Trauma Bonding

Relationships usually begin with people sharing their stories with each other. However, sharing stories about our experiences with trauma can result in a “trauma bond.” A trauma bond creates intense, compelling feelings — elation and relief from no longer feeling alone, misunderstood and/or isolated by the original trauma experience. That elation feels like finding the love, understanding, acceptance and companionship that’s been so needed and wanted. To have found someone who can hear and see our trauma experience feels like a “high” of sorts. It’s exciting and a relief. It’s only human to desire that kind of intimacy, understanding, acceptance, support and companionship. That “high,” however, doesn’t last. And, sadly, most of the time, neither does the relationship.

Real intimacy, based on trust and familiarity, takes time to build. Trauma-bonding creates an illusion of intimacy. Despite feeling seemingly intimate, paradoxically, trauma-bonding creates what end up being usually insurmountable obstacles to real, emotionally safe and healthy intimacy.

If people have the capacity to tolerate this insight, eventually, one or both partners in a trauma-bonded relationship may realize that they’ve been playing a game, following a script, perhaps without realizing that’s what they’ve been doing. If they’re not so fortunate, then they continue to live their lives trapped by compulsions, usually sex or relationship addiction, codependency, internet/smartphone addiction, workaholism, compulsive spending, compulsive gambling and/or misusing alcohol, food or other substances. Such compulsions are usually fueled by shame and fear.

Anxious and Avoidant Attachments: The Dance of Intimacy

Attachments in trauma-bonded relationships tend to be fragile, based in insecurities. Anxious and avoidant attachment styles are common between people who routinely get into trauma-bonded relationships. They reflect an inability to form and feel safe in intimate relationships. Mostly because of the anxiety they experience at the beginning of a relationship, people who get into trauma-bonded relationships tend to jump in headfirst rather than gradually get to know each other over time. After the initial elation ends, they then struggle with how to cope with the feelings of depletion — the withdrawal from that “high” — that follows and how to navigate the “real” relationship. For a while, they’ll probably do a dance of intimacy in which their fears and anxieties get “managed” as they act out pursuer and distancer roles.

Relationship Addiction

Trauma bonds tend to create cognitive dissonance. The resulting confusion, combined with their frustrated attempts at trying to recapture that fleeting initial “high,” compels people to deny the problematic nature of their trauma-bonded relationships by using justifications and rationalizations. They become stuck, stubbornly fixated, obsessed with trying to get back to square one, that by now completely elusive elation stage, because it felt so intoxicating. That makes it difficult to disengage. But, that’s not the same thing as a healthy, secure attachment.

That temporarily, fleeting elation stage inevitably gets replaced by a real relationship between real people. Confronted by the depletion, they secretly wonder, “Now what?” They may not realize it; but, what they’ve actually been doing is hanging onto their trauma experiences by telling their stories over and over again. 

When the reality of the rest of who their partner is hits and the demands of real life assert themselves, emotionally, the survivors experience having been abandoned yet again. Their idealized companion evaporates, replaced by a real person — one who has annoying faults and other demands competing for their time and energy.

There also may be a fleeting sense of mastery from seeming to possess an almost magical capacity for insight and a seemingly unique ability to understand, tolerate and compassionately accept a partner’s trauma experience. The elation from that illusion can be equally seductive and compelling. Yet, that experience is just as fleeting. It’s an intoxicating fall into a codependent slip. With the best of intentions, one or both partners can slip into magical thinking, believing they can somehow change, rescue or heal each other. It’s always easier and far more comfortable to focus on someone else’s trauma and recovery rather than our own.

Sadly, it’s magical thinking to believe that a trauma-bonded relationship can be healthy, last or have a happy ending.

There’s nothing you can do to make someone who is still so wounded by their past believe in or feel satisfied and secure with your love in realistic ways long-term. Or, to make them love you in a way that makes you feel satisfied and secure long-term. When trauma is still so present, it can feel as if you are never alone together. Compulsive behaviors and trauma memories, manifesting as visceral emotional and physical reactions, persistently intrude. While those intense emotions from trauma are still so actively in control, those emotions will have far more power over you, your partner and your relationship than you and your partner ever will.

