Trauma bonding is a psychological response to abuse. It occurs when the abused person forms an unhealthy bond with the person who abuses them.
The person experiencing abuse may develop sympathy for the abusive person, which becomes reinforced by cycles of abuse, followed by remorse. Stockholm syndrome is one type of trauma bonding.
This article explains what trauma bonding is, when it might occur, and how recovery can begin.
A trauma bond is a connection between an abusive person and the individual they abuse. It typically occurs when the abused person begins to develop sympathy or affection for the abuser.
This bond can develop over days, weeks, or months. Not everyone who experiences abuse develops a trauma bond.
Stockholm syndrome is a specific type of trauma bond. While this term typically refers to someone who is captive developing positive feelings for their captors, this dynamic can occur in other situations and relationships.
2018 research investigating abuse in athletics suggests that Stockholm syndrome may begin when a person experiencing abuse begins to rationalize the actions of the perpetrator.
Feelings of attachment and dependence can contribute to a trauma bond, as can a pattern of abuse and remorse.
According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, trauma bonds are the result of an unhealthy attachment.
Humans form attachments as a means of survival. Babies become attached to the parents or caregivers whom they depend on, and adults form attachments to others who provide comfort or support.
When someone’s main source of support is also their abuser, a trauma bond can develop. An abused person may turn to the abusive person for comfort when they are hurt, even if the other person was the one who caused it.
A person may develop a trauma bond because they rely on the abusive person to fulfill emotional needs.
For example, a child relies on their parent or caregiver for love and support. If that caregiver is abusive, the child may come to associate love with abuse. Believing that this association is normal, the child may be unable to see the abusive caregiver as “bad.”
The child may instead blame themselves for the abuse as a way of making sense of what is happening to them. This allows the caregiver to continue being “good” in the child’s eyes, which reinforces their bond.
Cycle of abuse
Some abusive relationships follow a pattern of abuse, then remorse.
After causing harm, an abusive person may promise to change. Some may be especially kind or romantic to make up for their behavior.
This gives the abused person hope that their suffering will end and that they will one day receive the love or connection that the perpetrator has promised. The person experiencing the abuse may see suffering as a price to pay for kindness.
Remorseful behavior may also cause the abused person to feel grateful, particularly if they have become accustomed to poor treatment. This reinforces the bond.
In theory, trauma bonding can occur in any situation that involves one person abusing or exploiting another. This may include situations that involve:
- domestic abuse
- child abuse
- elder abuse
- exploitative employment, such as one involving people who have immigrated without documentation
- kidnapping or hostage-taking
- human trafficking
- religious extremism or cults
According to the organization Parents Against Child Exploitation, a trauma bond develops under specific conditions. A person must:
- perceive a real threat of danger from their abuser
- experience harsh treatment with small periods of kindness
- be isolated from other people and their perspectives
- believe that they cannot escape
The main sign that a person has bonded with an abuser is that they try to justify or defend the abuse. They may also:
- agree with the abusive person’s reasons for treating them badly
- try to cover for the abusive person
- argue with or distance themselves from people trying to help, such as friends, family members, or neighbors
- become defensive or hostile if someone intervenes and attempts to stop the abuse, such as a bystander or police officer
- be reluctant or unwilling to take steps to leave the abusive situation or break the bond
A person bonded with their abuser might say, for example:
- “He is only like that because he loves me so much — you would not understand.”
- “She is under a lot of pressure at work, she cannot help it. She will make it up to me later.”
- “I will not leave him, he is the love of my life. You are just jealous.”
- “It is my fault — I make them angry.”
It is worth noting that these feelings of attachment do not necessarily end when the person leaves the harmful situation. A person may still feel loyal or loving toward the person who abused them or feel tempted to return.
Breaking a trauma bond can be challenging and may take time, but it is possible. The National Domestic Violence Hotline suggest that people:
- Focus on the present: Hope that an abusive person will change or nostalgia for good times in the past can keep people in their trauma bonds. Try to acknowledge what is currently happening and the impact that it has by pausing to reflect on it. If it is safe to do so, keep a diary.
- Focus on the evidence: If a person continues to abuse or takes no steps to get help, stay focused on this, rather than on their promises about the future.
- Practice positive self-talk: Abuse can lower a person’s self-esteem and make them feel that they cannot be without the abusive person. Noticing negative self-talk and challenging with positive alternatives can start to change this.
- Practice self-care: Taking care of oneself may help relieve some stress and reduce the desire to turn to an abusive person for comfort. Journaling, meditation, exercise, hobbies, prayer, or talking to trusted friends can help.
If possible, a person can also:
- Learn about abusive and toxic relationships in order to spot the signs early and reinforce that they are not healthy.
- Learn what healthy relationships look like and seek them out.
- Create a plan to improve safety and make it possible to leave.
Safety plans include personalized steps that an individual can take to protect themselves physically and emotionally. The plan may include:
- safe places where someone can go to protect themselves, children, or pets from violence
- names and contact information for people who provide support
- information about local organizations and services
- a way to gather evidence of the abuse, such as a journal with events and dates that a person keeps in a safe place
- a plan to leave, considering factors such as money, a safe place to live, and work
- a plan for staying safe after leaving, which may include changing locks and phone numbers, altering working hours, and pursuing legal action
The trauma of abuse can have lasting effects on mental and physical health. No one has to cope with this alone. The following approaches may help people understand their experiences and address related issues, such as anxiety or depression.
A person may experience pain, a sense of loss, and grief after escaping an abusive situation.
An understanding therapist, counselor, or support worker can help someone work through this. It may help to find a therapist who has experience with trauma and abuse survivors.
A therapist can provide a safe space to talk about all thoughts, feelings, and experiences. They can also identify and treat conditions that may develop as a result of abuse, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, known as PTSD.
Support groups offer abuse survivors places to share their stories with others who understand. This can help a person feel less alone and remind them that there are others who care.
People in support groups may also share tips on coping and staying safe, and provide other practical advice about moving on from an abusive situation.
If a person develops an anxiety disorder or depression as a result of abuse, medications may help relieve some of the symptoms. Anyone interested can discuss this option with a doctor.
For anyone who may have developed a trauma bond, help is available. Many organizations provide emotional support and advice about staying safe, both during the abuse and afterward. Examples include:
- the National Domestic Violence Hotline
- The Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline
- elder abuse hotlines in each state
Abuse can escalate over time — if someone exhibits, for example, a few signs of abusive behavior at the beginning of a relationship, it is still important to be aware of the available resources.
Trauma bonding occurs when a person experiencing abuse develops an unhealthy attachment to their abuser. They may rationalize or defend the abusive actions, feel a sense of loyalty, isolate from others, and hope that the abuser’s behavior will change.
Breaking a trauma bond and recovering can be a long journey, and recognizing the true nature of the bond is an important first step. Trusted family members, friends, other survivors, counselors, support services, and therapists can all help a person heal.