Trauma Bonding and How it Impacts Relationships


Traumatic events in our lives have a way of cementing themselves into our conscious and subconscious minds. When the mind and body is impacted by trauma, it influences most other aspects of life, from decision making processes, to work experiences and everything in between. Trauma takes a major toll on one’s relationships, especially if the original trauma involved betrayal of humanity or risk of harm by people who were supposed to be loving and nurturing. Childhood trauma, abuse and domestic violence can create rifts in our ability to trust others, and often this translates into problems in future relationships.

When two people who already have trauma histories get involved, it often turns into disastrous scenarios in which each person is triggered by the other. People with PTSD often struggle with emotional regulation and trauma triggers emphasize this. Irrational reactions, behavioral outbursts and violent episodes create new trauma and reinforce the cycles of pain.

Why Do People Stay in Trauma Bond Relationships?

Traumatic bonds are complicated. Couples who are in these high-risk relationships often recognize how unhealthy it is but have a difficult time leaving. Often the challenge with leaving stems from the reality that the relationship is not always bad. Between the episodes of trauma and pain, there can be periods of harmony, connection, and peace.

There are other reasons people stay in trauma bond relationships that have more toxic origins. Abusive relationships are often maintained by manipulation and emotional abuse.

  • Gaslighting behaviors can make abuse victims feel as if they are going crazy. When an abuser denies that certain events happened or try to convince the victim that it happened differently than it did, this establishes doubt in one’s perceptions. Gaslighting behavior is when someone changes the story to make it seem like the victim was the one to blame.
  • Threats to inflict additional abuse or harm to the victim or their loved ones is often a compelling reason people feel as if they must stay in an unhealthy relationship. If one feels that they may be killed if they leave, or their loved ones may be harmed, the risks of leaving may feel untenable.
  • Love-bombing is also a manipulative tactic that abusive people use to keep their partners from leaving. Offering an onslaught of affection, adoration, and apologies, along with assuring the victim that they will change can instill a temporary sense of hope that things will get better.
  • Low self-worth is another factor that keeps people with trauma bonds together. Early trauma and co-occurring depression or anxiety can influence the way one views themselves and their worth. Often people with trauma history, depression and low self-worth will have the perception that they do not deserve better treatment and this thought is often reinforced by the abuser.
  • Plays for empathy are also a common tool abusive people use to maintain the relationship with a victim. This is particularly effective if the abuser also has a history of trauma and their partner has empathy for them and their experience. Coupled with low self-worth, one’s own trauma history and other manipulation tactics, plays for empathy can be highly effective and can help maintain an unhealthy relationship for extended periods of time.

Breaking Free

People in the grips of a traumatic bond relationship can get out of the situation with help and support. Accessing support from domestic violence agencies, police and the legal system feels risky for victims of abuse, but with the right planning this can be a safe transition. Accessing help from loved ones and making a plan to escape safely is key.

Often part of the healing process for survivors is engaging in therapy and addressing some of the underlying traumatic events that have imprinted on one’s mind and body. EMDR and CBT are good ways to get to the root of these issues and change one’s physiological and emotional responses to trauma and core beliefs these experiences may have instilled along the way.

Traumatic bonds in relationships are destructive and often self-perpetuate. Recognizing the impact of trauma on one’s life and being aware of the ways others may interact with you is a necessary part of the healing process. Breaking the cycle of repeated trauma can influence not only one’s own life, but intergenerational patterns. The decision to end the cycle of trauma bonds can impact entire families and future generations. Reaching out for support is the first step. Help is available.



Living with Finesse By Dr. Teyhou Smyth

Dr. Teyhou Smyth is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (#115137) and an Adjunct Professor of Psychology at the Graduate School of Education & Psychology.