Future Faking

After the initial elation ends, the couple seeks to fill the depletion void by focusing on their future together. “Future faking” — e.g., we’ll be happy when…fill in the blank…I get that new job, we move, I get out of debt, I retire, we get married, etc. — can be used to fill that void. There’s a problem when that day never comes. You may have misinterpreted skillful observation and questions about how to make you feel loved and happy as attentiveness. Being the recipient of that attentiveness felt wonderful. Have noticed that your future together never actually happens beyond talk and superficial, non-committing gestures?

What you thought you’d found may have turned out to be nothing more than a fantasy. Feels great in theory but terrifying in practice. That fantasy was created possibly with the help of a few other actors and props. It may even be that you and your partner were as honest and sincere with each other as you knew how to be. Because trauma causes people to dissociate and/or compartmentalize, sometimes, thoughts and feelings fail to connect with each other or with reality. Compartmentalization is how trauma survivors manage to function so highly and seem to be so strong, competent, accomplished and resilient. However, in terms of time, money and other practical details required to live happily ever after as planned, sometimes, there can be a disconnect — a lack of reconciliation of what’s required to make those plans actually manifest. If that fantasy was rooted in a trauma-bonded relationship, then it most likely will disappear just as quickly as you discard your partner and your relationship or your partner discards you and your relationship.

Usually, the discard happens as quickly as the trauma-bonded relationship formed. When it happens, it will make your head spin. For a while, you might feel disoriented in addition to, possibly, heartbroken. Secretly, maybe even unconsciously to the discarder, having the power to do that feels good. By then, in their minds, it’s a relief. That’s the other side of the trauma-bond coin. On one side is compelling vulnerability that felt like intimacy. It was thrilling. The flip side is the fear and avoidance — the, “Oh, shit! What have I gotten myself into?!” It’s where you feel or experience your partner feeling the understandable tendency to be guarded, to feel a need for control. And, discarding the relationship is the ultimate means of control.

Elation to Depletion — Idealization to Devaluation

Pay attention if what follows the idealization that accompanies that initial elation stage is your partner devaluing you. It may be very subtle at first. If it’s passive-aggressive, it’s what’s not there rather than what’s there or should be there. Nevertheless, you will feel it. It’s not your imagination. You’re not being too sensitive. Your partner won’t admit to devaluing you. It could be so passive and combined with so many mixed messages that, besides feeling hurt, mostly what you’ll feel is confused. Feeling confused deserves your attention. That’s when the justifications and rationalizations could keep you stuck while, at the same time, you quietly hope the devaluing won’t happen again. But, chances are, it will. 

Despite their outward appearance of confidence, the devaluing is coming from someone who believes, “If you love me, then there must be something wrong with you.” On some level, they still believe that they are somehow fundamentally flawed and unlovable. Over time, the devaluing will increase in frequency and/or intensity. An exquisitely sensitive, fragile and frightened heart finds real intimacy intolerably terrifying. You’ll be tested and pushed away. If your attempts to get closer or to act towards making those plans for your future together more real or, worse, if you make demands of your partner to do so, then the distancing and devaluing will quickly and seriously escalate. Sadly, that’s the only way a trauma-bonded partner knows how to get emotional safety.

Theirs is a lonely and exhausting life. It also can tend to be expensive. Hitting bottom happens, sometimes more than once. Their denial and compartmentalization might prevent them from seeing that coming. It’s not easy being them. It’s not easy being with them, either.

Eventually, unresolvable conflicts result in the discard. Conflicts are inevitable in all relationships. But, in trauma-bonded relationships, conflicts are unresolvable because they cannot get worked out. They get confused with abuse. Conflict is not always the same thing as abuse.

The capacity to feel abused, violated or betrayed hopefully far exceeds your capacity to actually do those things. Such violations actually probably did happen in truly destructive ways during previous relationships and/or pivotal developmental times in childhood. Rather than being attended to in responsible ways, those violations were enabled, ignored, minimized, never talked about or swept under the rug. Intimacy is especially scary when you’ve been abused by the very people who were responsible for protecting and nurturing you. 

