A type of unhealthy relationship you might notice is a trauma bond. This is a type of relationship which develops between a person being abused and the person abusing them.
What Is It?
Trauma bonding is when a person is being abused and they form a connection with the person who is abusing them. The person being abused may have feelings of fondness or sympathy for the person abusing them.
You might have heard of Stockholm syndrome. This is a type of trauma bond.
Not everyone who is abused will develop a trauma bond with their abuser.
Why Does This Happen?
There are a couple of reasons why trauma bonds form.
- Attachment. We form attachments for survival. Trauma bonds are unhealthy attachments. When our safety is threatened, we look for comfort and turn to others. As a child, we often turn to parents and as we get older, we turn to significant others. A person being abused might turn to the person abusing them. For example, if a child/youth is being abused by a parent, they might turn to them for comfort. This can create a trauma bond.
- Dependence. In an abusive relationship, the abused person might rely on the person abusing them to fulfill their needs. In an abusive child/parent relationship, the child relies on their parent. They may begin to associate love and abuse. This can make it hard for the child to see their parent as abusive or bad, so the child might blame themselves for what is happening.
- Cycle of Abuse. The cycle of abuse can reinforce a trauma bond. As part of the cycle, the abusive person will often be really kind or caring after they are abusive.
- Biology. Trauma bonds are reinforced by biology. When we connect with others, our brain releases a chemical called oxytocin which makes us feel warm and loving. This increases the bond.
When Can Trauma Bonds Happen?
Trauma bonds can happen in any type of situation where there is abuse or exploitation.
This could include:
- Abusive relationships
- Human/sex trafficking
- Religious extremism or cults
Not everyone in these situations will develop a trauma bond. In order for a trauma bond to occur, there must be a perceived or real threat of danger, abusive or harsh behaviour with kindness, isolation from others, and feeling helpless or lack of escape.
What Does It Look Like?
Trauma bonds can be tricky. It might seem obvious that abuse is taking place, but it can feel complicated and confusing for the person suffering the abuse.
You might notice the person’s relationship is cyclical. It could switch from abuse/toxic behaviour to kindness or affection.
There might also be a power imbalance in the relationship, like a parent/child relationship or romantic relationship with the person feeling powerless or lost without the abuser.
The person being abused:
- Could defend/make excuses for the person’s mistreatment or abuse
- Could lie to hide the abuse
- Could push other people away
- Could become angry when approached about the relationship
- Could feel stuck
- Might say other people do not understand
- Could feel hopeless or helpless
- Could have poor boundaries
- Might stay in unhealthy relationships
- Could try hard to get people to like them or seek approval
- Be really kind to people who have hurt them
- Might continually think about people who have hurt them, even if the person is gone
- Could be really unhappy or distressed (emotionally or physically)
What To Do?
If you think a child in your life is being abused, please click here to visit the CACAC website
When dealing with a trauma bond:
- Be supportive and understanding
- Encourage positive connections/self-talk
- Encourage self-care
- Encourage the person to talk to someone about the unhealthy relationship (counsellor, spiritual leader, elder, etc.)
- Help the person live in the moment by bringing their attention to the task at hand
- Ask questions about the present moment
If you would like to speak to someone about mental health issues, the Alberta Health Services Mental Health Help Line is available 24/7, offering information and referrals on any aspect of mental health.