How often have you seen it? In fact, you may sometimes use the term “Stockholm syndrome” to describe when an abused person bonds with their abuser. To the uninitiated, this may be confusing. Anyone familiar with the process of abuse knows this as trauma bonding. The term “trauma bonding” was coined by Patrick Carnes Ph.D.

The ongoing cycle of abuse and remorse creates a psychological response. It can even be present in extreme scenarios like incest, child abuse, domestic abuse, cults, and human trafficking. But perhaps even more surprising is how common and subtle it can be. You don’t have to be the victim of kidnapping to experience trauma bonding.

How Does Trauma Bonding Happen?

Here’s the familiar template:

  • A person is in an ugly situation where a threat is obvious or perceived
  • They are isolated and cannot see any way to escape
  • The abuser treats them harshly but intersperses small doses of kindness

Our body’s stress response is designed to get us through the situation at hand. The trauma keeps us on high alert but the occasional kindness feels like positive reinforcement. Your brain is desperately seeking solutions. Thus, it opts to focus on such positive reinforcement rather than any long-term plan of escape. Over time, this can create an illusion that the abuser represents something positive. A trauma bond is forming.

A Chemical Component

In healthy relationships, hormones like oxytocin and dopamine help create your bond. On some level, you and your partner literally crave each other. In a recent research study, people who had just undergone a painful break-up were tested. When shown photos of their exes, certain parts of their brain lit up. They were the parts associated with addictions like nicotine or cocaine. Bearing this in mind, it’s not difficult to see how an abuser can manipulate someone into a dysfunctional form of such addiction.

How to Recognize a Trauma Bond

  • Your focus (fixation?) is only on the happy times. You use these examples to prove to others that your relationship is healthy.
  • You make excuses for your partner and keep their behaviors a secret.
  • Any attempt to leave on your part is met with tall tales from your partner. They “promise” to change and you choose to believe them — again.
  • You believe you can change them.
  • No matter how unhappy — or scared — you sometimes feel, you can’t end the relationship.
  • You’re in the kind of relationship you would urge a friend to end.
  • There is a clear power imbalance between you and your partner.
  • You feel incomplete without them.
  • You experience the above-mentioned cycles of love and abuse.

How to Challenge a Trauma Bond

  • Find Ways to Practice Self-Love: Practice daily self-care. Do your best to cut off negative self-talk. Find any way possible to reinforce a positive self-image.
  • Choose Evidence Over Promises: Keep a journal. Use it to monitor your partner’s actual behavior vs. their promises of change.
  • Choose Now Over Later: Give up thoughts about some ideal time in the future. Stay present right here and now. Identify and accept what is happening at this moment.

Breaking the Unhealthy Bond and Keeping it Broken

There are so many factors in play here. You have to recognize the trauma bond and then do the challenging work of breaking it. That still leaves you in a daily struggle to not go back and/or obsess. You may feel shame, guilt, grief, and loss. Translation: You need a therapist with experience in both trauma and abuse.

I’d like to be that professional guide for you. Learn more about trauma treatment and how I can help you reduce the impact traumatic experiences have had on you.  This is a difficult situation but you can break free and thrive again. Love does not have to hurt like this.