Toxic relationships: What is trauma bonding and how to break free

"Why don't you just leave?" When it comes to abusive and toxic relationships, this is a question that victims and survivors dread. While it might seem a simple question, it is one laden with shame and blame and one that does not understand the powerful forces of trauma bonding at work within abusive relationships. 


What is a trauma bond?

Staying in an abusive or toxic relationship is not a sign of weakness or complicity, but is the result of powerful psychological forces at work, often described using the term 'trauma bonding'.

Understanding trauma bonding goes some way in helping us understand the complexity of this experience. It describes the incredibly strong emotional connection that forms between victim and abuser and opens the door to exploring the cycle of abuse that keeps victims stuck. It helps explain why leaving an abusive relationship can be incredibly challenging.

Those experiencing trauma bonding may feel a confusing range of emotions, especially shame and self-blame. Many feel unable to reach out for support, or may even feel like they are 'going mad'. But, recognising the signs of trauma bonding can help those experiencing it understand what is happening and why. This is the first step towards healing.

Healing from a trauma bond is possible. With the right support, survivors can break free from the cycle of abuse and regain themselves, away from abuse.

What does trauma bonding look like?

Trauma bonding can be understood as a cycle of punishment and reward that creates a strong attachment between abuser and victim. The 'punishment' might involve physical and emotional abuse while the 'reward' phase might involve apologies, declarations of love, promises and affection.

This push and pull is extremely powerful. It can feel like emotional quicksand, where the more the victim tries to escape the situation or please the abuser, the deeper they sink into the relationship. Just like quicksand, the relationship feels like a consuming trap, and efforts to break free often feel like they only make things worse.

In the recent TV series, Big Little Lies, we can see this quicksand at work. The character of Celeste, played by Nicole Kidman is in a marriage that is physically, sexually and emotionally abusive. The abuser, her husband, uses different tactics to keep her trapped in a cycle of reward and punishment. It provides a powerful example of how abuse and affection become intertwined, creating a bond that makes it difficult for her to leave.

The 7 stages of trauma bonding

Trauma bonding involves a complex system of push and pull, reward and punishment, affection and abuse. Experts have identified seven facets of trauma bonding that are often present in abusive intimate relationships. Recognising the different ways in which trauma bonding occurs can help victims see that they are being subjected to harm, and can help survivors make sense of their experience and move forward. 

1. Attraction and love bombing

This is often the first stage, at the start of the relationship where there is initial attraction and might be understood as 'the honeymoon period'. During this time the abuser will often use love bombing tactics.

Love bombing involves overwhelming the victim with affection, attention, and positive gestures, creating an intense connection very quickly. Unfortunately, the 'high' of this seemingly 'perfect' relationship does not last long.

2. Tension building

Gradually, the abuser's behaviour will start to change. The love bombing starts to give way to tension. The abuser's behaviour becomes more controlling or manipulative and cracks start to show, with the victim often feeling confused and desperate to return to the early days of affection.

There is a growing sense of unease and anticipation for the victim who doesn't know what happened to the loving person they first met. 

During the tension-building phase, the victim often feels a sense of dread and tries to appease the abuser to prevent the abuse, but this usually only delays the inevitable. When the abuse occurs, it reinforces the victim's feelings of helplessness and dependency.

3. Incident of abuse

The tension reaches a breaking point, leading to an incident of abuse. This could be emotional or physical. It could be an act of violence, abusive language or psychological tactics like disappearing or the silent treatment.

4. Reconciliation and apology

The reconciliation phase is where the seeds of trauma bonding are truly sown. After the abusive incident, the abuser may apologise, show remorse, or be affectionate, buy gifts, make promises - anything to win the victim over. This triggers the victim's memories of when things were good and they felt loved. It is echoing back to the 'honeymoon' phase offering a glimmer of hope for change.

It is during this phase that the victim develops a strong emotional attachment to the abuser. The relief they feel floods them with intense emotions and they may feel a surge of happiness and connection now that their partner seems to be loving and kind. 

