Question Submitted: What is trauma Bonding?

Today's post comes from a reader's question submitted, asking what trauma bonding is. It's something that we hear of sometimes, and while most know healthy relationships won't activate one's trauma bonds, we need to understand the definition of what trauma bonding is so we can recognize it should it ever occur.

**Please note that this article is not meant to diagnose or treat any condition, and is not meant to be used in place of mental health care. If you need help NOW please go to your closest emergency department. 

Trauma bonding, also referred to as paradoxical attachment, is a theory defined as the attachment that a victim of abuse experiences with their abuser, especially when related to cycles of abuse. A term originally coined by Patrick Carnes, PhD, CAS in 1997, he describes trauma bonding as "dysfunctional attachments that occur in the presence of danger, shame, or exploitation." He considered trauma bonding to be one of 9 potential responses to trauma. Trauma bonds are common and are nothing to be ashamed of, as they result from one's mind looking for coping methods.

He explained that trauma bonding happens due to the way our brains deal with trauma as a coping mechanism. Not all trauma may result in trauma bonding. Typically, trauma bonding occurs as a pattern like a cycle of abuse followed by positive reinforcement. There are 7 stages of trauma bonding.

Stages Of Trauma Bonding

  • Love Bombing - When someone showers you with attention and/or affection, or indulges in displays of appreciation.
  • Gaining trust - The abuser makes attempts, oftentimes strategically, in order to gain your trust. Should you appear to doubt their trustworthiness, your abuser may become highly offended.
  • Criticisms - The abuser will criticize the victim, often causing the victim to believe that they are in fact in the wrong, or somehow deserves the blame.
  • Manipulation - This manipulation is how abusers defend their own poor behavior. Should the victim attempt to stand up for themselves, the abuser oftentimes engages in gaslighting (denying the victim's reality.)
  • Resignation - This is when the victim begins to acquiesce to their abuser and their cycles of abusive behavior.
  • Distress - The psychological distress that an abuse victim experiences as a result of being on the receiving end of the abuse.
  • Repetition - Sadly, the cycle repeats itself.

Signs Of trauma Bonding

  • The abuse victim will make up excuses for their abuser.
  • The victim may cover-up for the abuse they are experiencing.
  • The abuser makes empty promises.
  • The abuse follows a cycle pattern.
  • The victim may feel as though the abuse is their fault.
  • The abuser may control the victim (manipulation or gaslighting.)
  • The abuser may get "flying monkeys" (friends or family) on their side.
  • The victim oftentimes continues to trust their abuser.

It's said that trauma bonding may occur in a situation regardless of the length of time. Trauma bonding may occur in familial relationships, romantic partnerships, or just about any connection in which case a cycle of abuse as described above can occur.

Trauma bonding usually occurs in a situation where the abuser expresses love to the victim and behaves as though the abuse won't happen again. It's this cycle of abuse followed by positive reinforcement which creates the trauma bond. It's that combination which can create the feeling in the mind of the abused that the abuser isn't all bad.

How Does It Happen?

While it may seem confusing to understand how someone could find themselves in such a cycle of abuse, or even experience feelings of love for their abuser, the trauma bonding stems from the basic human need for attachment. The abuse victim can become dependent on their abuser, which results from the repeated cycles of abuse followed by promises that the abuse will not occur in the future.

It is also said that hormones as well as dopamine can play a role in trauma bonding. Since dopamine gives feelings of pleasure, and the victim receives feelings of pleasure when the abuser stops the abuse, apologizes and offers a promise or love bombing, the victim wants that dopamine boost which can sadly keep the victim stuck in a trauma bonded situation.

There are specific risk factors for trauma bonding such as attachment insecurity, childhood mistreatment, lack of social support, low self-esteem, exposure to abusive relationships as a child, sexual abuse, kidnapping, incest and domestic abuse and more. 

Breaking The Trauma Bonds

Those who experience abuse as children are oftentimes drawn to similar relationships as adults. This occurs because the brain recognizes the patterns and cycles of the abuse with those highs and lows. Having a history of trauma can make it difficult to break-free of the cycle.

It is important to recognize trauma bonds. This is the most important initial step. Doing so may be difficult, as they are not always easy to see, especially when one is "inside the box" so to speak. 

Keeping a journal may be of help as it can allow you to spot patterns when you revisit your writing. Should abuse occur, make note of what happened including the conversation afterward. 

Setting healthy boundaries for yourself is important. Physical distance away from your abuser is important, but so is setting healthy emotional boundaries for yourself. 

Avoiding engaging in self-blame is incredibly important. No one deserves abuse. Reminding yourself of this fact that no matter what happened, and no matter how someone made you feel, abuse is never your fault.

Removing yourself from the abusive situation is vital. Not only for your own safety, but for your peace. While it may be difficult to cut off contact with your abuser, it is the right thing to do, at least in my opinion. 

Seeking professional help is one of the most important things one can do in a situation in which case you feel you're experiencing trauma bonds, or if you find that you are in an abusive situation. Speaking with those closest to you such as friends, family or clergy can be of help toward a healthy direction. 

Remember, abuse is not your fault. Those who care for you and are "in your corner" have your best interest at heart. Please do not suffer abuse in silence. Seek proper help. 

I hope this helps! Much love xo

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