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  • Writer's pictureJessica Matthews LCSW, LICSW

The Psychology of Trauma Bonds

Updated: Dec 28, 2023


As a therapist that works with survivors of relational trauma, I have learned a great deal about the lasting effects of abusive relationships- and why it can be so difficult for survivors to move forward. One of the lasting effects of relational trauma is traumatic bonding. There is a lot of information recently on social media bout trauma bonds, however this discourse rarely details the underling psychology. I’d like to provide some background on trauma bonds- what they are, how they form, and how they impact subsequent relationships. I’ve observed that a lot of survivors blame themselves for feeling bonded to an abuser- I hope that this information allows those of you who are survivors to experience more self-compassion and understanding about why this occurs- and that you are not alone. While I detail a lot of the psychology underlying trauma bonds, this post is not meant to pathologize, but rather to provide education and raise awareness.


What is a Trauma Bond and How do they Form?


Traumatic bonding is defined as: “the phenomenon of bidirectional attachments developing between abusers and the abused that may occur in a ray of exploitive relationships” (Reid, Haskell, Dillahunt-Aspillaga, & Thor, 2013). Traumatic bonding has also been described as, “an innate and automatic survival mechanism, which is prompted in response to experiencing isolation and inescapable violence while perceiving some benevolence and kindness by the abuser.” Alternating aversive and pleasant conditions is known within learning theory as intermittent reinforcement, which has been shown to produce strong emotional bonding effects (Dutton & Painter, 1983). Evidence suggests that, “any strong emotion, whether fear, hunger, pain, or loneliness, will speed up the process of socialization” (Scott, 1963, p. 189).

Anna Freud’s (1942) concept of “identification with the aggressor” is also helpful here. Freud proposes that in abusive situations of extreme power imbalance, the person of lower power will assume the abuser’s perspective of themselves and internalize aggression (Dutton & Painter, 1983). According to Dutton and Painter (1983), “as the power imbalance magnifies, persons in lower power will feel more incapable of fending for themselves and thus more in need of the higher power person” (p. 47).

For those survivors that leave abusive relationships, separation from the abuser can itself be traumatizing and thus intensify the bond and increase idealization of the relationship.


Self-Esteem and Self-Efficacy as a Result of Traumatic Bonding


In her book Trauma and Recovery, Judith Herman explains that, “Without the offender, a victim might have no sense of self, or might have to struggle to find a sense of self”. When a victim is in captivity, they become increasingly dependent on the abuser, which creates a constriction in initiative and planning and a decreased sense of self-efficacy (Herman, 1992).  Even after the victim is separated from the abuser physically, this narrowing in the range of initiative can persist unless it is deliberately unlearned (Herman, 1992). The reason this occurs is because trial and error is not safe in situations of prolonged captivity (Herman, 1992). In abusive relationships, independent actions are considered noncompliance, which could result in severe punishment (Herman, 1992).

Some theorists have applied the concept of ‘learned helplessness’ to traumatized individuals (Herman, 1992). Learned helplessness is a psychological trait which is the result of repeated exposure to uncontrollable, aversive events (Seligman, 1975). In abused individuals, learned helplessness contributes to submissiveness, a marked reduction in the range of responses to external demands, and reluctance to leave an abusive situation (Miller, 1988; Walker, 1996). People who exhibit learned helplessness expect recurrent violence (Dutton, Burghardt, Perrin, Chrestman, & Halle, 1994). They also exhibit an external locus of control and believe that they have no control over events that happen to them (Noon, 1995).


Effects of Trauma Bonds on New Relationships

Many survivors struggle to form healthy relationships after an abusive relationship, and this inability to form another primary relationship is common following trauma bonds (James, 1994, p. 26)

van der Kolk (1989) explains, “Some people remain preoccupied with the trauma at the expense of other life experiences and continue to re-create it in some form” (p. 10). van der Kolk (1989) also explains, “Clinically, these people who recreate their trauma are observed to have a vague sense of apprehension, emptiness, boredom, and anxiety when not involved in activities reminiscent of the trauma” (p. 10). If you struggle to form new relationships after an abusive relationship, this is NOT a character deficit, and you are not alone.


Breaking Free from Trauma Bonds

Breaking free from trauma bonds involves self-awareness, education, and deliberate unlearning. A major reason I wrote this post is to empower survivors to become aware of the emotions, behaviors, and patterns that result from trauma bonds- which can serve as a jumping off point to unlearning them. As a survivor myself, I have had to consciously embrace relationships that may not have as many highs and lows as previous relationships- even if they seem "less exciting” at first. As one of my wise clients pointed out, sometimes idealized experiences such fireworks and butterflies don’t mean chemistry- sometimes they are fight or flight warning signs of danger. Unlearning means getting curious about preferences, interests, and relationships that are sometimes the exact opposite of past preferences, interests, experiences, and relationships.

I hope this information provides survivors with more self-compassion, education, and self-awareness surrounding trauma bonds. You are not alone and it IS possible to break free.


Sources:

Dutton, D. G., & Painter, S. L. (1981). Traumatic bonding: The development of emotional attachments in battered women and other relationships of intermittent abuse. Victimology: An International Journal, 6(1-4), 139-155.
Finkelhor, D., & Browne, A. (1985). The traumatic impact of child sexual abuse: A review and    conceptualization. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 55, 530-541.
Graham, D. L. R. (with Rawlings, E. I., & Rigsby, R. K.). (1994). Loving to survive: sexual terror, men’s violence and women’s lives. New York: New York University Press.
Herman, J. L. (1992). Complex PTSD: A syndrome in survivors of prolonged and repeated trauma. Journal of traumatic stress, 5(3), 377-391.
Herman, J. L. (2015). Trauma and recovery (Vol. 551). Basic books.
Noon, G. S. (1995). The relationship between locus of control and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in battered women. Thesis (Ph.D.)-United States International University.
Reid, J. A., Haskell, R. A., Dillahunt-Aspillaga, C., & Thor, J. A. (2013). Trauma bonding and    interpersonal violence. Psychology of Trauma, 35-61.
Scott, J. P. (1963). The process of primary socialization in canine and human infants. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 1-47.
Seligman, M. (1975). Helplessness: On depression, development and death. San Francisco:  Freeman.
van der Kolk, B. A. (1989). The compulsion to repeat the trauma. Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 12(2), 389-411.Walker, L. E. (1996). Assessment of abusive spousal relationships. The battered woman   syndrome. In F. W. Kaslow (ed.), Handbook of relational diagnosis and dysfunctional   family patterns, Wiley series in couples and and family dynamics and treatment (pp. 338–356). New York: Wiley.
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