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Are You Experiencing a Trauma Bond?

Recognizing the signs so you can heal from this type of relationship.

Key points

  • Traumatic bonds share a common pattern: they have cycles of both positive and negative reinforcement.
  • Traumatic experiences increase the risk of a child developing an insecure attachment style.
  • A person with a history of depression or low self-esteem is at a higher risk of trauma bonding.
Source: reddf/Unsplash
Source: reddf/Unsplash

A traumatic bond in a romantic relationship is defined as having a foundation based on coercive control, manipulation, codependency, and sabotage and is mixed with intermittent moments of calm. This pattern of highs and lows increases an unhealthy “attaching” between partners where the bond is strengthened.

Traumatic bonds are typically introduced in childhood between a child and their primary caregivers where traumatic experiences (neglect, abuse, invalidation, abandonment) increase the risk of a child developing an insecure attachment style, specifically an anxious, or fearful-avoidant (“disorganized”) attachment. Common environmental patterns seen in developing an anxious or fearful-avoidant attachment include: high levels of unpredictability with caregivers, inconsistent caregiving (vacillating between nurturance and dismissiveness), a lack of safety and security, narcissistic and abusive parenting, and where the child’s basic needs to feel comforted and protected are unmet.

Children reared in environments where unrealistic expectations, image, or achievements are upheld over the child’s inherent value can additionally foster traumatic bonds where the child may learn their worth as conditional for appeasing their caregivers. Similarly, this dynamic can breed a pattern of approval-seeking, perfectionism, increased risks of mental health issues including depression, anxiety, complex post-traumatic stress disorder (cPTSD), and the risk for further victimization in their adult relationships.

Traumatic Bonds and Intermittent Reinforcement

All traumatic bonds share a common pattern: they have cycles of both intermittent positive and negative reinforcement that strengthen the bond, making it difficult to walk away. Traumatic bonds are compared to having similar symptoms as “Stockholm syndrome” where there is a compulsion to seek comfort from the same person who is also a source of fear. This is especially true in cases of childhood traumatic bonds and in romantic relationships.

Risk factors for traumatic bonds include:

  • Family history of mental health problems.
  • Poor socioeconomic status.
  • Limited social support.
  • Insecure attachment style.
  • Poor or insufficient coping strategies.
  • History of being bullied or harassed.
  • Prior history of trauma.
  • Substance abuse or addiction.
  • Absentee or negligent parenting/caregiving.
  • Identity disturbances.
  • Narcissistic parenting/caregiving.
  • Existing mental health issues (depression, PTSD, borderline personality disorder, anxiety).

Aside from the above risk factors, there are several red flags that contribute to the possibility of being traumatically bonded in a romantic relationship, which include:

Behavioral Reenactment. Children raised in an unpredictable or inconsistent environment may try to make themselves feel safe by ignoring their needs for love, attention, or connection in exchange for meeting their caregivers’ expectations as a way of keeping the peace. Many learn to ignore their own needs for what their caregivers expect. Narcissistic parenting in childhood places a person at an increased risk for narcissistic romantic relationships based on early conditioning. Thus, what is learned in childhood as “normal” can be unconsciously sought out as “familiar” in our adult romantic relationships.

History of Unmet Basic Needs. A history of unmet basic needs in childhood predisposes a person to further traumatic bonding in their adult lives where their needs for safety, consistency, predictability, and belonging continue going unmet. For example, a person with a history of depression or low self-esteem from childhood trauma is at an increased risk of falling victim to a narcissistic partner where the person comes in as a “hero” and taps into their unmet needs for love or safety with “fairy-tale” promises—only to pull the rug out from under them, thus risking re-traumatization.

Obsessions/Ruminations on "Good Times." Because traumatic bonds are based on intermittent reinforcement, there is an increased risk of feeling “stuck” in the good times while downplaying the bad times. This is especially true in relationships identified with covert narcissistic abuse where manipulation can fly under the radar or may come across as concern. In healthy relationships, each person retains their autonomy. In traumatic bonds, enmeshment can negatively reinforce the bond, and further enmesh the “good times” and the toxicity.

Healing From Traumatic Bonds

If you notice similar patterns in your relationships, it’s important to recognize whether you may be experiencing a traumatic bond as it can cause significant damage to your mental, emotional, and physical health. The reason traumatic bonds are so difficult to walk away from is because of the cycles of intermittent positive reinforcement (the “good times”), mixed with cycles of intermittent negative reinforcement that tap into a desperate need for safety, belonging, and a secure attachment.

Healing from a traumatic bond requires a comprehensive approach to intervention from a trauma-informed clinician that specializes in attachment and relational trauma. It is important that a clinician help educate you on how traumatic bonds are formed and maintained, as well as provide you with behavioral goals that help you establish a sense of safety, build self-reliance, establish firm boundaries, and increase your autonomy, so you can empower yourself and your healing.

To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.


Dutton, D. G., & Painter, S. (1993). Emotional attachments in abusive relationships: A test of traumatic bonding theory. Violence and Victims, 8(2), 105–120.

Dutton, D. G., & Painter, S. L. (1981). Traumatic bonding: The development of emotional attachments in battered women and other relationships of intermittent abuse. Victimology: An International Journal, 7(4), 139–155.

Erozkan, A. (2016). The link between types of attachment and childhood trauma. Universal Journal of Educational Research 4(5), 1071 – 1079.

Purell, C. (2010). Childhood trauma and adult attachments. Healthcare Counselling and Psychotherapy Journal, 10(2), 1 – 7.

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