remember healthy relationships not only tolerate conflict but welcome it because it's seen as an opportunity to strengthen the connection. It shows you trust each other enough to meet your needs. However, in trauma-bonded relationships, there's a lot of anxiety about maintaining the status quo. You don't want to dig deeper because fighting can be debilitating, which leads to a sense of powerlessness. So, you ignore bringing up what's really going on and hope for changed behavior. On the other side of it, you may rationalize their awful behavior as your fault and try harder to avoid upsetting them.
You don't feel like yourself and keep secrets
"Coercive control is a pattern of oppressive behavior intended to control someone and strip away their sense of self," Macaluso says.
Coercive control can include:
- Direct or indirect isolation (e.g., Your friends and family can't stand them and start to distance themselves)
- Monitoring and interrogating you
- Limiting access to finances
- Physical and emotional abuse
She points out this is all done with such covert finesse, you may not realize the hole you've dug yourself into until you're in so deep it's hard to climb back out.
To make it even more disorienting, trauma bonding is characterized by cognitive dissonance, which creates confusion. You may start to twist and view love through pain, therefore filtering your partner's abusive actions as OK and out of a place of love. Even though you try to downplay the fighting, you're still afraid of what your loved ones will think if they really knew. You may keep the true shadow side of the relationship and its problems to yourself out of shame.
Defending your partner's bad behaviors
Here are some refrains Travers says you might say to your loved ones when you're talking about your partner:
- "They behaved that way because I pushed them to it."
- "They wouldn't say those things to me if I didn't deserve it."
- "They treat me like that because they love me."
Travers says if you're immediately coming to their defense and justifying their actions toward you, even when they're clearly in the wrong, that's a key sign you're in a trauma bond. In a healthy relationship, you should both step up and take accountability when you can do better. If they blame you for their problematic actions and can't own up to their mistakes, that's a red flag.
Persistent loyalty in the face of danger
Loyalty to the abusive partner is a hallmark of trauma bonding, according to Macaluso. You may try to remember the good and dismiss the bad times to stay in the relationship.
"A trauma bond occurs when your partner intentionally harms you through a pattern of threats, intimidation, manipulation, deceit, or betrayal so they have power and control," she says. "You stay loyal to your violating partner despite feelings of fear, emotional pain, and distress."
Why trauma bonding happens.
Romanticizing "intense" relationships
According to Macaluso, trauma bonding often happens because the relationship feels intense—and that intensity can be confused for love.
"The irregular and unpredictable cycle of cruelty mixed with caring gestures are critical to forming traumatic attachments. No abusive person is mean or threatening all of the time," she explains. "The cocktail of fear and seduction ironically deepens attachment because it provides intensity that escalates attraction and arousal. When you don't understand traumatic bonding, you often mistake intensity and passion for love."
And because you don't see the trauma-bonded relationship as being abusive, the bad behaviors aren't identified in time and may be waved away at the start.
Both Travers and Macaluso add that attachment issues stemming from childhood can also contribute to the formation of trauma bonds.
"Early attachment experiences lay the foundation for our future self-esteem and how we bond with others. It's where you learn about interpersonal boundaries and what your role in relationships is. You discover your emotional needs and how to fulfill them. You [also] form beliefs about yourself and the world," Macaluso says.
She notes adults with an insecure attachment pattern are more likely to enter into trauma bonds, while the perpetrator often has fearful-avoidant attachment. "Individuals who experienced childhood abuse or absent parents are more susceptible to developing trauma bonds to intimate partners because we unconsciously gravitate to partners and relationships that feel familiar," Travers adds.
It makes a lot of sense—if you were around a lot of difficult relationships growing up, you can unconsciously attract partners who repeat the same pain you experienced growing up. Even though it's difficult, choosing a dysfunctional version of love is all you know. It can feel like you're "coming home" to it even if it generates a lot of negativity and angst for you.
Another component that affects trauma bonds can also be personality. In her work, Macaluso observed individuals, particularly women, who scored high in traits like agreeableness and conscientiousness can be prey to harmful and abusive partners.
"These prosocial personality traits [can] make them a magnet for the extremes of pathological partners who lack these traits," she explains. "So, even if you heal your codependent issues, these innate personality traits do not disappear. Hence, you need to understand your vulnerability for entering a trauma bond."
How to heal.
If you haven't ended the relationship yet, that's the first place to start. Here's mbg's full guide to leaving an abusive relationship. You can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-7233 or TTY 1-800-787-3224) and confidently speak with a trained advocate who can help you think through your options and make a plan.
"Healing from an abusive or traumatic relationship doesn't happen overnight. Individuals involved in those relationships need both support and resources; working with a trauma-informed therapist and joining a support group is a great place to start," Travers suggests.
Go no-contact with your ex so you can focus on yourself completely. Since trauma bonding works within isolation, move to the other side of the spectrum by intentionally connecting with others. Repressing your emotions and pushing away what happened will keep you from processing the relationship, which will keep you spiritually frozen. By sharing openly, it decreases feelings of loneliness as you cultivate restorative relationship practices.
During your recovery from a trauma bond, developing your relationship with yourself will be essential as you find safety again. "My advice to any and every person: Find out your attachment pattern, understand the basics of your early life relational trauma, and find out what your Big Five personality traits are," Macaluso says. "The more you know, the more power you have. And the more power you have, the less likely you are to choose someone who will take it away from you."
Keeping a journal to privately record your thoughts and figure out patterns may be eye-opening as you return to yourself. Working on your self-worth will help you recognize the difference between unhealthy and healthy attachments down the line. It also works hand in hand with boundary development and higher self-esteem.
Not only are you emotionally attending to yourself, but you're also processing it somatically, which can be heavy. Toxic relationships are emotionally arresting, and unprocessed trauma can convert into stuck energy, which can overwhelm the systems in your body and overall cognition. It can also lead to increased blood pressure, tense muscles, sending your sympathetic nervous system into overdrive. Leaning on movement, mindfulness, and self-care will be vital.
The bottom line.
Take a moment to congratulate yourself for beginning to end the cycle. It's a big step to make. As you know firsthand, it's not easy to "just leave" an abusive partnership. Walking away from toxicity demonstrates incredible strength to choose yourself and your well-being first. Be gentle and tender with yourself as you recover from trauma bonding.
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Julie Nguyen is a writer, certified relationship coach, Enneagram educator, and former matchmaker based in Brooklyn, New York. She has a degree in Communication and Public Relations from Purdue University. She previously worked as a matchmaker at LastFirst Matchmaking and the Modern Love Club, and she is currently training with the Family Constellations and Somatic Healing Institute in trauma-informed facilitation.