Leaving an abusive relationship is never easy. Even when survivors of domestic violence get to a point of feeling like they are ready to walk away countless barriers stand in their way. Things like finances, children, and housing are all practical concerns for the abused partner but there are deeper, unseen barriers too. Love and bonds don’t turn off like a light switch. It’s not as simple as just walking away and you may find yourself wondering why.
Trauma bonding is a phenomenon where an abuser and victim become bonded through traumatic experiences. It goes without saying that being abused by the person you love is traumatic. Abusers manipulate their victims to rely solely on them for love, intimacy and connection. Abusers keep their abused partner isolated and reliant on them for any small act of affection, no matter how rare it may be.
They often use a technique called “dosing” where they give the abused partner just enough love, attention or ‘good times’ to manipulate the victim into believing they are changing.
“During the times when the abuse is at its worst, victims often think that they may have the strength to leave, despite loving the abuser so much. But then the abuser turns on the charm with promises of therapy, love and wanting to work it out.”1
This cycle of abuse strengthens the trauma bond, as the abuser uses something called intermittent reinforcement. Perhaps sometimes the abuser buys their abused partner a gift or compliments their outfit. The abused partner may see these actions as proof that the abuser is trying to change, when in reality this intermittent reinforcement serves to strengthen the trauma bond. The abused partner may hold on to those memories of seemingly kind gestures when the abuse starts again, and the abuser will manipulate their partner with reminders of the nice thing they did or said in the past.
Trauma bonds do not exist in healthy, loving nonviolent relationships. If you are experiencing domestic violence, it is not your fault. You are NOT responsible for the existence of this trauma bond. Your abuser knows what they are doing and will go to great lengths to manipulate you, your emotions, and your attachment to them.
Isolation from friends and family strengthens the trauma bond, which is one of many reasons why the abuser prevents their partners from having those connections. Breaking this bond requires time and distance from the abuser. This is also one reason why comprehensive safety planning is so important. It is a fluid process that looks different for everyone but it is possible to break the bond! There is hope.
If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence call the ACTS Domestic Violence 24/7 Hotline to speak with an advocate. 703-221-4951
1The National Voice of Domestic Violence. (2018). How can I love someone who hurts me? Understanding the trauma bond. https://breakthesilencedv.org/how-can-i-love-someone-who-hurts-me-understanding-the-trauma-bond/