It can be excruciating for a trauma bonded victim of abuse to acknowledge and accept that the bond that they have with their abuser has been formed through trauma, not love. They often have so many thoughts, feelings, emotions, and needs invested in the relationship that they rather search for ways to make the trauma bonded relationship last instead of trying to find ways to escape, heal, and rebuild.

A trauma bonded relationship can last but it will never become healthy. The longer that you are in a trauma bonded relationship the worse your sense of self, ability to construct your own reality, perception of love and healthy relationships, and overall physical and mental health will become.

This article is going to guide you through the terrifying reasons that trauma bonded relationships can last months, years, and even decades, in the hopes of giving you the information and motivation needed to escape your trauma bonded relationship as soon as possible. 

In addition to the information in this article, we conducted a study among 150 survivors of romantic and 150 survivors family trauma bonded relationships in our articles How Long Do Trauma Bonded Relationships Last and How Long Do Trauma Bonds Last.

These two studies reveal two really valuable pieces of information. First, the average length of a trauma bonded relationship. Second, the average amount of time it took the participants to break the trauma bond they had for their abuser. Below is a short video about the results from those studies to help remind you of the importance of escaping trauma bonded relationships.

A Short Video With the Results From a Study About Trauma Bonding

Trauma Bonded Relationships Last Because They Destroy the Victim’s Sense of Self

Part of the reason that trauma bonding destroys the victim’s sense of self is because of all of the invalidation, devaluation, and dehumanization that they experience on a daily basis but the real culprit of this is the cycle of manipulation that causes victims of trauma bonded relationships to develop a serious addiction for the relationship.

In our article Why Do Trauma Bonds Feel Like an Addiction we walk you step-by-step through this insane aspect of trauma bonding but the cycle of manipulation that causes trauma bonded victims of abuse to develop an addiction for the relationship consists of mirroring, future faking, an unpredictable wave of abuse, and intermittent reinforcement.

Mirroring

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

When it comes to romantic relationships it is very common to see the void that the abuser creates a falsified identity to fill relate to the victim’s perception of themselves, love, healthy relationships, and their goals for the future. 

a trauma bonded victim of abuse thinking about love

The void that is filled in a trauma bonded relationship between family members, like an abusive mother and her children, is automatically filled just because of the bond that family members naturally have with one another. 

What ends up happening though is that the victim will develop an extremely corrupted perception of love and healthy relationships because abuse is all they’ve known. Without guidance the victim will naturally gravitate towards abusive relationships simply because they are familiar. 

In a trauma bonded relationship between colleagues it is very common to see one colleague with a significant amount of power and control over the other colleague because of the natural hierarchy that workplaces have. In trauma bonded work environments 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 exactly who the victim needs them to be. We created a short video down below that outlines how abusers use mirroring in romantic relationships, family settings, and work environments to help you understand the power of mirroring in trauma bonded relationships.

A Short Video With Examples of Mirroring In Trauma Bonded Relationships

Future Faking

The term “future faking” is used when someone makes a false promise for the future to get exactly what they want in the present. It is a core aspect of trauma bonded relationships and it can manifest in both verbal and non-verbal forms.

A simple example of a verbal form of future faking in a trauma bonded relationship would be an abusive mother promising to pay for her daughter’s college tuition if her daughter promises to take a year off after high school to help with the “family” business. The daughter agrees but when it comes time for the mother to pay the tuition, she pretends that she never made any promises to her daughter.

Non-verbal future faking is actually the falsified identity that abusers build through mirroring. By presenting themselves as the “perfect” person for the victim, they are manipulating them into envisioning a healthy, happy, and secure future that doesn’t exist so the abuser’s behavior is making a false promise for the future to manipulate the victim into letting their guard down in the present. 

Both mirroring and future faking are essential when creating a trauma bond. What mirroring does is it lodges the vision of a healthy, happy, and secure future deep within the victim’s subconscious and future faking brings that vision to their conscious.

Abuse

The “happy, healthy, and secure” beginning stages of a trauma bonded relationship do not last. Once the abuser senses that they’ve got the victim hooked they will stop mirroring and future faking so that they can begin their abusive pursuit of power, control, validation, admiration, and reassurance. 

An abuser chasing after admiration, reassurance, power, control, and validation.

This phase of a trauma bonded relationship is called the devaluation phase. It is home to many different narcissistic behavior patterns like gaslighting, narcissistic rage, and triangulation, but it also pushes trauma bonded victims of abuse into a state of cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive dissonance is a theory that suggests when we experience an inconsistency among belief, behavior, and information, it causes a lot of psychological tension. To regulate this tension we will change one or more of the inconsistencies to make everything consistent. In trauma bonded relationships this manifests in the form of the justification, rationalization, and normalization of abuse. 

