Trauma Bonding

A traumatic event is an occurrence that overwhelms our stress response system. When we endure trauma from someone close to us we can develop a trauma bond, especially when we experience trauma repeatedly by an attachment figure. A trauma bond occurs when the abused develops sympathy or affection towards their abuser. This can happen over any time period and rarely, if ever, develops into a healthy relationship. A trauma bond can cause the abused to experience guilt, confusion and self-judgment when analyzing their feelings towards their abuser, however this type of bond, while unhealthy, can originate from a protective place in the abused person.

How Trauma Bonding Occurs from Our Fight, Flight Or Freeze Response

Our brains have a survival response system, often referred to as the “Fight, Flight or Freeze” response. The body can activate this response system if our brains detect danger and turn on different pathways to get us out of the dangerous situation safely. This is the same response system that is responsible for the increase in adrenaline we experience after we hear an unexpected loud noise or are startled. It is our “Fight, Flight or Freeze” response system has allowed our species to survive for as long as we have and it is this system that becomes activated when we experience trauma. 

Survivors who endure abuse from their loved ones, especially their parents as children or their partners as adults, go through an extremely complicated process to try to make sense of their relationship with the abuser. In an effort to allow the survivor to be able to function with their abuser the brain may turn on protective defense mechanisms in the form of dissociation, forgetting or minimizing abuse or even to take responsibility if the abuse with an attachment figure. For example, it would be extremely difficult for a child to function with the knowledge that they have to rely on the same person who is mistreating them so the brain may “try to make sense” of the abuse by using one of the above tactics to allow the child to still function with their abuser day to day. This is not the say that abuse is therefore alright. It is not and no one deserves to be mistreated or abused. 

What This Does Not Say About The Survivor

  1. That the abuse did not happen.
  2. That they want the abuse to happen.
  3. That they deserve abuse.
  4. That there is something “wrong” with them.

What This Means

Forming a trauma bond with an abuser does not mean there is something wrong with the survivor but rather speaks to the survivor’s ability to survive in a dangerous, unpredictable environment. No one deserves to be in a dangerous, unstable relationship or environment. If you feel you may have this type of attachment to a person who has made you feel unsafe, please call our office to work through your emotions related to trauma bonding to enhance self-compassion and secure safety for current and future relationships

By Marissa Ahern, LMSW