top of page

Trauma Bonds

Trauma bonds are a form of emotional attachment that develop out of a reoccurring abusive relationship that consists both of belittling an individual, as well as positive reinforcement. This combination of highs and lows can make it challenging for a victim to leave and challenging for friends/family to understand why someone doesn’t just walk away. In the following article, I am going to go more in depth as to how trauma bonds develop and why they are hard to break to create better understanding and insight for both survivors and their family/friends.

Trauma Bond Development: Attachment

A variable that can make one susceptible to being in a trauma bond is coming from a dysregulated household or a chaotic environment where their needs were not a priority. Examples include not having enough clean clothes to wear, lack of sense of safety, not having consistent shelter, lacking appropriate emotional connection, or a lack of felt sense of love and acceptance among family members. Abusers will start out in relationships as meeting these basic human needs that we all desire, and creating an image for themselves as nurturing, loving, and supportive. For some individuals, this may be the first time they feel loved, seen, heard, accepted, desired, and a sense of belonging. Once this level of connection is established, it becomes much easier for the abuser to become manipulative, controlling, and abusive, as the victim is leaning on this individual to ensure their basic human needs are provided for.

Trauma Bond Development: Intermittent Reinforcement

Intermittent Reinforcement is when the abuser mixes in behaviors of both caring for the individual and perpetuating abuse. It’s a combination of rewarding moments (affirmations, gifts, quality time), punishment (yelling, belittling, physical abuse) and no response at all. This keeps the victim around as they never know what they are going to get. Much like a slot machine, they are waiting to see if they will receive a big reward on their next engagement. Punishments are often followed by rewards, such as receiving flowers after a degrading verbal argument or a win on a slot machine after several losses, as an attempt to keep the victim around.

In this process, the victim also learns to engage in people pleasing behavior that will minimize punishments, increase rewards, and maintain positive emotions within the relationship.

Another analogy for intermittent reinforcement is our phones. We are constantly checking them for notifications from texts, emails, calls, social media, etc. Sometimes when we look at the phone, we are rewarded with a notification and social engagement, while other times nothing is present and we experience a loss. In the same way it is hard to simply “walk away” from checking our phones, it is hard to “walk away” from an abusive relationship with a trauma bond attachment.

Trauma Bond Development: Survival

Trauma bonds become about surviving. If the victim does what is asked and engages in the desired behavior of the abuser, they have a better chance of surviving. Again, this can also look like people pleasing behavior. In traumatic situations, are brain, specifically our limbic system, activates flight, fight, and freeze response. I am either going to run from the threat, fight the threat, or freeze and hope it leaves me alone. In abusive relationships, it is not always safe to fight back and there isn’t always a safe place to run nor would it be safe to attempt to run. This is why some feel they have no choice but to stay. This is also why many survivors develop dissociation. If they can’t physically flee, their mind can go into a day dream and disconnect from their body so don’t have to emotionally or physical feel the events.

Trauma Bonds: Why Do They Go Back?

Going back to the abuser can be a desirer to avoid processing traumatic memories and acceptance of the situation for what it is. There can be a desire to go back because who is going to reinforce that they are seen, heard, accepted, loved, desired, now? After being belittled and degraded for an extended period of time, it can be difficult to generate positive thoughts and emotions on their own. Their identity has been stripped. In a sense, they are experiencing an emotional withdraw, much like with drugs. In general, it’s easier for all human beings to stay in a place that is familiar, even if it’s inconvenient, because you at least know what to expect. Braving the world in search for a new life feels like a risky, fearful move.

Through this article I hope you can better understand that leaving an abusive relationship is not always as easy as walking out the door. There are a multitude of psychological and behavioral reinforcements one must challenge. This is why in my practice I never shame, but always validate the individuals experience, sit with them as they experience an array of emotions, and with their permission, slowing sprinkle in trauma processing work. I am happy to discuss more in depth if you have questions regarding this topic or if this resonates with your experiences.

- Chelsea McDonald, MA, LPC


bottom of page