This scary psychological phenomenon is finally getting the attention it deserves.

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It's easy to assume that you'd leave if you were ever in a relationship that became abusive. But certain psychological factors can make leaving an abusive situation more complicated than most people realize. One of them is a phenomenon known as trauma bonding.

Trauma bonding can explain why some victims of domestic violence are reluctant to leave their abuser, despite other people urging them to flee, Luana Marques, PhD, associate professor in the department of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and associate director and director of research at the Center for Anxiety and Traumatic Stress Disorders Program at Massachusetts General Hospital, tells Health.

Never heard of the term before? You're not alone. But it's important to be aware of trauma bonding so you can help prevent yourself or a loved one from falling into the trap. Here's what you need to know about this scary psychological phenomenon.

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Credit: Getty Images

What is trauma bonding?

Trauma bonding "isn't actually a scientific term," but it's one that mental health experts understand, Lily Brown, PhD, director of research at the Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine, tells Health. "It's often used in the context of domestic violence," Brown says.

"Traumatic bonding refers to a situation in which someone who is being abused becomes allied with and protective of their abuser," psychologist Steven N. Gold, PhD, professor emeritus at Nova Southeastern University in Florida and author of Contextual Trauma Therapy, tells Health. "It is almost always puzzling to outside observers why this would be the case. How could someone who is consistently experiencing the pain of being mistreated develop a powerful loyalty to the person who is maltreating them?"

Trauma bonding can be linked with what's known as a "disorganized attachment," Marques says. "A disorganized attachment is characterized by someone seeking security and safety from the same person that is initiating their need to seek safety or who is the cause of their fears," she explains.

"Oftentimes, the abused person in a trauma-bond relationship may have mixed feelings about their partner or abuser which keeps them from seeking help," Marques says. "They might want to explain that 'their partner was not always mean, or aggressive, and sometimes or more often they are so nice and tell me they love me.'"

Why is trauma bonding so harmful?

There are a few reasons. "Any time a person is experiencing trauma in the context of a close relationship, there could be a significant threat to their safety," Brown says. If a person has experienced violence, that can escalate and cause serious injury, she explains, adding, "there is a real risk of escalation of violence."

These relationships can cause overproduction of the stress hormone cortisol in a person who is being abused, "which could contribute to both severe mental and physical health conditions," Marques says.

People who are in trauma bonding relationships may also cut off other people in their lives. "Often the abuser will press them to cut off their communication with friends and family, leaving them even more defenseless and removed from the positive influence of people who care about their welfare," Gold says.

How do people get into trauma bonding relationships in the first place?

A personal history of mistreatment could lead to this, Gold says. "Some people in a traumatic bonding relationship have a history of similar maltreatment as children and therefore accept or even expect to be treated badly," he says. "In circumstances such as these, the abusive partner may recognize that they have found an 'easy target'—someone who will tolerate bad behavior and not protest."

In other situations, Gold says, the abuser "may start the relationship on their best behavior and gradually escalate in the direction of being controlling and critical."

Signs you're in a trauma bonding relationship

If reading this sounds eerily familiar to you, it's understandable to have questions about whether you could be in a trauma bonding relationship. Experts say there are a few telltale signs:

  • You defend or try to explain away your partner's mistreatment of you to others.
  • You agree to cut off ties with your family and friends at your partner's insistence.
  • You feel increasingly insecure, self-doubting, and dependent on your partner as your relationship continues.
  • It feels like there's an imbalance of power (like, you rely on your partner for your financial stability or you feel like you need their permission to do certain things).

What to do if you suspect you're in a trauma bonding relationship

It's easy for other people to say you should just leave, but trauma bonding can make that more difficult than it sounds. Gold first recommends trying to reestablish communication with your family and friends if you feel like it's been strained or you've been cut off. Then, do what you can to become more independent, like getting a job, making new friends, and exploring new outside interests.

If you can, Gold also recommends seeking counseling, either from support groups or a mental health professional who specializes in working with people who are in abusive relationships. (Contacting the National Domestic Violence Hotline at thehotline.org or calling 800.799.SAFE can also help you get free help and advice, Marques points out.)

And while it's hard to think about, Brown recommends packing a bag for an emergency situation. "Even if you don't feel like it's time to leave now, having a bag packed with just the essentials can help if there's an emergency," she says.

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