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Maybe It’s Not Love?: Understanding Trauma Bonds

Written by Kara Thompson, Licensed Social Worker

When exploring the concept of trauma bonds, it is helpful to start by understanding attachment. Attachment theorist John Bowlby defines attachment as the “lasting psychological connectedness between human beings.” While much of Bowlby’s work surrounded the attachment between child and caregiver, so much of his work influences what we know about connectedness in all nuanced relationships in our lives… even unhealthy romantic partnerships. When we experience a strong, intense emotional attachment with another, it is not unlikely for us to minimize the toxicity, abuse, or negative ways they may make us feel. This idea of trauma bonds can be explained as an emotional attachment that is molded by toxicity yet positive reinforcement. It speaks to the complex, confusing and manipulative nature of abusive relationships. For some, this idea of trauma bonding is incredibly familiar and may even mimic an unhealthy relationship familiar to us in childhood.

We cannot discuss trauma bonds without addressing the invalidating comments often swirling throughout the conversation on unhealthy relationships. Asking the question “Why don’t you just leave?” is not only victim-blaming in nature, but can reinforce the manipulative patterns that the abuser has worked to create. Oftentimes an abuser will use manipulation and degradation by asking the same question, reinforcing the inaccurate perception that the survivor is at fault. This is incredibly common and incredibly complex. Those who experience complex trauma are often conditioned to believe that the continuation of abuse or unhealthy patterns was due to an inherent lack of their ability or worth, bringing up feelings of shame and distrust of self. 

The reality is, trauma bonds have a deeply rooted effect on the relationship’s complexity. An individual may be able to logically identify an event or behavior as abusive, but may not be in a place to identify the tactics that follow such as love bombing, gaslighting, or positive reinforcement. They may identify apology in a more meaningful way than they identify manipulation. Trauma bonds often show up in attempts to prove to ourselves that there is something better on the horizon. It’s often the self-talk that says “Yeah, I know things are bad right now. I know that I don’t deserve to be treated in this way… but maybe I can do something to fix it. Maybe I did something to deserve this? Maybe I could have been better? And besides… they told me they loved me. I know they will be kind to me again.” Trauma bonds may not show up in every unhealthy relationship but can show up in any unhealthy relationship.

How To Support

It’s important to remember that while we may be able to identify trauma bonds from the outside, those in the relationship may not recognize the relationship as toxic. They may not identify with the term “victim” or even with the title of “survivor.” We want to prioritize safety first and foremost, working to keep lines of communication open and without judgment. Check-in with the individual as a person-first, partner-second. Validate the complexity, the confusion. Aim to empower choice: choice in speaking about the abuse, choice in leaving, choice in the type of support. 

“You have the strength to break the bond. Trauma bonds are strong, but you are so much stronger. “ (Tricaso, 2021)

To learn more, check out the Modern Intimacy article “Breaking Trauma Bonds One Step At a Time” as well as the National Domestic Violence Hotline. If you or a loved one is struggling with unhealthy patterns in their relationship and would like to talk to a licensed therapist in Chicago, please reach out to us at Symmetry Counseling. You can contact us online or by phone at (312) 578-9990 to schedule an appointment with a clinician today.


Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment and loss. (OKS Print.) New York: Basic Books.

Tricaso, K. (2021, April 6) Breaking Trauma Bonds One Step At a Time. Modern Intimacy.

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