Emotional trauma is multilayered — it’s aggressive, manipulative, and sneaky. And with regards to the sly nature of psychological abuse, it will support survivors to know they may still actually be connected to their abuser through traumatic bonding. Trauma bonds are a subliminal form of attachment to the abuser and understanding how they function will help survivors heal from traumatic abuse.
Traumatic bonding is defined as: “a strong emotional attachment between an abused person and his or her abuser, formed as a result of the cycle of violence” (Austin, Boyd, 67). I will share my personal story of being trauma bonded to my abusive parents, especially to my abusive father.
The trauma bond:
I was bonded to my abusive father by way of a mutual relationship.
I grew up in a toxic family dynamic consisting of me, my mother and father. My father has narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), a severely dangerous psychological disorder that inflicts torturous mental abuse on its victims. My mother does not have NPD, although she has adopted some narcissistic tendencies through her 50 year abusive relationship with my father. My father verbally, physically, and psychologically abused me, which was enabled by my mother because she fearfully submitted to him, as she was also his victim. I quickly learned to reject my father as a safe parent so I could physically and emotionally protect myself. After graduating college, I used my freedom to move far from my parents and focus on healing from the psychological abuse I endured.
During that time, I chose out of emotional obligation and financial desperation, to maintain a relationship with my mother. Like me, she was also a victim of my father’s abuse. Because we were victims of a mutual abuser, I continued to relive the trauma through my connection with her. This relationship also forced me to communicate with my father so I would sporadically speak with him on the phone. I also made an exception to be physically present with him by visiting my parents annually for the holidays.
How the trauma bond formed:
By maintaining a relationship with my mother, a lasting and enmeshed victim of my abuser, I was sustaining an emotional trauma bond to my abusive father.
Trauma bonds develop and present in many forms. Let’s get into the specifics.
About Trauma Bonds
Trauma bonds are tethered by beliefs, habits, places, and more.
This is how traumatic bonding is sneaky. For example: if a trauma survivor still smokes cigarettes as a coping mechanism for stress, a habit that originally developed as a mechanism to combat the severe stress of existing in an abusive relationship, the survivor’s present act of smoking demonstrates an attachment, a trauma bond, to their former abuser; their current pattern for coping with stress is tied to their former, abusive relationship. Even though the victimizer is no longer physically present in the survivor’s life, the survivor remains emotionally attached to the trauma-induced behaviors associated with their former abuser, ensuring a traumatized spirit, or intuition as I refer to it. Holistic healing is necessary: physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
Trauma bonds are rooted in power imbalance.
“Traumatic bonding is the compelling emotional attachment forming despite abuse, and because of, power imbalance” (Dutton & Painter, 1993a, p. 106). In a trauma bonded relationship, there exists an abuser and a victim. The abuser creates and maintains a tremendously powerful, manipulative, psychological dominance over their victim. Trauma bonded relationships can form between romantic partners, between a parent and child, between siblings, and even between colleagues.
Cognitive dissonance fuels trauma bonds.
Cognitive dissonance refers to the state of confusion and discomfort one feels when one has two contradicting thoughts. In the case of abuse and trauma bonding, a victim who justifies their abuser’s actions is suffering from cognitive dissonance.
“Traumatic bonds are an intricately constructed reflection of attachment, enmeshment, and identification” (Birdsall et al., 2017; Gilbert & Gordon, 2017; Park, 2016). This makes trauma bonds incredibly difficult to break because cognitive dissonance fuels the bond.
How to sever a trauma bond
A victim severs a trauma bond by pledging allegiance to the self. This provides the ability to navigate life from a place of self-acceptance, allowing them to operate via fierce intuition, unwavering self-respect, and complete authenticity. Here’s how to do it step-by-step:
Take consistent physical and emotional self-inventory.
“Know thy self”, said Socrates. To know is to understand. And the more victims know, the better they can understand how to sever the trauma bond.
