One of the hardest parts about escaping a trauma bonded relationship is the amount of thoughts, feelings, emotions, and needs victims of abuse have invested in the relationship. It can make escaping the relationship extremely complex and confusing and cause trauma bonded victims of abuse to remain in the relationship in the hopes that the bond they share with their abuser will become healthy in due time. 

A trauma bond will never become healthy. It’s an emotional attachment between a victim of abuse and their abuser that is formed through an abusive cycle of mirroring, future faking, abuse, and intermittent reinforcement. There is nothing even remotely healthy about a trauma bond nor will there ever be.

This article is going to guide you through the complexity of trauma bonding to give you a better understanding of the reason that it is impossible for a trauma bond to become healthy. We’ve created a short video below about the reason that you can’t truly love someone that you’re trauma bonded to. For some, it can be a hard pill to swallow but it keep in mind while watching the video that it doesn’t mean that you’re incapable of love, you’re just giving it to the wrong person.

A Short Video Explaining Why You Can’t Truly Love Someone That You’re Trauma Bonded To

A bond formed through love is secure and works on the live and let live philosophy. No co-dependency and healthy connection. This bond is riddled with feelings of security and goodness even when you are not in the person’s presence. A bond formed though abuse is riddled with fear and anxiety. It can only lead to feelings of insecurity. Bond’s formed through fear will lead to ill mental and physical health whilst a bond formed through love will lead to vibrant, joyous healthy mental and physical wellbeing. – Dr. Daksha Hirani, Clinical Psychologist Specializing in Trauma Informed Psychotherapy and Narcissistic Abuse Recovery

Mirroring

In the beginning stages of trauma bonded relationships an abuser will use mirroring to absorb an extraordinary amount of information about the victim’s identity and they’ll use this information to create a falsified identity that is designed to fill a void in the victim’s life. 

When it comes to romantic relationships the void that the abuser creates a falsified identity to fill usually has something to do with the victim’s perception of love, healthy relationships, and their goals for the future. 

The void that is filled in a trauma bonded relationship between family members, like an abusive father and his children, is slightly harder to pinpoint because the child is only exposed to abuse. 

What ends up happening in trauma bonded family systems is that the victim develops an extremely corrupted perception of love and healthy relationships because they’ve only been exposed to invalidation, devaluation, and dehumanization. Without guidance, they will naturally gravitate towards abusive relationships simply because they’re familiar. 

In a trauma bonded relationship between colleagues one usually has a significant amount of power and control over the other because of the natural hierarchy in work environments and the void that is filled usually has something to do with the victim’s financial situation or aspirations for their career.

Mirroring in a trauma bonded relationship is all about the abuser transforming themselves into the “perfect” person for the victim. They spend a considerable amount of time analyzing the ins and outs of the victim’s identity so that they can be exactly who the victim needs them to be.

Mirroring is a really important part of trauma bonding that you need to understand if you are to be as safe as possible from here on out. You should read our article How Do Narcissists Use Mirroring for better understanding of it but we’ve also created a video below that outlines exactly how abusers use mirroring in romantic relationships, family settings, and work environments.

A Short Video With Examples of Mirroring In Trauma Bonded Relationships

It’s important to note that mirroring happens in relationships that are healthy too. It is an unconscious behavior that is healthy, balanced, and well-mannered. It allows both of the people involved to see one another clearly and accurately. It is a sign of affection, mutuality, trust, and growth.

In trauma bonded relationships abusers use mirroring to mimic the dynamics of a healthy relationship but the reality is that they are collecting as much data as they can about the victim’s identity so that they can lay a foundation of manipulation that makes it nearly impossible for victims of abuse to escape and that is why mirroring in trauma bonded relationships is one of many reasons that trauma bonds can never turn into healthy bonds.

Future Faking

In a trauma bonded relationship future faking is when the abuser makes false promises for the future to get exactly what they want in the present. It is a really tricky form of manipulation because it can manifest in both a verbal and nonverbal form. 

