The term “trauma bonding” has been popping up on my social media radar lately, and as a licensed psychotherapist, it always makes me a little nervous when psychological terminology starts trending. 

I am all IN for raising awareness about mental health issues, but there can be a lot of misinformation out there, so this week I’m breaking down the difference between true love and a trauma bond. 


What is trauma bonding? The term was first coined by Dr. Patrick Carnes, founder of the International Institute for Trauma and Addiction Professionals¹, and a clinician whose work I’ve respected for years. 

In his book, The Betrayal Bond: Breaking Free of Exploitive Relationships, Carnes defines trauma bonding as the “‘misuse of fear, excitement, and sexual feelings’…to entrap or entangle another person.”²

So what does that actually mean and how do you know if you’re trapped in a trauma bond?

Relationships that are trauma bonds go through periods of intense love and excitement followed by periods of neglect, mistreatment and abuse. It’s a cycle of being devalued and then rewarded over and over. 

Over time this can create a hormonal, chemical bond between the two players: the perpetrator and the victim. The physiological and psychological tethers of a trauma bond can make it extremely difficult to leave the relationship no matter how toxic it is. 

If you are a victim in a trauma bond relationship, you might know the relationship is unhealthy, but you cannot seem to get yourself out of it or, if you do leave, you might find yourself coming back because the feelings are so strong. You might find yourself thinking, well, this is TRUE love. 

It can put you in a position of being unclear about what actual healthy love is because, inside a trauma bond, there are very high highs and very low lows. It’s intense and can feel exciting, passionate, dramatic, and stimulating. 

Here are some signs and symptoms that you might be in a trauma bond:

  • You make excuses for the other person’s behavior. 
  • You feel like you can’t explain your relationship to your friends and family. 
  • You just wish things could go back to how they were in the beginning of the relationship because it was amazing. (Check out my blog on love bombing if this is the case.)
  • You let a lot of stuff slide because it’s just not worth the confrontation. 
  • You feel like you can’t live without this person. 
  • You love this person more than anyone in the world, but they also are causing you more pain than anyone in the world. 
  • There’s an imbalance of power in the relationship.
  • You feel like you’re always walking on eggshells. 
  • Deep down, you’re ashamed that you’re staying in the relationship or that you keep going back to this person.

I want you to think about someone you love and cherish very much, whether it’s a best friend or a family member, and ask yourself: Would I want them to experience the kind of relationship I’m in right now?

If the answer is no, then that’s revealing something. It can be so much easier to look outside of ourselves because when you’re in a trauma bonded situation, ending the relationship can feel threatening in a very primal way and multiple psychological defense mechanisms might be in use that keep us from acknowledging the toxicity of the situation. 

If this is resonating, it might be time for you to take a closer look at the differences between a toxic relationship and real, healthy love.

Inside a healthy relationship, there’s a mutuality of respect, compromise and effective communication. You hold one another in high esteem and assume the best of the other person, even when there’s conflict or disagreements. Both partners feel empowered in the relationship and are able to be voluntarily vulnerable and open without fear of repercussions. There is healthy interdependency and love is built on a foundation of deep friendship. 

If this feels like a far cry from your current relationship or from a past relationship you’re still trying to heal from, know that healing from trauma IS possible. Raising your awareness of why you might have been psychologically vulnerable to this relationship dynamic in the first place is where to start. 

With more than 20 years of clinical experience as a psychotherapist, I know that unresolved historical trauma and psychological injuries from the past will be expressed. YOU get to decide whether they’re expressed in a way that causes you a world of pain for the rest of your life OR whether you find a healthy way to express them.

Inside this week’s downloadable cheat sheet, I’m giving you step-by-step guidance on how to break away from a trauma bond and how to begin to heal so you can establish the healthy, REAL love relationship you deserve and desire. 

This process is about you taking care of you, getting to know who you are, prioritizing your preferences and your needs, and allowing yourself to have time alone because you need that space to heal. 

If you want to attract a different experience in this life, what’s required is that you do something different than what you’ve been doing. My therapeutic two cents is that we can only act things out (which is what a trauma bond is) or talk things out (which is what we do in therapy), because we can’t continue to repress or deny or shove down our past trauma.

If you need more support, please, seek out therapy. Someone who is professionally trained can help you move from the shame that so often accompanies the entrapment of a trauma bond into a place of empowerment so you can finally break free. I’m a proud affiliate of Better Health, a virtual therapy platform that my team and I have fully vetted. You can connect to a licensed and accredited mental health professional matched to your specific needs. For more information, go right here

If this was helpful to you, or if you know someone who might benefit, please feel free to share this blog on your social media and tag me @terricole. I read every comment, so drop one below or in our free Real Love Revolution FB group for women here and let’s keep the conversation going. 

I hope you have an amazing week and as always take care of you.


¹For more information on Dr. Carnes’ work:


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  1. Hello Terri Cole,
    My name is Mary Jones and I’ve been in a relationship for 10 years with the father of my 3 children. I’m starting to feel like this whole experience is really a trauma bond instead of true love. It shouldn’t take a person 10 years to get their life on track and properly show they want you in their life forever should it? I’ve mentioned leaving now he’s promising to get a job and continue his week long sobriety journey. Am I a fool for considering giving him another chance even though I feel like I shouldn’t deep down inside? HELPPPP!!! :/

    1. I am witnessing your struggle with so much compassion, Mary. I think the question for your partner is what are the concrete steps they will be taking to continue on this sober and employed journey. You can always choose to separate until they actually get it together so they know you are serious and their recovery and changes become their own and not something for you to manage. I know it is not an easy decision but one thing is for sure – you deserve to have someone who is putting in equal effort and contribution to your life together!

  2. Thank you Terri for addressing this. The relationship that ended in May fit this to a T, as that person was an abusive spiritual narcissist. Your RLR and No NO Narc courses helped me see how toxic this was, and helped me get away from all of that.
    Thankfully I am just beginning a new relationship with someone I knew over the last 20 years and was lucky to reconnect with them after I ran into them grocery shopping.

    1. Hi Yvonne,

      That’s so exciting! I’m glad the courses have helped, and I’m witnessing your growth with excitement and cheering you on! ?

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