Why Do They Stay? 'Trauma Bonding' in Abusive Relationships

It can be mind boggling that anyone would stay in an abusive relationship, but research reveals that 'trauma bonding' is often part of the equation - a physical addiction to the hormonal rollercoaster ride generated by the abuser. Image credit: Hernán Piñera/Flickr

Much has been written about the affects of stress on the human body, well beyond mental and emotional suffering, but within the realm of abusive relationships, stress often produces a less-talked-about physiological response - addiction to hormonal changes induced by patterns of abuse, generally referred to as 'trauma bonding'.

It's a bit like becoming addicted to a drug. A psychologically abusive relationship is a rollercoaster, with punishment and then intermittent reinforcement of kindness when you "behave." This means the body is going through its own turmoil, with high levels of the stress hormone cortisol, paired with dopamine when given affection as a reward.

Shannon Thomas, author of "Healing from Hidden Abuse," explained to Business Insider,

"Their bodies start to shut down, and they start really struggling with chronic pain, migraines, and some arthritic type pains and conditions, and they just can’t fight infections as well," she said. "The body really can only take so much stress."

Many partners of abusers do not realize they are in abusive relationships, especially if physical abuse is absent, in part due to techniques such as gaslighting, control, isolation, and deceit. Some will never leave the abuser, finding freedom only after they have been discarded.

An abusive relationship with a narcissist or psychopath tends to follow the same pattern: idealisation, devaluation, and discarding. At some point, the victim will be so broken, the abuser will no longer get any benefit from using them. They may have totally bankrupted them, or destroyed their confidence, or worse, and they move on to their next target.

According to Psych Central, the following are signs of 'trauma bonding':

  • A constant pattern of nonperformance — your partner promises you things, but keeps behaving to the contrary.
  • Others are disturbed by something that is said or done to you in your relationship, but you brush it off.
  • You feel stuck in the relationship because you see no way out.
  • You keep having the same fights with your partner that go round in circles with no real winner.
  • You're punished or given the silent treatment by your partner when you say or do something "wrong."
  • You feel unable to detach from your relationship even though you don't truly trust or even like the person you're in it with.
  • When you try and leave, you are plagued by such longing to get back with your partner you feel it might destroy you.

Seeking help from a qualified professional is the best way to address the effects of trauma induced by abuse, and assistance is available for those ready to leave an abusive relationship .