I’ve experienced trauma bonding several times already—mainly in the context of romantic relationships.
Of course, initially, I didn’t know that I was “trauma bonded.” I would have never imagined that trauma and love, or an idea of love, could be found in the same place.
Here in this article, I will refer to trauma bonding in the context of romantic relationships.
Trauma bonding takes hold easily when we have experienced these types of unhealthy attachments during our childhood. In fact, our nervous system is wired in such receptive ways precisely because we’ve been been there before. A child who has experienced abuse from a parent may, as an adult, have difficulties distinguishing, at the level of the nervous system, abuse with love.
If you were abused as a child, you had to internalize and bury your feelings of sadness, anger, unfairness, or hurt in order to be able to stay in that same environment and be still taken care of.
Your life depended on your parents and you weren’t self-reliant enough to break the bond—so you may have learned how to cope with your feelings by seeing them with rose-tainted glasses and not fully see the truth.
In some way, the child had to minimize or even deny the abuse that was happening in order to get the love, care, and attention that they needed from their caretakers.
“The capacity for dissociation enables the young child to exercise their innate life-sustaining need for attachment in spite of the fact that principal attachment figures are also principal abusers.” ~ Warwick Middleton
Later in life, the individual may still expect love and attention from someone who is simultaneously abusive to them, because they were trained to—and because as a child, eventually getting the love that they needed from their parents was the reward they were seeking after enduring more grueling cycles of distrust and fear.
To the adult brain that experienced abuse in childhood, red flags may feel like home.
Their nervous system possibly even became addicted to the biological responses that the brain produces in times of intense stress.
So what is a trauma bond? It’s a connection where one becomes attached for the “wrong” reasons, meaning unhealthy ones. It’s a form of self-betrayal as it keeps you loyal to a destructive situation.
One has learned in childhood that they need to betray themselves to receive love from a parent they have a “difficult relationship” with—so they will repeat this as adults, and regard the pattern as familiar.
How does it work, and why would one not notice it for themselves, even if they have experienced many years of inner work?
It’s because the “abuser” alternates cycles of belittling, gaslighting, or threatening the bond—with cycles of rewards artificially recreating trust, attachment, and safety.
As a consequence one may possibly feel at the same time that something is odd or off between themselves and their partner—without being able to put the finger on it as mixed signals are constantly given.
An additional reason why people stay in this form of connection: the small rewards given occasionally provide the “victim” a release of dopamine—it hits them after long days or weeks without gentleness or a positive signal, which reinforces attachment. It may, in fact, be so hard to go through the cycles of abuse, that as soon as a reward is received, the individual feels so reassured and energized again that they forget what happened before and feel a sense of trust for the other again.
Also, if the victim had an abusive parent who accused them for their own emotional reactions, they may feel as an adult that everything is their fault, and that if they improve themselves, things will go well. They easily feel responsible in their adult life for the emotions of others, because they were wired to feel that way.
To cut a long story short, trauma bonding is not real love—rather it is an attachment through the wound.
Even when the victim identifies that their partner is abusive or if their friends or family members recommend that they leave, they may subconsciously opt for denying the truth and facts. The victim goes back to their abuser, because losing them brings up deep feelings of abandonment and of not being good enough, or even of not deserving love. And this feeling experienced in childhood wants to be avoided at all costs.
“This is how the victim of trauma bonding minimise and denies the abuse in order to uphold the positive image of the perpetrator, while distorting the reality and being misguided by fantasy love, not real love.” ~ Psyche Central
Deep down, what the victim is looking for is attention, approval, and love from the external in order to feel worthy—and bandaging the original plague, this main childhood wound of not getting the love that they deserved.
If you sense that you may be connected to somebody in a trauma bonded way, I would recommend asking yourself:
>> Does this dynamic feel all-consuming rather than energizing?
>> Are you betraying yourself and distorting your values or ways of life to keep the bond alive? Have you withdrawn from several important connections outside of the relationship because you felt scared of your partner’s possible reactions?
>> How would you respond if one of your friends were sharing with you the way your partner is treating you? What would you advise to yourself if you were your own best friend?
>> Are you denying part of the connection to be able to remain in it—possibly sensing that pieces of it are “ugly” but simultaneously feeling that it would be too hard for you to breakup?