What is Trauma Bonding?

trauma bonding

Trigger Warning: Abuse & Exploitation

Trauma bonding is a term coined in 1997 by Dr. Patrick J. Carnes to encompass the experience of the attachment survivors of abuse feel toward their abuser. It is an attachment that is difficult to release and causes severe distress. 

Trauma bonds do not suggest the sharing of similar traumas. 

The term came to encompass the experiences of those afflicted with the same distress but not the same situation as in Stockholm syndrome. 

According to Carnes, two important factors are how people respond to trauma are the severity of the trauma and its duration.

What Comprises Trauma Bonding?

Trauma bonding is a cycle of abuse followed by a false sense of safety created by the abuser, leaving someone confused about the exploitation they are facing.

People may feel betrayed. There is a violation of trust, power, or sometimes both. 

This sense of betrayal can be deep enough to question ourselves - blame the self, and one's failed efforts to 'help the abuser'. 

An abuser may direct ownership of their actions toward you: "you made me mad, and that is why I hit you... it's all your fault." Thereby, you make sure not to do anything to "invite" abuse. 

However, you did not take their hand to beat yourself. It was all of them. 

Why Does Trauma Bonding Occur?

According to Carnes, there are nine predominant ways that trauma affects people over time, and trauma bonding is one of them.

It is likely to occur when a person faces abuse, and the abuser expresses a sense of love to the person. 

They apologize for their actions and to promise change. 

Over time, it creates a cycle where the abuse occurs, followed by the expression of positive emotions, and often leaves the person who faced abuse thinking that the abuser may not be all bad. 

Hence, here is a gentle reminder to not be critical of oneself when uncovering a trauma bond.

There are a few signs that can help you make sense of your experience further.

Signs you May be in a Trauma Bond

1. A cycle of abuse.

First, there is a sense of tension that makes you feel unsafe, and then, the abuse itself follows. 

The abuser tries to make things okay by professing their love and intent to change. 

And then there is a calm that people try to safeguard to protect themselves from harm. However, this peace is not long-lived.

2. An imbalance of power.

Many barriers exist to leaving an abusive situation, including financial and societal power imbalances. 

There is also an imbalance in emotional power where the victim starts defining themselves by their relationship. 

It is one of the most challenging times when someone tries to get out of such a situation because identification with the abuser can make it difficult to be by themselves. 

During this time, it is essential to seek help in terms of shelter homes and, most importantly, therapy to ensure safety.

3. A fading support system.

People often tell us about the people around us that may harm us. 

However, how someone tells us about these things should allow autonomy, freedom, and choice. 

When abuse is involved, the person is likely to position themselves as the most trustworthy person in one's life or force them to cut off important relationships and friendships.

4. A past that takes over the present.

If you find yourself making excuses for the perpetrator or keeping the abuse a secret, you are also likely trying to focus on the good days while letting go of the present abuse. 

Trauma bonding can occur in close relationships and may have you forgetting about the current state of being. 

Trauma & PTSD Counselors

Carrie Nelson, MS, LPCC

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Bethany Cantrell, LPC

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Situations Where Trauma Bonding Occurs

Abusers often take advantage of someone's basic human need for attachment, which becomes a need for survival. 

Outsiders often ask the person facing the abuse, "Why didn't you leave?" but the truth could be that they had no idea they were in a situation like that until they were not.

Some situations where this phenomenon occurs:

  • Domestic abuse
  • Sexual abuse
  • Child sexual abuse
  • Cults
  • Human trafficking
  • Incest

Abuse and trauma bonds involve a lot of shame and guilt. 

Unfortunately, the perpetrator does not face this guilt and shame and even goes so far as to blame the victims. 

It is essential to know you're not the only one who feels this way.

Trauma bonding is one of the brain's ways of protecting itself, even if it is counterproductive. 

It is a survival strategy that happens when we feel unsafe, and our thinking brain areas go offline to allow the situation to feel bearable, if not go away. 

It is an effort of the brain that is not always in your control until you feel a sense of safety. Sometimes, even a sense of protection may not feel permanent and invite distress.

Recognizing the Need for Help

Trauma bonding is how our body and mind react to a traumatic situation. 

There is nothing to be ashamed of, and there is help available.

Ideally, reconnecting with loved ones who can help you realize you are not to be blamed and speaking to a professional about trauma and trauma bonding can help you start the healing process.

However, if you need time to sort things out for yourself, here are a few things to help:

  • Explore your current relationship as if a friend were telling you about their relationship. Stepping away from your wounds may help you to recognize your individual experience.
  • If you are coming out of a trauma bond and struggling to stay out of it, write down the things that helped you stay out of the trauma bond. Reading the list may briefly help you continue until you can access professional help. 


An abusive situation of any sort can invite the experience of trauma bonding. 

There is help available for you. 

A professional or a support group can help you navigate your feelings and support you through this challenging journey of healing your wounds.


Trauma Bonds - https://healingtreenonprofit.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/Trauma-Bonds-by-Patrick-Carnes-1.pdf 

Emotional Attachments in abusive relationships https://www.ojp.gov/ncjrs/virtual-library/abstracts/emotional-attachments-abusive-relationships-test-traumatic-bonding

Domestic violence and abuse in intimate relationship from public health perspective - https://healthpsychologyresearch.openmedicalpublishing.org/article/22398

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July 21st, 2024

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