Trauma Bonds

The scourge of gender-based violence in South Africa is one that has called for the nation’s President, the honourable Cyril Ramaphosa, to declare it a second pandemic. South African crime statistics showed that, in 2017/2018, 2,930 women were murdered, which is the equivalent of one woman being killed in this country every three hours. These are highly disheartening figures, especially considering that femicide is just one of the many violent crimes perpetrated against women. To make matters worse, South Africa’s levels of prosecution and conviction in domestic violence cases is very low, which has left many South Africans with no faith in the justice system.

Gender-based violence and abuse often result in long term emotional, physical, and psychological consequences that may negatively impact victims’ self-esteem and their interactions with others around them. In some cases, victims develop a psychological addiction to their abuser, a phenomenon referred to by mental health practitioners as ‘trauma bonding’. The bonding takes place when a victim develops an unhealthy attachment to their abuser, going as far as feeling sympathy for them and justifying the abuse itself. Victims of abuse who develop a trauma bond will often become overwhelmed with an intense longing for the perpetrator, which makes it extremely difficult for them to exit the toxic relationship.

When speaking to survivors of abuse, most report various factors that made them stay in the abusive relationship, including financial or emotional dependency stemming from a belief that the abuser was the only form of support they had. It is not very common for survivors to include in this list any psychological attachment they may have had to their abuser, in part because trauma bonds are seldom spoken about and most victims are unaware of, or unable to describe or explain, the unhealthy relationship they have with the abuser. Once embroiled in a cycle of abuse, it becomes extremely difficult for the victim to break away from it. It completely swallows them, and often leaves them with a false sense of hope that the abuser can change for the better.

Although reading up on the intensity of trauma bonds can feel discouraging, these can be broken. Firstly, it starts with noticing and acknowledging the toxic patterns of behaviour in your relationship, noting most importantly how the negative times far outweigh the positives ones. If you find yourself justifying or making excuses for your abuser’s actions, hiding the abuse, and sometimes even blaming yourself for it, then the likelihood that you have developed a trauma bond is great.

Breaking a trauma bond is not easy, because although a big part of you may be aware of the toxicity of the relationship and even know that staying in the relationship is unfruitful, the thought of leaving it can seem daunting or even impossible. Support is key to finally rid yourself of a toxic relationship. Speaking out is amongst the greatest actions that you can take to break free from the claws of abuse. Speak to a trusted friend or seek counselling from a trained practitioner who will be able to advise and refer you to others who can offer support and assistance. In South Africa, there are various organisations that offer counselling services and support to victims of abuse. The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG), for example, hosts live counselling chats online at

It is never too late to heal from abuse. It begins with knowing where to seek help from. You can conquer such tragic life experiences and serve to be a beacon of hope and inspiration to others who may find themselves in similar situations.

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