Trauma Bonding, what is it and how it is formed?
Updated: Feb 1
Healthy relationships have stable consistent positive reinforcement. You feel secure and know that the other person will be there for you when you need them. As a result, you don’t experience highs and lows.
With abusive relationships, you may experience what is known as intermittent reinforcement. Intermittent reinforcement in psychology is also known as the slot machine effect because of its addictive nature. Small random rewards keep you pulling the lever even though you know you are going to lose. This is similar to what is happening with traumatic bonding.
Traumatic bonding occurs as the result of repeated cycles of abuse in which the intermittent reinforcement of reward and punishment creates an emotional bond or attachment to the abuser. Victims find themselves stuck in this cycle. It is very frustrating to friends/loved ones of the victim who just don’t understand.
Trauma bonding begins in childhood. Children who experience a parenting style consistent with the above definition of traumatic bonding end up in similar relationships as adults. The child may have a parent who is loving at times and abusive at other times. This type of parenting is passed down through generational trauma, which interferes with the parent's ability to be consistently loving and available to the child.
Because children love their parents unconditionally, these children begin to learn that abuse is love and that love hurts. They are taught to blame themselves when bad things happen. They must shut down their feelings in order to survive this vicious cycle. They try to be good enough for their parents in order to win the love they are constantly seeking. They are intermittently rewarded for their efforts which reinforces the behavior.
As an adult when they begin dating, they meet someone who is abusive. When bad things happen they blame themselves. They try to make the relationship work and try to do good for their partner (in order to win the love they are still seeking). The abusive partner cycles between acts of kindness and rejection (cycle of abuse).
The abused person continually seeks their abuser's love and attention. They will receive the attention they are seeking but they also receive rejection and pain. The bond that is formed is mistaken for love and emotions in this type of relationship are painful and intense.
The first step to breaking the cycle is to recognize it, hope this article has been helpful. If you recognize this pattern in yourself or a loved one reach out to a professional for help.