What is trauma bonding?

Human relationships are intricate and complex, involving a wide spectrum of emotions from joy and love to pain and suffering. Among the complicated dynamics that can emerge within relationships, the trauma bond stands out as a profound yet often misunderstood phenomenon.


What is a trauma bond?

The trauma bond was coined by psychologists Patrick Carnes and James Walker and refers to the powerful emotional connection formed between two individuals who have experienced intense emotional or physical pain together.

It is therefore not a traditional bond formed through positive experiences, instead, it is developed through adversity and typically it arises in situations where one person deliberately alternates between being the source of pain and the provider of comfort to the other person, rendering the other person dependant on them to alleviate the pain they’ve caused.

This paradoxical cycle creates a deep emotional connection which is tremendously difficult to break, even when the relationship is harmful or toxic.

Characteristics of a trauma bond

Intermittent reinforcement:

Trauma bonds are reinforced through a pattern of intermittent reinforcement where moments of kindness or affection follow episodes of abuse or mistreatment. This unpredictable cycle keeps the victim emotionally invested, hoping that the next positive encounter will continue to last and that everything will be better going forward.

Power imbalance:

Often, a trauma bond exists within a power imbalance, where one person holds more control or authority over the other. This power dynamic can be a significant factor in keeping the bond alive, as the victim may feel dependent on the abuser for validation or security.


Abusive relationships often involve isolating the victim from external support systems. The abuser becomes the primary source of emotional connection, creating a sense of dependence and making it harder for the victim to break free from the bond. 

Victims may find themselves wanting to talk through their experiences with others to find support and seek understanding of the abusive behaviour but, even when the support network is still available, they are also usually reluctant to accept others’ opinions when hearing the truth means they may have to let go of the relationship.

They are looking for ways to change it, diagnose it, and justify it, and are therefore unlikely to find what they’re looking for in others who see their situation more clearly. They are isolated in their experience even if they aren’t isolated physically.

Shared experiences:

Shared experiences of trauma can create a unique and intense connection between individuals. The feeling of going through challenging times together can foster a sense of loyalty and understanding. Victims of trauma bonding can empathise and want to support the abuser, excusing their poor behaviour as a result of their trauma.

Trauma bonding leaves victims intensely connected to the abuser even when others around them are highlighting the abusive behaviour. Victims tend to believe they are the only one who truly understands the abuser’s behaviour and can see themselves as being in a position to help where nobody else can. This further enhances their emotional connection and deepens the trauma bond. 

Effects of trauma bonds

Difficulty ending the relationship:

Individuals caught in a trauma bond will find it extremely challenging to end the relationship, even when it is evident that it is harmful. The fear of loneliness, coupled with the hope that the abuser will change, can be powerful obstacles to breaking free.

Cycles of abuse:

The cyclical nature of trauma bonds often leads to repeated cycles of abuse and reconciliation. The victim may minimise or dismiss the abusive behaviour, even if this becomes physical, believing that the moments of kindness outweigh the pain. If they feel they can cope with the abusive behaviour, if it is manageable, then they still benefit from the parts that make them feel good.

Impact on mental health:

Trauma bonds can have severe consequences for mental health. Victims may experience anxiety, depression, low self-esteem and feelings of worthlessness as a result of the ongoing emotional turmoil. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can often be associated with abusive relationships.


Victims often blame themselves for the abusive behaviour being directed toward them because the blame is often assigned to them by the abuser. This gives the victim a false sense of control as, if the abuser’s behaviour is directly related to them, they can seek to make changes in themselves that might mean the abuse stops. The abuse doesn’t stop because you’re trying harder to please them – this only means you’ve succumbed to the control and abuse which is very much alive and well.

The effects are truly detrimental to the victim’s overall well-being but they will continue to push through, clinging desperately to hope that things will change for the better, continuing to put themselves through emotional turmoil, stress, and upset and justifying the behaviour for the small amount of reprieve they get in the comfort that is occasionally offered to them.

