Trauma Bonding Explained: Why Abuse Feels Like Love

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Even though your heart is being stomped on and shattered into a million pieces, you still struggle to let go of the toxic relationship.

You know you need to let go, and at this point, you may even want to, but why do you continue to have intense cravings for someone who doesn’t think twice about causing you emotional pain? Why are you holding onto a relationship with an abusive narcissist?

Sounds crazy right? One would think that letting go of a toxic relationship would be easy, but they would be wrong.

Trauma Bonding explained

Trauma bonding is the drug that makes abuse feel like love.

These bonds are literally like breaking a drug addiction, but it’s much easier to do when you understand what your body is trying to communicate to you and have the tools to help you work through it.

If any of this sounds familiar, keep reading because you may be mistaking a trauma bond for true love with a narcissist. You’re really in one of the most toxic relationships that will break down your body and soul. You will experience extreme physical and mental health issues during the relationship and after a trauma bond.

What is a Trauma Bond?

Patrick Carnes coined the term trauma bond and describes it as:

“Trauma bonds are dysfunctional attachments that occur in the presence of danger, shame, or exploitation. Trauma bonds occur when we are bonding to the very person who is the source of danger, fear, and exploitation.”

In simple form, these relationships are developed through manipulation. The abuser appears to love them, gains their trust, breaks them down, and then offers love again (especially when they do something that pleases them).

Carnes’s traumatic bonding theory work shows this cycle creates an addiction that our body chemically craves. The victim becomes loyal to their own detriment. They now have a dependency on someone abusive fulfilling their emotional and spiritual needs.

Narcissists thrive in trauma bonded relationships which consist of high emotional intensity, seduction, betrayal, and power imbalances. However, their partners don’t.

But, trauma bonding doesn’t just occur in romantic relationships, it can happen in any abusive relationship. Trauma bonding occurs in:

  • Domestic Violence
  • Narcissistic Relationships
  • Military Training
  • Child Abuse
  • Cults
  • Fraternities & Sororities
  • Kidnapping
  • Sex Trafficking
  • Elder Abuse
  • Prisoners of War
  • Concentration Camps
  • Incest
  • Any abusive relationship can create a trauma bond

only the one who hurts you can comfort you, only the one who inflicts pain can take it away

Why Do Victims Stay?

It’s easy for someone outside of the relationship to think the most logical thing to do would be to remove yourself from the abusive person, and they wouldn’t be wrong, but for the person in a trauma bond, you become addicted to the abusive cycle and the last thing they want is a life without the abuser. It can feel soul-crushing.

“Only the one who hurts you can comfort you, only the one who inflicts the pain can take it away” Madonna’s lyric is relatable to trauma bonds and abusive relationships with narcissists.

Leaving abusive relationships is much harder than healthy relationships. These bonds alternate abuse with positive reinforcement and each time the victim goes through this cycle, their bond strengthens with the abusive person.

Myth: Only people who are broken can be trauma bonded and stay in a toxic relationship

This is untrue. It’s a common misconception that people who are broken and have low self-esteem are the only ones in a trauma-bonding relationship. I’ve heard so many survivors say that in the past they would have asked someone in their position “Why did you stay if it was so bad?” in a shaming and victim-blaming tone.

People who feel happy, whole, and confident can become trauma bonded.

Their life can actually reflect all of the above. They can have an amazing career, life, and relationships. They are happy in the present and don’t feel traumatized.

You see, people can store trauma in their bodies. These can be formed in childhood, even from events we can not remember, but our bodies and subconscious remember.

If we do not release the trauma, it can be dormant within us until activated by something external (an abuser) and this can start to create a trauma bond. 

trauma bonding makes abuse feel like love
Trauma bonding makes abuse feel like love

Trauma Bonding Is The Drug That Makes Abusive Relationships Feel Like Love

Often people know they’re in a toxic relationship but if or when they leave, there is an intense craving similar to a drug addiction withdrawal. This is mistaken for love and the victim will do most anything to keep the relationship together.

This is not simply an analogy.

According to biological anthropologist Dr. Helen Fisher,

“the brains of those in adversity-ridden relationships become activated in an eerily similar way to the brains of cocaine addicts”.

Except there is one huge difference between the two. Society has a lot of knowledge on drug addictions and how they can destroy your life but most people don’t understand trauma bonding or that it even exists.

The person usually mistakes the intense withdrawal symptoms for true love and can go to extreme lengths to keep the relationship together. This same person could be going against their values and beliefs for a relationship they would have easily ended if they were not experiencing trauma bonding.

What Happens In The Brain?

During a trauma bond, our body’s natural stress response activates the sympathetic and limbic systems. When the sympathetic activation is in control, our prefrontal cortex is shut off. This is the part of the brain that helps us with risk analysis and long-term planning.

It’s not intellectual or logical, it’s emotional.

The emotional part of our brain takes over and victims are unable to see the relationship for what it really is.

The habitual ups and downs of the relationship create imbalances in the victim and their brain becomes highly addicted.

Victims can become attached to anything that helps them get through a traumatic event — anything our brain associates with safety and during a trauma bonding experience the abuser becomes safety. (I know! Strange but it will make more sense once we talk about stages)

This is why, when victims are in the throes of a trauma bonded relationship, they can be so quick to defend their abuser and justify, minimize, or ignore the bad behaviors. They are only thinking emotionally and they believe this person loves them.

What do trauma bonded relationships look like?

Engaging in relationships with people who exploit and hurt you

Fixating on people who hurt you even if they are no longer in your life

Cravings to contact someone who you know will cause you more pain

Loyalty to relationships of betrayal with people who show no signs of real change

Seeking to be understood, validated, and needed by people who show you they don't care

Priortizing people who have been destructive to you and would never do the same

7 Stages Of Trauma Bonds

Trauma bonding is formed over time. Each time the victim goes through the abuse cycle, their bond with the abusive person can strengthen. As emotional attachments become stronger, their judgment becomes more clouded.

