Updated: Jan 21
Have you ever felt an attachment to someone and no matter how that person treats you, you find excuses for the bad behaviour and you overlook the red flags and abuse? In fact, you feel you have to do whatever it takes to get love from them to escape the despair of feeling unloved or discarded by them.
Trauma bonding feels like you have no control over your own feelings, it is isolating and fear-inducing. But how does this happen? How do we lose ourselves in a relationship so deeply that we find our boundaries have been compromised and we have no idea how it happened?
Trauma bonds happen in toxic relationships, they tend to be enhanced by the inconsistency of positive reinforcement – or at the least, we hope that something better is coming. Trauma bonding can occur in many different relationships, family, partners, marriage, hostage situations etc. It is also known as Stockholm Syndrome.
The relationship promises you hope and delivers little happiness, mostly pain. It is in the feelings of utopia, passion, and those times they pour out love, or ‘love bombing’ you that you become hooked. Then, it sucks away at your life and most definitely your soul. This intermittent reinforcement of reward and punishment creates a powerful bond between the two that become resistant to change. Therefore, the abuse is accepted with the reinforcement of love and it forms a strong bond that is hard to break. Abuse has been camouflaged by the illusion of being loved. In other words, the bond is so strong that it stops us from seeing the abuse and confusing it for love.
We generally are ‘love bombed’ at the beginning stage of the relationship, and we quickly fall deeply in love when we feel that we are being idealised and then they have us hooked. They confess how much they love us and can’t live without us very quickly and we don’t notice those red flags when they slowly creep into the relationship. The feeling of ‘love’ overrides everything else. We then begin to convince ourselves that the put-downs or insults are them being honest with us to help us grow into better people. Any problems become our fault, and we end up believing the abuser because we trust them more than we trust ourselves or our own judgments. We begin to think that the abuser knows us better than we know ourselves because we love and trust them so much. This means that the abuse is tolerated and accepted. We will do whatever it takes to get the love that we ‘need’ at the expense of ourselves. The fact is when we are abused, we learn to behave in a way, that helps us to get that ‘love’ that we crave.
That is the lie we have learned to believe but the actual truth is, the abuser often needs the relationship to fuel the empty void within themselves, or they need to control the relationship to make up for their own insecurities or selfishness.
We can be punished if we don’t obey their demands and give in to their every need, eventually we have become controlled and we begin to live in fear of the person.
All their bad behaviour can be disguised as love and their insecurities can look like he or she wants us so much, but in fact, it’s their way of controlling us. We maintain the fantasy of being loved by feeling sorry for them or we want to help them. The more we focus on them the more we lose sight of ourselves.
It might feel like love, but this is not real love. A person who loves you will not abuse you, use you, control you in any way, a person in love with you will always make you feel better about yourself, not worse
Signs of Trauma Bonding
You deny the abuse and justify it as being your fault, you may believe you deserve it.
You feel a powerful bond that stops you from seeing the person’s actual behaviour.
You make excuses for your partner's behaviour.
You eventually submit to their demands because you are scared to upset them or out of fear of punishment
You do not believe the threats; e.g. you think they’re just venting.
You think you can ‘fix’ them
You always see their best intentions and do not see that they harm you.
You interpret the abuse as signs of love. e.g. he wants to spend all his time with me
You end up walking on eggshells and pleasing them.
You stop expressing yourself because you want to avoid conflict.
You always believe that they can change, no matter what they are doing to you.
You listen to them because they ‘love’ you.
You eventually ‘submit’ out of fear
You always sacrifice your needs to meet theirs.
You will be good and comply to feel loved and avoid being discarded or punished.
You fear leaving will escalate the abuse
Learning how to live free of the bond.
Sometimes, it is hard to break the cycle of abuse and face the feelings of abandonment, because it brings up the pain of the original longing to be loved. This often causes us to find ways to re-attach ourselves to the abuser. The fear of being with them often is not as strong as the bond. So, it feels more comfortable staying attached to them to hold onto the feeling of being loved.
