11 Signs Of Trauma Bonding — And How To Break Free From This Unhealthy Cycle

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Trauma bonding is characterized as loyalty to a person who is destructive. Although the term suggests a bonding of people through a shared experience of trauma, it's anything but.

While the idea of "bonding" tends to bring up implications of something good and beneficial, trauma bonds are both unhealthy and dysfunctional. A trauma bond is a term used to describe how the “misuse of fear, excitement, and sexual feelings” can be used to trap or entangle another person.

Thus, trauma bonds occur when you go through periods of intense love and excitement with a person followed by periods of abuse, neglect, and mistreatment.

Trauma bonding refers to a maladapted attachment bond that is created through repeated abusive or traumatic childhood experiences with the caregiver, whereby this relationship pattern becomes internalized as a learned pattern of behavior for attachment.

RELATED: Narcissistic Abuse Is Easily Mistaken For Love (But Here’s How To Tell The Difference)

Trauma bonding can be difficult to recognize and understand.

Trauma bonds can form in any relationship making it harder to recognize and understand. Individuals that have a dysfunctional bond with someone else may not initially recognize their attachment bond is unhealthy.

Rather, trauma bonding is usually recognized from the outside looking in. Friends and other family members are more likely to see toxic attachments than the individuals involved in the relationship. It is much easier to detect unhealthy bonds when observing another's relationship. 

Trauma bonds strengthen over time unless the abuse cycle is broken.

Because trauma bonds exist in maladapted relationships whenever dysfunctional cycles occur, they must be identified and extinguished.

Negative cycles that are not identified or extinguished become strengthened, reinforced over time. Once reinforcement occurs in dysfunctional exchanges, it can be extremely difficult if not impossible to resolve in toxic relationships.

Stockholm syndrome is common in trauma bonding.

In abusive relationships that include physical violence, incest, or hostage situations, trauma bonding can occur as a way to emotionally manage the abuse

For example, a hostage may bond with the hostage-taker and come to sympathize with their captors. This is the opposite of the fear, terror, and disdain that might be expected from the victims in these situations.

Many mental health professionals consider “Stockholm syndrome” bonding with someone abusing you as a coping mechanism, or a way to help victims handle the trauma of a terrifying situation.

Unfortunately, some victims begin to perceive their abuser’s humanity and believe they have the same goals and values.

Here are 11 signs of trauma bonding and how you can recognize the pattern and break free of it.

1. You know someone is bad for you, but you keep going back.

You want to leave the relationship — and the abuser — but you find yourself being drawn back into the relationship or to the abuser.

2. Fear of cutting them out of your life creates emotional distress.

You get upset at the thought of leaving this person, even though you know your relationship isn't healthy.

3. You exclude everyone from your relationship.

Yes, everyone. No one comes between you and your abuser.

4. You isolate yourself from anyone who doesn't include the abuser.

This can include friends, family, or other loved ones. If they don't want anything to do with your abuser, you want nothing to do with them.

5. You worry about doing things that may upset them.

This can include hanging out with friends, doing activities, or even dyeing your hair certain colors the abuser doesn't like. If they don't like it, you avoid it.

RELATED: Why Trauma Bonding Keeps People Stuck In Abusive Relationships

6. You defend their negative behaviors to others.

This can come in the traditional form of, "it's my fault he got so angry." Or this can manifest in other lesser ways, like when your abuser says a terrible comment about you and you defend it as his "humor," instead of what it is: an abusive verbal attack.

7. You know they are abusive and manipulative, but you can't let them go.

You hate the behaviors they exhibit, but you feel unable to walk away from them despite wondering if you'd be happier somewhere else.

8. You consider their happiness to be your happiness.

You base all of your actions on their happiness. You want to make them happy in everything you do.

However, they don't seem to concern themself with your happiness. Their actions suggest that you don't matter.

9. You have lost your sense of worth.

You feel like you don't have any value, whether to yourself or in your relationship. You may have felt at one time that you did, but it's been gone since getting entangled with your abuser.

10. You feel invisible in the relationship.

Everything is about someone else's happiness, someone else's wants, someone else's dreams and needs. You don't feel like you matter to them, even though they matter to you quite a bit.

11. You view the abuser as your “drug.”

You don't feel right unless you've spent time with your abuser or have mollified them in some way. Trying to go out and do things on your own can leave you with a crippling sense of fear.

What does the cycle of trauma bonding look like?

Most dysfunctional relationships start with the abuser listening intently to the victim's wants and needs, showing them all the affection they lack and seem to crave for.

However, once this is done, the abuser hones in on the victim’s vulnerabilities and weaknesses. Typically, the abuser will start complimenting the victim on their looks, intellect, or personality to make them feel safe, beautiful, seen, and special.

Once the compliments and validation have won over the victim, the abuser will begin to devalue their victim, and the episodes of abuse will begin. The victim then works harder and harder to please the abuser, often to the point of utter physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion.

The victim becomes consumed with getting back the “amazing” or “thoughtful” person they met by any means necessary.

How to break the cycle of trauma bonding.

The most effective way to break trauma bonds include educating yourself about trauma, finding a therapist that specializes in it, ending a relationship, or avoiding contact with the toxic individual.

Cutting off contact with the abuser limits the ability to reinforce a negative cycle. Finding new friends, reconnecting with old friends, or trying new things can also help victims develop healthier activities and break negative cycles.

Trauma bonding is painful and can leave you feeling hopeless, but you can get away from your abuser and begin to love and appreciate yourself, no matter how long you've been in this toxic relationship.

RELATED: What Is Trauma Bonding? The Scientific Reason So Many Women Stay Stuck In Emotionally Abusive Relationships

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Dr. Tarra Bates-Duford is a psychologist who has engaged in extensive work and research on familial relationships, family trauma, and dysfunctions. To know more, visit Family Matters Counseling Group.