Having the ability to tell the difference between a trauma bond and a bond formed through love is a really important skill that everyone needs to develop to avoid unhealthy and/or abusive relationships.

If you want to know if the bond that you feel for someone has been formed through trauma or love, you should identify the reason that you are drawn to the relationship and then search your relationship for subtle signs of a trauma bonded relationship.

This article is going to explain why identifying the reason that you’re in a relationship can be a helpful technique to tell the difference between a trauma bond and love. It is also guide you through the subtle characteristics of a trauma bonded relationship that you can search for in your own relationship. Finally, We’ve also created a short video below packed with information about the feelings one has when breaking a trauma bond that you can use to help tell the difference between a trauma bond and love.

A Short Video About What Breaking a Trauma Bond Feels Like

Identifying the Reason You’re In the Relationship Can Help Differentiate a Trauma Bond From Love

A huge sign of a trauma bond being present in a relationship is when the victim has very vague reasons for being with their abuser.

In a healthy relationship both individuals often have very clear reasons as to why they’re choosing to spend their life with their partner. These reasons usually revolve around respect, growth, mutuality and empathy.

In a trauma bonded relationship it’s very common for victims to have clear reasons for being with their abuser in the beginning stages of the relationship, but those reasonings almost always fade away as the abuser’s true identity begins to reveal itself.

Why?

Abusers often use a manipulative tactic called mirroring to portray create a falsified identity designed to fill the void in a victim’s life.

Mirroring in a trauma bonded relationship is when the abuser absorbs a ton of information about the victim’s identity and uses it to create the falsified identity that we mentioned before that is designed to fill a void in the victim’s life.

So, for the first few months of the relationship the victim is under the impression that their abuser is the perfect person for them, knows them better than anyone else, and genuinely cares about them.

As the relationship progresses the clear and concrete reasons that the victim had for being in the relationship in the beginning stages begin to fade away as the abuser “lowers the mirror” and shows his or her true colors. 

Suggested Reading: Is Trauma Bonding Intentional?

3 Subtle Characteristics of a Trauma Bonded Relationship

Focusing on the subtle signs of a trauma bonded relationship is one of the most important things that you can do when trying to determine if the bond you have with someone has been formed through trauma or love. 

The reason being that abusers are masterful at hiding their true identity behind a falsified one which means they’re able to hide huge indicators of a trauma bonded relationship like infidelity and violence for longer periods of time.

So by focusing on the subtle signs, it is far more likely that the victim will be able to untangle the complexity of the manipulative structure that keeps trauma bonded relationship in place to reveal the bigger signs of abuse.

Intimacy Avoidance Is a Reliable Sign of a Trauma Bond Relationship

Abusers are notorious for using intimacy as a way to control their victim, specifically through intermittent reinforcement. Intermittent reinforcement is the delivery of a reward at irregular intervals.

In an intimate relationship where the abuser is withholding intimacy from their partner as a form of manipulation, intermittent reinforcement could manifest in the form of the abuser withholding both sexual and non-sexual interactions from their partner.

In an unhealthy/abusive family setting, intermittent reinforcement could manifest in the form of an abusive parent cycling between neglecting their child for extended periods and random moments of empathy when it suits them.

Intermittent reinforcement is a very dangerous form of manipulation because overtime it will cause the abuser to become the victims only known source of happiness.

How?

Victims of trauma bonded relationships are often so emotionally starved that the “reward” of intermittent reinforcement actually triggers the reward sector in the victim’s brain, which floods their body with dopamine. 

The feelings of your body being flooded with dopamine is exhilarating. In fact, it is the same feeling that people get when they use illegal substances. 

Suggested Reading: Why Do Trauma Bonds Feel Like an Addiction?

A victim of a trauma bonded relationship experiencing intermittent reinforcement.

It’s important to remember that when we use the word “intimacy” we’re referring to one’s ability to maintain close and healthy relationships.  

Intimacy in a healthy relationship is not conditional. In a bond formed through love, one’s partner is going to love them throughout the high and low points of the relationship. Love requires us to be ourselves, nothing more and nothing less. 

Suggested Reading: Can You Love Someone That You’re Trauma Bonded To?

Emotional Abuse Is a Huge Indicator of a Trauma Bonded Relationship

It’s very common for abusers to have some level of sadism, meaning that they enjoy hurting others. 

There are specific types of abusers, like malignant narcissists, who display more intense sadistic behaviors than the others. But again, a majority of the abusers one may come across display sadistic behaviors.

