How trauma bonding affects abusive relationships
Trauma bonding is a cyclic phenomenon that keeps victims hooked on their abusive partners
While leaving an abusive partner may seem like the logical way to deal with a toxic relationship, the decision to depart from abuse isn’t always easy. This is especially true when trauma bonding is present. What is trauma bonding? How does trauma bonding function? And how can you break a trauma bond?
What is trauma bonding?
Abusive, toxic, and manipulative relationships are a nightmare, yet breaking free from a destructive partner isn’t always black-and-white. While a relationship may seem to be in shambles from the outside, toxic partners are master manipulators, introducing rare instances of kindness, infrequent apologies, and false hope into the life of their victim to keep them hooked.
Periods of relief are often short-lived. By the time the abusive behavior returns, the victim feels as if though they’ve somehow failed to satisfy their toxic partner by causing them to become enraged. With trauma bonding, the victim of a narcissistic/codependent partner feels as if though they can restore a loving personality in their partner in spite of their abusive nature.
Of course, they cannot, and the cycle of abuse begins again. Additionally, the polarizing swings of behavior from an abusive partner can become addictive for their victim. Since they often live in fear and anxiety, positive/happy periods in their toxic relationships feel more euphoric. When things inevitably get worse, they experience intense guilt and long for a return to stability. This is how a trauma bond is formed and thrives.
How does trauma bonding work?
Abusive behavior works in a repetitive sequence, and this cycle is what bridges trauma bonds. First, the tension leading up to an argument is formed/escalates. Second, the act of abuse—physical, mental, emotional and psychological—is performed.
Third, the abusive partner apologizes or otherwise takes partial accountability for their abuse towards their victim, promising not to act out of rage again. Fourth (and most dangerous), the victim develops a false sense of security and safety, causing them to let their guard down in between the “honeymoon” and the next violent incident and feel satisfied in their relationship.
The repetition of this cycle brings with it sweeps in dramatic emotion in an abuser’s victim. They become reliant on the emotional sweeping and unpredictability in their relationship, convincing themselves that they are in a relationship with a passionate, exciting person rather than a toxic one. While this type of bond is cyclic and addictive for the victim of the abuse, breaking a trauma bond is essential to a victim’s mental, physical, and interpersonal wellbeing.
Abusive, toxic, and manipulative relationships are a nightmare, yet breaking free from a destructive partner isn’t always black-and-white.
How can you break a trauma bond?
While trauma bonds are strong—hence, the word “bond”—they aren’t impossible to break. Breaking trauma bonds is essential for healing after the conclusion of an abusive relationship. Still, recovering from abuse doesn’t end when you leave your toxic partner, and your trauma bond can draw you back toward your partner if you don’t address it.
One of the essential ways to break a trauma bond is to dismantle the false hope/”honeymoon” stage and acknowledge the reality of your situation. When a relationship is genuinely toxic, you can’t hold on to the possibility of improvement in the future.
Although you may love your toxic partner, you cannot adequately care for yourself while you are trying to improve a relationship that sustains itself on a cycle of abuse, manipulation, and chaos.
A part of dismantling this false hope is to allow yourself to experience your emotions without the fog of your toxic bond. This will allow you to both process your genuine feelings and grieve the loss of time, energy, and love that you poured into your relationship. While you’re recovering, you should build a support system with people who genuinely care for your wellbeing. Surround yourself with friends, family, and peers who are understanding and supportive while you attempt to heal.
If you are a victim of partner, spousal, or parental abuse, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 for support.
A deeper dive — Related reading from the 101:
Could you be a victim of an emotionally abusive significant other?
These are a few ways to identify if your relationship is toxic.