As a young teen, I became involved in my first serious long-term relationship. The young woman I fell in love with was troubled. She had suffered unjust abuse and battled with mental illness. This fueled me. It gave me an opportunity to be a hero. As time went on, I attempted to help carry the weight of her burdens. I did not consider my needs, let alone ask for them to be met. My needs were neglected. Being as though I was so young, instilled in me was the pattern of trauma bonding.
Trauma bonds are often stronger than normal human bonds. In many cases, trauma bonding is a repeated cycle of abuse, devaluation, and positive reinforcement.1 In the most severe cases, this happens between abuser and abusee. Nevertheless, the relationship is marked by its severe ups and downs. Stockholm syndrome is an example.2 Most of us have some elements of trauma bonding in our closest relationships.
Attachement Style and Trauma Bonds
Attachment theory suggests that our early childhood experience with those we relied on for survival sets the stage for our romantic relationships.3 If you had affectionate, supportive, and loving bonds with your primary caregivers the same is likely to be in your adult relationships. If, however, your relationships were distant, erratic, or abusive, you are likely to seek out the same as an adult. Psychologically, the involvement in the latter has to do with the reinforcement inherent in the reward (possibility or the giving of love) and punishment (fear of or the removal of love). This can become addictive. We may seek comfort from the source of trauma in the hopes that we’ll earn the love we did not regularly receive.
Dr. Patrick Carnes (creator of the International Institute for Trauma and Addiction Professionals)4 defines trauma bonding as the “misuse of fear, excitement, sexual feelings, and sexual physiology to entangle another person”.5 The intense feelings felt in these relationships are mistaken for love.
Many of us participate in trauma bonds in our romantic relationships to some degree. Some signs that you may be susceptible to a trauma bond:
- Obsessive pull towards certain relationships though there are obvious issues impacting the possibility of its long-term success.
- You are unaware of your relationship needs or they are not often met.
- You betray yourself in relationships in attempts to have your needs met and you don’t trust yourself.
In early childhood, the love or nurturing we didn’t get may cause a primal wound. At this stage, we are very open to the energies of other people, especially our caregivers. Dr. Robert Greene, the author of The Laws of Human Nature, gives the example of a young boy who may have had a narcissistic mother. He may not have been able to receive the love in the manner he most desired due to her focus on her own needs. And so, throughout his life, he will be attracted to women who are narcissistic in order to return to and heal by overcoming that early trauma or primal wound.6 By entering a relationship with this type of person similar to his mother, there is the hope of receiving the love he had never received.
Perhaps the most troubling part of this scenario, If this man enters a relationship with a woman who does not have characteristics similar to his mother, the pull to her will not be as strong as it is to the woman who represents the primal wound.
We have a tendency towards familiar dynamics, regardless of the outcome.
Trauma Bond Archetypes
Having a Parent Who Denies Your Reality
This type doesn’t acknowledge their own needs or is pathologically easygoing. They act selflessly against themselves. Often this type will be drawn to relationships that don’t meet their needs.
Having a Parent That Does Not See Or Hear You
These types feel they must quiet their nature in order to receive love. This can cause an attraction to big personalities keeping them in a perpetual state of not being seen or heard, remaining secondary.
Having a Parent Who Vicariously Lives Through You
These types feel there is no space for their authentic self due to the parent’s expression of preference in their wants and desires. This may cause an overreliance on others in decision-making. They don’t know how they truly feel without constant deliberation.
Having a Parent That Does Not Model Boundaries
These types may override their own intuition on where boundaries lie, and not ask for needs to be met. This can build up over time and manifest in anger and resentment or contempt. They often feel unappreciated and taken advantage of.
Having a Parent Who is Overly Focused On Appearance
This type may compare themselves superficially to others in the extreme, ignoring deeper emotions. They desire to appear “perfect”, though suffering deeply.
Having a Parent Who Cannot Regulate Thier Emotions
These types are overwhelmed by their parent’s emotional reactions. They lack emotional resilience. They may explode or withdraw, modeling their parent’s behavior. They are prone to substance abuse.
*Note that often relationships have very unique expressions of trauma bonding, and others are more general.
The range and impact of the trauma bond archetypes are varied. The degree to which the archetypical behavior is expressed may be based on the circumstances, past experiences, and uniqueness of the individual.
How To Heal
Trauma bonds are addictive. Understand that there is a neurological basis for this addiction. As with other addictions, it is best to have no contact with someone with which you may be enmeshed in a trauma bond.7 This includes any electronic or social media communication.
There are seven stages in the cycle of trauma bonding.8
- Love Bombing – The falling in love.
- Trust and Dependency – The relationship deepens, but dependency instead of connection emerges.
- Criticism – An abnormal amount of criticism is experienced.
- Gaslighting – Your feelings, thoughts, and emotions are marginalized.
- Resigning to Control – You realize they have control
- Loss of Self – You’re not sure if you can trust yourself or if you’re the person you thought you were.
- Addiction to the Cycle – You’re hooked.
The addiction comes from the ups and downs associated with cortisol (during stress) and dopamine (craving pleasure). Understanding the cycle is an important first step in recovery. When in the craving part of the cycle (when a victim may give in and reach out) it is important to have a diversion. Walking, gardening, meditating, and reading are options. Journal, noting reasons the person is not good for you. Connect with a close friend.
The following are recommendations from Dr. Carnes on what to do and what not to do in recovery from a trauma bond.
- Trust your intuition.
- Don’t take part in no-win conversations.
- Don’t take part in impossible situations.
- If you feel bad around someone remove yourself.
- Don’t make every decision a crisis.
- Live one day at a time.
- Do not scare yourself with negative thoughts. Instead, encourage yourself with positive ones.
- Reframe negative experiences. Look for the silver lining in all situations.
- Manage emotions, don’t let them have control.
- Take your power back.
- Believe in yourself.
- If emotionally unstable, connect with a safe person, not the object of obsession.
- Have compassion for yourself.
- Honor and pay attention to your feelings.
- Remember, you cannot change another person, only yourself.
- Exercise; get those endorphins flowing through your bloodstream.
- Build a new toxicity free life.
- Do things that bring fulfillment and honor to your life.
- Avoid substance use/abuse
- Find a good therapist, support group, and/or church group.
- Enjoy the rest of your life at any cost. Remind yourself that life is good.
In my youth, my experiences and emotionality steered me towards trauma bonds. Some of the most exciting and all-encompassing trysts I’ve had were promises of healing a primal wound carried with the hope of healing. A desire for transcendence to a higher plane of existence and the seeking of a spiritual awakening drove me. But it is apparent to me now that these experiences cannot take me to the transformation that I seek.
In addition, I’ve chosen some partners over others because of the lack of soul and spirit encompassing excitement that was present during the formation of a trauma bond. In that, I was inevitably hurt, the healthy person attempting to engage in a relationship with me was hurt, and certainly, the other side of the trauma bond did not leave the relationship better than when they entered. Though powerful, primal, and intensely emotional, the alluring nature of these bonds is best beset by a strong awareness of what needs you are attempting to fulfill with a relationship. Sometimes intellect is best spent on matters that seem instinctually for the heart.
- LePera, N., 2021. How to do the work. 1st ed.
- Bilyeu, T., 2021. This is how you LEVERAGE the Laws of Human Nature. [podcast] Impact Theory. Available at: <https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/impact-theory-with-tom-bilyeu/id1191775648?i=1000540506109> [Accessed 3 November 2021].