I work with a lot of people who have or are experiencing trauma bonding, and yet many people have never heard of this phenomenon before.
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines bonding as: the formation of a close relationship (as between a mother and child or between a person and an animal) especially through frequent or constant association.
Bonding is a biological and emotional process that occurs over time and deepens relational connection. The more time you spend with someone, the greater the bond (think about the bonds you have experienced in your life with school, work, neighbours, members of your church, or with teammates). It is not always good times that bond people, bad times can also bond people. I have worked with some clients for years, and I feel incredibly bonded to them, no matter if they are experiencing the highs or the lows of their life’s journey.
Trauma bonding deconstructed….
The psychological phenomenon of trauma bonding (also known as Stockholm Syndrome*) is a form of interpersonal trauma whereby the abuser elicits fear in the victim that is experienced as feeling a sense of gratitude for being able to survive. Trauma bonds have been known to occur in situations of intimate partner violence (for more on this: https://blacksheepcounselling.com/2017/05/intimate-partner-violence/), prisoners of war/hostage situations, child abuse, human trafficking/prostitution, and cult situations. The innate survival instinct is at the root of trauma bonding. Victims live with a sense of enforced dependence and interpret infrequent acts of kindness in predominantly abusive, fear-producing conditions as good treatment. Abuse generally happens in cycles. Post-abusive behaviour is a phase know as the “honeymoon phase” (phase 4 of image). Behaviour in the honeymoon phase includes begging for forgiveness, promises to get help such as going to counselling or church, enlisting family support, promises of “I’ll never do *it* again, declarations of love, crying, and seeking sexual intimacy. This manipulation may seem obvious to an outsider looking in, but the victim of traumatic bonding has developed a deep attachment to their abuser, clouding their ability to assess the (very real) power-over differential clearly. Victims often state they feel they are “walking on eggshells”; they become hypervigilant to the needs and desires of the abuser and make psychological links between the abuser’s happiness and their own. Perpetrators are often adept at making victims feel as though they are the only people who can truly love and understand them, thus increasing a sense of obligation on the part of the victim to stay committed to them. Trauma bonding is a desire of a loving connection (who doesn’t want that?), a sense of loyalty to a person that is abusive, and a hopeful belief of the promises of validation and affection made in the honeymoon phase.
Patrick Carnes, the developer of the concept of trauma bonding and author of the book Betrayal Bonds details some signs that indicate you may be experiencing a trauma bond with someone:
-There is a constant pattern of nonperformance, yet you continue to believe promises to the contrary.
-Others seem disturbed by something that has happened to you or was said to you, and you are not.
-You try to change the person into becoming less destructive by trying to get them to stop maladaptive coping behaviours (e.g: drinking, drugging, excessive spending) which contribute to conflict.
-You feel stuck because the other person keeps doing destructive things, but you believe there is nothing you can do about it.
-You have repetitive, highly conflictual fights with this person.
-You seem unable to detach from the person even though trust is broken, and you really don’t even like them.
-When you try to leave the relationship, you find yourself missing them to the point of intolerable longing, thus leading you to return. The longer the relationship persists, the harder it is to leave. A contributing factor to this is the limbic tie that creates neurostructural alterations into one another’s neural networks (Lewis, Amini, Lannon, 2001). These alterations shift the emotional perceptions: feeling, seeing, knowing. A portion of neural activity depends on the presence of each other’s living brain. The limbic tie created by bonding, influences who the other is and becomes – these neurostructural alterations that are created lend proof to one’s assertion of losing a person they felt bonded to is like a “part of them is gone” (often leading one back to reunification).
Akin to quitting a substance or process addiction, supports need to be put in place and abstinence (of contact with the person) is recommended. Just like drugs and alcohol can cloud someone’s cognitive functioning, relational trauma creates cognitive distortions and cognitive dissonance (for more on these see: https://blacksheepcounselling.com/2017/12/cognitive-distortions/https://blacksheepcounselling.com/2018/07/cognitive-dissonance/) that impede one’s ability to access and priority personal safety and needs. People who grow up in dysfunctional family systems are prone to ignoring their own emotional needs and often find themselves in repetitive unhealthy relationships such as trauma bonding as “love with a cost” has been normalized by lived experience.
Therapy can help one identify and maintain boundaries, prioritize personal emotional and safety needs, move beyond enmeshment, and start to cultivate relationships that supports authenticity, choice and upholds mutual dignity. If you are experiencing the effects of a traumatic bond with someone, support is available.
* see here for how the name Stockholm Syndrome is derived: https://www.britannica.com/science/Stockholm-syndrome
Lewis, T., Amini, F., Lannon, R. (2001). General Theory of Love. New York, NY: Random House Inc.
Reid, J, Haskell, R., Dillahunt-Aspillaga, C., & Thor, J. Trauma bonding and interpersonal violence (2013). Faculty Publications, 198. https://digital.usfsp.edu/fac_publications/198