5 Signs of Trauma-Bonding
3. You're not sure you'd leave even if things got worse.
Posted March 26, 2023 | Reviewed by Vanessa Lancaster
- A trauma bond occurs when you become emotionally attached to someone who abuses you.
- One of the most effective ways to break free from a trauma bond is to go no-contact or low-contact with the toxic person.
- Talking to a licensed mental health professional is important for healing from a trauma bond.
You may develop a trauma bond in relationships with toxic people, whether they have narcissistic or sociopathic tendencies. A trauma bond occurs when you have become emotionally attached to someone that abuses you (Reid, 2013).
You may have heard of a trauma bond named Stockholm Syndrome after an event in which hostages develop emotional attachments to their captors. Trauma bonding can be common in toxic relationships, whether those relationships are with partners, parents, siblings, or friends.
These are some of the signs of being trauma-bonded:
You Realize You Don't Even Like This Person
When you spend time with a toxic person, you realize you dislike being around them. You feel angry toward them but know it's unsafe for you to express your feelings. You may have physical reactions to being near the person or having them touch you. Your skin may crawl, or you feel sick to your stomach. Getting some time to yourself is a huge relief. Yet you find yourself drawn to this person and don't know why since you don't like them.
Your Relationship Is Built Around Guilt and Shame
A toxic person uses fear, obligation, and guilt to keep you in their grasp. If you speak up for your needs, you are told you are selfish and demanding. Worse yet, you are told you have no right to those needs. When you set boundaries, they are systematically dismantled. When you plan to go out, you are guilted into staying home. They may tell you that you "owe" them after "everything I've done for you." You are told you can't do anything right. Your parenting is criticized, and you are told your kids would be better off if you weren't their parent. The more you try to break free, the more you are guilted and shamed.
You're Not Sure You'd Leave if the Abuse Increased
The longer you are with a toxic person, the more the abusive behavior is normalized. Because of the guilt and shame you are subjected to, you may be less likely to leave if the abuse increases. If you leave, you, your family, and your pets may have been threatened. You may have been isolated from others, leading to you not getting support outside your relationship. Before this relationship, you may have had difficulty understanding why victims of abuse don't leave their partners. Now you understand.
You Have Been Lovebombed, Devalued, and Hoovered
Your relationship with a toxic person may have an extreme push-pull cycle. At the beginning of your relationship, you are showered with attention, gifts, and verbal affirmation. You are told by the toxic person that you are perfect, and they have never met someone like you. This is the love-bombing phase.
When you set a boundary or exert independence, you experience being devalued by the toxic person. You go from being someone who can "do no wrong" to someone who can "do no right." When you try to leave the relationship, the toxic person tries to get you to stay so they can continue to feed their "narcissistic supply." If you have left the relationship, the toxic person may go to extreme lengths to contact you. This is referred to as hoovering. If you do return to the relationship, you may experience a short period of love bombing, but it will return to the same level of toxicity.
You Are Hypervigilant
A healthy relationship is consistent; you can be reasonably sure of each others' behavior and how you react in different situations. However, you may be "walking on eggshells" in a toxic relationship. You are careful about what you say and do so you don't set the toxic person "off." Sometimes you are treated reasonably well by the toxic person — then suddenly, you are treated terribly and blamed for this treatment. When you are experiencing hypervigilance, you are on high alert, and relaxing is almost impossible. You try to predict what behaviors to expect from the toxic person — but their behavior is unpredictable. When you are hypervigilant, your brain reacts not unlike the way prey reacts to a predator.
If you may be trauma-bonded to someone, talk to a licensed mental health professional (MHP) about your experience. You may be carrying guilt and shame, making it even more challenging to leave the relationship. An MHP can help you understand the power of the trauma bond and how to break free from it. One of the most effective ways to free yourself from a trauma bond is to go no-contact or low-contact with the toxic person. However, that can be a complex process that requires a great deal of thought. An MHP can assist you through that process.
For more, see my book Healing From Toxic Relationships: 10 Essential Steps to Recover from Gaslighting, Narcissism, and Emotional Abuse.
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To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.
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Reid, J., Haskell, R., Dillahunt-Aspillaga, C., & Thor, J. (2013). Trauma bonding and interpersonal violence. Psychology of trauma. USF Faculty Publications. 198.