Having had a history of trauma-bonded relationships doesn’t mean that you can’t recover. It doesn’t mean that you can’t learn to see things as they really are — the complexities that reflect emotional maturity rather than all v. nothing, good v. evil. Your personal growth and healing doesn’t depend on anyone else nor on your relationship with anyone else. No matter what, if you have the capacity to be honest with yourself, you can repair the relationship that’s most important of all — the one you have with yourself.

LOVE AFTER LOVE

“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 yourself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, who you have 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 previously no longer relevant to the person who does/did the discarding. Your making amends to someone who’s discarded you might be ignored or unacknowledged. Scapegoating and projection probably will be used to justify what they need or want in the moment. If your partner/friend or former partner/friend chooses to be a victim, then there is nothing you can do about that. And, as hard as it may be to accept, what they think, feel and do is now really none of your business. 

It’s true. You were far from perfect. You got a lot of stuff wrong. You made a lot of mistakes. You even might have been like a bull in a china shop. But, most of all, what you did that was “wrong” was you stopped being that trauma-bonded, idealized illusion when you became real. To them, that was an abandonment and a betrayal. You left them alone with their trauma. You refused to live in their alternative reality.

They also weren’t perfect. They also got a lot of stuff wrong. They, too, made mistakes or, who knows? Maybe they even did crappy stuff intentionally. What they cannot tolerate acknowledging themselves doing or having done they might project onto you. That’s what’s called “projection,” an unconscious, primitive (and, therefore, very strong) psychological defense mechanism. If they accuse you of doing things you know for sure you didn’t do, then, chances are, they did those things. That’s how projection works.

The reality is there’s always two sides to every story. Chances are, you both contributed to hurting each other, even if unintentionally. The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous says we’re not judged by our intentions but by our actions. Your recovery requires accepting responsibility for your actions. You’ve got to look inward and “clean house” internally as part of moving forward. If you don’t, you’re far more likely to repeat the same mistakes again. 

Rather than reiterating history, defending or explaining yourself, hear their projections as inadvertent, unintentional confessions. But, don’t confront them.That only would make things worse by keeping you engaged in a toxic situation and overwhelming them. Instead, be generous by lovingly respecting their defenses. Nevertheless, I include projection here because it might explain to you why your, by now, soon-to-be former or, by now, former partner/friend and their remaining “flying monkeys” have begun to behave differently towards you. In fact, you may be surprised and disappointed to learn that projection and scapegoating are often a family affair. Healthy families help couples or friends stay healthy and together. Trauma-bonded families preserve the relationships within the family at all costs, including by participating in and/or enabling blaming and/or scapegoating anyone who threatens their shared “reality.”

Trauma-bonded families, because they’re shame-based, lack the capacity and/or willingness to be honestly introspective. Instead, they adopt a defensive stance, blaming the scapegoat who, by definition, they cast out. Sure, it hurts to be shunned. But, by definition, that’s what scapegoats are for. On the other hand, scapegoating resolves absolutely nothing. The problematic dynamics in such individuals and family systems still exist. Sadly, that means that such families set each other up to repeatedly fail in their intimate relationships, probably with no insight whatsoever that that’s what they’re doing. At best, they may realize what they’re doing but they choose to do so anyway in order to preserve their relationships with each other by following the same, old dysfunctional family rules: 

1. Acceptance Is Conditional. To gain acceptance, members must comply with the family roles (e.g., Golden Child, scapegoat, flying monkeys), narrative, value system and alternative reality. Expressions of difference are rejected and pathologized.

2. Submission Is Required. Everyone is expected to submit to authority, no matter how wrong, ignorant, arbitrary, cruel, or destructive it is.

3. Someone Must Be Blamed for Problems. Whenever something bad happens, someone must be blamed for it. Typically there is a family scapegoat who is made to bear the main burden of the family’s problems, frustration, and unhappiness, as well as the dominant member’s projected self-loathing.

4. Vulnerability Is Dangerous. Mistakes, accidents, and weaknesses, even ones you take responsibility for, are cause for shaming treatment that can persist for years.

5. You Must Take Sides. Just as there is always blame and shame, there are always sides. If you’re not on the “right” side, then you are wrong. Members feel forced to choose sides. If you don’t comply, then you risk being shunned or scapegoated. Remember, closed systems (i.e., you’re either in by adhering to the rules/loyalty or you’re out — i.e., shunned) are inherently dysfunctional and often abusive. 

6. There Is Never Enough Love and Respect to Go Around. Renewable resources in healthy families, love and respect are limited to the dominant one and whomever else is deemed worthy, usually a favored “golden” child. Respect for one person means disrespect for another (e.g., the “scapegoated” child).

7. Feelings Are Wrong. The feelings that make us human, help us connect and get our needs met, and protect us from harm are selfish and must be repressed. Only the dominant one has free rein to express feelings, have emotional reactions, and make demands.

8. Competition, Not Cooperation, Rules the Day. One-upmanship, favoritism, and constant comparisons create a harshly competitive environment that undermines trust and breeds hostility and betrayal.

9. Appearances Are More Important Than Substance. Even if everyone is suffering, they still smile for the family photo.

10. Rage Is Normalized. Everyone is expected to swallow and endure the dominant one’s irrational, explosive, and possibly also violent rage. This may be magnified by other forms of mental illness and/or addiction.

11. Denial Is Rampant. To sustain the dominant one’s control over the family, there is denial of:

  • abusive incidents
  • a continual atmosphere of fear and shame;
  • an ongoing mistreatment of the scapegoat; and
  • routine forms of neglect.

12. There Is No Safety. Although the scapegoat is targeted with the most abuse, everyone is on hyper alert because no one is safe from blame and rage.

It may be that some family members have tried to give honest feedback but the inability to hear that or listen or stonewalling maintains the status quo. Despite suffering, people tend to favor their comfortable ruts over facing the truth and other emotional challenges required for personal growth. If you lack the capacity for honesty with yourself, then there is no therapy or 12-step program or natural healing process that can help you. If you don’t like or love yourself, then being alone with yourself can feel dauntingly empty, depressing and terrifying. 

Acquiring a more functional family of choice, possibly through the fellowship of a 12-step program, select family, friends or church group can provide a bridge upon which to build a healthier relationship with yourself. Stick with the winners — the people whose lives are like the one you want to build for yourself.