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Understanding Trauma Bonding and How to Find Healing

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), around 41% of women and 26% of men in the United States have experienced intimate partner violence (IPV). Further, 61 million women and 53 million men have experienced physiological aggression from an intimate partner. Moreover, in Child Physical Abuse and Neglect by Casey L. Brown et al., one in four children experience abuse or neglect in their lifetime. The prevalence of abusive relationships does not happen overnight but rather reflects a cycle of abuse found in trauma bonding.

While many relationships can experience conflict, there is still mutual respect and interest in each other’s well-being. On the other hand, abusive relationships often leave you feeling scared, confused, and less than. The negative and confusing feelings that develop in unhealthy relationships can twist your sense of belonging into worthlessness. Through manipulative power dynamics, you may even start to believe that you deserve mistreatment.

At The Guest House, we recognize trauma as a physical and psychological burden that strips away your sense of security. Thus, trauma bonding is the gathering of harmful experiences that perpetuate maladaptive feelings, thoughts, and behaviors throughout your life. We believe understanding how trauma has impacted you can help you address your trauma bonding. When you address trauma bonding, you can recognize what made those relationships harmful and build healthier social connections.

What Is Trauma Bonding?

In the article “Here’s What Trauma Bonding Really Is and How To Recognize the Signs” from the Cleveland Clinic, trauma bonding is the connection a person who is or has been abused forms with their abuser. The abuse that comes from trauma bonding can be physical or emotional and happens in cycles. In addition, cycles of abuse create a false sense of security from moments of perceived affection and protection before the abuse starts again.

According to an article from the United States Department of State (DOS), much of the research related to trauma bonding in the U.S. focuses on the sex trafficking of women and girls. In human trafficking, the cycle of abuse is clear as the traffickers use a cycle of reward and punishment to form intense emotional connections. Through that intense emotional connection, the abuser leaves the abused scared and confused. However, trauma bonding is not exclusive to trafficking and sexual abuse. Trauma bonding can also happen in other types of relationships. Not only can romantic partners be abusive, but parents, other family members, and friends can be as well.

As noted by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), domestic violence (DV), unlike IPV, is a pattern of abusive behavior that can happen in any relationship. Through DV, one partner engages in abusive behavior to gain or maintain power and control over another intimate partner.

Listed below are some of the abuse behaviors that can lead to trauma bonding:

  • Physical abuse:
    • Hitting
    • Slapping
    • Pushing
    • Grabbing
    • Kicking
    • Pinching
    • Biting
    • Choking
    • Hair pulling
    • Withholding
      • Medical care
      • Food
    • Restraining a person
    • Threatening or appearing as though they are going to hit a person
    • Forcing a person to consume substances like drugs and alcohol
  • Sexual abuse:
    • Pressuring or attempting to pressure someone into doing a sexual act or behavior without consent
      • Rape
      • Marital rape
      • Coerced nudity
      • Sexually explicit photography
      • Unwanted touching
      • Assault on any sexual part of the body
      • Forcing sexual intercourse after physical violence
      • Treating someone in a sexually demeaning manner
  • Emotional abuse:
    • Undermining another person’s self-worth and or self-esteem
      • Name-calling
      • Yelling and swearing at the other person
      • Constant criticism
      • Ridiculing
      • Belittling a person’s abilities
      • Manipulating other’s perceptions of a person
        • Damaging their relationship with their children
  • Psychological abuse:
    • Intimidation
    • Harassment
    • Gaslighting
    • Destruction of property
    • Harming pets
    • Threatening physical harm
      • Self
      • Intimate partner
      • Children
      • Intimate partner’s parents and friends
      • Forcing partner to be isolated from others and regular activities
        • Family
        • Friends
        • Work
        • School
  • Economic abuse:
    • Controlling or restraining a person from acquiring, using, or maintaining economic resources they are entitled to
      • Using coercion, fraud, or manipulation to restrict an individual’s access to economic resources
        • Money
        • Assets
        • Credit
        • Financial information
    • Coercively using another person’s economic resources
    • Controlling another person’s financial and economic behaviors or decisions
      • Forcing a person to default on financial obligations
      • Exploiting the power of attorney, guardianship, and conservatorship
      • Failure to or neglect fiduciary duties to act in the best interest of another person’s financial interest
  • Technological abuse:
    • An act or pattern of behavior that utilizes any form of technology against another person
      • To harm
      • Threaten
      • Control
      • Harass
      • Exploit
      • Extort
      • Stalk
      • Impersonate
      • Monitor
    • Technological devices used against another person can include
      • Internet-enabled devices
      • Computers
      • Mobile devices
      • Online spaces and platforms
      • Cameras
      • Imaging programs
      • Apps
      • Location tracking devices
      • Communication technologies
      • Other emerging technologies

Looking at different types of abuse showcases the reality that abuse is not finite. Rather, abuse is expansive in the ways abusers can harm others. As the DOJ notes, DV in and of itself does not discriminate as abusers can manipulate a wide variety of areas in your life that leave a mark on your well-being. Yet, you may wonder if you are trauma bonding in your relationships. How do you know if you are trauma bonding in your relationships?

