Have You Heard Of Trauma Bonding?

Marriage Counseling Insights brought to you by California Psychotherapeutic Resources, Inc.

Romantic relationships are like the human body: when everything is working well, you hardly give it a second thought. But oh my, there are so many ways everything can go wrong. One particularly insidious problem in romantic relationships may manifest itself in a cycle of abusive behavior followed by brief moments of positive reinforcement — behavior that could be a symptom of “trauma bonding.”

A couple hugging

Writing for MindBodyGreen.com, Julie Nguyen says, “In practice, trauma bonding looks like a compulsive cycle of wanting to please your partner to avoid setting them off, followed by an incident of physical, verbal, or emotional abuse, and then a honeymoon period where all seems well. Your partner may remorsefully cry to you saying it wasn’t their character and they’ll never do it again, equally fueling your fear and trust in them. You want to believe it will get better, which is why you stay. Yet the pattern continues.”

Just as important as recognizing signs of trauma bonding, it’s also necessary to know what it’s not. “It’s often misunderstood, minimized, and even romanticized’” says Nguyen. “People sometimes think trauma bonding is simply bonding over shared traumas… or that it’s simply about overcoming obstacles and hard moments together. In truth, trauma bonding is a feature of abusive relationships.”

If you’re in a troubled relationship, look for the following signs of trauma bonding:

Looking past red flags for the allure of the honeymoon phase. Our thoughts and emotions are greatly influenced by physiological processes. “When you bond with a partner,” says Nguyen, “your body releases happy chemicals like dopamine (released through attraction) and oxytocin (released through orgasm and hugging), which cements your attachment. However, in a trauma bond, it can keep you ‘addicted’ to them and holding on to the instances they are kind to you.” Being aware of how these physiological processes affects your behavior is the first step in taking control of your actions — and your thoughts and emotions.

You feel drained and avoid open communication. If honest communication often ends up in conflict, then it’s only natural to avoid sharing your true thoughts and feelings. That is a path toward a shallow and inauthentic relationship.

You don’t feel like yourself and keep secrets. If you find yourself hiding your partner’s actions from your family and friends, it’s a sign that you’re aware on some level that the relationship is deeply problematic.

Defending your partner’s bad behaviors. This is one of the surest signs of a trauma bond. Partners need to take responsibility for their words and actions. If you’re making excuses for your partner’s behavior, step back and honestly ask yourself if that’s a bright red flag.

Persistent loyalty in the face of danger. Loyalty is good only up to a point. As with defending your partner’s bad behavior, being loyal to an abusive partner is often a sure sign of a trauma bond.

Read more about the cause of trauma bonding and how to heal here.