First of all, what is a trauma bond?
You’ve probably heard this term before, but it’s important to really know it—to understand all of it and the psychological nooks and crannies we fall into. It usually occurs during, or as a result of, a narcissistic relationship, but there is more. And it doesn’t necessarily mean that they only happen within a romantic relationship.
When we are ashamed or don’t feel safe with someone, subconsciously, our minds create defenses—ways to cope with the emotional abuse. In The Betrayal Bond, by Patrick Carnes, a trauma bond is defined as, “Dysfunctional attachments that occur in the presence of danger, shame or exploitation.”
When we become chained to this bond, we develop an unhealthy level of loyalty to someone despite the glaringly obvious red flags. We have already become used to abuse, so rather than fight or flight, we accept; we freeze and take whatever comes our way like it’s a liferaft (but really, it’s a sinking ship).
Ironically, and sadly, this type of bond typically arises from a deep-seated need to heal a wound, but, as Carnes wrote, “This type of bonding does not facilitate recovery and resilience but rather undermines those very qualities within us.”
Here are six ways to tell if you (or someone you know) has a healthy, genuine love, or if it’s trauma bonding:
1. The relationship is unpredictable.
You’re constantly walking on eggshells; you’re afraid of every interaction because you’re unsure of how you’ll be treated (and yet, you’re still staying with them). They are hot and cold with you. And since you’re seeking the “good” times so much, from a wounded place, you’re willing to ignore the bad and the ugly that comes along with it.
2. They are always betraying you, but you continue to give them a second chance.
By doing this, you are also betraying yourself. You would rather cling to this trauma bond than require what you not only need but deserve. This is also deepening your lack of self-worth. (Hint: even a healthy relationship will come with its own struggles, but the other person won’t continue to lie and betray you. They have your best interest at heart.)
3. Their happiness is your responsibility.
You are willing to kill your own will, desires, and needs in order to make them happy. If you feel like you’re doing this (I have 100 percent done this), it would probably be a good idea to take a moment and dig deep into the “why.” Why are you so willing to lose yourself for another person? Why does your sense of self matter so little?
I’ve noticed that in these situations of emotional abuse, we keep our hearts glued to the memory of the reward; we take the bullsh*t as long as necessary because we are holding out for the fleeting moment of joy and (faux) fulfillment. We use these pleasant feelings to justify the toxicity that encompasses most of the interactions
4. The relationship is extremely “complex,” and involves many false promises.
“I promise things will change.” Or, “This will never happen again.” These words are the hope that we choose to cling to and reinforce the trauma bond. Again, long-term, healthy relationships will always have bumps in the road—that’s perfectly normal—but in a trauma bond, this is your entire world. Every day you cling to an empty hope; like an addict, you’re just abusing yourself until your next fix.
5. You find yourself defending the relationship despite its toxic nature.
Even when others are trying to point out the abuse and unhealthiness of your relationship, you refuse to accept or acknowledge it. Think of a trauma bond as a tether or a livewire; it feels like the only thing keeping you alive. And there is also a subconscious feeling of shame for putting yourself in this kind of situation in the first place. You need to justify yourself and the relationship (even if they’re right). Enter denial.
6. The familiarity makes it feel impossible to leave.
“Why don’t you just leave?”
It’s so much more complicated than that when you’re tethered in a trauma bond. It truly is like an addiction. You miss them, incessantly. And this is because you are not genuinely okay with yourself; you feel like a shell of a person. It’s a need rather than love. The feeling is completely debilitating and causes you to continuously fall back into the relationship. (Just like an addict.)
Within a trauma bond, the combination of emotional attachment, blind trust, manipulation, and denial makes it a heartbreakingly difficult situation to identify (and leave).
As someone who has been on both sides of a trauma bond, I would like to encourage anyone in it or on the outside of it to remember to have empathy. Love is a life-changing and enticing thing that we all want. But it is also messy and uncharted waters.
We don’t walk into our relationships with blank slates; we walk into them carrying heavy loads from the past; we come with our pain and fears and resentments.
May this video be of benefit: