What is a Trauma Bond

April 8, 2024   •  Posted in: 

This article explains what a trauma bond is, highlighting its characteristics and how it differs from healthy emotional attachments.

It delves into the psychological underpinnings of trauma bonds, such as the cycle of abuse and intermittent reinforcement, and discusses why these bonds can be so powerful and hard to break.

What is a trauma bond?

A trauma bond refers to a strong emotional connection that develops between individuals who have shared intense, emotional, and often painful experiences.

Trauma bonds, also known as traumatic bonds, emerge from a repetitive cycle of abuse, manipulation, or other forms of mistreatment sustained by periodic reinforcement through rewards and punishments.

Psychologists Donald Dutton and Susan Painter[1] introduced the concept of trauma bonds in 1981 as a way to describe the strength and extreme nature of these types of relationships. Typically, a trauma bond manifests in a one-way relationship between a victim and a perpetrator, resulting in an emotional connection formed by the victim. This dynamic can be understood as a dominated-dominator or abused-abuser relationship.

The establishment of a trauma bond hinges on two key factors: a power imbalance and the intermittent reinforcement of both positive and negative treatment, involving rewards and punishments.

Trauma bonding can be observed in various contexts, including romantic relationships[2], friendships, parent-child dynamics, incestuous relationships[3], cults, hostage situations, manager-subordinate relationships, sex trafficking[4] (especially involving minors), and military deployments.

These powerful and complex connections can also form in individuals who have experienced a shared traumatic event.

Examples of trauma bonding in popular culture

While it’s important to note that depictions in media may not always accurately represent real-life experiences, they can give you a sense of what trauma bonds look like.

Here are some fictional examples from movies, television and literature that illustrate elements of trauma bonding:

Big Little Lies

The character Celeste Wright, portrayed by Nicole Kidman, experiences trauma bonding in her abusive relationship with her husband Perry. The intermittent reinforcement of love and violence contributes to the complexity of their dynamic.

The Girl on the Train

The protagonist, Rachel Watson, becomes entangled in a trauma bond with her ex-husband Tom. Despite his abusive behavior, she is drawn to him through a combination of past positive memories and moments of kindness, creating emotional confusion.

Sleeping with the Enemy

This thriller depicts an abusive marriage where the protagonist, played by Julia Roberts, is trauma-bonded to her abusive husband. The intermittent kindness and threats of violence contribute to the portrayal of trauma bonding.

The Invisible Man

The film explores trauma bonding through a science fiction lens, where the protagonist is stalked by her abusive and invisible ex-husband. The invisible nature of the threat adds an additional layer of unpredictability.

The Burning Plain

The film portrays trauma bonding through intersecting storylines involving characters in dysfunctional relationships. The emotional entanglements and cycles of abuse contribute to the overall theme.

The Shining

While not a typical example, the character Jack Torrance’s descent into madness and violence can be seen as a form of trauma bonding with the malevolent forces within the haunted hotel.

Precious

The protagonist, Precious, experiences trauma bonding with her abusive mother. Despite the abuse, Precious remains emotionally attached, seeking her mother’s love and approval.

Gone Girl

The characters Amy and Nick Dunne engage in a toxic and manipulative relationship that, to some extent, reflects elements of trauma bonding. The unpredictable nature of their interactions contributes to the tension in the story.

It’s essential to approach these examples critically and recognize fictional portrayals may simplify or exaggerate aspects of trauma bonding for dramatic effect. In reality, trauma bonding is a nuanced and complex psychological process that may not always align with fictional narratives.

What are the characteristics of a trauma bond?

The key characteristics of trauma bonds include:

Dependence on the abuser

There is often a sense of emotional dependence on the person or group responsible for the trauma. This dependency can be rooted in a need for validation, approval, or a distorted sense of security.

Cycles of abuse and kindness

Trauma bonds are often characterized by cycles of abuse followed by periods of kindness or apparent caring behavior from the abuser. This intermittent reinforcement can strengthen the bond.

Isolation from support systems

Individuals in trauma bonds may become isolated from friends, family, or support systems, as the abuser often seeks to control and manipulate the victim’s relationships.

Intense emotional connection

Trauma bonds create a deep emotional connection between individuals who have experienced trauma together. This connection can be stronger than typical emotional bonds.

Mixed emotions

Individuals in a trauma bond may experience conflicting emotions, oscillating between feelings of love, loyalty, and attachment, and moments of fear, anger, and betrayal.

Difficulty breaking free

Breaking a trauma bond can be challenging because of the intense emotional connection, fear of reprisal, and a distorted sense of loyalty to the abuser.

Self-blame and shame

Victims in trauma bonds may experience feelings of self-blame and shame, often internalizing the abuse and believing they deserve mistreatment.

Repetition in future relationships

Individuals who have experienced trauma bonds may unconsciously replicate similar dynamics in future relationships, perpetuating a cycle of abuse.

