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The Science of the Abuser and Trauma Bonding

by Intern Jessie Howell, B.A.

Have you ever heard of trauma bonding? It may be a new term for you and it might sound odd, I mean, how does trauma bond you? Strange, right? There’s actually a scientific reason for this type of bonding, but first let’s define trauma itself.

What is trauma?

Trauma can be a hard aspect to explain and can take many different forms from natural disasters, accidents, abuse, and the list goes on. In fact, trauma is so rampant that globally, 61% of men and 51% of women have experienced at least one instance of trauma in their lifetime (FHE Health).

The American Psychological Association defines trauma as “an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, crime, or natural disaster.” The event can be disturbing or life-threatening, one localized occurrence or a series of events that causes psychological distress. It has “lasting adverse effects on the individual's functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, and/or spiritual well-being” (Trauma Informed Health).

Chances are pretty high that you’ve experienced a traumatic event. However, the type of trauma that causes trauma bonding is the type between an abuser and the abused over a period of time.

What is Abuse?

As a cause of trauma, abuse can take on many different forms as well. Domestic abuse, verbal abuse, emotional abuse, religious abuse, and sexual abuse are a few of the areas in which we can be mistreated. Abuse is a form of mistreatment that causes distress or harm to someone or something. Abuse occurs in personal relationships and this is where trauma bonding begins.

How does Trauma Bonding work?

Trauma Bonding is actually caused by a chemical reaction within the brain that can keep you in the cycle of abuse. For instance, we often see those (or are one of those) who have been abused and return to their abusive relationship. Another example could be a parentally abused child going on to marry someone that also abuses them.

But why? This begins in the part of our brains that control our flight, fight, or fawn response. Our brains are amazing that way. Its job is to protect you at all costs, even going so far as to shut off certain areas of itself in order to keep you alive. When we feel threatened, our brain automatically evaluates the threat, if there’s no escape, many times the fawn response will kick in. No matter the response, when flight, fight, or fawn begins it means that the part of our brains for critical thinking, long-term planning, etc. is turned off. Once this happens, our brains concentrate on the positives of the situation. You’re probably thinking, “what positives? There is no positive in an abusive relationship.” Positives will be anything the brain believes will “save” it. Many times, that’s the abusers themselves.

Think about how these relationships may have begun. Chances are, we’re probably not going to want to be around someone who introduces themselves and then immediately spits on us, but what happens when someone is charming, fun to be around, and makes you feel wanted, loved, and needed? For the first six months, everything is perfect, until little things begin to change. Little criticisms eventually turn into manipulations, gaslighting, and losing your identity. Who are you without this person? The cycle continues because somewhere in your brain you remember that this person kept you safe and still has the ability to do that. You may think, “if we can just go back to the way it was before.”

What does the Cycle of Trauma Bonding (Choosing Therapy)

The cycle of trauma bonding will look different for everyone, but ultimately consists of:

Love bombing - that charming period where all of your wants and needs are met.

Trust & dependency - love bombing leads to trust and ultimately dependency.

Criticism - many times, once you’re comfortable, little or big criticisms begin.

Manipulation & gaslighting - you may find yourself constantly wrong for everyday activities.

Loss of self - you may become isolated from friends and normal activities.

Addiction to the cycle - you may think “this is a phase, we can go back to the way we were,” or maybe “the relationship is amazing when it’s good, I don’t want to lose that.”

There is no shame in trauma bonding, it’s your body’s natural response to feeling threatened. This cycle is hard to break, but it’s not impossible. The first step is understanding the cycle of abuse and making the decision to break it. A professional counselor is also an excellent tool that can help you work through the trauma of abuse. You are not alone, you matter, and you have worth.

Jessie Howell, B.A. is a 2nd year master's level intern who will be graduating at the end of 2023. She is currently accepting new clients on a sliding scale. Contact her at for your next appointment.


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