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Trauma bonding occurs when an abused person forms an unhealthy bond with their abuser. This response typically occurs when the abused person develops sympathy or affection for the abuser. It is important to note that not everyone who experiences abuse develops a trauma bond. A well-known form of trauma bonding is Stockholm syndrome, in which a person who is held captive bonds with their abuser. 

Why Does Trauma Bonding Happen?

Feelings of attachment and dependence contribute to a trauma bond and the pattern of abuse and remorse. When a person’s primary form of support is also their abuser, a trauma bond can develop. The abused person may turn to their abuser for comfort when they are hurt, even if their abuser caused the hurt in the first place.

In addition, a person may develop a trauma bond if they rely on their abuser to fulfill emotional needs. For example, children rely on their caregivers for love and support. However, if that caregiver is abusive, the child may come to associate love with abuse. The child, in turn, may blame themselves for the abuse as a way of making sense of what is happening to them. The caregiver can then continue to be ‘good’ in the child’s eyes, which encourages the cycle of abuse.

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When Can Trauma Bonding Occur?

Trauma bonding can occur in any abusive situation. However, some cases lend themselves to a high chance of this happening. These often involve:

  • Domestic Abuse
  • Child Abuse
  • Incest
  • Elder Abuse
  • Exploitive Employment situations
  • Kidnapping/Hostage-Taking
  • Human Trafficking
  • Religious Extremists/Cults

For trauma bonding to develop, the victim must perceive a real threat of danger from their abuser. There is a cycle of abuse in which there is harsh treatment with brief periods of kindness. Often, the abused person is isolated from other people and their perspectives, who might try to help them see the pattern of abuse. The abused person also believes they can not escape their situation under any circumstances.

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How Can You Recognize Trauma Bonding?

The biggest red flag of someone who has trauma bonded with an abuser is that they try to justify or defend the abuse. They may try to:

  • Make excuses for their abuser
  • Argue with or distance themselves from people who try to help
  • Become defensive if someone attempts to stop the abuse
  • Be unwilling to take steps to leave the abusive situation.

In addition, it is important to be aware that feelings of attachment do not always end when the person leaves the harmful situation. A person might feel loyal toward their abuser and feel tempted to return to them.

married couple with baby

What Can You Do?

For anyone who may have developed a trauma bond, there is help. Of course, each person’s transition from an abusive situation is different, but these general steps can work in most situations. 

Develop a Saftey Plan

Safety plans include steps that a person can take to protect themselves from physical and emotional abuse. The plan might include:

  • Safe places one can go to protect themselves from violence
  • Contact information for people who can provide support
  • A list of local organizations and services
  • A method for collecting evidence of abuse
  • A plan to leave and how to stay safe after leaving

Seek out Trauma Bonding Counseling

After the person leaves the abusive situation, there must be a plan to ensure they do not return to it. Therapy is often beneficial for those who suffer from trauma bonding. Seek out treatment from a licensed counselor trained in trauma-informed treatment methods. In addition, there are support groups and medication available. 

Conclusion

Trauma bonding can be difficult to recognize and even harder to break. Trauma bonds occur when a person becomes attached emotionally to their abuser. They might make excuses for their abuser, believing that they are why the abuse continues. For trauma bonding to develop, the victim must feel a real threat of danger from their abuser. They also believe there is no way out of their current situation. Coming up with a safety plan for yourself or someone else is the first step to leaving an abusive situation. Once the individual is in a safe place, they can begin the process of seeking help. Work with a therapist who has experience with trauma bonding counseling.

Family Strategies Counseling and Mediation is a strategic family counseling office located in Homewood, IL. We offer mental health counseling, couples counseling, anger management, and child therapy. See our about page to see which of our therapists are currently booking in-person and online appointments!