It is really important that readers understand that there’s a difference between standing behind your opinion and having a sadistic approach to situations like arguments, disagreements and other types of confrontations.

Abusers often manipulate their victim into a state of cognitive dissonance which is essentially the justification, rationalization, and ultimately normalization of abuse.

There are many different ways that an abuser will do this but right now reader’s focus should be on when an abuser consistently lacks empathy when their victim has given clear signs that they want the argument to stop. 

What do we mean by this? 

When an abuser is very aggressive in an argument, their victim often becomes submissive and displays behaviors that should be a clear indication that the argument has gone too far.

For example, crying.

If someone were to get in an argument in a healthy relationship and ended up crying because of it, their partner would likely try to comfort them in some way, shape, or form. In a healthy relationship, no matter how angry one may be, nobody likes seeing someone they care about cry. 

A non-narcissistic couple comforting each other in an argument because they're in a healthy relationship.

In trauma bonded relationships, it is an entirely different story. Whether it be their sadistic tendencies, lack of empathy or emotional immaturity, abusers consistently display behaviors that would suggest they’re incapable of and/or unwilling to acknowledge when the argument has gone too far. 

They’ll just continue to relentlessly harass, belittle, and demean their partner with little to no remorse.

Why is this important to know? 

Trauma bonds are vitally dependent on the abusers ability to manipulate their victim into believing that their own thoughts, feelings, needs and emotions contribute to the negative aspects of the relationship.

If someone is in a relationship where emotional abuse is rationalized, normalized, justified and/or minimized, there’s a high probability that the bond they have with the other person is a trauma bond, not a bond formed through love.

Suggested Reading: What Are the Signs of a Trauma Bonded Relationship?

Abusive Arguments Are a Sign of a Trauma Bonded Relationship

Arguments occur in both healthy and trauma bonded relationships, there are no exceptions. However, there is a very big difference between a healthy argument and an abusive argument that readers need to be aware of if they are to determine whether or not they’re in a trauma bonded relationship or experiencing true love.

Arguments in a healthy relationship are often resolved with both parties feeling valued, respected, and heard. In healthy arguments there isn’t any gaslighting, nobody leaves feeling dominated, unheard, or silenced, and there isn’t any fear for one’s emotional or physical safety.

Arguments in a trauma bonded relationship often cause high levels of anxiety, self-doubt, agony, and confusion. 

For abusers, arguments are a place where they can feed their sense of superiority and suppress any negative emotions they may have. It is for this reason that abusive arguments often manifest in the form of the abuser using the victim’s vulnerabilities and insecurities to devalue, invalidate, and dehumanize them.

It’s very common for abusive arguments to never be resolved. Abusers have been known to go as far as physically leaving the argument so it can’t be resolved which is a form of manipulation called stonewalling.

Another characteristic of an abusive arguments is narcissistic rage. When an abuser is losing an argument based on logic, it is very common for them to use narcissistic rage as a way to regain control over the situation.

This could manifest in them screaming/yelling or being extremely passive aggressive by using the silent treatment or bringing up mistakes that the victim may have made in the past to minimize the validity of their argument.

an abuser minimizing her husband's feelings.

It is also very common for abusers to use threats that usually circulate around the idea of ending the relationship if the argument is not resolved in their favor. The most commonly seen form of this behavior is called gaslighting with ultimatums

With comments like, “If you bring this up one more time I’m going to (blank)” an abuser is able to force the victim to associate the advocacy for one’s self with severe consequences. Eventually, this will lead to the victim preferring to remain silent instead of advocating for themselves and risking the wrath of their abuser. 

What Should You Take Away From This Article?

It is really hard to tell the difference between a trauma bond and a bond formed through love because abusers are very good at hiding justifying, rationalizing, and ultimately normalizing their abuse with seemingly logical explanations.

However, by focusing on the subtle characteristics of a trauma bonded relationship and identifying the they were drawn to the relationship in the first place, victims of trauma bonded relationship will quickly be able to acknowledge and accept the fact that the bond they feel is trauma, not love.

It’s important to know the difference between a bond formed through trauma and a bond formed through love because you need to understand the cycle of abuse; love bombing, devaluing and discarding and how this is a way that the narcissist breaks down their victims which leads to mind control. – Advice From Vanessa Reiser, LCSW

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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

George, Vera. “Traumatic bonding and intimate partner violence.” (2015).

Scheffer Lindgren, Maria, and Barbro Renck. “Intimate partner violence and the leaving process: Interviews with abused women.” International Journal of Qualitative Studies on Health and Well-being 3.2 (2008): 113-124.