In contrast to normative bonds and attachments, which are characteristically affectionate and protective, traumatic bonding refers to a counterintuitive variation in which one member of the bonded pair intermittently victimizes or traumatizes the other person. The term traumatic bonding was first employed to describe a powerful and destructive bond that is sometimes observed between battered women and their abusers, or between maltreated children and their caregivers (Dutton and Painter 1981). It has since been applied more generally to describe strong emotional ties that may form between victims and their oppressors across a range of relationships and types of abuse (e.g., the Stockholm Syndrome; see Strentz 1980).
The necessary conditions for traumatic bonding are that one person must dominate the other and that the level of abuse chronically spikes and then subsides. The relationship is characterized by periods of permissive, compassionate, and even affectionate behavior from the dominant person, punctuated by intermittent episodes of intense abuse. To maintain the upper hand, the victimizer manipulates the behavior of the victim and limits the victim’s options so as to perpetuate the power imbalance. Any threat to the balance of dominance and submission may be met with an escalating cycle of punishment ranging from seething intimidation to intensely violent outbursts. The victimizer also isolates the victim from other sources of support, which reduces the likelihood of detection and intervention, impairs the victim’s ability to receive countervailing self-referent feedback, and strengthens the sense of unilateral dependency.
The traumatic effects of these abusive relationships may include the impairment of the victim’s capacity for accurate self-appraisal, leading to a sense of personal inadequacy and a subordinate sense of dependence upon the dominating person. Victims also may encounter a variety of unpleasant social and legal consequences of their emotional and behavioral affiliation with someone who perpetrated aggressive acts, even if they themselves were the recipients of the aggression.
Theoretical explanations for this phenomenon are divergent and controversial. Psychodynamic theorists have employed concepts such as masochism, repetition compulsion, and identification with the aggressor (van der Kolk 1989; Young and Gerson 1991) to explain how such seemingly self-destructive relationships can be formed. A central developmental tenet of this perspective is that a proclivity toward abusive relationships and traumatic bonds is rooted in the victim’s traumatic childhood attachments. Attachment theory has also been applied to explain traumatic bonding as an unresolved form of insecure attachment (Saunders and Edelson 1999) in which the capacity for self-regulation has been impaired by the alternately abusive and protective actions of an attachment figure. Each of these perspectives has persuasive elements, but the explanatory mechanisms are difficult to operationalize and have therefore gone untested.
Learning theory offers an explanation based on the consistent finding that intermittent reinforcement schedules can strengthen and maintain behavior even during periods when the reinforcer is absent. In the cycle of relational behavior attributed to traumatic bonding, the vic-timizer applies intense punishment, then negatively reinforces compliant behavior from the victim by ceasing the punishment, and soon after shifts to lavishing the victim with various forms of noncontingent positive reinforcement. This pattern of punishment and reinforcement may constitute a particularly powerful form of doublebind or vicious cycle, especially given the victim’s legitimate fear of being injured or killed in retaliation for any act of defiance.
Little empirical research has been published examining the individual and situational characteristics that predict the development and maintenance of traumatic bonding. Some support has been found both for the construct of traumatic bonding and for the importance of the intermittency element for predicting postrelationship distress among victims (Dutton and Painter 1993). But the most perplexing and counterintuitive aspect of traumatic bonding—the victim’s feelings of affection and longing toward the victimizer following termination of the abusive relationship—has not been studied with the kind of rigor that would provide definitive findings, and the sociopolitical and philosophical aspects of this phenomenon make it particularly difficult to address from a scientific perspective.
SEE ALSO Illness, Mental; Mental Health; Stress; Trauma
Dutton, Donald G., and Susan L. Painter. 1981. Traumatic Bonding: The Development of Emotional Attachments in Battered Women and Other Relationships of Intermittent Abuse. Victimology: An International Journal 6 (1–4): 139–155.
Dutton, Donald G., and Susan Painter. 1993. The Battered Woman Syndrome: Effects of Severity and Intermittency of Abuse. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 63 (4): 614–622.
Saunders, Eleanor A., and Jill A. Edelson. 1999. Attachment Style, Traumatic Bonding, and Developing Relational Capacities in a Long-Term Trauma Group for Women. International Journal of Group Psychotherapy 49 (4): 465–485.
Strentz, Thomas. 1980. The Stockholm Syndrome: Law Enforcement Policy and Ego Defenses of the Hostage. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 347 (1): 137–150.
Van der Kolk, Bessel A. 1989. The Compulsion to Repeat the Trauma: Re-Enactment, Revictimization, and Masochism. Psychiatric Clinics of North America 12 (2): 389–411.
Young, G. H., and S. Gerson. 1991. New Psychoanalytic Perspectives on Masochism and Spouse Abuse. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training 28 (1): 30–38.