Attachments in trauma-bonded relationships inherently tend to be fragile. They’re rooted in fear, insecurity and shame.

Anxious and avoidant attachment types are very common among people who tend to get involved in trauma-bonded relationships. They reflect an inability or difficulty forming safe, secure, healthy attachments — making emotionally safe, healthy, authentically intimate relationships seemingly elusive or unobtainable. It doesn’t have to be that way.

Having the capacity for honest insights about one’s attachment style can be a big first step.

Step two is having the capacity and willingness to tolerate the emotions involved and to do the work required to tolerate and regulate the relevant emotions and behaviors — i.e., intentionally developing a capacity and willingness to reweave a trauma bond into a safe, secure and healthy attachment. Individuals can do this work for themselves. Romantic couples, families and friends can do this work together.

Mostly because of the anxiety experienced at the beginning of a new relationship, people who get into trauma-bonded relationships tend to jump into relationships quickly and headfirst rather than taking it slowly and gradually getting to know each other over time. After the initial elation period ends (which, inevitably, it always does as reality sets in), then they struggle with how to cope with the feelings of depletion (e.g., challenged trust, disappointments, etc.) that follow.

They also then struggle with how to navigate what is actually the real relationship that they’re now involved in that’s replaced the idealized fantasy that, because it contained so many projections, inevitably, wasn’t sustainable.

A key question to ask yourself and for your partner (regardless of the type of relationship) to ask themselves at this point is this: Are you willing to accept that you’re now in a real relationship rather than to pursue trying to recapture that initial high? Are you interested in, do you have the capacity for and are you willing to be in a potentially healthy relationship? Or, are you addicted to that initial high? What’s it like to experience being in a potentially healthy relationship that started out as a trauma-bonded one?  Here’s some food for thought on that last question — a real relationship will:

  • inevitably have its own, unique ups and downs. Some of those ups and downs will be related to the initial trauma bond. Many won’t.
  • disappoint and frustrate you at times
  • challenge your ability and willingness to trust
  • challenge your ability and willingness to behave in trustworthy ways
  • challenge your ability and willingness to be honest with yourself
  • challenge your ability and willingness to keep the focus on yourself
  • challenge your ability and willingness to be vulnerable
  • challenge your ability and willingness to tolerate your partner’s need to occasionally pursue you to get their needs met or to distance from you in order to get some space to feel emotionally safe and/or otherwise take care of themselves and others in their lives
  • challenge your ability and willingness to take risks
  • challenge your ability and/or willingness to, with a spirit of generosity and compassion, pursue your partner appropriately by sharing with your partner what your experiences and needs are in assertive yet emotionally safe ways rather than in reactive ways — e.g., demanding, badgering, critical, angry or shaming
  • challenge your ability and/or willingness to tolerate being pursued by your partner as described above, with an open mind that they, too, are a work in progress. Just like you, they’re learning. So, you’ll make mistakes and they’ll make mistakes. No one’s perfect. Neither of you will do everything perfectly. Your ability and willingness to practice detachment with love, acceptance, provide feedback in constructive rather than critical, shaming, blaming, reactive ways and your capacity for forgiveness — to let things go — are absolutely essential. Without forgiveness, all relationships are short-term.
  • provide you with opportunities to practice more functional, healthier ways for how to get your needs met in a relationship and how to meet your others’ needs in more functional, healthier ways. This is new. It’s not familiar. And, so, oftentimes, it will be scary to try new behavior.
  • provide you with opportunities for acceptance, particularly to practice more functional, healthier ways for how to better tolerate and accept not getting all of your needs met in your relationship and/or not getting them met when, where and how you want them to be met. Even the best relationships aren’t perfect. It’s not all about you. It’s not all about them, either.
  • without a doubt, it will provide an abundance of opportunities to practice detachment with love, which will help you make progress with your own personal goals to improve your abilities to self-regulate your emotions so that you’re less reactive. 

Hurt people hurt people. That’s why people in trauma-bonded relationships each must sincerely desire to commit themselves to actively participating in their own recoveries — and to accept that they each are solely responsible for their own healing. 

All couples, even healthy couples in healthy and functional relationships with secure attachments, engage in some versions of their own dance of intimacy. It’s human nature. People’s fears and anxieties are embedded in their attachments to each other. That anxiety gets “managed” and expressed by assuming pursuer and/or distancer roles. 

Anxiety causes the person with the anxious attachment style to pursue. Their pursuing then triggers the person with the avoidant attachment style to feel anxious. As a result, they distance. Then, their distancing triggers the pursuer to feel anxious and, as a result, to pursue even more. And, so it goes, back and forth, round and round, the dance of intimacy. 

The biggest challenge in the dance of intimacy is to learn how to sit still with yourself, to practice allowing yourself to experience your anxiety rather than reacting to it. That includes not using that anxiety energy by being engaged in other activities to distract yourself from it. Although compulsively checking your smartphone, cleaning your home, watching TV, binging on movies, eating to self-soothe, drinking, exercising or engaging in similar activities will relieve you from experiencing the extra energy from that anxiety and may not be inherently destructive, they will distract you from making progress with your personal recovery.

The goal is to learn how to live life without compulsions, to practice being able to sit with and tolerate experiencing your emotions until you gain a sense of mastery over your ability to experience then and to let them go/pass — to do as John Bradshaw in his book, Healing the Shame That Binds You, wrote, to live as human beings rather than as a human doings.