Traumatic bonding is “strong emotional ties that develop between two persons where one person intermittently harasses, beats, threatens, abuses, or intimidates the other.” (Dutton & Painter, 1981). Several conditions have been identified that must be present for a traumatic bond to occur.
–(1). There must be an imbalance of power, with one person more in control of key aspects of the relationship, such as setting themselves up as the “authority” through such things as controlling the finances, or making most of the relationship decisions, or using threats and intimidations, so the relationship has become lopsided.
–(2). The abusive behavior is sporadic in nature. It is characterized by intermittent reinforcement, which means there is the alternating of highly intense positives (such as intense kindness or affection) and the negatives of the abusive behavior.
–(3). The victim engages in denial of the abuse for emotional self- protection. In severe abuse (this can be psychological or physical), one form of psychological protection strategy is dissociation, where the victim experiences the abuse as if it is not happening to them, but as if they are outside their body watching the scene unfold (like watching a movie). Dissociative states allow the victim to compartmentalize the abusive aspects of the relationship in order to focus on the positive aspects.
The use of denial and distancing oneself from the abuse are forms of what is called cognitive dissonance. In abusive relationships this means that what is happening to the victim is so horrible, so far removed from their thoughts and expectations of the world, that it is “dissonant” or “out of tune” or “at odds” with their pre-existing expectations and reality. Since the victim feels powerless to change the situation, they rely on emotional strategies to try to make it less dissonant, to try to somehow make it fit. To cope with the contradicting behaviors of the abuser, and to survive the abuse, the person literally has to change how they perceive reality. Studies also show a person is more loyal and committed to a person or situation that is difficult, uncomfortable, or even humiliating, and the more the victim has invested in the relationship, the more they need to justify their position. Cognitive dissonance is a powerful “self-preservation” mechanism which can completely distort and override the truth, with the victim developing a tolerance for the abuse and “normalizing” the abusers behavior, despite evidence to the contrary.
–(4). The victim masks that the abuse is happening, may not have admitted it to anyone, not even themselves.
Trauma bonding makes it easier for a victim to survive within the relationship, but it severely undermines the victims self-structures, undermining their ability to accurately evaluate danger, and impairs their ability to perceive of alternatives to the situation.
Once a trauma bond is established it becomes extremely difficult for the victim to break free of the relationship. The way humans respond to trauma is thought to have a biological basis and reactions to trauma was first described a century ago, with the term “railroad spine” being used. Another term used has been “shell shocked”.
Victims overwhelmed with terror suffer from an overload of their system, and to be able to function they must distort reality. They often shut down emotionally, and sometimes later describe themselves as having felt “robotic”, intellectually knowing what happened, but feeling frozen or numb and unable to take action. A victim must feel safe and out of “survival mode” before they will be able to make cognitive changes.
Many victims feel the compulsion to tell and retell the events of the trauma in an attempt to come to terms with what happened to them and to try to integrate it, reaching out to others for contact, safety, and stability. Other victims react in an opposite manner, withdrawing into a shell of self-imposed isolation. The trauma bond can persist even after the victim leaves the relationship, with it sometimes taking months, or even years, for them to completely break the bond.