Reviewed by Annie Mell, MA, LPC, ATR-BC, MBA HA
How you define a healthy relationship depends on your preferences, goals, and life experiences. In general, healthy relationships should feel safe and supportive. Still, sometimes, we can get so used to a trauma bond or a toxic relationship that we can’t recognize the red flags. Learning the difference between healthy relationships and trauma bonds can help you discover the truth about your connections and make informed decisions that support your wants and needs in a partnership.
What Is a Trauma Bond?
Trauma bonds are bonds that commonly form as a result of abusive relationships. They are the surface-level feelings of attachment and intimacy that can result from an abusive cycle. In a trauma bond, partners think they have true love or connection even though the relationship is harmful.
Trauma bonds aren’t simply a challenging relationship: they are deeply rooted in our basic need for attachment and security. The abuser wields tremendous power and control that compound with shame and embarrassment, making it impossible for their abused partner to leave.¹
Characteristics of a Trauma Bond Relationship
Trauma bonds are an unhealthy form of attachment that can significantly impact your relationships. There are a few characteristics of trauma bonds that can help you evaluate your relationship. These signs include:
- Lying about the abuse to friends and family
- Feeling like the abuse is your fault
- Constantly trying to explain your partner’s defects in a positive light
- Feeling like you have no choice in the relationship
- Believing that you can change the abuser’s behavior over time
If you see these characteristics in your relationships, you have likely developed a trauma bond.
The Cycle of Abuse
Trauma bonds can form as a result of the abuse cycle. Abuse isn’t always physical; to be clear, emotional abuse IS abuse.
Abusive relationships are tricky, because they usually start off like a fairy tale. Before the cycle of abuse starts, there is an initial honeymoon phase. The abuser will practice love bombing, showering their partner with affection, attention, outrageous gifts, and grandiose acts of service. The honeymoon phase lays a foundation of false security – the abuser goes above and beyond to charm their partner and create control by appealing to their partner’s desires.
These initial tactics appear throughout the cycle of abuse, broken down into four distinct stages.
Stage 1: Tension
In the tension stage, stress begins to pile up. The abuser may blame their increasingly aggressive behavior on financial stress, irritation at work, or worsening mental health symptoms. During this stage, the abused person may feel like they are walking on eggshells, doing everything they can to avoid triggering their partner and sparking an incident.
Stage 2: Incident
Tension continues to build until it reaches a tipping point when an incident occurs. In this stage, physical, emotional, or mental abuse shows its full force. It may include behaviors such as:
- Verbal threats
- Physical or sexual assault
- Controlling behavior
- Violent outbursts
- Emotional manipulatioon
- Destruction of personal property
Often, the abuser blames the victim for their behavior; in some cases, they may even frame them as the aggressor in the relationship.
Stage 3: Reconciliation
It’s common for an abuser to appear to show significant remorse after an incident. They may draw on some of the behaviors from the honeymoon phase, shower their victim with gifts, offer apologies, and swear to change. They may gaslight their partner to establish control around the narrative and make their partner question their reality.
While the reconciliation phase may feel great at the time, it’s essential to recognize that it’s temporary and just an effort to deepen the trauma bond. Healthy relationships don’t typically go through these stages; even when arguments occur, partners can use healthy communication to resolve conflict.
Stage 4: Calm
After the reconciliation phase, there is typically a period of calm. Tensions are low, and there may be a feeling of ease in the relationship. It’s easy for people in this phase to believe that any abuse is in the past and that things will continue to improve. But in abusive relationships, this phase is shortly followed by another period of tension, and the cycle will begin anew.
Trauma Bonds in the Abusive Cycle
The reconciliation phase and the calm phase go a long way in reinforcing the cycle of abuse. Even in the most intense moments, the abused partner may cling to hope and positive memories with their partner, avoiding the negative impacts of the relationship. These periods are often intensely pleasurable and can even feel addictive, particularly in contrast to the traumatic events of the tension and incident phases.
In some cases, abused partners may respond with reactive abuse, or one partner may inflict physical abuse while the other wields emotional abuse. Once the cycle of abuse starts, it’s constantly counting down like a ticking time bomb, waiting to erupt and strengthening trauma bonds throughout every repetition of the cycle.
Other Types of Trauma Bonds
Trauma bonding doesn’t only happen in romantic relationships: it can occur with family members, friendships, or even in kidnapping cases.
- Siblings can develop trauma bonds when they endure or witness physical or emotional abuse inflicted by their parents.