A simple example of a verbal form of future faking in a trauma bonded relationship would be an abusive husband promising to cut ties with the woman that he’s having an affair with if his wife stops asking him to go to couples therapy. The wife stops asking him to go to couples therapy but finds out months later that her unfaithful husband is still seeing the woman that he promised to cut ties with.

A narcissist future faking his trauma bonded victim

When it comes to nonverbal future faking, it actually manifests in the form of the falsified identity that abusers build through mirroring the victim to fill a void in their life. By presenting themselves as the “perfect” person for the victim or someone who “completes” the victim, they are manipulating them into envisioning a healthy, happy, and secure future that doesn’t, nor will it ever, exist. 

The abuser is making a false promise in the future to manipulate the victim into letting their guard down in the present. The interesting thing about future faking is that it has a Yin and Yang type of relationship with mirroring. 

What mirroring does is it embeds the vision of a healthy, happy, and secure future in the victim’s subconscious and future faking pulls that vision to their conscious which makes it feel almost tangible for the victim of abuse.

In healthy relationships promises and plans for the future happen naturally. The relationship doesn’t feel like an “all or nothing” bond, people give each other time to think, they respect each other’s boundaries, there’s not a lot of pressure, and people are allowed to trust their instincts. Much like healthy mirroring, making plans or promises for the future in a healthy relationship is a sign of affection, mutuality, trust, and growth.

Abuse

We’re sure many of you know already but the feeling of a “happy, healthy, and secure” connection that trauma bonded victims of abuse are manipulated into developing never lasts long. When the abuser senses that they’ve successfully manipulated their victim into believing in the lies that they’ve spun, they’ll drop the act and begin their abusive pursuit of power, control, validation, admiration, and reassurance. 

This shift from the “happy, healthy, and secure,” beginning stages of the relationship to the abusive stage, also known as the devaluation phase, of the relationship is often unpredictable and very destabilizing for the victim of abuse. 

It forces them to make a very difficult decision. Do they let go of the wish for things to be different by acknowledging that the person they thought was the “perfect” person for them is really just a manipulative abuser or do they hold onto their fond image of their abuser by finding a way to justify, rationalize, and normalize their abusive behavior?

It may seem like the obvious path one should take is to acknowledge the abuse and move on but it is not that simple. Abusers do not want their victim to move on because they need them to fulfill their own insecure need for power, control, validation, admiration, and reassurance. So, they have many manipulative techniques that are designed to keep the victim justifying, rationalizing, and normalizing the abuse.

When a healthy relationship goes through a rough patch, has a huge argument, or even becomes a bit toxic, the people involved sit down and have a serious conversation about what needs to change. There’s no gaslighting, blame shifting, invalidation, devaluation, dehumanization, or other forms of emotional abuse.

A narcissist devaluing his wife

When the true nature of a trauma bonded relationship gets revealed there is an overwhelming amount of gaslighting, blame shifting, invalidation, devaluation, dehumanization, or other forms of emotional abuse.

The amount of manipulation that comes once the victim senses that the relationship is toxic, abusive, or slightly off, is incredibly dangerous because it pushes the victim into a state of cognitive dissonance. 

Cognitive dissonance is a theory that suggests when we experience an inconsistency among belief, information, and behavior, it causes a tremendous amount of psychological tension. To ease this tension we will change one or more of the elements that are causing the inconsistency to make everything consistent. It is a huge part of trauma bonded relationships that keeps them intact for months, years, even decades.

The reason that cognitive dissonance is such a massive part of a trauma bonded relationship is because the beginning stages of the relationship, mirroring and future faking, gives the victim the information and shows them the behavior that they need to develop the belief of a healthy, happy, and secure relationship. 

When the abuser makes the sudden and unpredictable shift from the beginning stages of the relationship to the abusive stages, they change the information that they give the victim and the behavior that they show them, leaving the victim with only the belief that the relationship is happy, healthy, and secure.

