Understanding Trauma Bonding

By Joy Walsh, LCSW, PMH-C | She/her

Understanding Trauma Bonding

Why won’t they just leave their partner?

This is a common question when someone sees a loved one in, what they perceive, is an unhealthy or abusive relationship. Regardless of your attempts at supporting, acknowledging the unhealthy relationship, potentially even advocating to the perpetrating partner, your loved one remains entangled in the relationship. And before we move on, let’s identify what abuse actually is: any type of boundary or human rights violation, often decreasing the victim’s actual or sense of safety, in any type of domain like physical, emotional, mental, financial, etc.

Most often, abusive relationships blossom out of “trauma bonding,” an unfortunate phenomenon of emotional attachment to an abuser due to intermittent positive reinforcement and trauma-based responses that were learned, often in childhood. Essentially, the victim has had a history of trauma and developed survival skills to get through it. When they are in a relationship that has any type of positive interactions, even if it is deemed manipulative, they bond to those and use their previously developed survival skills to get through the trauma, again.

There are many survival skills a victim has developed to deal with this, and they often become experts at it. We seek out what is familiar to us by nature, so if an unhealthy relationship is familiar then that is where they will remain.

The longer an abusive relationship like this continues, the more attached and enmeshed the victim becomes, and their confidence often lowers to a place they perceive they could not survive without their abuser. This is why many of their loved ones are confused, since what they see is a person who is able to survive through terrible things but the victim is not viewing that as strength but rather that the terrible things are happening to them because they deserve them.

So now what?  How do you support someone with this new knowledge?

Continue your relationship with them, as long as it is healthy for you.  Do things that are healthy for your relationship with them, that they enjoy, with a goal of helping them gain confidence.  Support them in getting professional help, but with leaving room for them to not feel cornered into this as their only option.  Point out times when they were able to achieve things or be successful, especially if they did so independently.  Call for safety if you are aware of significant physical dangers, especially if children are involved. Help them create a plan for a swift exit if needed, or at least have some plan prepared for if or when they need it. Continue meeting your own self care needs to be a role model and so that you can be healthy if they need your help.

Keep yourself educated with this and similar resources: www.thehotline.org


Joy Walsh, LCSW, PMH-C | She/her

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