What is trauma bonding after abuse, and how to recognise it?

When abuse happens – whether emotional, physical or sexual – the person at the receiving end of it changes. A loss has occurred, and so has a shift in self-image. The abuser may have disappeared, but they may continue to stand closeby – a figure who has both caused harm, and in another way, provided solace through drawing them in closer. They may be the only stability left in the devastation the trauma has left behind. Forming a relationship with an abuser, or trauma bonding, is an adaptation to loss of control, identity and social belongingness. Understanding why it happens, what the signs are, and the impact it can have is key to understanding how to begin to move away from trauma, and move towards healing.

Spotting the signs of a trauma bond
Part of the difficulty of leaving an abuser is understanding how to draw the line between a healthy and a destructive relationship. When you’ve formed a trauma bond, it can be an emotionally difficult relationship to end. Recognising why you feel like you just can’t leave is the first step at reclaiming control and understanding how to work through the impact of trauma caused by repeated abuse of your boundaries.

How do you spot the signs of trauma bonding? There are a few things that stand out as the common signs of bonding to an abuser.

Excusing the abuse
You may have trouble believing that they are abusers. If you find yourself making excuses for them, such as blaming their behaviour on a bad mood, a negative experience or even on yourself, it may be a sign of a trauma bond having formed. Healthy bonds between people don’t involve shifting responsibility for each other’s harmful actions.

Thinking you are responsible for their abusive behaviour
You may feel responsible for their bad behaviour, and feel like you’ve done something to deserve it. This is another sign of abusive tactics such as gaslighting, which shift the blame onto you and reinforce the idea that they want to treat you differently, but you don’t deserve it.

Not the first time
You also may have noticed that you have a pattern of getting into relationships where your boundaries are constantly violated. You may find yourself realising too late that a line has been crossed. This may be a sign that you have developed a pattern of abusive relationship dynamics through unhealed trauma, but it is equally important to recognise that anyone can fall victim to abuse, and being subjected to it is in no way your fault.

Crazy making
Feeling responsible, or even believing that you can change the behaviour of a person who constantly violates your boundaries is a dangerous game. Often, it may feel like a person who acts in this way wants to do better. You may think there must be some way to ‘get it right’ with them and spend weeks and months trying to figure out how to fix something that will always be broken. People who abuse others can’t be fixed, and they will never let you win.. Abusers often suffer from personality issues which mean they don’t actually have control over how they treat others. Abuse for them is a compulsive need, and sending you spiraling to meet their every need only further empowers them. Recognising this is important, because it means nothing you do has made them act this way. Likewise, it’s highly unlikely that anything you do will change their actions or personality. Personality disorders are usually formed in childhood, and are a deeply rooted problem that only many years of clinical therapy can even attempt to change.

The bottom line is, staying with this person will gradually eat away at your sense of independence and inner wellbeing. There is no way to stay and remain unscathed by an abuser, but leaving is hard.

The impact of abuse is too serious to ignore
Ongoing abuse can have a devastating impact on your mental health. Often, this can develop into quite serious consequences for physical health too, such as hormonal problems, sleep difficulties, hair loss and the impact of addictions. Stress and physical illness are closely interrelated.

Recognising abuse is challenging, particularly in areas of life where you may think this doesn’t often happen, such as the workplace. Abuse is abuse, and whether it happens in childhood, with a romantic partner or in a work setting doesn’t change the impact it has on your health and wellbeing. In fact, workplace abuse has been linked to a range of mental health problems, from depression through addiction. The impact is reversible and it’s important to recognise it early to reclaim mental stability and control over your life.

Abuse is always unhealthy and damaging, whether non-physical, or physical, whether on the street, at home, or at the workplace.

 Isolation and disconnect
One of the reasons why abusers often increasingly draw in the very people whose trust and safety they have violated, is through the other person’s increasing disconnect from their life, their friends or families. The relationship formed between two people where abuse exists can often end up being the only “real” relationship in their lives. Some abusers try to isolate the people they’re after consciously, to ensure any positive experiences are linked to them, and only them. Being isolated from your social circles is damaging, and it can mean that you lose an important support network which is key to working through traumatic experiences.

When you’ve suffered disconnect from your support system, the abuser may be your only real source of comfort. Reaching out for the help and support of others is one of the key elements of recovering from abuse.


Personal experience – How can I trust someone?

“After my first incident, I started withdrawing socially. I became shy and hated any sort of touch. Then it happened again, so I withdrew myself further; I stopped talking. I knew no matter how I presented myself or whatever I did, it would happen anyway. I knew no amount of “no” or “please stop that” would prevent anything. So after high school and the final time it happened, I isolated myself completely. I still don’t talk to anyone. I won’t allow myself to make friends. How can I trust someone?”