Traumatic bonding is a habitual pattern of abuse that consistently harms the mind and body of the victim. Victims must employ highly astute monitoring of their mental and physical reactions when in the presence and absence of the abuser. Pay attention to what stimuli triggers you and what brings you peace. Notice what makes you feel most authentic and in control and most like a victim without control. This inventory allows victims to recognize and understand the patterns and habits they’ve adopted that fuel and sustain the trauma bond, thus empowering them with the knowledge to take control over these harmful patterns. This practice will strengthen your intuition, your inner wisdom, as well as your ability to trust it — to trust yourself.
Reframe the meaning of “loyalty”.
Shift the meaning of loyalty to serve you and only you. The Oxford English Dictionary defines loyalty as “a strong feeling of support or allegiance”. Remember, you must pledge allegiance to yourself in order to sever the trauma bond and heal from psychological abuse. Trauma bonded relationships keep the victim loyal to the abuser. Abusers focus their attention on their victims so they can control them; victims must prioritize focusing this same vigilant attention on themselves so as to sever the bond and begin the healing process. Without this mindset, they will remain loyal to the abuser even if that loyalty, that allegiance, is unconscious. Only the self can heal the self.
To be clear, self-service and selfishness are not synonymous.
Being selfish means having a lack of concern for people and their needs and concerns and choosing to put personal pleasure and profit above all else. Being self-serving means choosing to put your personal welfare and interests first. Pleasure and profit vs welfare and interests; inconsiderate gratification and greed v.s. well-being and regards.
Being self-serving allows victims — and all people — to conduct themselves, behave, and communicate from a place of genuine authenticity, confidence, mindfulness, and self-awareness. It means taking action in ways to provide ourselves safety and comfort. It means honoring our intuition, advocating for ourselves, asserting our needs, and standing in our worth.
Our quality of life depends on our quality of relationships. And our relationship to self is the foundation for inner-security and a fulfilling life. Give your attention to who and what serves you, not to who and what doesn’t.
Find an aligned, supportive community
Allyship and advocacy are essential in the journey to healing the self and severing trauma bonds; they provide the emotionally and physically safe environment needed when activating unknown or subdued parts of the self when working to heal. Victims must also be affirmed and validated in their feelings and experiences during the healing process. Examples of allies include a therapist, coach, support groups, and aligned friends and family.
Nurture and maintain self-reverence.
Emanated in the essence of each person’s individualized, human uniqueness is their truth as a victor over trauma — this includes you, dear reader. You are here, on this Earth, reading at this very moment, because you have survived trauma. You have propelled yourself forward and nourished a physical and psychological presence in the here and now with the capacity to take aligned and inspired action to nurture yourself. These truths alone merit reverence for yourself — deep admiration and deep respect for yourself. In truth, we humans are usually more resourced than we give ourselves credit for.
The desire for survivors to share their healing process with their abuser is common and strong — this desire must not be entertained. The only way to sever a trauma bond is by ending the connection to the abuser completely. Pledge allegiance to yourself and activate the renaissance that is personal healing!
Ready to start pledging allegiance to yourself? Start with learning how to self-advocate. Take the leap by enrolling in my new course called Becoming a Highly Sensitive Radical, tailored for HSPs & Trauma Survivors who are ready to harness their sensitive superpowers and begin advocating for themselves and others.
Dutton, D. G., & Painter, S. (1993a). Emotional attachments in abusive relationships: A test of traumatic bonding theory. Violence & Victims, 8(2), 105–120. Retrieved from springerpub.com/journals/violence-and-victims.html
Gilbert, S. E., & Gordon, K. C. (2017). Predicting forgiveness in women experiencing intimate partner violence. Violence Against Women, 23(4), 452–468. doi:10.1177/1077801216644071
Koch, Meghan, “Women of Intimate Partner Abuse: Traumatic Bonding Phenomenon” (2018). Walden Dissertations and Doctoral Studies. 5738.
Park, C. J. (2016). Intimate partner violence: An application of attachment theory. Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment, 26(5), 488–497. doi:10.1080/10911359.2015.1087924
Wendy Austin; Mary Ann Boyd. Psychiatric and Mental Health Nursing for Canadian Practice. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 1 January 2010. ISBN 978–0–7817–9593–7. p. 67.