mental health

The traumatic bond

The traumatic bond
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When you seek safety and relief from someone who assaults or abuses you, you face a traumatic bond. Find out why it’s so hard to end these kinds of relationships.

The traumatic bond
Elena Sanz

Written and verified by the psychologist Elena Sanz.

Last update: April 09, 2023

Have you ever known someone who is trapped in an unhealthy relationship that they seem unable to get out of? Or have you seen how someone who has been or is being abused by their parents insists on maintaining the bond between them and justifying their actions? Before judging those who are immersed in this type of dynamic, it is important to know how the traumatic link is created and how it functions.

We are ruled by reason. Therefore, none of us want to be mistreated or abused. However, our brain and the mechanisms that regulate mental functioning are complex. For this reason, they can become our main enemies when it comes to leaving toxic relationships. This is even more obvious if we don’t really understand how they work.

If you want to know more about this type of relationship and the reality experienced by its victims, keep reading.

In trauma bonding, the victim usually exhibits cognitive distortions. Among other effects, they prevent them from leaving the relationship.

Traumatic link

People learn to bond in early childhood through interaction with their parents or primary caregivers. Ideally, these adults provide the care, security, and responsiveness needed to build confidence and healthy self-esteem, and to bond in a healthy, interdependent way.

However, when these figures in which the child seeks security are also his aggressors, the dynamic goes wrong. The child grows up considering that abuse is natural. Moreover, they learn to communicate through the dynamics of fear, humiliation or abuse of power. Additionally, they cannot run away or establish physical or emotional boundaries with their caregivers since they are totally dependent on them. For this reason, they activate a series of psychological mechanisms to deal with the situation that binds them to the aggressor through the traumatic bond.

This happens when the parents physically or psychologically abuse the child, when they are narcissistic or neglectful, offer only conditional love or use manipulation to the maximum. Since the foundations of the individual arise from childhood, they are likely to repeat these patterns as adults. Indeed, they relate to others via imbalance, low self-esteem and dependency. Additionally, they tend to choose similarly narcissistic or abusive partners.

The traumatic bond is a dependency that is created between two people, a relationship characterized by abuse, imbalance, and an intense sense of connection. An attachment is created towards the author of the damage. In addition, a series of mechanisms take place. They perpetuate this dynamic and prevent the victim from leaving the relationship.

Why do they maintain the traumatic link?

When we ask why an individual continues in this type of relationship, we can tend to oversimplify the answer. In fact, we may believe that it is due to economic, social or emotional dependence on the partner. However, while these factors undoubtedly contribute, it is the organic and cognitive processes that actually maintain the traumatic bond.

In other words, it is the body and the spirit of the victim, and what is going on in him, which prevents him from leaving. The following elements generally have an influence:

The Cycle of Abuse

In this type of relationship, a dynamic often repeats itself that increasingly traps the victim and keeps them captive. This is called the cycle of abuse or the cycle of violence. The tension builds until it explodes into aggression and then ceases for a while.

When the victim reacts to an act of the aggressor and wants to leave, forgiveness, reconciliation and promises of change appear. But, the cycle begins again soon.

Although he has noticed the pattern repeating itself, the satisfaction of reconciliation and the effect of intermittent reinforcement make it extremely difficult for the victim to act. Indeed, their executioner also acts as their saviour. They cause great discomfort and, at the same time, provide relief. This creates great mental confusion and a traumatic bond that becomes stronger and harder to break.

Cognitive distortions

On the other hand, a series of biases and cognitive distortions occur in the victim as they seek to make sense of their chaotic and painful experience. It is above all the cognitive dissonance that intervenes. It is a psychological tension generated due to the abuse suffered. It ends in a series of justifications, rationalizations and other mechanisms that defend the aggressor and the relationship.

An individual with low self-esteem, insecurity and a high need for validation tends to minimize their suffering. They might tell themselves that they’re exaggerating, that it’s okay, or that they can change their partner, among other illusions. This is enhanced by manipulation and gaslighting that the other party wields and by their repetitive and empty promises of change.

The Biological Addiction to Binding

In addition to the above, it has been found that biology also plays a role when it comes to the traumatic bond. Indeed, during the primary relationships of childhood, the brain gets used to a certain pattern of organic reactions. Therefore, he continues to seek the same sensations in adulthood through new connections.

Typically, the individual who has had a childhood characterized by the traumatic bond experiences constant or repetitive high levels of stress (cortisol). the secretion of endorphins that occurs following episodes of aggression or stress becomes somewhat addictive. Therefore, in the future, this individual will seek to establish relationships with similar dynamics allowing him to obtain the same reactions and thus regulate his hormonal level.

For the brain that has become addicted to these emotional and hormonal fluctuations, leaving the relationship seems almost impossible. In fact, it’s as complicated as overcoming drug addiction.

in the event of a traumatic connection, psychological therapy is necessary.

How to escape the traumatic bond

Typically, if a person is the victim of aggression or abuse, they tend to run away from the abuser and seek support in healthy relationships to achieve internal regulation. But, in the case of the traumatic link, they seek safety and bonding established with the same person who commits the violence. Thus, faced with this internal tension due to inconsistency, the victim rationalizes and justifies what is happening in a certain addictive way, due to the impossibility of getting out of the situation.

Because this bonding pattern often begins in childhood and is deeply rooted, psychological support is usually needed to bring about change. It’s not just about getting out of the harmful relationship (which of course is essential), but about preventing what leads them to continue to have relationships in this way?. Finally, if you find yourself in this kind of situation, do not hesitate to call a professional.

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