So, what exactly is a trauma bond? This term has become popular in recent years and complete transparency here, I did not understand it myself until I started researching it. Prior to researching it, based on the term I thought a trauma bond was when two people bonded over a shared trauma. Or that people bonded to someone that was reminiscent of their trauma. The later is partly accurate, but the former is completely out of the ballpark. The term trauma bond was coined by Patrick Carnes in his book The Betrayal Bonds. It is important to note that trauma bonds can happen in all types of relationships not just romantic relationships, and a key element of these relationships is exploitation.
A trauma bond is essentially a cycle of abuse. Cycles of abuse include both positive and negative behaviors and experiences. In trauma bonds the initial connection with the person is strong and intense, it is like you fall and you fall hard. Because the relationship started off so good and because the connection was so strong, we tend to crave that. However that is the first sign that you maybe in a trauma bond, when you connect with someone and it’s hot and heavy from the beginning that serves as a red flag, because love doesn’t usually happen that way. I mean there are people who believe in love at first sight, but realistically how can you love someone that you barely know? So you just start dating someone and this person seems perfect, and they feel that you are perfect, they are complimenting you, telling you things like they’ve never felt this way about any one before, the honeymoon stage has you feeling over the top in love with this person. But then some type of conflict happens, something you did or said, or did not do or say upset this person and now they are abusing you, either physically, verbally, or emotionally. The person that you were just head over heels in love with, is now the source of your fear. You are simultaneously afraid, yet feel deeply in love with this person, and that in a nutshell is a trauma bond.
You are bonded with this person because the initial attraction and connection was so strong that you now crave it, even though true colors have been exposed. It is especially important not to judge or get upset with yourself because there is a biological factor at play here. With any pleasurable experience, dopamine is released and once we get a surge of dopamine, we want more and more of it, there is a reason it is called the feel-good chemical. Dopamine has an interesting relationship with cortisol, which is a stress hormone. When we are stressed and our fight and flight system is activated, cortisol among other neurotransmitters are released. Because our bodies are only meant to endure acute stress, our system gets overwhelmed when too much cortisol is released, and therefore our system wants dopamine to balance us out and bring us back to homeostasis. When things with your partner are going well, dopamine is released, when things are not going well cortisol is released. It is a dance between these two and the brain and body always want to restore homeostasis, or balance. It is remarkably similar to what happens to the brain in addiction. This craving sometimes causes us to ignore and accept things that we normally would not. In addition, to the biological process that is going on, the abuser is often manipulative. Abusers have the ability to make the victim feel like the abuse or conflict is their fault. In addition to being manipulative they are often charming. This is where buying roses after they abuse you comes from. They charm you by showering you with gifts and becoming that person you fell in love with again. This is the cycle of abuse, this is a trauma bond, and this is crazy making. It is confusing because it is the cycle of love, then abuse, then love, then abuse.
“We all eat lies when our hearts are hungry”
When you are in a trauma bond it may be hard to get out because the intermittent reinforcement of the positive behavior makes you think the abuser is sorry and they really love you. Some people are especially susceptible to trauma bonds if they’ve experienced childhood trauma. When a child experiences childhood trauma, and the abuse is also accompanied by love, the child learns that abuse and love are one in the same. The type of relationship that we experience with our parents and caregivers lays the foundation for how we think all relationships should be. Therefore, when a child experiences both love and abuse from the person who is their model of love and relationships, they will think this behavior is normal. This makes it challenging to one, recognize the abuse, and two leave the situation. It takes strength and courage to leave an abusive relationship.
It could be argued that an underlying theme of a trauma bond is love seeking. When we did not have proper and positive examples of what real love is, it can be hard to recognize. This seeking of love is what keeps us in trauma bonds because there are periods when the abuser makes us feel loved. Those moments are treasured and sought after and sometimes we will do anything to get it, including ignoring red flags that can lead to abuse. If you are in a trauma bond, there is help for you and things you can do. Seeking psychotherapy can help you to understand the relationship and take steps to end it. Community is also a tool to use. When we are in a situation it is hard for us to look at it objectively, this is where family and friends can be useful. As they are on the outside looking in, they can see what we cannot see. Enlist your trusted friends and ask them to be your eyes and ears. Ending contact with your abuser is one of the best ways to start to end the trauma bond, however this must be done with caution and safety if physical abuse is a factor. Learning to focus on yourself and developing healthy relationships with self and others is also a tool in learning to break the bond.
The most valuable thing a person can do to end a trauma bond is to recognize it for what it is. It is abuse, it is not love, because real love does not hurt.