Losing your sense of self
People who suffer trauma of any kind often feel like they no longer are the same person, and no longer can have the same life. It is a violation of the trust once placed in others, and in the systems meant to keep us safe. Besides this, an abusive experience can be a violation of your body, your sense of control and autonomy. When physical and sexual abuse happens, you’re not only injured, but also lose a sense of body integrity. If the abuser is still in your life, it may be easier to give away some control and not have to face and work through your loss alone. This can often keep women in abusive relationships, especially when they have been disconnected from their support network. Often, when this happens in childhood, the loss of the normal boundaries of the self mean that future abuse can take place again. The sense of trust in your independence, and in your body or sexuality can be rebuilt after a traumatic violation. The key is to recognise that this change will never happen if the violation continues.

“Traumatic events violate the autonomy of the person at the level of basic bodily integrity. The body is invaded, injured, defiled. Control over bodily functions is often lost… this loss of control is often recounted as the most humiliating aspect of the trauma….the individual’s point of view counts for nothing. The traumatic event destroys the belief that one can be oneself in relation to others.”

Excerpt From: Judith Herman. Trauma and recovery: the aftermath of violence.


Personal experience – estranged from my body

“I had severe anxiety attacks getting dressed – I had developed such an estranged, disassociated relationship with my body any attempt to dress would end up with me in tears on my bedroom floor sitting in a pile of clothes. I later read a story by a survivor of sexual assault who described the same sort of panic attacks. Once I realised that I was having a trauma response and wasn’t just stupid, I was able to be kinder to myself and find solutions to overcome the issue.”

Shame and social image
The shame of experiencing a physical, sexual or emotional violation in itself can keep people trapped in an abusive situation, or prevent them from seeking support and beginning to heal. The social stigma of being the victim of such abuse is real, and it can be one of the biggest barriers to seeking justice and working through these experiences. Breaking with social norms is also something people generally want to avoid, even when it’s clear something very wrong has taken place.

Particularly in a work setting, relationships are pre-determined by role descriptions and hierarchies which, beyond serving an organisational function, are trivial in the realm of real human relationships. Superiors find themselves in a position of power based on professional merit, and not necessarily good conscience.

The workplace is fertile ground for harmful emotional power dynamics. Unless there is recognition of the real human needs of people who have experienced harassment or abuse, and how these experiences continue to affect them, a workplace cannot support them. Monolithic grievance policies mean that there is only one way to deal with these situations: in a reactionary, confrontational and personally-taxing way. Victims are expected to become superheroes, confronting their abusers and driving justice all on their own. The lack of recognition of trauma bonding, means that those who feel overwhelmed by this kind of process and decide to wait, risk not being believed and do not have the support necessary to work through such trauma.

The workplace is an ideal setting for social stigma to take over control and shame you into silence. It’s fertile ground for harmful power dynamics.

Personal experience –shame and self-blame

“He invaded my physical space, would constantly try to touch me, on the waist, the neck, and grabbed me. I feared for my safety.  When I told people, some told me to just let it happen, because he’s a big producer and it was such an important internship. I felt like it was all in my head and all my fault.”


Too often, perpetrators get away
You may think everyone would want to stop abuse from happening, but the truth is, no one wants to point it out even if it happens right in front of their eyes. Simply naming abuse means that we have to accept that people are capable of horrendous actions. No one wants to admit that a work colleague is capable of violating someone’s emotions, their body and safety – especially if this is someone people look up to. Perpetrators can get away with silence and denial, maybe even a half-baked apology. It is simply easier for everyone to accept a more palatable, and less disturbing version of events, so that things fall back into place and they can move on.

Accepting that abuse can happen, completely unchecked, is concerning and can create panic and impact an organisation’s reputation. Such situations are often dealt with by way of a leave of absence or mysterious employee swap, which doesn’t resolve the organisational dynamics that allow these things to happen.

There is hope
Healing from trauma and undoing the damage of an abusive relationship is possible. Trauma-informed psychotherapy has emerged as a useful tool to help both women and men work through the difficulties of these experiences, and find the inner resources to repair wounds and even find a way to grow from the experience. This can be a difficult journey, but not one that needs to be faced alone. Finding support in others and finding space for acceptance of difficult feelings can help build a sense of safety and connection. From there, your life will once again be only your story, that no one else can overwrite.

Richman JA, Rospenda KM, Flaherty JA, Freels S. Workplace harassment, active coping, and alcohol-related outcomes. J Subst Abuse. 2001;13(3):347-66. doi: 10.1016/s0899-3289(01)00079-7. PMID: 11693457.

Richman JA, Rospenda KM, Nawyn SJ, Flaherty JA, Fendrich M, Drum ML, Johnson TP. Sexual harassment and generalized workplace abuse among university employees: prevalence and mental health correlates. Am J Public Health. 1999 Mar;89(3):358-63. doi: 10.2105/ajph.89.3.358. PMID: 10076485; PMCID: PMC1508597.

Judith Herman. Trauma and recovery: the aftermath of violence. (2015).New York: BasicBooks. ISBN 9780465087303.


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