Trauma Bonding: What It Is & How to Break Free

Content warning: the following blog contains a general discussion about the concepts of abuse and trauma bonding.

By talking about the topic of trauma bonding, I will mention different types of abuse. If you are someone who has or is suffering from abuse and trauma bonding, this content may be triggering. If you are in an abusive relationship, you can call this hotline 1.800.799.7233 or visit The National Domestic Violence Hotline website for help and immediate support. For more hotlines, including international hotlines, see You can also check out my recent podcast and blog on domestic abuse for more resources. 

In this podcast (episode #354) and blog, I talk about trauma bonding, and how to start healing from the trauma of an abusive relationship.

Trauma bonding generally occurs in abusive relationships. It is a psychological and emotional response to abuse in which the person experiencing the abuse can develop certain attachments or sympathies for the abuser.

Trauma bonding can lead to cycles of abuse in toxic relationships. Indeed, it is one major reason some people stay in abusive relationships. Yet it is important to note that not everyone in an abusive relationship or everyone who has experienced abuse develops a type of trauma bond.  

Generally, the trauma survivor and the abuser tend to share an unhealthy type of attachment. It is natural for humans to become attached to each other, and attachment in and of itself is not bad. However, when people have a relationship where their abuser is their main source of support, this is usually when trauma bonds start to develop. One example of this is when the trauma survivor still looks to their abuser for comfort or emotional support even if the abuser is the cause of their issues. In these cases, this person is often looking to the abuser to fulfill a deep emotional need or want. They may not even know what a healthy relationship looks like—this is how they have learned to see the world and relationships. This is especially common among trauma survivors who were abused from a young age (when they were forming their views on life and the world).  

Many people who experience trauma bonding tend to blame themselves for the abuse to excuse their abuser. Their abusers may even have told them that they won’t be loved by anyone else, and that this is all they deserve. Sometimes, the abuser will show remorse for their actions, and the trauma survivor sees this as a sign that their abuser will change, but they generally do not.

There are many cases in which abuse can occur, including domestic abuse, child abuse, incest, elder abuse, exploitative employment situations, kidnapping, human trafficking, cults, religious extremism and so on. There are typically four points in the cycle of abuse

1. Rising tensions and miscommunications. In this stage, the trauma survivor will notice more and more disturbing behavior from the abuser. They may start to feel fearful and intimidated but also confused. They may either be observing a new side of this person, or they may be wondering why the abuser is treating them like this again. This is usually when the survivor blames themselves and begins to think that they did something wrong to cause the treatment they are getting. 

2. Incidents of physical, emotional, verbal, and mental abuse. This is usually the stage of abuse that involves intimidation or displays of anger by the abuser, which often leads to more fights where the abuser uses blaming or threatening language or behaviors.  

3. Reconciliation. In this stage, the abuser may apologize or try to make amends for their behavior. This is when they will usually show a lot of what looks like remorse and promise to change. They may even try to make excuses or say the incident was not as bad as the trauma survivor says or believes. The abuser may even deny the incident. 

When the abuser shows remorse or a promise of change, or when they treat the other person lovingly, these are considered sporadic rewards amongst punishment. The survivor can end up in a state where they are always hoping that the moments of kindness shown by the abuser will come back, and they usually rely on these moments to get them through the bad times. The survivor may also be thinking of the earlier days in their relationship, when things were most likely much better. In this stage, there is a lot of manipulating and gaslighting.

4. The calm before the storm. The 4th stage is usually the stage that could be described as the calm before the storm. This is when there are no major incidents and everything seems to be normal—the whole incidence of abuse is forgotten until stage 1 begins again.

According to the organization Parents Against Child Exploitation, “a trauma bond develops under specific conditions. A person must: perceive a real threat of danger from their abuser, experience harsh treatment with small periods of kindness, be isolated from other people and their perspectives, and believe that they cannot escape.”

