Here's how to tell if you're in this toxic, addictive relationship — and how to break the cycle.

By Dr. Jenn Mann
Mar 11, 2021 @ 11:40 am
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What Is Trauma Bonding?
Credit: Jonathan Knowles/Getty Images

DEAR DR. JENN

When things are good with my boyfriend, they are so good! But when they are bad, things get really ugly and he can be very emotionally abusive. (Afterward, he always apologizes and promises to do better.) We are very intense people who moved in together after only knowing each other for a few months. While Covid was a factor, I also felt a lot of pressure to move quickly. I'm concerned about the conflicts we are having but I can't imagine going on without him. We are very bonded. —Locked in

DEAR LOCKED IN,

This type of back and forth, up and down relationship can be very intense and emotional. I have seen it many times before. In psychology, we say that the most effective reinforcement is what we call intermittent reinforcement. As it was explained to me in grad school, "the rat hits the bar hoping for the pellet and does not get it every time or even every third time. It gets the reward randomly." This type of behavioral conditioning is highly effective. What do rats have to do with your relationship? The intermittent positive behavior that you get in between these "ugly" incidents keeps you hanging on. The anticipation of the affection, attention, or sex that follows these periods of conflict and high-stress levels actually bonds you to your boyfriend. This is known as a trauma bond. 

Some experts believe that this becomes an addictive cycle. The rush of stress hormones like cortisol can make a person feel exhilarated during conflict. When reunited, the dopamine and oxytocin triggered in the reward center of the brain can fool you into thinking that you are in love. This emotional rollercoaster can create an obsessive quality to the relationship. Even when you end a relationship like this, it can be hard to stick with it. Studies have shown that going through a breakup can trigger activity in the same regions of the brain that get activated when we are in physical pain, not to mention that we experience a drop in the production of neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin that create feelings of pleasure and happiness. This depression combined with the craving to be with the object of our affection can leave us feeling like we need to get back together to get the high we once had. 

Typically an abusive relationship (physically or emotionally) follows a pattern, known as the cycle of abuse. This starts with the tension-building phase where you feel like you are walking on eggshells, working double time not to set him off. Then comes the incident, which can include physical, emotional, or verbal abuse. During this stage, there is usually a lot of blaming, anger, threats, and intimidation. This is followed by the honeymoon stage, which is the hook. During this period he acts like the man you fell in love with. He promises he will never do whatever terrible thing he did again. He is romantic and caring. This may include gifts or big gestures. This can create sympathy for the abusive person and further the emotional bond.

This type of trauma bond is especially common in domestic violence situations, with hostages, child abuse, kidnapping victims, or cults. But it can occur in relationships that are emotionally or verbally abusive as well. 

Who Is Most Vulnerable to Trauma Bonding

People who have a childhood history of abuse — physical, emotional, sexual, or neglect — are most vulnerable. Growing up in a volatile, neglectful, or abusive home can make this type of behavior seem normal or feel familiar. Having low self-esteem or feeling that you are unlovable can make you overlook unacceptable behavior in order to get some crumbs of love.

Warning Signs of a Trauma Bonding Relationship

Relationships where trauma bonding occurs have many different signs. Ask yourself the following.

  • Have you become isolated from your friends?
  • Is this relationship hot and cold?
  • Has your trust been exploited in the relationship?
  • Do you find yourself obsessing about the relationship and the related conflicts?
  • Do you feel this is the only person who can meet your needs?
  • Do you find yourself walking on egg shells around your partner?
  • Have your friends or family express concern about your relationship?
  • Do you find yourself making excuses for your partner‘s bad behavior?
  • Are you getting showered with love or gifts after an abusive episode?
  • Do you find yourself feeling overly grateful for any attention or affection that is shown to you by your partner?
  • Do you find yourself feeling like you are walking on egg shells, afraid you will set your partner off?
  • Do you find yourself constantly making excuses for him or his behaviors?

What You Can Do to End the Cycle

Leaving an abusive relationship when you have a trauma bond can be very difficult. It is difficult for people who have never had that experience or are not professionals to understand why you don't just leave. Oftentimes, leaving is a process that takes time.

Here are a few things that you can do that may help.

  1. Get therapy. This can better help you understand why you have been drawn to such a destructive relationship and help you to gather the strength to leave. If finances are a concern, look into low-fee clinics in your area or those that allow for telemedicine therapy.
  2. Call a hotline. It can be very helpful to speak with a domestic violence or women’s help line. They are free and anonymous. This can be a good outlet to talk through some of these issues or to make a safety plan to leave. 
  3. Try to create more activities in your life that give you oxytocin and positive connections. Finding things that help you escape, relax, and feel good can help replace some of the destructive choices.
  4. Nurture your connections with people who care about you. Oftentimes, in an abusive relationship, there is a tendency to isolate. Take the time to reach out to old friends and family members who care about you. This support is crucial for you to be able to take care of yourself.

In Hump Day, award-winning psychotherapist and TV host Dr. Jenn Mann answers your sex and relationship questions — unjudged and unfiltered.