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What is a Trauma Bond?

A trauma bond is an intense emotional bond, that may feel like love, as a result of manipulation and abuse. Through intermittent positive reinforcement an abuser can perpetuate the cycle of abuse. To better understand how this occurs let’s go back to the basics of behavioral learning.  Behavioral Psychology studies the interaction of stimulus and behavior. The theory states that all behaviors are the result of conditioning. There are two types of conditioning: classical (Pavlov’s dog) and operant conditioning. We are going to talk about operant conditioning and how behaviors can be molded through reinforcement. Reinforcement can be positive (adding something to increase a response) or negative (removing something to increase a response). (Note that negative reinforcement is not the same as punishment which can be used to DECREASE a response. Reinforcements are can be unpleasant but they encourage and produce a response.)  Now that we have the basics, let’s look at how reinforcement creates a trauma bond and perpetuates abuse. The beginning of a relationship is exciting, hormones run rampant. Commonly, in the beginning of an abusive relationship, before it becomes abusive, the perpetrator is understanding, attentive and caring. These relationships may start off more intense than others. Feelings of infatuation and connection set the stage for future trauma bonding. The cycle of violence/abuse consists of 3 stages: tension building, acute/crisis and honeymoon. During the tension building phase the survivor feels like they are walking on egg shells, afraid to set off the abuser.  The abuser may be edgy, irritable, passive-aggressive, or subtly demeaning. An incident occurs and the crisis phase ensues. It’s important to note that there may not be physical abuse. Emotional abuse is just as damaging. After the explosion, a period of calm follows. The perpetrator morphs into their previous self, the version present during the courting stage of the relationship. The abuser may console and apologize, swearing to change. They may buy gifts and be loving. This is what cements the bond in this relationship. The abuser is intermittently reinforcing the relationship. In studies, intermittent reinforcement has been shown to produce the strongest conditioned response. In cases where the person abused grew up in an abusive household,  leaving an abusive relationship is especially difficult. Abuse may be subtle at first, ramping up over time. As the relationship goes on the trauma bond strengthens and it becomes more and more difficult to leave the relationship.  Trauma bonds and abuse can have lasting effects. A survivor may feel drawn to their abuser years after the relationship ends. That doesn’t mean they will act on it, but they may find that the abuser creeps into their thoughts or unconsciously seek out similar partners. They may find themselves comparing other relationships or jumping to conclusions based on past reactions and experiences. They may find it difficult to trust others or their intentions. There may be a distrust of one’s own judgment and intuition. Fortunately, none of this needs to be permanent. Therapy can help resolve these effects of abuse and provide guidance toward healthy relationships.  If you, or someone you know is in an unhealthy relationship, please reach out or contact your local Domestic Violence hotline. Know that you are not alone and there are people waiting to support you. Trauma bonds may occur in any type of relationship, not only romantic relationships and perpetrators come in all sizes and genders. 


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