This cycle slowly reshapes how they perceive themselves and the relationship.

While they may justify the relationship, they are not completely blind. At some point, they may accept the relationship is toxic, maybe abusive, and feel they should leave, however, by this point, the relationship means so much to them and is hard to let go of.

Even when they try, an overwhelming craving towards their abuser is formed. This withdrawal symptom is often mistaken for love and they are pulled right back in.

Let’s take a look at the trauma bonding stages to better understand what’s happening.

7 stages of trauma bonding
7 stages of trauma bonding with an abusive narcissist

1. Love Bombing

This trauma bonding stage feels absolutely amazing. You are showered with the love you’ve deeply desired and the emotional connection feels genuine. It feels like you’ve finally met your soul mate and nobody else could compare. You can receive excessive affection, attention, validation, and even gifts. They make you feel like you are more than enough.

Your emotional connection develops really quickly because the narcissist is tapping into your deepest desires in a partner and mirroring those desires and your own characteristics back to you.

It’s strategic and powerful in creating a toxic bond.

2. Trust and Dependency

Because this person has tapped into your deepest desires, your trust strengthens and you become more vulnerable. Maybe more vulnerable than you have ever been with someone.

You start depending on the external love and validation of the narcissist as it feels so good and you may have been deficient from these internally. Slowly, they will become your main or only source of love and validation.

This shifts the power dynamic. At first, you will be showered with it, but as you give more trust and dependency to the abuser, they will start to condition you and only provide you with this when you are doing something they like. You will start to neglect yourself more and more as you put all your energy into them so you can receive.

3. Devaluing and Criticizing

Narcissists will never seek relationships where the energy put into each other is balanced. This is where an even bigger shift occurs and the imbalance is detrimental to you.

They will devalue you and become more demanding and critical. This can be subtle and show up in a passive-aggressive way or overt.

As the cycle repeats, they will give less and less while expecting more and more from you.

4. Gaslighting and Manipulation

When you bring up concerns, problems, or try to defend yourself, the narcissist will gaslight and project the blame onto you.

Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation in which a person seeks to sow seeds of doubt in a targeted individual making them question their own memory, perception, or sanity.

The two goals are to confuse you so you stop trusting yourself and for you to accept the blame.

The more you are gaslighted by someone you love and trust, the less you will trust yourself and start believing their warped reality. Narcissists will convince you that if only you put more effort, forgiveness, and energy into the relationship everything would be better, so you continue to try harder and harder because you believe in who they were in the love-bombing stage.

5. Resigning Control

You start becoming confused by the gaslighting and manipulation. You can be exhausted from trying to be heard and all you want is to get back to the love bombing stage.

You can surrender to the narcissist in hopes of getting back their love, validation, and positive attention.

You give into them.

This might look like you do anything and everything for them. This could mean you dropping the disagreement and just agreeing with them.

This could mean you stop doing something you really want to because the narcissist doesn’t approve and will let you know that in a subtle way or over way. It could also mean you go against your values or ignore a boundary being crossed.

You expect people that love you to have your best interest and don’t see the damage here, but what’s happening is you are handing over your personal power.

6. Loss of Self

Your focus will be on the narcissist and you will neglect yourself. The abuse will escalate and become worse. You will give them every bit of energy possible until there’s nothing left.

You will lose yourself in a trauma bond if you continue to stay. It won’t take long for you to be able to look at yourself in the mirror and not recognize the person looking back at you. You will slowly start to change yourself just to get breadcrumbs of what feels like love.

Your soul will be starved and you will become a shell of a person

You stop pointing out bad behavior. Your boundaries are pushed little by little until they don’t exist. You stop doing the things you love. You start distancing yourself from any support system including family. Your values are given up and things you would have not hesitated to leave a relationship for are now occurring often. You don’t trust yourself and start to rely on the abusive person heavily. Your confidence and self-esteem are at an all-time low.

Your soul’s purpose becomes to please the narcissist and survive. Not live, just survive.

7. Addiction

Your relationship is a series of highs and lows that start to swing more dramatically. Your body is becoming chemically addicted to the abuse cycle.

Your body is stressed during the lows causing high levels of cortisol and during the highs, you are getting dopamine spikes. Your body will crave the highs. These highs are during the love-bombing stage. Your body has a cycle of dependency wickedly similar to drug addiction.

When the criticism, manipulation, and gaslighting start again your body will search for the love bombing stage.

If you try to leave, you will experience intense withdrawal symptoms including rumination (constantly thinking about this person), cravings for the abuser, flashbacks, and anxiety. It can feel worse than staying in the relationship.

Breaking The Trauma Bond

Trauma bonds are intense. They have been described as harder to break than a hard drug addiction. Even people who have been discarded or left the relationship years ago can still be experiencing the symptoms of this traumatic bonding.

Our traumas can be stored inside our bodies and cause us to have flashbacks, fixate, reframe from working through the grief, and obsess over the abusive partner. People who have never had this experience will just not understand.

But, you can heal from this. For those of you that are still in the relationship or finding yourself going back, even though it feels worse to leave this person, it will eventually get better than the unhealthy relationship could have ever offered you… EVER!

Sometimes we have to travel through a darker time to get the light.

Survivor Questions About Trauma Bonding

What are the signs of trauma bonding?

Can a trauma bond turn into love?

How do you break a trauma bonding cycle?

If you are experiencing domestic violence and need support, please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or TTY 1-800-787-3224

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