How to Tell If You’re in a Toxic Trauma Bond Relationship

Trauma bonding is the connection a person forms to a person who causes physical, emotional, and/or sexual harm in a relationship. These types of relationships usually develop subtly and slowly over time. This bond creates a toxic and highly dangerous situation that continues to get worse and becomes more and more difficult to break.

This article will define trauma bonding, present signs that a relationship is toxic, and offer information on breaking a toxic bond, seeking help, and recovering. 

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What Is Trauma Bonding?

Trauma bonding occurs when a person involved in a toxic or abusive relationship forms a strong bond with, and often idealizes, their abuser. This emotional connection with an abuser is an unconscious way of coping with trauma or abuse.

Relatedly, Stockholm syndrome is the term given to people who become attached to their captures in a hostage situation. This name was given after a 1973 hostage situation in Stockholm, Sweden, where gunmen held four people hostage for five days. After they were rescued, it became evident that the hostages bonded with, felt romantic feelings for, and even legally defended their captures.

Traumatic bonding in these types of relationships is present when there is an imbalance of power, ongoing abuse, and oscillation between warmth and violence.

How Common Is Stockholm Syndrome?

Though it gets a lot of attention, Stockholm syndrome is quite rare and occurs in only a very small percentage of people who are taken hostage. Trauma bonding in a domestic violence situation is much more common.

Signs You Are in a Toxic Relationship

A relationship may be considered toxic when any of the following are present:

  • There isn't mutual support between both people
  • There is ongoing or recurring conflict
  • One person tries to consistently undermine the other
  • There is disrespect, such as name-calling, being careless with the other person's possessions, and humiliation, among others
  • There is unhealthy competition
  • There is a lack of cohesiveness, such as not being able to rely on one another

Toxic relationships can be subtle and difficult to recognize. If clearly violent acts are not taking place, it may not be obvious that a relationship is toxic. Examples might include throwing objects, putting a person down, attempting to control a person's relationships and behaviors, using vulnerability and apologies as manipulation, and causing a person to think the negative aspects of the relationship are their fault.

There is no specific look or type to describe someone who becomes victim to or creates a toxic or traumatic relationship. Those who cause abusive relationships range in age and social status and don't fit a specific profile.

It’s often not obvious to a person that they are in a toxic relationship. It’s not your fault if you realize you are in a traumatic or dangerous situation. Professional help will help you understand your options and plan the safest way to leave the relationship.

One of the more obvious signs of being in a toxic or unhealthy relationship is whether there is intimate partner violence (IPV). IPV doesn't always mean physical harm. It also includes sexual and psychological harm.

This type of violence is not usually apparent until the relationship is solidly established. The abuser initially uses charm and skilled manipulation to "win" the person over and build a strong connection. Once the bond has formed, the abuser demonstrates controlling behavior that can turn into physical, sexual, or psychological violence and uses a mix of continued manipulation by showing remorse, warmth, and kindness to keep the person in the relationship.

How to Break the Bond and Seek Help

It's normal to struggle with leaving a relationship that involves traumatic bonding. There are likely to be good times mixed in with the violence, and it's common to feel love for the person perpetuating the violence.

When deciding how to leave a toxic or violent relationship, it's important to consider the safety of anyone vulnerable who will be involved, including children, as attempts and threats to leave can sometimes bring out additional and worse acts of violence.

Domestic Violence Hotline

Resources can help you develop a plan to successfully break the bond, such as the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE.

Recovery

Recovering from the psychological impact of a relationship with a traumatic bond can take a long time. The bond that is formed with abusers creates a deep and complicated connection that is difficult to break, even after the relationship has ended. The complex nature of traumatic bonding creates feelings of love and longing even when there was physical, psychological, and/or sexual abuse.

Seeking help from a mental health professional such as a psychiatrist or psychologist is recommended to work through the traumatic experience, break the bond, and prevent mental health problems like post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Healing from a toxic relationship can take years, and the psychological impact can weave into other relationships and cause poor life satisfaction and long-term mental and physical health problems.

The recovery process takes patience and often means working to regain a sense of control, developing social skills, building social supports, and practicing safety planning. With ongoing support, most people can build resilience and find post-traumatic growth.

Impact of Toxic and Violent Relationships

Toxic and violent relationships can make an impact physically, causing hypertension, diabetes, and higher rates of HIV. They also have an effect on psychosocial development and can lead to behavioral and mental health issues like sleep problems, depression, anxiety, post traumatic stress disorder, and suicide attempts.

Summary

Traumatic bonding is a complex form of psychological connection with a person who causes psychological, physical, and/or sexual harm. This bond forms subtly over time and is often done at the hands of a highly manipulative and controlling abuser.

People in trauma-bonded relationships usually don't know they are in one until the connection is so strong that it becomes difficult to break.

Ending a toxic or violent relationship can be very challenging, and even dangerous, to do alone. Those seeking to leave an unsafe relationship should do so with professional help and the support of loved ones whenever possible.

A Word From Verywell

It's very difficult to recognize and admit that you are in a toxic or traumatic relationship, and even harder to decide to leave. After leaving a traumatic relationship, most people state they did so only because things progressed to a point where they feared for their lives or their children's lives.

It probably feels impossible to leave or that things will get better over time. It might even feel embarrassing or as though it's your fault that you ended up in the situation in the first place.

If you think you are in an unsafe situation or know someone who might be, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE. Be careful about using the internet to search for resources if you think your internet usage may be tracked. Consider using search engines such as DuckDuckGo, which does not track your search history or IP address.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How does trauma affect the brain?

    When we experience real or perceived threats, our brain and body react automatically to keep us safe.

    The brain responds without taking the time to understand and fully process the situation in order to save time and allow us to react more quickly to stay alive. Once the threat is over, the brain can usually process and store the experience as a memory, which allows us to learn and grow and respond even better the next time. Sometimes, this doesn't happen in healthy ways, and this can contribute to PTSD and other mental health problems.

  • What is the best way to process trauma?

    Traumatic experiences can impact our thoughts, behaviors, and mental and physical wellbeing. For some people, a traumatic experience can be processed by connecting with support systems, tuning in to responses, and finding meaning and growth from the experience. For others, especially those who have gone through complex or ongoing traumatic situations, mental health therapy is the best way to work through the impact of the trauma.

  • What is childhood trauma?

    Childhood trauma is any experience that is overwhelming to a child. This can include things like physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, loss of a significant loved one, difficult divorce between caregivers, car accidents, and acts of violence.

  • How does childhood trauma affect adulthood?

    Unprocessed trauma impacts our brains, bodies, behaviors, and overall wellbeing. Left untreated, childhood trauma can contribute to many different types of issues in adulthood, from an inability to hold meaningful relationships, to ongoing physical and mental health problems.

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