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.
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.
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:
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.