Q: I’ve been hearing about trauma-bonded relationships and wondering: how should I address this dynamic with clients?

A: The intricate interplay of attachment and trauma that we therapists sometimes see in couples demands close attention. This is especially true in cases of trauma bonding, where two adults who grew up in dysfunctional family systems or who experienced attachment trauma, form strong emotional bonds to each other that can play out in painful patterns.

The familiarity of these traumatic patterns often provides a sense of security for trauma-bonded partners who associate love and intimacy with the family dynamics of their formative years. This unhealthy attachment style can be difficult to shake without therapy that helps partners grasp their past and practice new behaviors.

Take my clients Sharon and Marcus, who shared a trauma bond rooted in neglect and intermittent affection. In their case, Sharon’s childhood with an emotionally unavailable dad led her to cling to Marcus’s sporadic displays of love, confusing his intensity for intimacy.

Jimi and Steve’s dynamic was different. Jimi’s upbringing in a household where love was expressed through overinvolvement caused him to perceive Steve’s controlling tendencies as a form of care and passion, rather than a reflection of the tense overreach Steve’s own father had exhibited with his mother.

From Enemies to Allies

The term trauma bond was introduced in the late 1990s. Back then, these relationships were defined narrowly as violent or abusive, with an oppressed victim showing deeply ingrained loyalty to their oppressor. That loyalty was presumed to have developed through a cyclic pattern of abuse, intermittent reinforcement, and fear.

A trauma-bonded relationship certainly can look like this extreme, especially in domestic violence cases, but most trauma bonds are a subtler, more complex interplay of each partner’s histories and past attachment traumas, which often get exacerbated by their confusion about how to shift into healthier ways of interacting. Clarity often comes when we as therapists can help them identify their underlying attachment needs, and if we can emphasize empathy and mutual healing, we can help trauma-bonded couples see each other as allies joining forces to face their struggles.

Codependency, Narcissism & Trauma Bonding

After several previous attempts with other couples therapists, Lanie and Malaki ended up in my office. In the beginning of their relationship, they’d shared an intense connection: they’d enjoyed spending time together and had a hot sex life. But when conflicts between them dredged up their deepest insecurities, Lanie would yell, and Malaki would storm off. Over time, feeling trapped in these patterns, they began to perceive each other more as adversaries than giving partners.

“I don’t even know why I’m trying with this whole therapy thing again,” Lanie said in our first session. “I have no faith in it anymore. I always get painted as the bad one. Malaki just sits there saying nothing, and somehow, I’m bad just because I have things to say.”

“Would you like to respond?” I asked Malaki.

He paused for a moment, then said, “I mean, she’s not wrong. At first, it felt validating to hear that I wasn’t to blame for our problems, because that’s certainly how Lanie has made me feel. But then it felt unfair. I didn’t want to feel like a victim either, like ‘poor, helpless Malaki.’”

When I asked Lanie about her early attachments, she said, “My parents were gone a lot. It could be getting dark outside, and I’d have no idea where they were or how I’d get dinner. I’d try to make my homework last longer just to fill the time. When they were home, they were always arguing and seemed not even to notice me.”

Malaki, in contrast, had a mother who hovered over him constantly. She had high expectations for his schoolwork but no tolerance for tears when he was hurt or tired by her efforts to push him.

All these years later, Lanie’s profound fears of abandonment rooted in her upbringing with self-absorbed parents are now surfacing as critical and demanding behavior toward Malaki. Malaki, having grown up with a cold and critical mother, reacts to Lanie’s behavior by withdrawing and shutting down. This response, though a self-protective measure against criticism, unintentionally reinforces Lanie’s deep-seated fears. The dynamic traps them in a cycle of push/pull, a common trauma bond, that neither knows how to break.

“So in the past, you’ve felt stigmatized as the oppressor and the oppressed before a therapist truly understood your full story?” I asked.

They nodded.

“Seems to me you’re allies in that,” I pointed out. “You both want your emotions and experiences validated and explored instead of immediately labeled as controlling or shutting down.”
“Absolutely,” they said at once.

In our couples therapy, we needed to acknowledge the roots of this painful pattern and how it manifested relationally, rather than resorting to quick judgments or labels. We also needed to practice new ways of interacting that could eventually replace what wasn’t working. Establishing this small alliance was a start.

Some of the subconsciously recreated attachment dynamics that we often see in trauma-bonded couples include inconsistent or conditional love, parentification, and enmeshment. Those with anxious or avoidant attachments are particularly vulnerable to trauma bonding. When they connect with someone who behaves in ways similar to their troubled parent, perhaps by being critical or emotionally inconsistent or unavailable, they can find solace in the familiarity of it and see it as a new opportunity to earn love.

