What is Trauma Bonding?

What is Trauma Bonding?

Authored by Pin Ng PhD

Edited by Hugh Soames

Reviewed by Michael Por, MD

Trauma Bonding

You may not be familiar with the term ‘trauma bonding’, yet you may have experienced it. Trauma bonding is something many people go through unknowingly and spend long periods of time in relationship with others experiencing.

Trauma bond is a deep emotional attachment which develops in a relationship containing abuse that’s emotional, physical, or both. In a relationship of this type, the abuser is able to maintain control of the other person by using tactics that make the abused person afraid to end the relationship. The abused individual is terrified of the prospect of ending the relationship and remains in it for the long term.

According to Philippa Gold, Physis Recovery, It may seem ridiculous to experience a trauma bond, because it denotes weakness in the abused person. However, it can be easy to fall into a relationship in which an abuser makes it difficult for the other person to leave.

Research has found that many of the women who experience a trauma bond relationship were extremely capable individuals1https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/8193053/. Their experience was humiliating and embarrassing, and something they were afraid to speak about. When a person experiences a trauma bond, they typically feel isolated and unable to get the help needed to escape the toxic relationship. Being in a trauma bonded relationship is sometimes seen as similar to living with narcissistic abuse syndrome.

How does trauma bonding form?

A trauma bond between two people can form due to the body’s natural stress response. When an individual becomes stressed, their body activates the region of the brain that regulates “motivated behaviors” and emotions. Feelings that are regulated include hunger and sexuality2https://scholarworks.waldenu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=7017&context=dissertations.

The activation of the brain in these areas is known as the “fight or flight” stress response. Sympathetic activation is in control and the regions of the brain that do long-term planning or risk analysis are shut off. When these are shut off, people are unable to be as effective. The brain is simply focused on getting through the period of trauma.

Due to the brain simply trying to get through the trauma, an abused person can build an attachment to the abuser. When an abuser comforts or apologizes to an abused individual, the brain associates the abuser as a comfortable person to be around despite the physical or mental trauma. Even though an abuser causes trauma, the brain likes the positive reinforcement the abuser gives and a long-term relationship and attachment is built.

When does trauma bonding occur?

Trauma bonding has three phases: Attachment, Dependence, and Abuse. It can occur at any time during a relationship in which one person abuses or exploits another. A trauma bond can form from the following situations:

  • domestic abuse
  • child abuse
  • Incest
  • elderly abuse
  • exploitative employment
  • kidnapping or hostage-taking
  • human trafficking
  • religious extremism or cults


Trauma bonds can be created under specific circumstances, including:

  • When a real threat of danger is perceived from an abuser
  • Undergo harsh treatment with small/short periods of kindness
  • Isolation from other people
  • Believe that there is no escape


What are the signs of trauma bonding?

There are several signs of a trauma bond forming or existing between two people. The key sign to a trauma bond is that an abuser justifies or defends the abuse inflicted on a spouse or child. Other signs of a trauma bond include:

  • An abused person agrees with the abusive person’s reasons for the treatment
  • An abused person tries to cover for the abuser
  • An abused person argues with or separates themself from people trying to help
  • An abused person become defensive or hostile when someone intervenes and attempts to prevent the abuse
  • An abused person is reluctant or unwilling to make the steps to leave the abuser and/or break the bond


How to break a trauma bond

It can be a challenge to break a trauma bond. It can take time to end the relationship and step away from the bond. To get out of the toxic relationship, it is recommended to:

  • Focus on the here and now: An abuser should try to acknowledge what is happening and the trauma’s impact. If it is safe for an abuser to keep a diary on the events they experience, then they should do so.
  • Focus on evidence: An abuser my promise to get help for their actions, but never take the steps do get the help needed. Focus on their reluctance to get help and not the promises of seeking treatment in the future.
  • Practice positive self-talk: Abuse may lower an individual’s self-esteem. It can make them feel that they cannot survive without the abuser. Note any negative self-talk and challenge it with positive alternatives. Positive self-talk can alter the situation and the way you feel.
  • Practice self-care: Stress and anxiety can be reduced by taking care of oneself. By improving self-care, an abused person may reduce their interest and desire to find comfort in the abuser.
  • Attend an Intensive Outpatient Program run by an expert Trauma Bonding clinic, without going full residential.


How to safety plan around trauma bonding

An abused person may consider making a safety plan. This includes steps that a person may take to protect themselves physically, mentally, and emotionally. A safety plan may include:

  • A safe place or places where they can go to protect themselves, children, or pets from violence
  • Names and contact information for people or organizations who provide support
  • Information and contact numbers for local abuse organizations and services
  • A way to gather and note down evidence of abuse, for example, a journal with events and dates that can be kept in a safe place
  • A plan to leave the abuser which take into account details such as money, a safe place to live, and work
  • A plan to stay safe after leaving the abuser with a focus on changing locks and phone numbers, changing working hours, and pursuing legal action


To limit the effects of trauma bonding and help an abused person stay firm in their decisions to leave an abuser, they should surround themselves with a support network of friends, family, and mental-health professionals. These individuals can assist the abused individual through the process of leaving and beyond.

Experiencing a trauma bond can make a person question their own reality. A bond can make them trust someone else’s reality more. Coming out of trauma bond is often a process of rediscovery. It can be scary, but ultimately rewarding.

Trauma bonding explained

References: Trauma Bonding

  1. Annitto, M. (2011). Consent, coercion, and compassion: Emerging legal responses to the commercial sexual exploitation of minors. Yale Law & Policy Review, 30, 170. Google Scholar
  2. Cantor, C., Price, J. (2007). Traumatic entrapment, appeasement and complex post-traumatic stress disorder: Evolutionary perspectives of hostage reactions, domestic abuse and the Stockholm syndrome. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 41(5), 377384. https://doi.org/10.1080/00048670701261178
    Google Scholar
  3. Clawson, H. J., Dutch, N., Solomon, A., Grace, L. G. (2009). Human trafficking into and within the United States: A review of the literature. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. https://aspe.hhs.gov/report/human-trafficking-and-within-united-states-review-literature
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  4. Courtois, C. A., Ford, J. D. (2013). Treatment of complex trauma bonding: A sequenced, relationship-based approach. Guildford Press. Google Scholar
  5. 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, 7(4), 139155. Google Scholar
  6. Hanna, C. (2002). Somebody’s daughter: Domestic trafficking of girls for the commercial sex industry and the power of love. William and Mary Journal of Women and Law, 9, 129. https://scholarship.law.wm.edu/wmjowl/vol9/iss1/2
  7. Hom, K. A., Woods, S. J. (2013). Trauma and its aftermath for commercially sexually exploited women as told by front-line service providers. Issues in Mental Health Nursing, 34(2), 7581. https://doi.org/10.3109/01612840.2012.723300
  8. Muftic, L. R., Finn, M. A. (2013). Health outcomes among women trafficked for sex in the United States: A closer look. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 28, 18591885, https://doi.org/10.1177/0886260512469102
  9. Seligman, M. E. P. (1975). Helplessness: On depression, development, and death. W. H. Freeman. Google Scholar
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