Being attached through a trauma bond allows you to avoid facing the pain of unmet love in the hope that an abuser can make you feel good enough.
The biggest clue that you are in a trauma bond with an abuser, is when you ignore the signs of abuse and mistake it for love.
There is hope!! We can recover. It isn’t easy but it is doable. Here are a few ideas that I have learned since leaving my abuser 16 years ago.
We have to begin to trust our own judgment and begin to recognise the red flags of abuse.
Recognise what is abuse versus what is love - We have let our need for love blind us into a fantasy not realising that this is not real love, so we need to learn to ground ourselves in reality. None of this is easy as we have been taught to believe the lie and so the reality is hard to spot. But you can begin by committing to live in truth. If you choose to not leave the relationship immediately, you can at least remind yourself to stop fantasizing about what is not happening.
Make decisions that support your self-care. Talk to yourself compassionately and with understanding, you don’t need to put yourself down after all you have lived with someone else doing that. Make decisions and choices that won’t hurt you but support a better way of life for you and what is in your best interest. Remind yourself that you are a work in progress, and you are on a journey.
Live in real-time. – That means to stop living in the ‘will’ or ‘might’ or ‘could’ happen in the future. What is happening right now? In this moment? Notice how you are feeling right now. Trapped? Unloved? Lonely? Broken? How have you ‘lost’ yourself in this relationship? Have you compromised your values, self-respect, or self-worth? Stop hoping and waiting for the empty promises of a better tomorrow and start noticing what is happening now and how it is affecting you.
Begin To ‘feel’ again. For us to survive we may have switched off our feelings so we can protect ourselves. Then, when you are not with the abuser you may feel tempted to reach out to them again. Instead of texting or calling them try to write down your feelings. E.g. I miss … I wish…. I feel…. Teach yourself how to feel through the situation rather than turning to the abuser, because that feels safe… it is not safe. Being one with our emotions isn’t easy at first, it might be overwhelming. But once you have learned that you don’t need to run from them or avoid them you can work through them. The only way out is generally through, so feel them and let them subside.
Live one decision at a time and one hour at a time. – you do not need to figure everything out. We may scare ourselves if we do. Just take a moment to think through the first decision then let the others follow after that.
Rewrite your values and boundaries. Because we may have forgotten who we are, begin a list to re-evaluate what you believe, your values, and the boundaries you want to put in place for yourself.
Learn to Grieve. Just as we have to learn to grieve when someone dies, we need to grieve that relationship, the hopes and the promises that we came to believe in. It is ok to feel sad about how the relationship turned out.
Rebuild your life and make healthy connections. You may have lost your friendship circle or your family as the abuser isolated you, but now it is time to rebuild that. You do deserve so much better than before.
If you feel that you are in an abusive relationship, please feel free to contact me or find someone you trust to help you. Some organisations will support you, so google organisations near you.
Read my 'Great Safe Escape blog for more information on leaving an abusive relationship safely.
If you have found this helpful to understand trauma bonding, then please share and link this blog. If you would like to know more about my own personal story, you can buy my book 'Broken To Be Beautiful' here.
Author information: Xenia Schembri
Along with her husband, Simon, are the founders of the charity At the Ark based on the Gold Coast Queensland Australia. Since 2010 At The Ark have supported families whose children have been abused and families impacted by domestic violence.
Previously, Xenia was in a 15-year domestic violent marriage. Xenia has become a voice for the voiceless and has a passion to prove that the past does not have to negatively impact the future, but positively propel anyone to change to their future.
Xenia was Woman of the Year 2020 on the Gold Coast Australia and one of the Westfield's Local Heroes in 2020. She is an international speaker and author of 4 published books. The Brave Little Bear series that equips families with self-protective behaviours and her own story Broken To Be Beautiful.
Here are links to some of her other blogs that you may find interesting.