Signs of Trauma Bonding

As the Cleveland Clinic notes, there are a few key signs of trauma bonding in a variety of relationships. Some of the most common signs of trauma bonding include:

  • Denial of red flags or ignoring the unhealthy parts of the relationship
    • Red flags often reflect a pattern of harmful behavior that can occur before a relationship appears dangerous
    • There are often clear red flags, like physical abuse
    • However, there are also many silent or subtle flags that are easier to overlook, such as:
      • Texting, calling, or messaging constantly
      • Showering you with gifts
      • Wanting to be with you all the time
      • It seems like they always want to know where you are, what you are doing, and who you are with
      • They have strong opinions on what you wear that, over time, morph into telling you what you can and cannot wear
  • Isolation
    • Experiencing abuse may lead you to withdraw and isolate yourself from your loved ones
    • An abuser may coerce you into separating yourself from your loved ones
  • Secrecy
    • You keep secrets from your abuser and others to avoid upsetting your abuser
      • Decisions regarding finances, housing, child-rearing, and careers
  • Making excuses for the abuser’s actions
    • You find ways to justify your abuser’s actions in an effort to reconcile the situation
      • Making excuses for the abusive behaviors
        • You tell yourself the abuser is under a lot of stress
        • The abuser was so loving the other day

Looking at the signs of trauma bonding highlights how easy it can be to convince yourself that your relationship is healthy. It can be difficult to realize you are in an abusive relationship or to recognize that your loved one is harming you. However, abuse often happens with the people you feel close to. Therefore, understanding how trauma bonding happens can provide insight into how to address it.

How Does Trauma Bonding Happen?

As noted by the DOS, trauma bonding presents a cycle of abuse that can negatively impact your psychological well-being. The cycle of abuse is repeated trauma that impacts the way you think and feel about yourself, others, and the world. Notably, in chapter three of Trauma-Informed Care in Behavioral Health Services from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), traumatic experiences can harm multiple aspects of your wellness, such as emotional, cognitive, and behavioral. Experiencing multiple traumas can make it challenging to regulate your emotions, which can lead to two emotional extremes: overwhelmed and numb.

Further, an abusive relationship with an imbalance in power dynamics can leave you feeling numb and disconnected from yourself. As SAMHSA states, numbing happens when your emotions become detached from your thoughts, behaviors, and memories. A lack of attachment to your emotions in an abusive relationship increases the need for intense interactions in an effort to feel something.

Moreover, the psychological coercion in trauma bonding builds environments based on isolation, exhaustion, confusion, fear, pain, and loss, leaving no space for a life beyond the abuse. When sources of comfort and support feel inaccessible, it leaves your abuser as your only source of connection. The abuser becomes both your captor and protector as your sense of belonging is corrupted. It is also important to recognize that abusive relationships have a profound impact on your long-term wellness.

The Impact of Unhealthy Relationships on Well-Being

According to an article from the International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, the abused in intimate relationships often experience multiple forms of abuse. Experiencing multiple forms of abuse in intimate and close relationships can increase the severity of difficulties with mental health conditions. Some of the mental health conditions that can develop from multiple forms of abuse include:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Impaired attachment
  • Difficulties with physical intimacy

Moreover, people who are abused by an intimate or close partner often experience more severe physiological distress than those abused by acquaintances or strangers. The increase in severity of intimate and close relationship abuse may be tied to the type of relationship the abused and abuser share. In intimate relationships, there are often more complex emotional and financial dynamics that tie the people in the relationship to each other. Further, intimate and close relationships provide more opportunities for repeated abuse compared to the more isolated incidents that happen with strangers.

Another factor that can contribute to poor physical and psychological outcomes is coping strategies. Adaptive coping skills are meant to help you find healthy ways to deal with the thing causing distress and help you regulate or alleviate your emotions. Conversely, maladaptive coping skills often engage you in self-defeating behaviors that perpetuate emotional distress. In an abusive relationship, you may find it more difficult to regulate your emotions and utilize healthy problem-solving skills.

Therefore, recognizing the difference between healthy and unhealthy relationships can help you learn how to break the trauma bonding cycle and heal.