Breaking the trauma bond

Recognising the bond:

Awareness is the first step towards breaking a trauma bond. Recognising the unhealthy patterns and acknowledging the negative impact of the relationship is crucial for initiating change. 

Seeking support:

Breaking free from a trauma bond often requires external support. Friends, family, or mental health professionals can provide the necessary encouragement and assistance in navigating the challenging process of detachment.

Establishing boundaries:

Setting clear boundaries is essential in breaking the cycle of abuse. This may involve distancing yourself from the abuser, seeking therapy, and building a support network to reinforce healthier relationships going forward.

Once the decision has been made to break the trauma bond, the journey towards healing can begin. Rebuilding your life after the emotional toll of a toxic relationship is a gradual process that requires patience, self-compassion and often professional guidance. 

Rebuilding and healing


Engaging in self-reflection is crucial for understanding the patterns that led to the formation of the trauma bond. This involves exploring personal vulnerabilities, past experiences and the underlying reasons for staying in a harmful relationship. Self-awareness lays the foundation for personal growth and empowerment.

Building a support system:

Establishing a robust support system is essential for breaking the isolation often associated with trauma bonds. Friends, family or support groups can offer empathy, understanding and encouragement. Surrounding yourself with positive influences helps create a buffer against the emotional challenges of ending a toxic relationship. 

Self-care practises:

Prioritising self-care is fundamental to the healing process. Engaging in activities that promote physical, emotional and mental well-being such as exercise, mindfulness, and hobbies, can contribute to a sense of empowerment and self-worth.

Therapeutic support:

Seeking therapy is a powerful step in the healing process. Therapists, particularly those specialising in trauma recovery, can provide a safe space for individuals to process their experiences, express their emotions, and develop coping strategies. Cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) is one of several therapeutic modalities that are effective in recovery from trauma bonds.

Setting future goals:

Setting realistic and empowering goals for the future can provide a sense of direction and purpose. This may involve pursuing educational or career aspirations, cultivating new hobbies, or forming healthier connections with others. Establishing a vision for the future helps shift the focus away from the past and towards personal growth.

Forgiveness and closure:

Some people in recovery will choose to work toward forgiveness of the abuser as part of their recovery process, and others will choose to work on forgiving themselves. Either way can be a powerful tool in letting go of resentment and reclaiming emotional freedom. Closure can be achieved through acknowledgement and understanding of the abusive behaviour and a commitment to moving forward.

Learning healthy relationship dynamics:

Educating yourself on healthy relationship dynamics is vital for preventing the recurrence of toxic patterns. Understanding the importance of mutual respect, communication, and emotional safety lays the groundwork for ensuring future connections that are based on genuine care and support.

Understanding the trauma bond is essential for those trapped in emotionally toxic relationships. In recognising the patterns, seeking support, and establishing boundaries, victims can begin the process of breaking free from the complex cycle that is the trauma bond. 

Breaking a trauma bond is a courageous and transformative journey towards reclaiming your sense of self and your well-being. It requires a combination of self-awareness, professional support, and intentional actions to rebuild your life and be free from toxic relationships. By committing yourself to recovery, you’ll not only overcome the pain of the past but also emerge stronger, wiser, and more resilient, ready to forge healthier connections in your future. 

Remember, seeking help is a sign of strength, not weakness. It means you are ready to develop a better understanding of yourself and make changes for the better. Prepare yourself for becoming a new, healthier you and make contact today!

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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Manchester, Greater Manchester, M27 8UW
Written by Tracy McCadden, Counsellor & Supervisor BSc(Hons) MBACP
Manchester, Greater Manchester, M27 8UW

I have an educational background in Psychology, Counselling, & Cognitive Behaviour Therapy as well as a wealth of additional training, offering an integrative approach to clients' specific needs. My specialism is supporting clients recovering from abusive relationships, and I welcome clients that are committed to making a change for the better.

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