The sad reality is this: Nothing can undo the past nor make up for it. Not even your love, no matter how good it is. “That was then, this is now,” is as good as it gets. Of course, the process of getting there is never that simple. But, that is the bottom line for what trauma recovery boils down to. After the long, arduous and usually painful process of sorting through it, survivors make a decision to either hold onto their trauma or let it go. Hopefully, they decide to let it go — to drop the rock — to stop giving it so much power over their lives.

Feelings aren’t facts. But, when the boundary between feelings and facts has been blurred, projections and scapegoating will lead to unfair, inaccurate, painful conclusions that you and/or your actions/reactions are the reason for the problem(s), justifying why the relationship ends. Ironically, that initial vulnerability that brought you together will be the very thing that gets turned against you. If you both cling to that perspective, then that’s a real mess! Some people’s capacity to feel victimized far exceeds other people’s capacity to do that. If so, there never was anything you could have done about that other than to decide for yourself that you are/were not a victim. 

Try to talk it through. But, if your partner lacks the capacity or willingness to be self-reflective, don’t bother to argue or defend yourself because what you’re saying won’t fit their alternative reality narrative. It’s easier to make everything your fault than to assume the responsibility to look inward and make changes. There’s also possibly a disconnect. It may be that they can’t remember or acknowledge what actually happened. When emotions are high, there is no gray — only black and white. There is no forgiveness. The bridges for repair burned down long ago. There’s no way for you to reach them to recover your relationship nor to help them recover. In fact, they may have already begun a new trauma-bonded relationship with someone else.

Letting Go: The Road to Recovery

That doesn’t mean that recovery isn’t possible. Your healing doesn’t depend on your partner/former partner, your relationship with them or their recovery. Most important of all, you can repair the relationship that you have with yourself.

LOVE AFTER LOVE

by Derek Walcott

“Love After Love” by Derek Walcott (Read by Jon Kabat-Zinn)

The time will come

when, with elation

you will greet yourself arriving

at your own door, in your own mirror

and each will smile at the other’s welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.

You will love again the stranger who was your self.

Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart

to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored

for another, who knows you by heart.

Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,

peel your own image from the mirror.

Sit. Feast on your life.

The discard will make what actually happened no longer relevant to the person who does the discarding. Making amends will be ignored. Scapegoating and projections justify what they need in that moment. There is nothing you can do about that. 

You were far from perfect. You got stuff wrong. You made mistakes. You might have even been like a bull in a china shop. But, most of all, you stopped being that trauma-bonded, idealized illusion when you became real. In a trauma-bonded relationship, becoming real will be experienced emotionally as an abandonment and/or a betrayal. 

They also weren’t perfect. They also got stuff wrong. They, too, made mistakes. What they can’t tolerate acknowledging, they will project onto you. If you were accused of things you know for sure you didn’t do, then, chances are, they have done those things. That’s how projection works. So, rather than reiterating history or defending or explaining yourself, hear those projections as inadvertent, unintentional confessions. But, don’t confront them. That only makes things worse. Nevertheless, I include it here because it might explain why your, by now, former or soon-to-be former partner began to suddenly behave so differently towards you.

Intergenerational Trauma Transmission

Intergenerational transmission of trauma is, sadly, very real and very common. When trauma has been kept a secret between generations, the chances for insight to prevent it from happening again in the next generation are far less. The secrecy, enforced by denial and the “don’t talk” rule, are what give intergenerational trauma its power to transmit and manifest again. There’s a saying in the 12-step programs: We’re only as sick as our secrets.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen almost the exact same trauma story that a parent had but never told their children then manifest in the lives of their children. We now know that trauma can also be transmitted on a physiological level. If that happened, then you may have been discarded because you had too much insight and, by then, knew too much. Even if you wanted to protect everyone involved, if doing so would have made it impossible to deny the transmitted trauma and sweep it under the rug, then you had to be discarded.