Recognizing Healthy and Unhealthy Relationships

An article from the Journal of Health and Social Behavior notes that quality social ties can be beneficial to your behavioral, psychosocial, and physiological health. Healthy social ties support mutual care between the people in the relationship. When people in close relationships care for each other, they form a sense of responsibility and concern for each other’s well-being.

Your commitment to each other’s well-being leads you to engage in behaviors that protect each other’s health. For example, close family and friends may go to the gym, do yoga, or go on walks together to encourage and support each other’s well-being. Therefore, as the Commonwealth of Massachusetts notes, healthy relationships share certain characteristics that should be expected and followed to support each other’s wellness.

Listed below are some of the characteristics of healthy relationships:

  • Mutual respect
    • You value each other and understand and respect each other’s boundaries
  • Trust
    • You know you can rely on each other, and you’ll have each other’s backs
  • Honesty
    • You are truthful with each other
    • Your truthfulness has built trust in your relationship
    • The trust you share with each other has strengthened your relationship
  • Communication
    • When you communicate with each other, you are open and honest
    • You make space for each other to share your thoughts and feelings
    • Rather than talking over each other, you take turns sharing
  • Understanding
    • You all take time to recognize, listen, and understand each other’s feelings
  • Compromise
    • You are able to acknowledge each other’s points of view
    • There is a healthy give-and-take in your relationships
    • One person does not always get their way
    • Everyone’s needs and wants are taken into consideration
  • Anger control
    • You use healthy coping skills to process your anger rather than lash out at others
      • Taking deep breaths
      • Counting to ten
      • Stepping away from the situation
      • Taking a walk
    • When everyone is calm, you discuss the issue together
  • Healthy conflict
    • You work together to come up with solutions
    • Everyone communicates openly and respectfully with each other to solve the issue
    • You focus on one topic rather than bring up other issues
    • Everyone avoids insulting each other
    • You respect each other’s need for a break from the conversation if things get heated
  • Problem-solving
    • You work together to find new solutions to issues by breaking problems down into more manageable pieces
  • Individuality
    • You compromise on things but not on who you are as people
    • No one tries to change themselves to match or fit the other’s personality
    • You are able to have a variety of different and close relationships without neglecting others
    • Everyone still makes time for their individual interest and passions
    • You are supportive of each other’s interests and encourage each other to pursue new things outside of the relationship
    • No one attempts to prevent each other from having other close relationships
  • Self-confidence
    • You feel more comfortable with who you are and your relationships
    • Everyone feels less threatened by others
    • You are able to let other people share their opinions openly
  • Role model
    • You embody what giving and being respected should look like
    • The respect you give and expect in return inspires everyone to treat each other respectfully

While the traumas that lead to trauma bonding are deeply distressing, healing can happen. The characteristics of a healthy relationship showcase that you can have positive and supportive relationships in your life.

Breaking the Trauma Cycle at The Guest House

Leaving an abusive relationship – whether it was with an intimate partner, a friend, parents, or another relative – is never easy. Moreover, trauma bonding can make the process of severing that harmful relationship even harder. The bonds you form with people make the process of disconnection more emotionally complicated and confusing, but you know that love, support, and respect are not bargaining chips. You have and are doing what is necessary for your long-term well-being as you choose positive social ties over the distress of trauma bonding.

Yet, now you may wonder how you move forward with your life after trauma bonding. The healing process starts with seeking support to address how the trauma of these relationships has impacted you. At The Guest House, we know trauma bonding is your brain and body’s stress reactions to the trauma you have endured. Your traumatic response to the abuse you have experienced is an attempt to avoid, comprehend, or reconcile with the unimaginable things that have happened to you.

However, true healing cannot happen without addressing how your trauma has impacted you. When trauma is left unaddressed, it opens the door to unhealthy coping strategies, physical and psychological distress, and unhealthy social connections. Therefore, we are committed to helping you build healthy coping skills to process your trauma for your long-term recovery. With a holistic approach to care, you can heal the whole self in mind, body, and spirit. When you have tools for whole-person healing, you can start building positive and supportive connections on your journey to long-term recovery.

Trauma bonding can harm your long-term well-being. An abusive cycle of affection and manipulation can make you feel confused and worthless. Furthermore, trauma bonding in an abusive relationship may make it easier to ignore and justify an abuser’s behavior as they become both captor and protector. However, with support, you can learn to recognize harmful behavior patterns in your relationships. When you have access to holistic care that supports healing the whole person, you can better understand how trauma has impeded your wellness. At The Guest House, we offer a wide range of therapeutic modalities to help you process your trauma and truly heal. Call us at (855) 483-7800 today.