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How to Unstick from Traumatic Bonding


If you’re being abused and having difficulty breaking away from your abuser, you may be experiencing traumatic bonding. A destructive form of attachment that occurs when, in spite of mistreatment, you still want to be with the person hurting you, it may happen with family, friends, or co-workers.

According to Wikipedia, “Trauma bonds are emotional bonds with an individual that arise from a recurring, cyclical pattern of abuse perpetuated by intermittent reinforcement through rewards and punishments. The process . . .  is referred to as trauma bonding or traumatic bonding.” Hotline explains the difficulty of breaking free from abusers as recognizing that they “exhibit ‘good’ behaviors too.” That is, they’re not abusive all the time, but may be kind, caring and loving between abusive episodes. Some partners are even described in glowing terms when they’re not being abusive.

Here’s the thing: Intermittent reinforcement is what creates the bonding part of trauma bonding, while trauma is what makes people want out. The “positive behaviors actually enable the abusive behaviors to continue and escalate, because they make it so hard to honor the impulse to leave when abuse occurs.” After all, if someone treats you well all the time, you want to stay; if they always treat you awfully, you (hopefully) want to leave. “The good behavior, in other words, is what fosters the attachment that makes getting away from an abusive partner feel so painful and difficult.”

Take para-legal Lourdes who, at 36 and long recovered from drug abuse, is still deeply attached to her mother and fears making her angry because mom keeps threatening to kick her out if she talks back to her. Physically and emotionally abusive to Lourdes in childhood, the two moved dozens of times so Mom could get away from abusive love relationships or because the grass seemed greener elsewhere. Mom also could be nice, lavishing gifts on Lourdes and talking about the wonderful things they’d do together. Lourdes sees her mother as her savior from the streets and fears upsetting the apple cart though she hates how her mother treats her most of the time. 

Another example is 44-year-old Jack who is married to Ana who had a traumatic childhood and runs hot and cold. Married in their late teens with 3 children, he admits that he and Ana “kind of grew up together.” She can be sweet and loving and also can throw things and drink and drive recklessly with their kids in the car. Jack and Ana are separated and Jack never knows which Ana will be there when he rings her doorbell, the nice or nasty wife. He’s torn between wanting to be single and maybe even divorcing, and staying with her, hoping she’ll change since she went into therapy.

If you are co-dependent or an enabler, you might feel stuck in relationships where there is traumatic bonding and confused about how you feel and what to do. The best strategy is to find a therapist who’ll help explain and untangle your feelings and guide you out of a debilitating relationship that you would be better off without.