This change is what triggers the cognitive dissonance and abusers have many manipulative techniques like gaslighting, blame shifting, invalidation, devaluation, dehumanization, or other forms of emotional abuse that allow them to keep the victim holding onto their misguided belief by justifying, rationalizing, and normalizing the abuse.

Intermittent Reinforcement

In the previous section we mentioned that abusers are masterful at manipulating their victim into justifying, rationalizing, and normalizing abuse. Well, intermittent reinforcement is by far their most powerful form of manipulation they use to do so. 

Intermittent reinforcement is the delivery of a reward at irregular intervals. Trauma bonded relationships are so emotionally starved that the “reward” that abusers use during intermittent reinforcement is actually just empathy and compassion. 

An abuser will use intermittent reinforcement when they sense that their victim is either emotionally or physically checking out of the relationship. One can only take so much invalidation, devaluation, dehumanization, and chaos before they’re incapable of being a viable source of validation, admiration, and reassurance. 

In a trauma bonded romantic relationship intermittent reinforcement could manifest in the form of the abuser taking the victim out on a really nice date and treating them well. In an unhealthy/abusive family setting it could be an abusive father playing a game with his children or an abusive child taking his/her parents out for lunch. In a work setting it could be a toxic colleague giving the victim credit for the work that they’ve done or an abusive boss handing out a small pay raise.

Intermittent reinforcement in a trauma bonded relationship is really dangerous because the relationship is so emotionally starved that the “reward” that abusers give triggers the reward center in the victim’s brain and floods it with dopamine. 

Dopamine is the same neurotransmitter that is released when humans abuse drugs like opiates, alcohol, nicotine, amphetamines, and cocaine so what ends up happening is that the “reward” that their abuser gives them during intermittent reinforcement becomes the trauma bonded victim’s only known source of happiness.

We covered this much more thoroughly in our article Why Do Trauma Bonds Feel Like an Addiction but despite all of the abuse the trauma bonded victim remains in the relationship simply because they’ve developed an addiction for the high points, the “reward” during intermittent reinforcement, of the relationship. 

Like someone addicted to illegal substances, trauma bonded victims crave the high points of the relationship, they lose control of themselves, and remain in the relationship despite the negative impact it has on their health.

The reason that intermittent reinforcement works so well is because it triggers the victim’s hope that the healthy, happy, and secure version of the relationship still exists. Believing that the “perfect” person for you is within arms reach can be a really addicting feeling and abusers use that to their advantage.

With all of that being said, healthy relationships have their high and low points as well. It is very possible for some dynamics of a healthy relationship to flood one’s brain with dopamine and make them feel really good. But the difference is that it happens naturally and they don’t make you develop an addiction for the relationship.

In a trauma bonded relationship an abuser’s usage of intermittent reinforcement is a strategic plan to keep the victim under their power and control, which is yet another reason that a trauma bond can never become healthy.

What Should You Take Away From This Article?

While there are a ton of different aspects of trauma bonding that mimic a healthy relationship, a trauma bond will never become healthy. You should never remain in a trauma bonded relationship because you’re waiting for it to get healthy.

Abusers are takers, they are going to abuse you as much as they possibly can without forcing you to leave the relationship. If you stay in a trauma bonded relationship, you are telling the abuser that it is okay to treat you the way that you do. You owe it to yourself and to those who truly love you to say enough is enough and make moves to emotionally or physically escape the trauma bonded relationship!

We strongly recommend that you read our articles Can You Love Someone That You’re Trauma Bonded To and How Do You Know if a Bond Is Trauma or Love for a clear understanding of the toxicity of a trauma bond and why you deserve so much more.

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All of the content that Unfilteredd creates is for educational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for clinical care — please visit here for qualified organizations and here for qualified professionals that you can reach out to for help. This article has been reviewed by our editorial board and has been approved for publication in accordance with our editorial policies.

References

Reid, Joan, et al. “Trauma bonding and interpersonal violence.” Psychology of trauma (2013).