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Trauma Bonding

This is a phrase we hear more and more and it can help understand why people stay in toxic relationships. I say people because men and women can be affected.

It often happens in relationships which are dysfunctional, where there is addiction or domestic abuse.

The difference in this behaviour is that the victim holds on to a promise or hope. But the delivery of these is inconsistent. There are periods of normality, but in between those glimpses of normality there are

The perpetrator is often unstable and the victim is constantly seeking a reward and will work harder and harder to achieve that.

Imagine the gambler at a slot machine

He constantly feeds it in the hope it will payout. He gets one big win, and that feeds his ‘reward system’. So he continues to feed his hard-earned money into the machine. He may get a small win, just to keep him interested, Because of that, there is a glimmer of hope that he will get another big win. Let down with each turn – but maybe next time……

And so it is with traumatic bonding.

You hope that there will be a reward after each episode. Because in between this cruel behaviour there may well be periods of calm or what seems relative normality and you never know when it’s going to happen again. Or maybe they are constantly aggressive, angry or manipulative and you try your hardest to please them because you crave the love and affection you received in the past.

Our reward system releases dopamine, which in turn makes us feel good. If the reward is predictable, less dopamine is released, and so like the gambler, we need a bigger reward to satisfy us each time. So, what is dangerous with the inconsistent rewards, the reward system doesn’t treat them as predictable and so larger amounts of dopamine are released.

It’s rather like Russian Roulette.

The anticipation and hope is there, but you don’t know when. That’s what holds the victim in the relationship, and the trauma bond.

Things to be aware of-

  • Your partner constantly promises to change, but it doesn’t happen

  • You don’t react to unacceptable behaviour or words when your friends and family are disturbed

  • You try to change their behaviour, but it continues (as in addiction)

  • You become involved in continual meaningless arguments where no one wins.

  • You are unable to walk away or detach yourself from your partner

  • When you do try to leave, you continue to miss him. Unable to detach yourself, and even find yourself going back, even though you don’t like him or his behaviour.

If you are worried or concerned that you in this kind of relationship, get in touch by emailing me at

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