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Wednesday, January 12, 2022

What is Trauma Bonding in Relationships?

Trauma bonding is a psychological response to abuse. The abuse can be emotional or physical, and trauma bonding occurs when the person who is being abused forms an unhealthy attachment with the abuser (see my articles: How Trauma Affects Relationships).

Trauma Bonding in Relationships

The trauma bond occurs where there's an ongoing pattern of abuse and positive reinforcement so that after each circumstance of abuse, the abuser professes love, regret, tries to make the partner feel safe and the partner trusts the abuser again--until the next reoccurring cycle of abuse and positive reinforcement.

This pattern of abuse followed by positive reinforcement is what makes trauma bonding so confusing the person being abused and so difficult to leave.

The term "trauma bonding" was coined by Patrick Carnes, Ph.D.  The term has been compared to "Stockholm Syndrome" where hostages develop an attachment for their captors.

Signs of Trauma Bonding
During trauma bonding, the partner being abused often:
  • covers up or makes excuses for the abuser's behavior
  • lies to friends and family about the abuse
  • doesn't feel comfortable leaving the abusive relationship
  • blames him or herself for the abuse
Clinical Vignette: Trauma Bonding in a Relationship
The following clinical vignette, which is a composite of many cases with all identifying information changed, is just one example of what trauma bonding can look like when there is emotional abuse:

When Sara met John at a friend's party, she was immediately drawn to his good looks and charismatic personality. She told her friends that she felt swept off her feet by all his affection, attention, and romantic gestures as they began dating.  Not only were they spending a lot of time together for two people who just met, but he was calling and texting her several times a day (see my article: 10 Signs You're Being Love Bombed).

Two months later, John moved into Sara's apartment after his lease expired. Everything seemed to be going well at first. But a few weeks after he moved in, John, who was usually complimentary of Sara, told her that he didn't like that she had gained several pounds over the holidays and, as a result, he didn't feel as sexually attracted to her.  

Sara felt hurt by John's comment, but she also wanted very much to appease John, so she began dieting so she could lose weight.  She really wanted their relationship to work out, and she was determined to do whatever she could so John would be attracted to her again.

During that time, they went to dinner with Sara's best friend, Jean, and Jean's boyfriend, Mike.  Sara hadn't eaten all day because she was trying to lose weight so she was hungry. When she ordered a burger, John gave her a look of disapproval and said in front of her friends and the server, "If you want to lose weight, do you really think you should be ordering a burger?" (see my article: Belittling Behavior in Relationships).

Sara blushed. She was so embarrassed she wanted to cry, but she managed to hold back her tears and she ordered a salad instead.  Later on that evening, when Sara and Jean were alone in the ladies room, Jean told Sara that she thought John was being disrespectful towards Sara with his remark.  But Sara brushed it off by saying, "John had a hard week and, anyway, he's just looking out for me."

But when Sara and John got home, she told him, very sheepishly, what Jean said, and he responded with anger, "Your friend is just trying to start trouble between us!" Then, he refused to talk about it anymore (see my articles about: Stonewalling in Relationships and Improve Communication in Your Relationship: Eliminate the 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse).

But the remark at dinner was just the start of John's emotional abuse.  Two months later, Sara saw a text message from woman on John's phone when he left his phone unattended.  When she called the number, she found out from the woman that she and John had been having a sexual affair during the last few months and the dates and times coincided with times that John told Sara he was working late (see my article: Coping With Infidelity).

When Sara confronted John, he admitted to the affair, but he blamed Sara for it.  He told her that if she had not gained weight, he wouldn't have felt the need to be with another woman. But when she cried, he took her in his arms, told her that he never loved anyone as much as he loved her and he would never cheat on her again.

Although Sara was deeply hurt by John's infidelity, she blamed herself for not being as attractive and she became even more determined to lose the weight (see my article: A Dangerous Myth: It's a Woman's Responsibility to Keep "Her Man" From Cheating).

After that, John was attentive and affectionate with Sara for a few weeks.  He complimented her after she lost the weight and he lavished her with gifts.  But a few weeks later, Sara discovered that John was cheating on her again with another woman.  

Once again, when she confronted him, he blamed her.  This time he said that she was to blame for not initiating sex.  And, once again, when Sara became upset, John promised he would stop having affairs, and Sara believed him.  She also made an effort to initiate sex more to please him.

As this trauma bonding pattern continued, Sara's self esteem suffered increasingly.  She didn't feel comfortable talking to her friends about how she was feeling because she knew they would tell her to leave John, so she kept her feelings to herself and made excuses whenever her friends invited her out (see my article: A Relationship With a Narcissist Can Have a Negative Impact on Your Self Esteem).

Ever since the time when John criticized Sara at dinner, Jean suspected that John was continuing to be emotionally abusive with Sara--even though Sara denied it.  So, one day, after Sara turned down another invitation from Jean for lunch, Jean went over to see Sara when she knew John was away on a business trip.  

What Jean discovered was even worse than she had anticipated: Sara spent the whole day in bed, undressed, unbathed, just waiting for John's call.  Sara admitted to feeling helpless and hopeless about John's numerous affairs, but she continued to blame herself rather than blame John.

Soon after that, Jean and several of Sara's other close friends went over to see Sara to urge her to get help in therapy.  At first, Sara agreed because she thought the therapist could help her to revive her relationship. But, instead, her therapist explained the concept of trauma bonding to Sara and pointed out the dynamics in Sara's relationship with John.

By that point, Sara had become so emotionally dependent upon John that she refused to see that she was being emotionally abused (see my article: Are You Afraid to Leave an Unhealthy Relationship?).

But, over time, Sara allowed herself to see that she was being mistreated by John.  She also saw the connection between how she was being abused in her relationship with how she was emotionally abused as a child by her father (see my article: Overcoming Childhood Trauma With Experiential Therapy).

The work Sara did in therapy was neither quick nor easy.  Along the way, she had lapses where she blamed herself and she wanted to appease John in hopes of getting him to treat her better.  But whenever she had these lapses, she addressed them in therapy.

John also tried to get Sara to quit therapy because he saw it as a threat to their relationship.  But Sara stuck with therapy, even though it was hard. Eventually, she felt confident enough in herself that she believed she deserved to be treated better, and she ended the relationship.

After she grieved her relationship and when she was ready to date again, Sara worked through the childhood trauma that made her susceptible to trauma bonding and she began dating someone who treated her well.

Trauma bonding can take many forms, including emotional or physical abuse.  It's often difficult to get out of this type of relationship because the person who is being abused often doesn't recognize the abuse because they're in denial about it or they blame themselves for it.

In cases where there is physical abuse, call 911.

Getting Help in Therapy
If you have tried to overcome problems on your own without success, you could benefit from seeing a licensed mental health professional to help you overcome obstacles to your well being.

A skilled psychotherapist can help you to develop the tools and skills you need and work through a history of trauma so you can lead a more fulfilling and meaningful life (see my article: What is a Trauma Therapist?).

About Me
I am a licensed New York City psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR, AEDP, EFT and Somatic Experiencing therapist.

I work with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.