The three most important milestones that victims of trauma bonded relationships need to reach when attempting to escape their own trauma bonded relationship are becoming familiar with the signs of a trauma bonded relationship, identify the same signs in their own relationship , and the victim having a comprehensive grasp of the reasons why the signs are so accurate, trustworthy, and important to acknowledge.

Six common signs of a trauma bonded relationship are when someone constantly justifies abusive behavior in their relationship, is controlled by their abuser’s future faking statements, has vague reasons for staying in the relationship, has a fear of leaving the relationship, has the Handmaiden Syndrome, and isolates themselves from friends and family.

This article is going to guide you through the six signs of a trauma bonded relationship that we listed above and we’ve also created a short video below outlining the difference between a bond formed through love and a bond formed through trauma to allow you to dive deeper into the signs of a trauma bonded relationship.

A Short Video About the Difference Between a Bond Formed Through Love and a Bond Formed Through Trauma

A Victim Justifying, Rationalizing, and Ultimately Normalizing Abuse

The justification, rationalization, and ultimately normalization of abusive behavior is one biggest signs of a trauma bond being present in a relationship. This process of justifying, rationalizing, and then normalizing abusive behavior is called cognitive dissonance and it is to blame for the continuation of nearly every single abusive relationship on the planet.

What is cognitive dissonance?

Back in the 1950s a social psychologist named Leon Festinger molded the theory of cognitive dissonance that suggests that when we experience an inconsistency among our beliefs, knowledge and behavior it causes an intense amount of psychological tension.

To ease this tension, we often change one or more of the elements that are causing the inconsistency to make everything consistent. 

A really simple example of this would be cheating on you diet. Imagine that you made a promise to yourself that you’d start eating healthier. You stick to your diet for a long time but then one day your friends bring all of your favorite junk food over to your house. Instead of sticking to your diet, you find a way to justify, rationalize, and ultimately normalize cheating on your diet.

A person using cognitive dissonance to justify breaking his diet

What does this have to do with trauma bonding? 

The strength of a trauma bond is heavily dependent on the abuser’s ability to force their vicim into a limbo state of cognitive dissonance. More often than not, this is made possible by the dynamics of the beginning stages of the trauma bonded relationship.

In the beginning, the abuser will use a manipulative technique called narcissistic mirroring to mimic the dynamics of a healthy, happy, special, and unique connection between themselves and their victim.

In a healthy relationship, mirroring is when both parties mimic core aspects of one another’s identity. This could be anything between copying each other’s speech patterns to taking up one another’s hobbies. It’s usually an unconscious behavior but it allows both parties to see the other accurately which strengthens the bond that they share tremendously.

In a trauma bonded relationship, narcissistic mirroring is when the abuser will learn the victim’s identity very quickly, mimic core aspects of the victim’s identity to embody the definition of the victim’s Mr or Mrs Perfect, while simultaneously hiding their true identity and intentions from the victim.

This is really dangerous because much like healthy mirroring, narcissistic mirroring strengthens the bond between the victim and their abuser. Only this time the bond is a trauma bond, not the healthy, happy, special, and unique bond they manipulated their victim into believing that they had in the beginning stages of the relationship.

Where cognitive dissonance comes into play is when the abuser begins to blatantly abuse the victim. Once this devaluation phase starts, the victim is forced to choose between the healthy, happy, special, and unique bond they thought they shared with their abuser because of the narcissistic mirroring or the unhealthy, abusive, manipulative, and controlling bond that their abuser is beginning to show through his/her behavior.

A woman being forced to choose between the life that she has envisioned with the charming version of the narcissist and the abusive version of the narcissist

Unfortunately, victims of trauma bonded relationships often choose to use cognitive dissonance by justifying, rationalizing, and ultimately normalizing the abusive behavior instead of cutting ties with someone they believe is meant to be in their lives.

By no means is this the victim’s fault either because narcissistic mirroring is incredibly convincing. Abusers are really good at pretending to be the perfect partner, best friend, living family member, or friendly co-worker just long enough to manipulate their victim into letting their guard down and strengthening the trauma bond.

However, it is the victim’s responsibility to make themselves aware of this huge sign of a trauma bonded relationship, identify the ways that they justify, rationalize, and ultimately normalize abusive behavior in their own relationship, and act accordingly by seeking out qualified medical guidance.

Only the victim of a trauma bonded relationship can break the trauma bond. Justification, rationalization, and normalization of abusive behavior is the most lucid manifestations of cognitive dissonance in an abusive relationship, which makes it one of the most accurate, trustworthy, and reliable warning signs of a trauma bond being present.

A Victim Being Controlled By Future Faking Statements

One of the most common ways that abusers keep trauma bonded relationship alive is through a very manipulative behavior called future faking. Future faking is self-explanatory, it’s when someone promises another person something in the future to get what they want in the present.

It is one of the clearest manifestations of an abusers sense of entitlement to whatever they want, whenever they want, however they want it. In trauma bonded relationships, future faking is often used to manipulate the victim into staying in the relationship by triggering their desire for a healthy, happy, special, and unique connection with their abuser.

