Jennifer Pinto | Trauma Therapist in Toronto
A person making a flying bird's shadow on the wall.

Imagine you have a friend who sometimes treats you really well, but other times, they might hurt you, either with words or actions. Despite the hurt they cause, you might find yourself feeling a strong attachment to them. This attachment happens because, during the good times, your brain releases chemicals like dopamine, which make you feel happy and loved. But when the bad times come, you might hold onto the hope that the good times will return, which keeps you stuck in the cycle.

That’s essentially a trauma bond. Understand that trauma bonds are not your fault. They form because of the way our brains and emotions work, not because of any weakness or mistake on your part. Dr. Patrick Carnes, in his book “The Betrayal Bond” highlights that these bonds are paradoxical – the very person who hurts us becomes a source of comfort. You can form a trauma bond in all kinds of relationships – romantic, familial, and professional. 

Signs of a Trauma Bond

Identifying a trauma bond can be challenging. Common signs include mistaking abuse for love, loyalty to someone who consistently harms you, and feeling stuck in a relationship despite its toxicity. 

A trauma bond, which can be tricky to spot, often shows up in certain ways:

  1. Confused Between Love and Harm: It’s like you’re stuck in a cycle where the care they show sometimes overshadows the harm they cause, which can be emotional or physical.
  2. Defending the Abuser: You might find yourself making excuses for their harmful behaviour, even when others express concern. 
  3. Fear of Leaving: Despite the pain, the thought of leaving the relationship scares you and you worry you won’t find anyone else like them.  
  4. Intense Emotional Responses: When they’re kind, you feel incredibly happy, but when they’re hurtful, you feel deeply wounded.
  5. Ignoring Your Own Needs: You often put their needs before your own, neglecting what makes you happy or healthy.
  6. Feeling Trapped: You might feel like there’s no way out of the relationship, even though part of you knows it’s unhealthy.

Dr. Christine Courtois, in her work on complex trauma, emphasises that victims often rationalise harmful behaviours, a clear indication of a trauma bond. Recognizing these signs is a brave first step. 

A black wooden brain with two smiley faces on it. Red one on the left has a sad expression and the green one on the right has a happy expression.

Why Does a Trauma Bond Form?

A trauma bond forms for a few reasons, and it’s important to understand them, especially when it feels confusing. Imagine your brain as a sort of ‘feelings factory.’ When you’re in a relationship where sometimes you’re treated well and other times badly, your brain gets mixed signals.

Also, if you’ve seen similar relationships at home or in movies, your brain might think that’s just how relationships are supposed to be. You have to understand that people don’t choose to abuse. Certain things happen in their life that make them a particular way. However, it is your responsibility to advocate for yourself. Sometimes they also form due to biological processes. 

Breaking the trauma bond 

1. Recognize the Pattern

Every relationship has highs and lows but if it turns into a cycle, it is a clear sign. Notice how after a period of hurtful behaviour, a kind gesture pulls you back in. It is a pattern and creates a confusing mix of emotions, making it hard to leave.  

2. Talk to Someone You Trust

When you share your experiences with someone who listens without judgement, you get a new perspective and feel a comforting presence. Sometimes just saying things louder makes things clearer and helps you start a self-dialogue. You might also find a loved one has gone through or going through it right now and you can support each other on this journey. 

3. Write It Down

Find a journal in your favourite colour and write about your feelings, the good times, and especially the bad times. Eventually, you will see patterns and triggers in the relationship. It’s also a way to validate your feelings, as seeing your thoughts on paper can make them more real and easier to understand. Journaling gives you power over your experiences and sets you up for personal growth. 

4. Set Boundaries

Think about what behaviours you find hurtful and what you need to feel respected and safe. If it’s safe, communicate these boundaries clearly to the other person, if safe to do so. Setting boundaries is a sign of self-respect and cultivates a habit that’ll help you in all walks of life. 

5. Focus on Self-Care

What’s something that you always enjoyed doing? It could be skin care, arts and crafts, or maybe reading fantasy novels. Pursue them as they boost self-esteem and help you regain strength, both emotionally and physically. It’s about reminding yourself that you deserve to be happy and healthy.

6. Seek Professional Help

Find a psychotherapist or counsellor that specialises in trauma and grief. They not only offer coping strategies but also offer a non-judgemental ear to your words. Whether you prefer in-person or virtual psychotherapy, know that you are taking a bold step toward breaking the dynamics. Interview a few therapists before you settle on one. 

If you’re looking for a virtual psychotherapist in Ontario, I can help you. I am Jennifer Pinto, a Registered Social Worker with a Master’s Degree from University of Toronto and a life-long dedication to learning and developing my therapeutic skills to best support you. With a mixed balance of evidence-based therapies and mindfulness habits, I will help you resolve your trauma bond. Please reach out for a free 15-minute consultation (first-time clients only).