Cognitive dissonance plays a huge role in the continuation of trauma bonded relationships and can keep victims trapped within the abuse cycle for decades. The reason being that the dynamics of the beginning stages of a trauma bonded relationship, mirroring and future faking, gives the victim the information and shows them the behavior that they need to develop the belief that they are in fact in a healthy, happy, and secure environment. 

When the devaluation phase begins, the abuser’s change in behavior changes the information and the behavior that they show the trauma bonded victim of abuse, leaving them with only the belief that the environment that they’re in is happy, healthy, and secure.

This is precisely what triggers the cognitive dissonance and it forces the victim to choose between acknowledging the change in behavior and identifying the person in their life as an abuser or holding onto their misguided belief that they’re in a happy, healthy, and secure environment with someone who is “perfect” for them by justifying, rationalizing, and normalizing the abuse.

Unfortunately, abusers have an arsenal of manipulative techniques that are designed to force the victim to continue to justify, rationalize, and normalize the abuse and it is in that moment that victims of trauma bonded relationships begin to lose their sense of self.

A trauma bonded victim of abuse losing sight of herself

Intermittent Reinforcement

As we mentioned in the previous section, abusers have a ton of different forms of manipulation that force trauma bonded victims of abuse to justify, rationalize, and normalize abuse that ultimately leads to the victim having their sense of self destroyed.

But there is one manipulative behavior in particular that is to blame for trauma bonded victims of abuse developing an addiction for the relationship and that is intermittent reinforcement, the delivery of a reward at irregular intervals. 

Trauma bonded relationships are so emotionally starved that the “reward” that abusers use is simply empathy. Once they realize that the victim is either mentally or physically checking out of the relationship, they will strategically drop moments of empathy and compassion to draw them back into the relationship. To illustrate this we’ve created a short video with three examples of intermittent reinforcement in a romantic relationship, family setting, and work environment. 

A Short Video About Intermittent Reinforcement In Trauma Bonding Relationships

The reason that intermittent reinforcement is so dangerous in trauma bonded relationships is because it triggers the reward center in the victim’s brain and floods it with dopamine. 

Dopamine is a 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 when a trauma bonded victim of abuse has their brain flooded with dopamine, because of the “empathy” or “compassion” that their abuser is using as the “reward”, they begin to 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, like someone addicted to an illegal substance. 

This is the reason that trauma bonded victims of abuse lose their sense of self. Their life turns into an uncontrollable and unpredictable pursuit for the “reward” that their abuser gives them. They drop all of their hobbies, isolate themselves from friends and family, and neglect their own well-being to put all their efforts into making their abuser happy so they can get the “reward” of intermittent reinforcement. 

Trauma Bonded Relationships Last Because They Make the Victim Feel Incapable of Conceptualizing Their Own Versions of Reality

Something that doesn’t always get the recognition that it should when speaking about trauma bonding and abusive relationships is the role that trauma bonded victims of abuse play in their abuser’s life. 

Generally speaking, abusers have a tremendous amount of suppressed negative emotions but they are so emotionally inadequate that they’re incapable of regulating them. We highly recommend that you learn about the origin of these negative emotions from our article How Are Narcissists Made but the negative emotions that these abusers have are powerful ones like shame, self-hate, a sense of inadequacy, and a fear of their own vulnerabilities and insecurities.

To manage all of these negative emotions an abuser will use their victim as scapegoat, a person who acts as a repository for all of the abuser’s negative emotions.

This tendency of theirs puts trauma bonded victims of abuse in a very dangerous position because the amount of manipulation, invalidation, devaluation, dehumanization, and chaos that victims of abuse are exposed to corrupts their ability to conceptualize their own reality so they become dependent on their abuser’s help to do so. 

A trauma bonded victim of abuse being bullied by her abuser

If the abuser is doing nothing but projecting all of their negative emotions about themselves onto their trauma bonded victim who lost their sense of self and can’t conceptualize their own reality accurately, the victim is eventually going to begin to use the negative emotions that their abuser is projection onto them to reconstruct their sense of self.

It is extremely dangerous when trauma bonded victims of abuse justify, rationalize, and normalize the abuse and believe that all of their abuser’s negative emotions are actually their own. They won’t even think about leaving the trauma bonded relationship because they’ll honestly believe that they aren’t worth anything more than the abuse that they’re experiencing. 