5. Calm and loving phase

A period of calm ensues, with the abuser behaving well. The victim experiences renewed connection and attachment, and this waters the seeds of bonding. There is a belief that the relationship is worth saving and that the abuser is a good person. It may appear that the abuser has changed and that the abuse was a one-off, temporary or an exception, rather than a recurring pattern. The power of this hope is extremely strong. 

6. Gaslighting and cognitive dissonance

Gaslighting is a tactic used by abusers to distort the victim's sense of reality. They might deny the abuse took place, question the victim's account, deny their emotions and put the blame on the victim. Victims might hear statements like "You made me do this" or "If only you hadn't done that, I wouldn't have gotten so angry," which can lead them to believe they are at fault for the abuse.

This is an extremely confusing and upsetting experience, which can lead to the victim feeling they are to blame, or even that they are 'mad'. It puts the victim off bringing issues up as they are made to feel stupid, mad or bad themselves. They might try to justify the behaviour or question if it is really 'that bad' - cognitive dissonance. As the cycle starts again, with the tension building, the victim will likely question what is happening, or deny their feelings, a result of having their reality distorted through gaslighting. 

7. Cycle repeats and intensifies

This is a cycle that repeats and intensifies with each turn. The highs and lows become more extreme, solidifying the emotional bond and making it increasingly difficult for the victim to break free. Caught in this cycle, the victim finds it increasingly challenging to leave, often blaming themselves or believing in the abuser's promises to change.

What are the long-term effects of trauma bonding?

The long-term effects of trauma bonding can be profound. If the victim remains in the relationship the cycle of abuse and trauma bonding will continue, strengthen and the abuse may escalate.

If the relationship ends and the victim is supported, the healing can begin. 

From anxiety to depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the after-effects of trauma bonding can be severe. Survivors might have flashbacks, nightmares, or severe anxiety, especially in situations that remind them of the abuse. 

Healing from a trauma bond is not easy, but it is possible and there is always hope. Often survivors feel like they have lost themselves. They don't feel they know who they are without the relationship, having devoted themselves to keeping the abuser happy. Finding themselves again is a huge part of the healing process and offers hope for life after trauma bonding. 

One of the most significant ways trauma bonding affects victims is their ability to trust. Having gone through the cycle of abuse, ideas of love, trust, and safety can be confusing and frightening. It might be hard to trust others or even trust themselves. This connects to survivors often suffering from low self-esteem and low self-worth. They may blame themselves for the abuse, feeling shame, guilt, and worthlessness, which can remain even after leaving.

Sometimes this distorted view of love can lead to the victim entering into other abusive relationships. This is not a conscious choice. Understanding the cycle of abuse can empower survivors to avoid harmful relationships in the future. 

Recovering from trauma bonding

The damage that trauma bonding inflicts on victims is significant but recovery and healing is possible. Hope is a hugely powerful aspect of healing. There is always hope, even in the darkest of times. 

There are many ways that survivors can heal and recover. It is important to say, however, that the journey of healing from trauma bonding is deeply personal, and what works for one individual may not work for another. The most important aspect is to connect with others who understand what you have been through and can support you on the journey. That might be a therapist or counsellor or a support group. 

Seeking professional support can be life-changing, but it is important that you seek a therapist or counsellor that understands the destructive nature of abusive relationships, the cycle of abuse and the impact on victims. Look for those who have experience of working with abuse and trauma and who have specialist training and experience supporting victims and survivors. 

There is no one way to 'do' therapy, especially when it comes to recovery from trauma bonding. It may include talking through what has happened to you, processing emotions and grieving the loss of the relationship. It might involve body work, mindfulness and breathing exercises to help calm anxiety or creative work which helps connect you to yourself again. 

Whatever support you access, remember, abuse is not your fault and you are not defined by it. You are not alone.

If you are concerned about abuse within your relationship, or you are worried about someone else visit SafeLives' advice page for organisations that can support you.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Basingstoke, Hampshire, RG24
Written by Amy Sutton
Basingstoke, Hampshire, RG24

Amy is an integrative therapist who specialises in relational trauma, toxic relationships, domestic abuse and low self-esteem. She supports clients suffering from a range of common life obstacles and mental health challenges - from bereavement to anxiety, low mood and low self-confidence to depression, big life choices and positive changes.

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