You may have seen the term trauma bonding all over the internet. It’s become a popular term. Part of the box set of what I call “sticky” relationships. But the term is more obscure. Not like the popular hits like codependency, narcissism, emotional & physical abuse. Trauma bonding is like a B side.
It grabs attention because it sounds clinical, very serious, and makes you wonder if you have it or not. Besides, who doesn’t have some form of trauma? But many don’t know exactly what it actually is.
So I wanted to bring it down to street level.
In its simplest form, trauma bonding is “I love you. Get away.”
You are familiar with this I’m sure.
It’s a very powerful emotional bond created by the intermittent reinforcement of reward and punishment. This inconsistent love creates an emotional rubber band that pulls people in after they have been stretched. Or more accurately, shattered. The trauma generated by this inconsistent and confusing behavior creates a love bond. There is trauma bonding in all abusive relationships.
Quick aside. Trauma bonding is also called Stockholm syndrome — feelings of trust or affection felt in many cases of kidnapping or hostage-taking by a victim toward a captor.
It’s obvious why it’s also called Stockholm syndrome. We empathize and make excuses for the person abusing us. That’s why many who are in abusive relationships minimize and are not able to see what others may see.
Well, you may be thinking, “But I’ve never been in an abusive relationship.” This doesn’t apply to me.
Well, has mom or dad ever yelled at you then felt bad and showered you with extra love and attention and gifts? Has a boyfriend ever been hot and cold, hot and cold, without an explanation? How many times has a narcissist you were dating courted you back after you’ve managed to break free? Has your friend, who was your ride or die during the summer, ignore you when school started?
I’m not saying any of those are classified as an abusive relationship. You have to be the judge of that. But depending on the intensity and duration, these are all forms of trauma bonding. Probably not powerful enough to sink you and turn your life upside down. But the tug is still there.
We look inward and wonder what is wrong with us. We change our behavior. We chase. We seek what’s not coming.
Here’s how it works.
The reward and punishment dynamic / cycle trains us to want, desire, and fix the relationship. Partly because we tie our worth to the love we get. So if we don’t get love, we believe we are worth less. When we get love, we believe we are worth more. And since we all want to feel worthy, we wait, we fix, we make excuses, negotiate, compromise, put our needs aside, and change our behavior to get that love — because then it means we have more worth / value. Especially if we have been conditioned this way from our childhood. That’s another layer that gets us to default to this pattern, adding fuel to the repeating cycle.
And the longer we are in this cycle, the stronger the bond.
This bond then can be mistaken for chemistry / sexual attraction.
That’s why for many the only thing that changes in our relationships is faces. We keep falling into the same type of dysfunctional relationship. Because inconsistent, conditional and chaotic love, generates that strong bond we’re used to and draws us in. And we define this pull as chemistry.
It keeps us in something unhealthy and disruptive, stunting our growth and cementing toxic definitions of love. This puts us on an island and we never experience anything new.
Until we do.
Of course after the many shattered hearts, Al-anon meetings, self help books, and inner journey we go on. Coming out the other side with new non negotiables and thirsty for something different. Shuffling our priorities and redefining what chemistry and attraction is. We finally seek something healthy.
And we finally find this new love, which we are not used to but it feels boring and flat. We mistake that for “no chemistry” and fall back into old patterns. And never really leave the island.
So how do we break free?
- Be aware of this trauma bond.
Are you in a lopsided relationship that is creating this bond? Even if it’s subtle, is it there and how is it impacting you and your sense of worth? Is this a pattern? In looking back, are chaotic dysfunctional, emotionally or physically abusive relationships, a common thread in all your relationships?
2. Break the pattern.
This doesn’t always mean to leave a relationship. Trauma bonds can be repaired. As long as both parties are aware of the unhealthy dynamic and want to change it by taking ownership of their piece. This is where the work comes in. Not just seeing it but doing something about it. Processing with a therapist. Looking inward. Sitting with what comes up, studying one’s own behaviors, and most importantly correcting them by making new choices, hence creating new tracks.
3. Sitting in the new.
Whether both parties work to create a new dynamic or you leave the relationship and build something new with someone else, you will eventually be half of a new dynamic. Hopefully one that doesn't have a strong trauma bond, assuming you’re doing steps one and two. I say doing not done because there’s no end to the work. It’s a lifestyle, like fitness. If you stop, you may lose traction and snap back.
Even in healthy relationships, there may still be remnants of the sticky. You may feel the tug. Because change and growth isn’t a light switch. There will always be some kind of residue. But as long as it’s not strong enough to take you down.
That’s when you must sit it in. Not like you’re waiting for it to go. Intentionally. This means feeling the tug, being aware of it, and not acting on it. Loving someone with your brain and wisdom, not just what you feel. That is an irresponsible love. A young love. A movie trailer.
Eventually, if you sit in the new long enough, fully and deeply, appreciating the contrast, your love buds will start to change. What you were attracted to will repel you. And this is how you know you have truly broken free.
I will be sending out texts about trauma bonds all this week. Then texting out a Google Doc that takes you deeper on the topic.
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