After months, years, and even decades of this level of abuse, trauma bonded victims of abuse are going to have an extremely damaged perception of love and healthy relationships, and themselves, so the likelihood of them having the slightest inkling that they deserve better is extremely low.

Trauma Bonded Relationship Last Because They Destroy the Victim’s Health

The truth is that abusers are people who take from you until you have nothing left because they feel entitled to everything that you have. Sadly, this type of mentality ends up having a huge impact on both your mental and physical health. 

After experiencing invalidation, devaluation, manipulation, cognitive dissonance, dehumanization, and many other forms of emotional and/or physical abuse on a daily basis, it is very common for victims of abuse to neglect their own thoughts, feelings, emotions, and needs in an attempt to avoid the wrath of their abuser. 

A simple example of this would be a woman ending her gym membership because her abusive husband gets incredibly abusive every time that she goes because he thinks that she is flirting with other guys there. 

Four Common Health Related Aspects of Life That Can Get Neglected Because of Abuse:

  • Preventative Health Care
    • Preventative health care includes things like cancer screenings, diabetes screenings, cholesterol tests, mental health screenings, blood pressure tests, well-child visits, STI screenings, and routine vaccinations.
  • Medication Adherence
    • The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) states,
      • “Medication adherence, or taking medications correctly, is generally defined as the extent to which patients take medication as prescribed by their doctors. This involves factors such as getting prescriptions filled, remembering to take medication on time, and understanding the directions.”
  • Daily Preventative Behaviors
    • These are things you should do on a daily basis to keep yourself healthy. Given the current situation with the pandemic, daily preventive behaviors refers to things like washing your hands, social distancing, wearing a mask in public, minimizing the amount of times you touch your face, being responsible when coughing/sneezing, using hand sanitizer and so on. 
  • Daily Practices
    • These are little things you do every single day to acknowledge the things of importance to you. This could be writing in a journal, going on a walk, yoga, reading, spending time with your kids, watching your favorite TV show/movie, avoiding alcohol and other substances, learning something new and so on.

While the list above is geared towards abusive romantic and family relationships, one neglecting their health can also apply to abusive work environments too.

A simple example of this would be an employee working an absurd amount of hours with no overtime compensation just to please their abusive employer or an employee putting themselves in physical danger to complete a task that their employer demanded that they do.

With that being said, if you’re in a trauma bonded relationship you may not be neglecting every single health related topic on that list but given the intensity of a trauma bonded relationship, it is very likely you’ll be forced to neglect something on the list. 

Your physical and mental health have a very strong connection with your self-esteem, sense of self, and ability to conceptualize your own version of reality accurately. If you aren’t working on a daily basis to have a healthy body and mind, escaping a trauma bonded relationship is going to be nearly impossible!

A trauma bonded victim of abuse trapped within the abuse cycle

What Should You Take Away From This Article?

Trauma bonded relationship can last such a long time because they destroy your sense of self, make you feel incapable of conceptualizing your own reality, and worsen both your physical and mental health. Abusers are ferocious when it comes to keeping you trapped within the abusive cycle which means that you have to be just as ferocious when working on your healing journey. It is going to be really hard but with the right support, you can do it.


This article has been reviewed by our editorial board and has been approved for publication in accordance with our editorial policies.

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References

Painter, Susan L., and Don Dutton. “Patterns of emotional bonding in battered women: Traumatic bonding.” International Journal of Women’s Studies (1985).

DISCLAIMER

THIS INFORMATION IS FOR EDUCATIONAL PURPOSES ONLY AND IS NOT INTENDED TO BE A SUBSTITUTE FOR CLINICAL CARE. 

IF YOU’RE IN THE UNITED STATES AND ARE SUFFERING DOMESTIC ABUSE, PLEASE CONTACT THE NATIONAL DOMESTIC VIOLENCE HOTLINE AT 1.800.799.7233 OR YOU CAN VISIT THEIR WEBSITE FOR MORE HELPFUL CONTACT METHODS.

WE URGE YOU TO ENSURE YOU’RE IN A SAFE ENVIRONMENT WHEN YOU DECIDE TO REACH OUT FOR HELP. FOR THOSE WHO CURRENTLY RESIDE IN THE UNITED STATES, VISIT NATIONAL DOMESTIC VIOLENCE HOTLINE’S LOCAL RESOURCES TO FIND HELP IN YOUR AREA.

FOR THOSE OUTSIDE THE UNITED STATES, BE SURE SAFELY REACH OUT TO THE PROPER AUTHORITIES.