Trauma Bonding and How it Impacts Relationships

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.

  • 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.

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Living with Finesse By Dr. Teyhou Smyth

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.