Remember when gaslighting was the mental health buzzword du jour? For a while there back in 2020, it seemed like everyone was talking about this type of toxic communication technique in which someone causes you to question your own version of past events. In 2021, it looks like another buzzword has usurped gaslighting. What is it? Trauma.
One subgenre of trauma is trauma-bonding, or forming an intense bond with someone who’s actually abusive. For more information, we checked in with Emily Simonian, LMFT, Head of Learning at Thriveworks, a an online counseling company. Here’s what it is, how to spot it and ways to cope.
What is trauma-bonding?
“Trauma-bonding is an intense emotional attachment formed with an individual who is physically or emotionally abusive,” Simonian tells us. “Traumatic bonds develop as a result of what is called the Cycle of Abuse in relationships, which includes these dynamics: building tension, an incident of abuse, reconciliation, followed by a calm period.” She tells us that examples of abuse might include verbal threats, insults, attempts to control behavior, emotional manipulation or physical violence.
You might be thinking, “How could someone could feel attached to an abuser?” Simonian says it’s actually quite common, and the key factor at play is the victim's vulnerability. “An abuser preys on vulnerability and is likely to create and convey an extreme sense of love, passion or even obsession in their relationships and then switch—engaging in behaviors like berating, insulting or even causing physical harm,” she explains. She adds that the highs and lows of this pattern are not only confusing to the victim, but the rollercoaster of emotions is actually what strengthens the trauma-bond, leaving the person experiencing abuse with a debilitating craving for the abuser's love and affection after an abusive incident. “When the abuser finally provides positive attention, the victim feels an emotional high replete with relief, excitement, confidence and worthiness,” she notes.
What are some signs that traumatic bonds are forming in your relationship?
Excessive polarity: The levels of love versus hostility within the relationship drastically swing from high to low on a regular basis.
Feelings of indebtedness: Frequently being made to feel like something is owed to the abuser and that the victim is wrong or somehow to blame.
Dependence: Feeling like you can't possibly live without the abuser, even when you recognize that the relationship is unhealthy.
Perpetual worry: Constantly “walking on eggshells” in an effort to not upset the abuser.
Making Excuses: Lying to friends and family about the relationship, isolating or consistently defending the abuser's negative behavior.
What should you do if you notice trauma bonding happening in your relationship?
If all of this feels a little too close to home, here are Simonian’s four tips for beginning to extract yourself from a harmful situation. She also urges that if physical abuse is involved, it isn't worth staying in the relationship and you should seek help immediately.
1. Seek help
“Talk to a friend, family member or therapist immediately to negate the possibility of further isolation and a deeper traumatic bond forming. Talking to someone outside the relationship can help ground you and provide clarity that can help you decide if or how you should leave.”
2. Recognize the reconciliation or “honeymoon” phase
“Know the difference between an apology from your partner (flowers, kind words, gifts) and true attempts to change behavior (your partner learning stress management, communication skills or other coping tactics). An apology won't solve the issue; ask your partner to get help.”
3. Stand up for yourself
“Have a few firm statements ready in case of an abusive incident—this will help you to set boundaries and communicate that the abuse will not be tolerated.”
4. Recognize that you have the right to leave the relationship
“You are not stuck. Helping your partner change their behavior is a tall order that can take an emotional toll, and it's OK to decide to walk away from the relationship to protect your own mental health.”
If you—or someone you know—is experiencing domestic violence, please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 for confidential support.