Do you recognize those four words? That’s right, future faking has a strong correlation with the first warning sign of a trauma bonded relationship that you’ve already learned about, the justification, rationalization, and ultimately the normalization of abusive behavior.

You see, future faking designed to keep trauma bonded relationships alive can manifest in a variety of different ways but they all circulate around the same four characteristics: guilt, shame, fear, and uncertainty.

What does that mean?

A future fake is designed to make the victim feel guilty for, ashamed of, fearful of, and/or uncertain about leaving the trauma bonded relationship. For example, one of our study participants reported that in the beginning of her narcissistic relationship, her abuser would promise to go to therapy or work on himself in some other meaningful way every single time she tried to leave the relationship.

A narcissistic male trying to keep the trauma bond intact.

When combined with all of the narcissistic behavior patterns that she had to face on a daily basis from her abuser, the future faking statements were able to manipulate her into believing that she couldn’t leave the relationship because her abuser was on the cusp of being the man she so desperately wanted him to be. 

The reason that a victim of an abusive relationship believing in the future faking is such an accurate, trustworthy, and reliable sign of a trauma bond being present in a relationship is because it is actually a form of justification.

You see, when the narcissist uses future faking with statements designed to guilt, shame, scare, or confuse their victim into staying in the relationship, it encourages the victim to use the lies they were fed to justify, rationalize, and ultimately normalize the abuse in the hopes that one day in the future things will be different.

“… every time that my narcissistic ex would future fake me I would get sucked deeper and deeper into the trauma bond. I would run to my family and friends with whatever future fake he told me truly believing that THIS time it would be different. I wish I was able to spot this warning sign much sooner that is for sure!…” -Emily, A Survivor of 33 Years of Narcissistic Abuse

A Victim Having Vague Reasons For Staying In the Relationship

Ok. You have learned about narcissistic mirroring, a form of manipulation that allows abusers to learn the identities of their victim very quickly, and you have learned about future faking, a form of manipulation that enables an abuser to get what he/she wants in the present by making false promises for the future.

It’s now time to learn how these two forms of manipulation create yet another reliable sign of a trauma bonded relationship, a victim having vague reasons for staying in the relationship. One of the strongest components of a trauma bond that really keep victims tethered to the relationship is the life that mirroring and future faking manipulated them into envisioning.

What does that mean?

Generally speaking, abusers have enough awareness to know that they can’t get what they want if they’re blatantly abusive from the very beginning of the relationship. That’s why behaviors that are designed to disguise abuse like love bombings, mirroring, and future faking, exist.

With that being said, mirroring and future faking have a Yin and Yang type of relationship. Abusers use mirroring to learn the ins and outs of the victim’s identity and then use the information they gather to create very powerful future fakes that are designed to keep the trauma bonded relationship alive.

A narcissistic mother using future faking to keep her relationship with her daughter alive

What ends up happening is that the victim of the trauma bond envisions an incredibly motivating, captivating, and intriguing future with their abuser with a ton of reasons as to why they want to be with their abuser because of the narcissistic mirroring and future faking.

When the devaluation phase begins and the abuser begins to be blatantly abusive, the life that the victim envisioned with their abuser because of the mirroring and future faking begins to fade away, as do their reasons for wanting to stay in the relationship.

Then why don’t they just leave?

Abusers are really good at presenting themselves as irreplaceable. There are dozens of narcissistic behavior patterns that all abusers use maintain a “perfect” image of themselves. But narcissistic mirroring and future faking enable the abuser to present themselves as someone who is meant to be in the victim’s life. It’s impossible to let go of someone who you wholeheartedly believe is meant to be in your life.

A victim holding onto an abusive relationship can be a REALLY hard concept to wrap our heads around but we must remember how crucial cognitive dissonance is to the continuation of trauma bonded relationships and the fact that the transition from the healthy, happy, special, and unique phase of the relationship to the devaluation phase is so subtle.

It’s not like the abuser flips a switch one day and all of a sudden is wildly abusive. No, the abuser will be blatantly abusive a few times but future fake or come up with some other excuse to keep the victim in the relationship.

A narcissist apologizing for his abusive behavior.

Overtime, the victim’s perception of a healthy relationship will be lost, trapping them in a limbo state of cognitive dissonance, future faking, and very vague reasons for remaining in the relationship.

Having vague reasons for remaining in an environment that is clearly unhealthy/abusive is a very trustworthy and reliable indication of a trauma bond being present because it symbolizes the transition from the beginning stages that are often characterized as healthy, happy, special, and unique to the devaluation phase that all trauma bonded relationships follow.

5 Examples of Solid Reasons For Being in a Relationship

  • He/she is really kind to me. 
  • He/she makes an effort to understand me.
  • I love how we motivate each other, I can see myself building a future with him/her.
  • He/she respects my boundaries.
  • We’ve been together for so long and still find ways to grow as a couple.