Essentially, in a trauma bond you become psychologically dependent to your abuser (or form a distorted attachment), which is why the cycle of abuse can keep going on and on. Some survivors have even described the process of leaving the abusive relationship like coming off a drug. In fact, this applies both to the abuser and the trauma survivor—many people feel emotionally “hooked” to the other person in these types of relationships. In fact, it can take just 63 days of this kind of relationship to develop a strong bond that can be hard to leave. (This is roughly the time it takes to build a new thinking habit that affects our thoughts, choices and behavior, as I discuss in detail in my book Cleaning Up Your Mental Mess.)

In my research, this description seems to be the most apt way of describing trauma bonding: “it feels like you’ve broken me into pieces, but you’re the only one who can fix me”. This quote not only sums up how an abuser can become an essential part of someone’s life, but it also points out how, often in abusive relationships, the survivor is so socially isolated that they really only have their abuser. 

The trauma bond attachment can feel like an addiction because it creates changes in a person’s brain. Oxytocin (which is associated with bonding), endogenous opioids (which are related to pleasure, pain, withdrawal, and dependence), corticotropin-releasing factors (which are connected to withdrawal and stress), and dopamine (which is related to craving, seeking, and wanting) all become out of balance in these relationships. This is why, just on a biological level, these kinds of attachments can be so hard to break.

Our brain will release chemicals in response to our environment. In an abusive relationship, this release happens constantly as the cycle of abuse goes through its different changes. This, in turn, creates an environment where the constant changes in a relationship create a highly charged climate. As a result, the survivor is in an environment that is characterized by lots of unmanaged toxic stress, because they are constantly uncertain about whether the abuser will suddenly react or become violent or they are constantly thinking that they themselves are to blame. 

In unmanaged, toxic stress environments, our brain releases high amounts of cortisol and predictive patterns are built. High levels of cortisol can actually create physical changes in the brain, and can override proper reasoning, which can really affect a survivor, especially if they are trying to leave an abusive relationship.

Another major psychological reason why many people find it hard to end a trauma bond is cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is the confusion and discomfort humans can feel when they hold on to opposing and conflicting beliefs, values or attitudes. It leads people to rationalize or justify a reality that is at odds with what they feel internally, and often makes them ashamed, embarrassed or guilty, which can keep them feeling trapped. In the cycle of abuse, the survivor generally experiences cognitive dissonance when they are hurt by their abuser, but also blames themselves and tries to justify their abuser’s actions, which also affects the mind, brain and body. With their neurochemistry in disregulated states, it will be extremely difficult to manage emotions or make logical decisions.

If you are listening to all of this right now and you may be in an abusive relationship, please know that you are not alone and that freedom is possible. Never blame yourself if you can’t understand why you can’t just leave—try to understand that there is a lot more going on, and you may need different coping strategies and help to break this attachment:

5. One big part of beginning the process to break free from a trauma bond is to understand that you are in an abusive relationship. Many people may not realize their relationship is destructive, especially when the abuse is less outright and occurs in a more subtle, emotional ways. Here are some things to look out for:

  • If you are anxious during periods when everything is calm because you are waiting for the storm to hit.
  • If you are constantly blaming yourself or feeling confused about the way someone is treating you, and/or you feel in a state of cognitive dissonance.
  • If you feel controlled when you want to leave, or you have left but feel a deep pull to go back to the relationship.

One of the most important things to remember is that the feelings and pain you are experiencing won’t go away immediately. As you take steps towards trying to break free from an abusive relationship, remind yourself to take things one day, or even one moment, at a time. There is no set way to heal—you take as long as you need!

Try to work on the habit of blaming yourself or justifying the abuse that you may have developed as a protective mechanism. Work on learning how to trust yourself again; acknowledge that what you are or have been experiencing is not healthy and not okay.

One helpful way to do this is to learn to talk back to your inner critic, that inner voice that is constantly blaming you for your own problems (for more on this, see here). This can help you deconstruct your sense of self-blame, which could lead you to think for yourself freely. Do this while making a list of reasons why it is not your fault, and focus on that list—especially when you feel down or in a bad place.

6. It is especially important to get support from anyone else in your life that is loving and trustworthy. Often, people in highly toxic relationships feel isolated—when the survivor garners support from others it can help break this isolation. If you are scared to open up or embarrassed, you may find that opening up to others who have experienced abuse may make you feel less judged—it will show you that you are not alone.