How does a trauma bond differ from healthy emotional attachments?

Trauma bonds and healthy emotional attachments differ significantly in their nature, impact, and dynamics. Here are the key distinctions between the two.

1. Nature of the bond

Trauma Bond

Characterized by trauma: A trauma bond forms in the context of shared, intense, and often negative experiences, such as abuse, manipulation, or mistreatment.
Intense, yet unhealthy: The emotional connection in a trauma bond is intense but rooted in unhealthy dynamics, often involving cycles of abuse and kindness.

Healthy Emotional Attachment

Rooted in positivity: Healthy emotional attachments are formed in the context of positive, supportive, and nurturing relationships.
Balanced and reciprocal: Healthy attachments involve mutual care, respect, and support, contributing to the overall well-being of individuals involved.

2. Emotional dynamics

Trauma Bond

Mixed emotions: Individuals in a trauma bond may experience conflicting emotions, including love, fear, loyalty, and betrayal.
Dependence and fear: There is often a sense of emotional dependence on the abuser, coupled with fear and a distorted sense of loyalty.

Healthy Emotional Attachment

Consistent positive emotions: Healthy attachments are characterized by consistent positive emotions, such as love, trust, and security.
Independence and security: Individuals in healthy relationships can maintain a sense of independence while feeling secure and supported.

3. Relationship dynamics

Trauma Bond

Cycles of abuse: Trauma bonds often involve cycles of abuse followed by periods of kindness or apparent caring behavior from the abuser.
Manipulation and control: The relationship dynamics are often marked by manipulation, control, and power imbalances.

Healthy Emotional Attachment

Mutual Respect and Cooperation: Healthy relationships are built on mutual respect and cooperation, where both individuals contribute to the well-being of the relationship.
Communication and Understanding: Open communication and understanding are key aspects of healthy relationships.

4. Impact on well-being

Trauma Bond

Negative impact: Trauma bonds can have a detrimental impact on mental and emotional well-being, contributing to feelings of anxiety, depression, and helplessness.
Isolation and self-blame: Individuals in trauma bonds may isolate themselves from support systems and experience self-blame and shame.

Healthy Emotional Attachment

Positive impact: Healthy emotional attachments contribute positively to mental and emotional well-being, fostering feelings of security, happiness, and fulfillment.
Supportive networks: Individuals in healthy relationships often have strong support networks and feel encouraged to seek help when needed.

5. Capacity for growth

Trauma Bond

Stagnation or regression: Trauma bonds may hinder personal growth and development, keeping individuals trapped in harmful dynamics.
Repetition of unhealthy patterns: Individuals with trauma bonds may unconsciously repeat similar patterns of abuse in subsequent relationships.

Healthy Emotional Attachment

Facilitates growth: Healthy relationships support personal growth, allowing individuals to thrive and reach their full potential.
Breaks unhealthy patterns: Healthy attachments can break cycles of unhealthy relationship patterns and contribute to personal resilience.

Recommended Reading Nurturing Resilience

In summary, while trauma bonds are formed in the context of negative and harmful experiences, healthy emotional attachments are rooted in positive, supportive, and nurturing relationships.

The psychological underpinnings of trauma bonds

Understanding the psychological underpinnings of trauma bonds is crucial for individuals, support systems, and mental health professionals working with those impacted by abusive relationships.

Cycle of abuse

The cycle of abuse in the context of trauma bonds typically involves a repetitive pattern of behavior within an abusive relationship. This cycle is characterized by distinct phases, and individuals who experience abuse may find themselves caught in this cycle, contributing to the formation and reinforcement of trauma bonds.

The four main stages of the cycle of abuse are:

1. Tension-building phase

This phase is marked by increasing tension, stress, and a sense of walking on eggshells. The victim may feel anxious and attempt to placate or avoid triggering the abusive behavior. Communication may become strained, and the atmosphere is charged with a palpable sense of impending conflict.

2. Incident or acute abuse phase

In this phase, the tension reaches a boiling point, leading to an actual incident of abuse. This abuse can be physical, emotional, verbal, or a combination of these. The abuser exhibits control, aggression, and dominance over the victim. The victim experiences the harmful effects of the abuse, often resulting in physical and emotional harm.

3. Reconciliation or honeymoon phase

Following the abusive incident, the abuser may show remorse, apologize, and express regret. There may be a period of seemingly genuine kindness, affection, and promises to change. The abuser may shower the victim with attention, gifts, or affectionate gestures, creating a temporary sense of relief and hope for positive change. This phase is often a critical component in the formation of trauma bonds, as the victim may cling to the hope the abusive behavior was an isolated incident.

4. Calm or normalization phase

The relationship enters a relatively calm and stable period, appearing to return to normal. During this phase, there is an illusion of peace and stability. The victim may convince themselves the abusive behavior was an exception, and they may experience a desire to maintain the relationship and avoid further conflict.

