The Internet — digital rather than analog — as well as self-help books can tend to be dangerous neighborhoods. Practically everything gets divided and categorized as good v. bad.

Real life isn’t that simple.

All relationships inevitably experience conflicts. Conflict, however, is not abuse. Recognizing mutuality of cause allows for conflict resolution and positive change. Scapegoating, however, makes such positive outcomes impossible. Scapegoating is the false accusation that one person or group is unilaterally responsible for mistakes that are actually contributed to by multiple people. The term “scapegoat” comes from the Bible. Just like the story in the Bible, scapegoats are discarded, cast out, shunned by an individual, family or community. Scapegoating and shunning resolve nothing.

Trauma bonds are not exclusively present in dysfunctional or abusive relationships. Plenty of trauma survivors form trauma bonds with their lovers, friends, bosses, etc. in relationships that are not necessarily dysfunctional or abusive. Because of the trauma bond, those relationships can tend to be intense and, at times, challenging. But, not all trauma-bonded relationships are inherently dysfunctional or abusive. 

Far too much content on the Internet and in the genres of self-help, psychology and even the professional clinical literature focuses on the problem or “pathology.” Although that may elevate helping professionals, it does so at the expense of trauma survivors. What’s needed is more focus on and content about the solution — how to identify and use the building blocks within a trauma bonded relationship to create healthy attachments.

Although trauma bonds tend to inevitably be problematic and challenging, what we do with those “building blocks” can lead to a variety of outcomes:

a) a merry-go-round of denial

b) the end of a relationship, or

c) the people in that trauma-bonded relationship reweaving their initial trauma bonds into a emotionally safer and healthier attachments.

Initially, a trauma bond creates intense, compelling feelings of elation. There’s a tremendous feeling of relief from finally no longer being alone, misunderstood, misjudged and isolated by the original trauma experience. In romantic relationships, that elation usually feels like being “in love.” It’s a high to experience the love, understanding, acceptance, compassion and companionship that’s been missing since the original trauma occurred. Everyone wants to be understood, accepted and loved. No one wants to be isolated or lonely Safe, secure relationships can be significantly harder for trauma survivors to obtain and sustain. That initial high doesn’t last. And, sadly, many times, neither do the relationships.

Real intimacy, based on trust and familiarity, takes time Trauma-bonding, based on sharing each others’ stories, creates an illusion of intimacy. Despite feeling intense, exciting and seemingly intimate, paradoxically, trauma-bonding creates seemingly insurmountable obstacles to real, emotionally safe and healthy intimacy. The vulnerability that feels like intimacy and feels so compelling is just one side of the trauma bond coin. The other side of that coin is a tendency to feel guarded and a need for control.

A trauma survivor often believes they have been damaged by their trauma experience. Therefore, if you love them, then, on some level, they believe that there must be something wrong with you. As a result, they’ll test you, push you away, devalue you and, ultimately, discard you.

The ultimate exercise of control is the discard. And, sadly, withdrawal or discarding you and the relationship may be the only ways the trauma survivor knows how to achieve emotional safety. So, while that vulnerability that was so intoxicating at the beginning is what drew you together, that same vulnerability may also be what blows you apart. 

There also may be an intoxicating sense of power and mastery from seeming to possess an almost magical capacity for insight and healing. Throwing one’s sense of humility out the window, it’s unrealistic and, possibly even a bit grandiose, to believe you possess a seemingly unique ability to heal someone else through your love, understanding, tolerance and compassionate acceptance. 

Therapeutic relationships involve the capacity to understand, hold, contain and respond to a person’s trauma experience in ways that promote healing. There’s a reason why psychotherapists rely on clinical supervision. It’s unhealthy to do that kind of work without the emotional support and professional guidance of an objective, trusted colleague.

Personal relationships are not therapeutic relationships. The elation from that illusion is equally seductive and compelling. Yet, that experience is just as fleeting because it’s unsustainable. It’s a powerful fall into a codependent slip.

With the best of intentions, one or both partners can fall into an unrealistic belief that they can protect, change, rescue or heal each other. It’s easier and far more comfortable to focus on someone else’s trauma and recovery rather than it is to focus and do the work we need to do to heal from our own trauma.

Sadly, it’s magical thinking to believe that trauma-bonded relationships that don’t evolve into healthy attachments can be healthy, last or have a happy ending.

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

To learn more about how to reweave a trauma-bond into a healthy attachment, stay tuned to read subsequent blog posts in this series.