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For trauma-bonded clients, the weight of the stigma and the self-blame involved in this way of relating can be immense, but when we explore clients’ childhood memories and experiences to unveil early-attachment trauma patterns that have persisted into adulthood, we help them develop greater compassion for themselves and understanding for their partners. This process lays the foundation for helping clients use tools for calm, loving communication.

Forming Healthier Patterns

Because psychoeducation plays a crucial role in dispelling stigma associated with trauma bonds, I made sure to tell Malaki and Lanie about neurobiology and attachment research showing how psychological foundations of trauma bonds continue to manifest in people’s lives. “These are not permanent personal flaws,” I explained. “They’re natural, albeit often maladaptive, responses to extended stress and trauma. And you know what? These responses actually point to your inherent resilience. You did the best you could in a bad situation. Surviving your childhoods means you have everything you need to undertake your current journey of change, healing, and growth.”

Together, we worked on being able to tune into and validate the unmet needs at work underneath their presenting emotions. For Lanie, that turned out to be a deep fear that Malaki would leave her. “I used to beat myself up about those kinds of fears,” she said, “but now, it’s like, Of course I feel that way: I never knew there was another way to feel! I’m beginning to understand that this fear of abandonment isn’t me; it’s just a response to my past. It’s me trying to protect myself from getting hurt like I was as a kid.”

“When we know more, we do more,” I told her. “Let’s talk about the doing. How do you think this self-compassion and understanding might positively impact your relationship with Malaki?”

“I’m learning to support myself in the way I needed from my parents,” she said. “I’m showing up for myself. Because I feel safer in me, I feel more grounded for Malaki. I’m not as hard on myself, and that’s making it easier to be softer with him.”

Throughout our work, I emphasized that if we don’t understand why we feel what we feel when triggered, then there’s an unconscious reinforcing pattern in the relationship that affects both partners and gets in the way of them helping to heal one another’s wounds. If partners can get to a place of self-compassion and mutual empathy, they’re ready to untangle the old, painful cycle and brainstorm new strategies to create healthier patterns together.

Externalizing exercises, such as letter writing to each other, can help crystallize the sense of teamwork. Mapping the cycle, where partners create a visual map of how their trauma plays out and affects various aspects of their life, helps clients stay aligned as they brainstorm coping strategies.

Lanie and Malaki named their cycle “The Push-Pull Tango” when they mapped it out step-by-step as a cycle on a whiteboard. Looking at it, with Lanie’s attachment triggers and predictable behaviors marked in purple and Malaki’s resulting reactions influenced by his attachment traumas in red, their pattern became clear. Our attachment work uncovered the currents underneath the cycle: Lanie’s longing for connection and Malaki’s desire to be enough and feel safe in silence. They agreed on this narrative: “When Lanie is triggered and loses her temper, Malaki feels pressured and pulls away. When Malaki withdraws, Lanie feels abandoned and pursues even more vigorously.”

They began to see this tango not as a manifestation of their individual failings, but as a shared dance shaped by their past. Understanding this, Lanie committed to giving Malaki space when she sensed him retreating, while communicating her feelings more calmly. Malaki recognized the importance of voicing his emotions, however vulnerable, instead of resorting to silence. Together, they agreed to take regular pauses during disagreements, allowing both to reflect and return with a clearer mind.

Self-Trust Unlocks a New Beginning

Partners agreeing on a narrative means they’ve clarified their unmet emotional needs and committed to changing the steps of their old dance to meet those needs. Now the veil of shame and frustration that originally clouded their judgment can start to lift as they disentangle their toxic cycle and replace old behaviors with healthy coping strategies, like identifying and expressing underlying vulnerable emotions and prioritizing de-escalation when tension is high during a conflict. What unfolds after demonstrating a healthier pattern repeatedly? Self-trust, a shot at profound intimacy with their partner, and a new calm.

At its core, self-trust is the belief in one’s capacity to navigate the complexities of life, to make decisions that align with one’s best interests, and to rise from setbacks. For clients embroiled in trauma bonds, the past may have eroded this belief. With burgeoning self-trust, they begin to see possibilities where they once saw barriers. Armed with a greater understanding of their trauma and patterns, they can communicate their needs more transparently, listen more attentively, and connect on levels they might have previously shied away from.

This experience in therapy is often just the beginning for these clients. It can usher in a new chapter in individual trauma recovery and pave the way for more authentic and nourishing relationships in all aspects of their lives.

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Get a free practice tool from Laura’s book, Loving You is Hurting Me: A New Approach to Healing Trauma Bonds and Creating Authentic Connection. Download here.

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Laura Copley

Laura Copley, PhD, LPC, is the Director of Aurora Counseling & Wellbeing and Founder of The Life Pathways and an international speaker on toxic relationships.