Understanding Trauma Bonding

Mother and teenage daughter having an argument

Trauma bonding is a term that is frequently heard today. It is most often used to describe the attachment someone feels towards a person who is controlling or abusing them.

It is thought to have been first used in 1997 by counselor and addiction therapy specialist Dr. Patrick Carnes. He described trauma bonding as “dysfunctional attachments that occur in the presence of danger, shame, or exploitation”.

Before the term trauma bonding, the phrase for similar situations was “Stockholm syndrome”, which came about following a bank robbery in Sweden’s capital in 1973. It describes feelings of trust and even affection – a psychological bond – described by victims of hostage-taking or kidnapping towards their captor or captors.

This can also often be clearly witnessed by onlookers. According to the FBI, around eight percent of hostage victims show signs of having Stockholm syndrome.

Trauma bonding is an unhealthy attachment

But this theorized condition known as Stockholm syndrome did not cover the various situations in which positive feelings and bonding with someone being abusive can happen. This was something that Dr Carnes looked into – and he reasoned that trauma bonding occurs because of the way our brains handle trauma.

We form attachments as a means of survival, right from birth. When we are together with others, in general, we are usually safer.

It is human instinct. But it seems that this can occur even if the attachment is unhealthy or potentially dangerous.

Trauma bonds are based on domination and unpredictability. It can happen in extremely short periods of time, as seen in some hostage-taking situations, where the trauma bonding starts very swiftly.

However, the longer a bond between an abuser and the abused person goes on, the more it leads to conflicting feelings and confusion within the person who’s trapped in it. These feelings can feel extremely overwhelming.

Today all of this is widely acknowledged among therapists. A large part of healing involves looking at how somebody can break free from a trauma bond – without experiencing negative feelings that can arise, such as guilt and shame.

Cycles of abuse

angry man fist on gray wall background

Trauma bonding is seen in “romantic” relationships (especially those involving domestic abuse), unhealthy parent-child relationships, hostage situations, incest, elder abuse, sex trafficking, extremism, terrorism, and kidnapping.

It is difficult to understand why someone trapped in one of these situations could have any positive regard towards the person or people abusing them. It is also seen between military personnel and in cults.

But it is explained because a trauma bond involves cycles of abuse: punishment followed by reward. After the abuse, the abuser most often attempts to make the relationship feel safe by displaying regret.

They will usually promise never to repeat the abuse. They can even show signs of love and affection.

This is the reason that escaping from a trauma bond can feel so difficult and confusing. The abused person can start to feel increasingly dependent on their abuser.

In dangerous situations, people naturally look for increased attachment. Normally this would give us more security – strength in numbers. People turn to their abusers when normal ways to attach are not available.

Power imbalance and intermittent reinforcement

Two key factors form and continue a trauma bond. These are a power imbalance and intermittent reinforcement.

Intermittent reinforcement, as has been mentioned, is about a cycle of punishments and rewards. Punishments can be in the form of verbal, emotional, psychological, and physical abuse.

In addition, there must be a power imbalance between the abuser and the abused, such that the abuser is in a position of power and authority. As the abused person experiences punishment from the abuser, the victim will often internalize the perception that the abuser has of them. 

Consequently, the victim can start to blame themselves for what is happening. This can even be during moments of violence towards them.

Confusion is added to all of this as there is no way of predicting when the punishment will happen. Also, a reward will not follow on every occasion there is a punishment.

Who is most likely to develop a trauma bond?

young lady covering her ears

A trauma bond can only be kept by maintaining intermittent reinforcement and power imbalance. The trauma bond is likely to be particularly strong for people who have grown up in an abusive household.

This is because it seems to them to be just a normal part of any relationship. Although it is clearly destructive and damaging, it is also familiar. They may know nothing else.

As a trauma bond relationship goes on, it generally becomes more difficult for someone to separate from it. Trauma bonds are extremely powerful and complex.

This can be seen in situations such as domestic abuse or hostage-taking. When the police arrive, the abused person is often protective of their abuser. In fact, it is not unusual for them to join forces to battle against the police.

This was seen in the bank robbery in Sweden where the term Stockholm syndrome arose. After being released, the hostages defended the bank robbers and even refused to attend court to speak against them.

Often after escaping a trauma bond, the abused person can suffer terrible low self-esteem, anxiety, and depression. This is something to be looked at as it might have been low in the first place – and the trauma bond has exaggerated these feelings and this belief. 

At Tikvah Lake, we have created a tranquil oasis. Usually bathed in Florida’s warm sunshine, surrounded by natural beauty, and on the shores of our beautiful lake, it always feels a long way from the stresses of the outside world.

Our team of experts has helped people with all emotional and mental health issues. Contact us today to speak in confidence about how we can help you or someone you care about.

David Hurst - Tikvah Lake Recovery

About David Hurst

David Hurst has four books published on mental health recovery, including 12 Steps To 1 Hero, The Anxiety Conversation and Words To Change Your Life. He has written for national newspapers and magazines around the world for 30 years including The Guardian, Psychologies, GQ, Esquire, Marie Claire and The Times. He has been in successful continual recovery since January 2002.

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