Trauma Bonding, Codependency & Toxic Relationships

By: Janina Sola, Therapist

One of the most challenging aspects of life is forming healthy bonds and relationships with others.  When mixed with a history of trauma, it can become even more complicated.  Often times, a person who has experienced trauma, forms an unhealthy loyalty to others which is termed as trauma bonding.  Trauma bonding means that the “victims have a certain dysfunctional attachments that occurs in the presence of danger, shame, or exploitation” (Carnes, 1997).

In these relationships, a person may experience more abuse, self-sabotage, obsession, distrust, and other negative consequences of the bond.   Another, and common, result of addiction and abusive environments, is codependency.  Codependency refers to a “type of dysfunctional helping relationship where one person supports or enables another person’s addiction, poor mental health, immaturity, irresponsibility, or under-achievement” (Johnson, 2014).  Often, trauma bonding and codependency are confused with each other.  Although they have similar characteristics, there are differences as well and it is important to identify the difference with clients to identify appropriate interventions for clinical consideration.

Trauma bonding can be a difficult issue to work with in therapy because it can become an unrecognizable addiction.  Often, the client becomes obsessive with the relationship and bond they formed with another that it is often not seen that their bond is unhealthy.  The trauma bonds formed tend to be more about survival and often contain a betrayal component that a person has difficulty controlling (Carnes, 1997).  Meaning, a person cannot control their bond with another person regardless of the betrayal, destruction, or abuse.  The person who has a trauma bond, is more focused on the abuser (Carnes, 1997).  In order to heal and find trauma resolution, a person must be able and willing to see how their compulsive behavior only aids in forming trauma bonds and therefore they must break the compulsivity.

Codependency on the other hand,  focuses more on the addiction.  Trauma bonding and codependency only come together “when the addict is also an abusive perpetrator” (Carnes, 1997).  The person who tends to be codependent likely was involved with some form of addiction through family members, friends, etc.  Therefore, the person is triggered by others who have addiction.  Codependency is also not “frightening” but more about caring for others needs instead of their own (Beattie, 2011).  In treating codependency, it is important for the person to be more aware of one’s self, manageability, and allowing care into their lives from themselves.

In treating others, it is important to recognize the difference between trauma bonding and codependency.  Forming relationship are difficult in their own right, but when adding trauma, betrayal, stress, addiction, abuse, and lack of self-care, relationships can become quite unhealthy and there is a need for interventions.   Both trauma bonding and codependency can cause severe consequences.  It is important to help the person identify whether a relationship has become addictive or whether they must detach lovingly and care for themselves.  Often this can be achieved by dissecting relationships with a therapist and learning how to set appropriate boundaries and surrender.  Because with the surrender and acceptance of how to break the unhealthy bonds, a person develops their true sense of self and ability to make long lasting and healthy relationships.

Beattie, M. (2011). Codependent No More Workbook. Minnesota: Hazelden.

Carnes, Ph.D., P. J. (1997). The Betrayal Bond: Breaking free of exploitive relationships. Florida: Health Communications, Inc.

Johnson, R. Skip (13 July 2014). “Codependency and Codependent Relationships”. Retrieved 8 February 2015.