It’s important to note the cycle of abuse is not fixed, and the duration of each phase may vary. Additionally, the cycle tends to repeat, with the relationship cycling through these phases over time.

Trauma bonds often form during the reconciliation phase, as the victim may internalize the abuser’s remorse and promises of change, creating a strong emotional attachment despite the harmful nature of the relationship.

Intermittent reinforcement

Intermittent reinforcement, in the context of trauma bonds, refers to the sporadic and unpredictable pattern of rewards and punishments that occurs within an abusive or manipulative relationship. This psychological phenomenon plays a significant role in the formation and reinforcement of trauma bonds. In the cycle of abuse, intermittent reinforcement contributes to the complexity and strength of the emotional connection between the victim and the abuser.

Key aspects of intermittent reinforcement in trauma bonds include:

Rewards and punishments

The abuser alternates between positive behaviors (rewards) and negative behaviors (punishments). Rewards can include expressions of love, affection, or temporary kindness, while punishments involve abusive or harmful actions.

Unpredictability

The timing and frequency of rewards and punishments are unpredictable. This unpredictability creates a sense of uncertainty and keeps the victim on edge, never knowing what to expect in the relationship.

Emotional rollercoaster

The inconsistency in the abuser’s behavior creates an emotional rollercoaster for the victim. The intermittent nature of positive and negative interactions contributes to heightened emotional arousal and a sense of instability.

Hope and fear

Intermittent reinforcement instills both hope and fear in the victim. During periods of kindness, the victim may feel hopeful for positive change, while the threat of punishment creates fear and anxiety.

Attachment and dependency

The unpredictability of the abuser’s behavior fosters a strong emotional attachment to the abuser. The victim may become emotionally dependent on the positive moments, believing they are indicators of genuine love or concern.

Illusion of control

The victim may develop a belief their actions or behaviors influence the abuser’s mood swings. This illusion of control can lead the victim to persist in the relationship in the hope of influencing positive outcomes.

Cycle of reinforcement

Intermittent reinforcement is a key component of the cycle of abuse. The rewards during the reconciliation or honeymoon phase contribute to the victim’s willingness to endure the negative aspects of the relationship.

Impact on trauma bonds

The combination of intermittent reinforcement and the cycle of abuse contributes to the formation and strengthening of trauma bonds. The victim’s emotional connection to the abuser becomes deeply ingrained, making it challenging to break free from the relationship.

Why are trauma bonds so powerful and hard to break?

Trauma bonds are powerful and challenging to break because of the strong psychological and emotional factors that contribute to the intensity of the connection between individuals involved in an abusive or harmful relationship.

Intermittent reinforcement keeps victims in a vulnerable place while the emotional investment they have placed in the abuser makes it challenging to leave.

Victims often experience an eroded sense of identity and self-worth while feelings of guilt and shame can lead them to feel responsible for the abuse.

One key element of trauma bonding is isolation. With fewer support systems to call on, victims are less able to remove themselves from these situations. They may also fear retaliation if they do attempt to leave.

It may sound difficult to understand but many victims may have positive memories of the relationship, particularly in the earlier part, and may believe change is possible.

While trauma bonds are undeniably hard to break, it can be done. Our companion article ‘How to break a trauma bond’ offers guidance on seeking professional help, establishing healthy boundaries, and nurturing self-care practices to heal and move forward.

Trauma Recovery at The Center • A Place of HOPE

Recognizing and understanding trauma bonds is crucial for individuals seeking to break free from abusive or harmful relationships and for mental health professionals working with survivors of trauma.

Breaking a trauma bond often requires therapeutic intervention, support from loved ones, and a commitment to rebuilding one’s sense of self and well-being.

Contact us if you need help with breaking free from trauma bonding.


1. Dutton, Donald G.; Painter, Susan (1993). “Emotional attachments in abusive relationships: a test of traumatic bonding theory”. Violence and Victims. 8 (2): 105–20. doi:10.1891/0886-6708.8.2.105
2. Hadeed, L., 2021. Why women stay: Understanding the trauma bond between victim and abuser case studies were written. In Gender and Domestic Violence in the Caribbean (pp. 195-207). Cham: Springer International Publishing.
3. De Young, M. and Lowry, J.A., 1992. Traumatic bonding: clinical implications in incest. Child welfare, pp.165-175.
4. Casassa, K., Knight, L. and Mengo, C., 2022. Trauma bonding perspectives from service providers and survivors of sex trafficking: A scoping review. Trauma, violence, & abuse, 23(3), pp.969-984.

Dr. Gregory Jantz

Pioneering Whole Person Care over thirty years ago, Dr. Gregory Jantz is an innovator in the treatment of mental health. He is a best-selling author of over 45 books, and a go-to media authority on behavioral health afflictions, appearing on CBS, ABC, NBC, Fox, and CNN. Dr. Jantz leads a team of world-class, licensed, and...

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