Trauma Bonding Doesn’t Mean What You Think it MeansYou know the whole misery-loves-company thing. It’s not that.
Had you asked me last month, I would have told you I was trauma-bonded to at least five coworkers from various nightmare jobs. But as it turns out, trauma bonding isn’t when two people endure things like a brutal work environment.
To be fair, “We’re trauma-bonded,” does feel like the only appropriate way to express why you and an old colleague are so close with seemingly nothing else in common. That said, trauma bonding is a mental health phenomenon that has nothing to do with work friends surviving 14-hour days for a garbage salary together.
No judgment though if you’ve been using this phrase incorrectly. As with tons of other therapy words on the internet (hi, codependency), the definition has gotten watered down over time, says Staci Benaroya, LCSW, a licensed psychotherapist who specializes in relational trauma.
Whether you’re a fellow know-it-all looking to drop some knowledge in your group chat or you want to figure out if you’ve actually been trauma-bonded to someone, here’s what that really means, who it happens to, and how to identify it in your own life.
What is trauma bonding?
Though it’s not an official diagnosis, clinical term, or even a well-studied phenomenon, many mental health pros agree a person is trauma-bonded when they’re psychologically and emotionally attached to their abuser via a pattern of positive reinforcement (like being shown intense affection and intimacy), followed by gaslighting and manipulation, explains Benaroya. “You end up with this deep emotional connection with the person who is abusing you,” she says.
Though trauma bonding can happen in any relationship, like between a parent and child or a boss and employee, it’s most common in romantic partnerships. That’s likely because we tend to be our most vulnerable, open, and attached to our significant others, which creates the perfect foundation for a trauma bond to exist, says trauma psychiatrist and neuroscientist Arash Javanbakht, MD, author of Afraid: Understanding the Purpose of Fear and Harnessing the Power of Anxiety.
What makes a trauma bond different from other abusive relationships is how good they can feel after the bad. “These relationships tend to have incredible highs filled with intoxicating love and adoration,” says Benaroya. “Eventually, the victim begins to anticipate the high that comes after the low, and that positive reinforcement keeps them stuck in a pattern of abuse.”
Why do trauma bonds happen?
In her experience, one of the biggest reasons people find themselves in a trauma-bonded relationship is because it feels familiar, says Benaroya. “If you grew up in a family where love came with pain and abuse, you’re more likely to repeat that dynamic in future relationships,” she explains. In fact, your nervous system might even prefer chaos because it feels safer and more familiar than a stable relationship.
In a trauma-bonded relationship, your brain is also constantly stimulated and rewarded by the lows and highs, which “gives them an addictive component that’s hard to quit,” says Dr. Javanbakht. As a result, healthy bonds are coded as boring, while emotionally abusive bonds can feel exciting or comfortable, which means you’re less likely to notice red flags in a relationship. “It’s much harder to leave a pathological relationship than it is to leave a healthy relationship,” Dr. Javanbakht notes.
How to tell if you’re in a trauma bond
Again, not all abusive or manipulative relationships are trauma bonds (though all trauma bonds are abusive and manipulative). If you want to take a closer look at your own relationships (or those of someone you know) here are a few of the biggest red flags of a trauma bond situation. Of course, if you’re dealing with any type of abuse, seeking help from a mental health professional—or calling the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 (SAFE) or 1-800-787-3224 (TTY)—is always a good idea.
1. You often feel suffocated with affection.
Love bombing, as a reminder, is when a partner showers you with over-the-top everything, like compliments, gifts, trips, flattery, intimacy, and quality time. That can often happen at the start of a trauma-bonded relationship (the high highs) and after every fight (the low lows), says Benaroya.
Even though the goal behind love bombing is to further connect you to your abuser, it can also leave you feeling overwhelmed and anxious for the inevitable downfall that comes next in the cycle, says Dr. Javanbakht.
2. You can’t be yourself around them.
After periods of intense love and affection, you may find yourself watching what you say and how you behave to avoid triggering your partner. “There’s a lot of confusion in a trauma bond, especially in the low moments,” says Benaroya. “This person just showered you with intimacy, and now they’re acting cold and hostile.”
The emotional flip can leave you feeling guilty, tense, and nervous because you never know what’s going to set the other person off. “A victim of trauma bonding is made to feel really wrong about the way they move through the world,” says Benaroya.
3. You rarely feel heard or seen.
Blaming, critiquing, and invalidating you and your emotions are all forms of control, says Benaroya. If your feelings are wrong, your thoughts are wrong, and every problem is your fault, then you have no reason to leave the relationship, right? Basically, it’s a way to keep you close, she says.
But when you’re in a relationship where your emotions don’t matter and you also feel like you can’t leave, “you start to shut down, go inwards, and eventually stop trying to defend yourself,” says Benaroya.
4. You’ve lost friends.
Feeling isolated is one of the easiest-to-see signs of a trauma bond. Think about your friends and family for a second; do they feel as present as before your relationship began? “The expectation from a good relationship is that it expands your life, not limits your life,” says Dr. Javanbakht. “If you have significantly fewer friends now than you did before, that's not a good sign.”
As for the people who stand by you, it can be a struggle to relate to or communicate with them anymore. “In a trauma bond, you’re taken to a totally different world of manipulative and abusive communication,” says Dr. Javanbakht. Maybe you don’t want your friends to meet them (“They just don’t understand us.”), or you’re tired of justifying their behaviors (“That’s just who they are!”).
You might even start ghosting those outside interactions altogether. “It’s like you live in a fish tank, and everyone else is outside breathing the air, while you’re alone underwater,” says Dr. Javanbakht. “Moving between these two worlds is hard, and sometimes, you just decide to stay inside the fish tank.”
How do you break a trauma bond?
If you suspect you’re trauma-bonded, it probably feels impossible to ever get out. But it’s definitely not. Though everyone’s path to healing will look a little different, a great first step is talking. Talk to a therapist, talk to your friends and chosen family, talk earnestly with yourself. “A therapist will validate your experiences and help you set and keep boundaries, while your inner circle will help you feel safe, loved, and supported,” says Benaroya.
Even if you feel alienated from your past connections, you can bet that most of them want to be there for you. “I always say that if you open your arms, those around you will guide you,” says Dr. Javanbakht.
Above all, be gentle with yourself. Seriously. “Leaving a trauma bond goes against everything your body thinks is safe, which is very dysregulating,” says Benaroya. So be kind to yourself while you work through the stress of the aftermath.
If you or someone you know is experiencing any type of abuse, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 (SAFE) or 1-800-787-3224 (TTY) for anonymous, confidential help available 24/7, or visit thehotline.org.
Wondermind does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Any information published on this website or by this brand is not intended as a replacement for medical advice. Always consult a qualified health or mental health professional with any questions or concerns about your mental health.