5 Examples of Vague Reasons For Being in a Relationship

  • There’s just something about him/her. You wouldn’t understand…
  • I can’t even explain it… We just have a strange connection…
  • Well, I’m not really sure but I know we’re meant to be together…
  • We had just a magical connection before he/she got so stressed… I can’t just leave!
  • I know it’s not love… but it isn’t hate either… I don’t want to let go and realize I lost my soulmate…

A Victim Having a Fear of Leaving the Relationship

The next sign of a trauma bonded relationship is a fear of leaving the relationship. When unpacking this sign of a trauma bond it is really important to remember how good abusers are at manipulating their victim into envisioning the “perfect” life together.

It doesn’t matter if it is a romantic relationship or a professional relationship, abusers are really good at using narcissistic mirroring to manipulate their victim into a false sense of hope. When the abuser senses that they’ve been able to sink their manipulative hooks into their victim, they yank this false sense of hope away from the victim.

This is detrimental to the victim’s emotional stability because when this happens they’re forced to re-evaluate their future, their core values are compromised, they’re plagued with self-doubt, and their perception of a healthy relationship is mangled while simultaneously enduring unfathomable levels of emotional and/or physical abuse.

Words can’t describe how terrible this phase of the trauma bonded relationship is but it is important to acknowledge the severity of one having their identity hijacked by their abuser. After months, years, or even decades of a trauma bonded relationship, broken identity, corrupt core values, and unhealthy perception of healthy relationships, the victim will become very dependent on their abuser for some sort of stability.

The trauma bonded victim will lose interest in their hobbies, they’ll be manipulated into isolating themselves from their friends and family, and they’ll become so consumed with the abuser’s agenda that they’ll begin to neglect their own physical and/or mental health

All of this adds up to the victim of a trauma bonded relationships having a tremendous amount of fear about leaving the relationship because of their inability to conceptualize an accurate sense of self.

A victim of narcissistic abuse explaining to his friend about how lost he feels in the relationship.

Handmaiden Syndrome

The Handmaiden Syndrome is a very common people-pleasing behavior that we’ve observed in many victims and survivors of trauma bonded relationships. Simply put, the Handmaiden Syndrome is when a victim of an abusive relationship will cater to their abuser’s every need.

This behavior originates from the fear of their abuser’s rage. The victim believes that if they do enough things for the abuser then they’ll be lovable, safe, secure, and happy. This is a very common behavior to see in narcissistic family environments.

In our article How Do Narcissists Treat Their Children we dove into this concept much more thoroughly but the Handmaiden Syndrome is a very common role children of narcissists embody to cope with the trauma having a narcissistic parent creates.

The Handmaiden Syndrome is such a reliable warning sign of a trauma bond being present in a relationship because it is a manifestation of the impact that the trauma bond cycle has on the victims. The abuse is so traumatizing that victims lose sight of themselves, causing their lives to revolve around their abuser’s agenda.

Isolating Yourself From Friends and Family

Lastly, but certainly not least, the victim isolating themselves from friends and family is a huge sign of a trauma bonded being present.

This is very similar to the justification section in this article however we wanted to separate the two for a specific reason. We believe when the victim justifies their abusive relationship it is much easier to help them see how they’re using cognitive dissonance to minimize the situation.

But when a victim of a trauma bonded relationship isolates themselves and purposely hides the abuse from their friends and family, it’s a very dangerous situation because it means that they’ve made the conscious decision to minimize the abuse.

It feels as if when a victim justifies the relationship it’s more of a stubborn way to protect themselves from the harsh reality that someone they care about is abusive. But when a victim intentionally isolates themselves, it’s a sign that they have or are willing to accept the consequences that come from the emotional and/or physical violence they’re already experiencing,  

Self-isolation is definitely on the extreme end of the spectrum of cognitive dissonance. While on some level they’re able to acknowledge that the environment there is abusive, they remain trauma bonded to their abuser because they’ve minimized the situation so severely that their abuser’s false promises outweigh the consequences of emotional and/or physical abuse.

What Should You Take Away From This Article?

The complexity of trauma bonds should not be overlooked. Escaping trauma bonded relationships requires the victim to dedicate an extraordinary amount of time towards educating themselves about the cycle they’re trapped in.

Knowledge will always be the best defense against narcissistic abuse. While there was a lot of information about trauma bonding in this article, there’s a lot more that you should familiarize yourself with.

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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:

Hadeed L. (2021) Why Women Stay: Understanding the Trauma Bond Between Victim and Abuser Case Studies Were Written. In: Bissessar A.M., Huggins C. (eds) Gender and Domestic Violence in the Caribbean. Gender, Development and Social Change. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham. 

Unthank, K. W. (2019). How self-blame empowers and disempowers survivors of interpersonal trauma: An intuitive inquiryQualitative Psychology, 6(3), 359–378

Casassa, Kaitlin, et al. “Trauma Bonding Perspectives From Service Providers and Survivors of Sex Trafficking: A Scoping Review.” Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, Jan. 2021.