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Why We Bond to Those that Hurt Us

Post By:
Shahla Nikpour, LCSW-QS, LCAT
In-House Contributor
Licensed Clinical Social Worker
Phoenix Thriving Therapy LLC
Guest Contributor:

The term trauma bond was coined by Patrick Carnes, PhD, CAS in 1997. Carnes defined trauma bonding as "dysfunctional attachments that occur in the presence of danger, shame, or exploitation". According to Carnes, trauma bonding occurs due to the way our brains process trauma and the ways in which we adapt when our “fight or flight” instincts are triggered.

Trauma bonding is a product of cyclical abuse, and can occur in any situation of abuse, no matter how long or short an amount of time it lasts. This abuse may be physical, emotional, economic, spiritual, sexual, or psychological. After each circumstance of abuse, the abuser professes love, regret, and otherwise tries to make the relationship feel safe and needed for the abused person. This complex emotional dynamic  makes it confusing and overwhelming for even the strongest to leave the situation. Thus a trauma bond is formed.

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The bond is created due to a cyclical pattern of abuse and positive reinforcement, and is formed out of our basic human need for attachment as a means of survival. 

While romantic relationships may be the first that come to mind with regards to trauma bonds, there are many other interpersonal relationships in which trauma bonds can form. Sometimes in our own childhoods we experienced this type of cycle with a parent, caregiver, or family member. When we consistently experience abuse cycles, it shapes our idea of what interpersonal relationships should look like, which may not necessarily be correct.  

Examples of Cyclical Relational Trauma

  1. Having a parent who was not emotionally or physically available
  2. Witnessing yelling or aggressive communication in your home among your family members
  3. Witnessing or experiencing your parents giving each other the silent treatment
  4. Having to mature early and assume adult responsibilities in the home as a child (ex. act as caregiver to a sibling, take care of a parent struggling with substance abuse)
  5. Being exposed to chronic bullying in childhood, adolescence, or adulthood 
  6. Exposure to any type of physical, sexual, psychological, emotional abuse or neglect

Relationships have the potential to be toxic, with mutual experiences of abuse for both parties. I would say 80% of my clients have discussed moments of aggression, lashing out, rage, and in some cases, abuse, with a loved one- and they feel a deep sense of remorse afterwards. Often this behavior stems from early experiences in childhood and patterns of learned behavior that the person was unaware of. 

This is why therapy, individual or couples, can make such a powerful impact on relationships, and therefore, overall quality of life.  Not only can we understand ourselves better and break negative patterns, but we can begin to understand and communicate with our loved ones better, achieving the deep level of intimacy and safety we all seek.

However, if the negative patterns of behavior aren’t acknowledged and addressed, the trauma bond can become more severe. In cases of abuser vs the abused, codependency can reach an unhealthy level and often the abused may not even realize they’re struggling with a trauma bond.

There are many types of cyclical abuse, some obvious and some more subtle. If you are unsure whether you are currently stuck in a trauma-bond, here are some signs to consider:

  1. You literally feel drained, physically and emotionally, after interacting with this person. 
  2. You feel a sense of calmness and relaxation when you don’t have to interact with this person.
  3. Your life is disrupted on all different levels when you interact with this person. You make mistakes at work, you have difficulty completing tasks, and you exercise poor judgment.
  4. You intellectually understand that the relationship is toxic, but you find yourself feeling “stuck”, unsure of how to fix it or what to do about it.
  5. You minimize or rationalize (or altogether deny) the impact this relationship has on your quality of life and health- mental and physical. 
  6. You find yourself less confident. You struggle to make decisions, questioning your own judgment, especially when it comes to conflict with this person. You wonder if you’re “crazy” or irrational.
  7. You feel overwhelmed and scared to leave the situation with this person. You feel an intense attachment or addiction to this person.
  8. You find physical intimacy boring when there is no conflict between you and your partner. The idea of “make up” sex is more physically charging is something you feel addicted to.

If you find yourself on the abused side of a trauma bond, know that there are steps you can take to break the bond so that you can finally see the relationship for what it is and reclaim yourself. Know that you can move on in a healthy and strong way. The most important thing to remember is that you do not have to endure the process alone. Support and peer groups as well as therapy can help you find your way through the fog. Know that I am always here to listen and to help.