Thankfully, there are also many support groups, therapy resources, and help centers and hotlines. See here for a list of hotlines and help centers.

For more on trauma bonding, listen to my podcast (episode #354). If you enjoy listening to my podcast, please consider leaving a 5-star review and subscribing. And keep sharing episodes with friends and family and on social media. (Don’t forget to tag me so I can see your posts!). 

You can now also join me on Patreon for exclusive, ad-free content! Sign up for a membership level that suits you, and receive access to ad-free exclusive bonus podcasts. These episodes will include more targeted, step-by-step guides for specific mental health issues AND some fun, more personal podcasts about topics like my favorite skincare products and favorite books, as well as live Q&As, fan polls and requests, and exclusive digital downloads!  

This podcast is sponsored by:

Magnesium Breakthrough by BiOptimizers. If you’d like a shortcut to better sleep, more energy, and a calmer, more stable mood, then you should consider supplementing with magnesium daily. But to experience these health benefits you have to get the right kinds of magnesium. Truth is, most magnesium supplements you’ll find in health stores use only the two cheapest synthetic forms. And, since they’re not full-spectrum, they won’t fix your magnesium deficiency or do much to support your health. There are actually 7 unique forms of magnesium, and you must get ALL of them if you want to experience its calming, health-enhancing effects. That’s why I recommend Magnesium Breakthrough by BiOptimizers. It’s the only organic full-spectrum magnesium supplement that includes 7 unique forms of magnesium for stress relief and better sleep, all in one bottle. For an exclusive offer for my listeners go to and use DRLEAF10 during checkout to save 10 percent and get free shipping.

Chime.  It’s a new year, which means it’s time to leave behind the things that don’t serve you, like overdraft fees. With Chime, an award-winning app and debit card, you can save that hard-earned paper without paying overdraft fees. Eligible members can overdraft up to $200 on debit card purchases and cash withdrawals with absolutely no overdraft fees! Make your first good decision in 2022, and join over 10 million people using Chime. Sign up takes only two minutes and doesn’t affect your credit score. Get started at Banking services provided by, and debit card issued by The Bancorp Bank or Stride Bank, N.A.; Members FDIC. Get fee-free transactions at any Moneypass ATM in a 7-Eleven location and at any Allpoint or Visa Plus Alliance ATM. Otherwise, out-of-network ATM withdrawal fees may apply. Sometimes Pay Anyone instant transfers can be delayed. The recipient must use a valid debit card or be a Chime member to claim funds.

Ritual’s Essential for Kids. If you think your kids are picky, you haven’t met the parents at Ritual. After scanning countless labels for multivitamins they could rely on for their own kids, they decided they had to create one themselves, and make it with the high-standards approach that Ritual is known for and parents can trust: introducing Ritual’s Essential for Kids. Not only do they have a natural citrus-berry flavor for kids, but each gummy also features a 3-in-1 design that combines a daily multi, vegan Omega-3 DHA, and a good source of fiber per serving. Plus, all their multivitamins are made traceable, because you deserve to know what you’re giving your kids and why. With their one-of-a-kind visible supply chain, you’ll always know what nutrients are in their multivitamins and where they’re sourced. When it comes to what goes into our kids’ bodies, they’ve got being picky down to a science. That’s why Ritual is offering my listeners 10% off during your first 3 months. Visit to start Ritual or add Essential for Kids today.

Podcast Highlights

2:15 What trauma bonding is

3:30 What happens when human attachment becomes toxic 

6:38 The cycle of abuse that can lead to trauma bonding 

12:05 How a trauma bond can develop 

13:00 Why people often find it hard to leave an abusive relationship

18:00 Why it will take time to heal 

20:00 The mind, brain, toxic stress & trauma bonds 

24:30 You are not to blame!

26:00 Cognitive dissonance & trauma bonds 

29:50 How to start healing from a trauma bond

This podcast and blog is for educational purposes only and is not intended as medical advice. We always encourage each person to make the decision that seems best for their situation with the guidance of a medical professional.

Comments 0

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published