- Coworkers can develop trauma bonds in a toxic workplace when an abusive boss engages in a cycle of emotional trauma with intermittent positive reinforcement.
- Survivors of kidnapping can develop positive emotions for their kidnapper in an extreme form of trauma bonds known as Stockholm Syndrome.
The essential feature of a trauma bond is that it is a response to intense negative experiences – the bond forms not just as a result of positive memories but as a reaction to intense trauma.
The Role of Trauma Bonds
Although Stockholm Syndrome is an extreme example of a trauma bond, it offers insight into the logic behind trauma bonds. From the outside, we can recognize that the bond between a victim and a kidnapper is intensely harmful, but we can also acknowledge that this bond can occur as a natural and even life-preserving survival mechanism. Stockholm Syndrome emphasizes the role that power and control play in the cycle of abuse.
In less severe cases, people may attempt to befriend and supplicate someone causing harm to ensure their own safety or mitigate abuse – this is called the “fawn” trauma response. Fawning can develop into a larger pattern of behavior that perpetuates anxious attachment and reinforces unhealthy behaviors in various relationships throughout someone’s lifetime.
What Does a Healthy Relationship Look Like?
Healthy relationships are built on trust, honesty, and mutual respect. There are no attempts to control each other’s behavior, and each partner recognizes the other as an individual with specific needs and desires.
That isn’t to say that healthy relationships never have struggles or setbacks. Instead, people in healthy partnerships face challenges as they come. They don’t shy away from accountability – they approach disagreements without the goal of “winning,” prioritize healthy communication, and work to find a solution that makes everyone feel safe, heard, and respected.
Key Characteristics of a Healthy Relationship
The key elements of healthy relationships include:
- Open Communication: Problems and difficulties are are discussed as they arise, and people in healthy relationships welcome the opportunity to settle disagreements and make compromises.
- Trust: Partners give each other the benefit of the doubt, rather than assuming the worst.
- Individuality: While it’s perfectly healthy to pick up some habits or traits from your partner, it’s important to maintain your own sense of self in a relationship.
- Understanding: Empathy and compassion are essential to ensuring that each person in a relationship feels understood and seen.
- Intimacy: Intimacy plays a key role in healthy relationships, and avoiding intimacy altogether could be a sign that something is wrong. There are many different forms of intimacy, and not every romantic relationship requires physical intimacy.
- Mutual Respect: People in healthy relationships don’t belittle or demean each other – instead, they provide a comfortable base of security and support.
Of course, there are several other elements of healthy relationships beyond this list, and everyone has different emotional needs.
For someone accustomed to the cycle of abuse, a healthy relationship may look boring because they’re used to the rollercoaster of extreme highs and devastating lows; consistency might feel too predictable. Others may feel threatened by the calm of a healthy relationship because it may feel too intimate – they may be on edge, just waiting for the old patterns of a trauma bond to kick in.
Often, people with trauma bonds have confused the wild swings of abusive relationships for passion and may even believe they have to prove or earn love by enduring a series of trials. This is a radically romanticized belief, and it simply isn’t the case in healthy relationships where people can feel secure in their companionship for years on end.
Healthy Relationships vs. Trauma Bonds
One way to determine whether you’re in a healthy relationship or a trauma bond is to focus on how your relationship consistently makes you feel. A healthy relationship makes you feel supported, secure, and confident, while a trauma bond makes you feel fearful, anxious, or put down. A healthy relationship is a reliable source of comfort for people throughout their lives, not an intermittent feeling that comes in waves or cycles.
Sometimes, it’s easy to slip into unhealthy patterns because it’s what’s most familiar. If your parents didn’t have a safe, loving relationship, or you have been through a series of toxic relationships, you may not have the awareness to recognize harmful patterns. Social media and reality shows reinforce unrealistic expectations and sometimes capitalize on toxicity for likes and views.
The good news is that there is a way out of trauma bonds. With time and support, you can unlearn destructive patterns, develop a greater awareness of your wants and needs in a relationship, and build confidence in your ability to discern between a healthy relationship and a trauma bond.
If you’d like to learn more about how All Points North can help you heal from trauma bonds and develop skills that support healthy relationships, reach out to our team to speak to one of our mental health experts. It is possible to learn healthy attachment styles, and you do not have to walk this journey alone in order to heal.
- “How to Heal From a Trauma Bond Relationship.” All Points North, 18 Feb. 2022, https://apn.com/resources/how-to-heal-from-a-trauma-bond-relationship/.