Moving On

It will feel incredibly unfair. But, you’re an adult. If you’re emotionally mature, you already know and accept that life is not fair. Although you inevitably will feel angry at times, hopefully, you won’t feel a need for revenge or to punish, blame or in any other ways add to the fear, shame and pain. And, hopefully, eventually, you’ll let go of the anger and hurt.

Anger’s a natural distancer. In that way, it can serve a positive, healthy, protective function. When you don’t need it to serve that function anymore, let it go because holding onto it will morph into resentment that is neither healthy nor attractive.

Forgiveness is what you do for you. Forgiveness is how you free yourself from a trauma bond. It’s key to your recovery. Without forgiveness, all relationships are bound to be short-term. In this case, forgiveness frees your emotional resources and gives you back a very important relationship in your life — your relationship with yourself.

It’s magical thinking to believe that the discard made what happened no longer your business. What happened affected you and your life. That makes it your business. You don’t owe loyalty to anyone who has betrayed or hurt you. Try to be mindful and respectful of everyone’s boundaries and emotional safety, especially your own. Don’t unnecessarily do or say things that you may regret later. But, don’t sacrifice what you need to do to heal. You don’t owe loyalty to someone who has trauma-bonded with you, devalued you and then discarded you. You owe loyalty to yourself, your own peace of mind and your own recovery from that experience. Hopefully, you’ll have learned something valuable from that experience that will help you be more successful with relationships in the future. If so, be grateful for that. No regrets.

Actions have consequences. You are not responsible for anyone’s actions except your own. You are not obligated to live by their rules. If they decide to continue to live in the problem, that doesn’t mean you have to do so, too. Making healthy decisions for yourself isn’t a betrayal of them no matter how they may otherwise choose to view it. Strive to not add to the harm that’s been done. But, above all else, to thine own self be true.

Fortunately, life goes on. In the end, it doesn’t matter how confusing or confused either of you were or still are. It no longer matters who was right and who was wrong. As is true for most relationships, chances are, you both were a bit of both.

Let go. Two words. A simple, declarative sentence. Yet, doing so couldn’t be less simple or easy. Do it anyway. But, do so in your own way, in your own time. It’s your life. If you need to read blogs like this one to understand what your gut and emotions were trying to tell you, so be it.

You’ll have to let go completely. That includes letting go of your former partner, the trauma bond between you, the relationship you had and the illusions of that happily ever after future that was never going to happen. That includes letting go of expectations, perceptions, feelings, decisions and actions in the past, present and future. What they are doing/did, think/thought and feel/felt, think/thought are no longer your business. Don’t let them occupy your head rent-free. 

Agency

Never, ever let go of your own sense of agency. Agency is your source of power and protection. When you’re centered in your own agency, no one can abuse you. You may recognize someone’s behavior as problematic. But, that doesn’t mean the person who exhibits that behavior has abused you. Your clarity regarding the boundaries between you and other people empowers you to choose how you experience their behavior. You can recognize and respect their behavior as a manifestation of their thoughts and feelings without taking them on as your own or as having been about you.

Ending This Chapter

When you realize that the capacity to be honest with oneself isn’t there in your partner/former partner, that’s when you’ll know that it’s time to get out of the way. Don’t bail prematurely. But, be realistic. As much as I hate to write this, most of the time, people don’t change. If there’s a capacity for honesty, an open mind and willingness to do the work in both of you, then there is a chance for each of you and your relationship to grow towards better emotional health and an emotionally safe, healthy and successful, lasting relationship.

Once again, however, the storyteller might decide that they’ve been victimized. Don’t be surprised to learn that, in their eyes, you have become the bad guy. The two of you had a variety of conflicts. Conflict is not necessarily abuse. But, the storyteller might not understand that. You and your relationship could become yet another chapter in their story, one for their next trauma-bonded, idealized hero or heroine to listen to and try to soothe. As that person listens and responds to their growing collection of wounds, old and new, what they won’t know but should is that, eventually, they, too, most likely will become the latest chapter. If so, then it begins again — Tell me your story and I’ll tell you mine.