‘Bonding’ is one of the most quintessential experiences for all living things and it begins at the moment of creation. Its very definition is to ‘join’ together ‘securely’. A sperm needs to bond with an egg to create an embryo; that embryo needs to bond with the mother’s womb to create a life. This bond provides nutrition and helps life grow. When a baby is born it will need to bond with the mother to survive. We see this with all animals and humans. The ‘runt of the litter’ has the lowest survival rate because it does not receive adequate supply to be healthy and strong. This is called the ‘fading kitten syndrome’. Bonding is another word for attachment and it is our attachments in the world that will determine whether we survive or thrive from the moment we are conceived. Strong healthy bonds are linked to a longer life expectancy. Whereas, disrupted unhealthy bonds can make us susceptible to toxic relationships, addictions, violence and crime, loneliness and social isolation, among many other dysfunctional behaviours and experiences. Toxic bonds are linked to poorer health, depression, and increased risk of early death. Attachment identifies the way we relate to the world because all life is wired to connect. If we have happy and secure bonds in our developmental years we tend to have happy and secure lives throughout adulthood. If we don’t this can disrupt how we relate to the world and other humans.
In the 4th century BC, the Greek philosopher Plato proposed that ‘love directs the bonds of humans’. This is how human nature should be but if we are deprived of that essential bond of ‘love’, over time the lack of such a necessity can cause ‘trauma’. Trauma is defined as a deeply distressing or disturbing experience. And as we can bond through love, we can also bond through trauma.
So what is a trauma bond?
Think of that child who experienced rejection and disconnection growing up. This could be for any number of reasons, maybe they were the runt of the litter, maybe they were in a dysfunctional family dynamic or carrying on the cycle of generational trauma. Maybe they were a child born into abusive environments who might have experienced neglect and abandonment. That child learns to associate love with inconsistent cycles of punishment and reward. Our brain is wired to seek out experiences that cause a feeling of reward. This creates a natural occurring chemical reaction called dopamine; the chemical messenger of love and happiness. Sporadic dopamine hits can cause addiction so when a child is suffering horribly or feeling detached or isolated, something small like a moment of kindness creates a strong surge of that chemical release. According to research this is comparable to the high you get from the drug cocaine. But reduced dopamine levels creates depression so that child will develop an addiction over time because when the rewards are so inconsistent the surges become so strong. When the surge decreases they are left on such a low and they begin to internalise this chemical imbalance by blaming themselves when bad things happen. An unhealthy understanding of love and belonging becomes their ‘familiar’ so the child grows up and searches out these familiar experiences. This is not done consciously, this has become their blueprint through no fault of their own, they have developed what is called, an insecure attachment style. Consistent feelings of love and belonging create secure attachments, but inconsistencies cause insecure attachments resulting in anxious or avoidant attachment styles. Anxiously attached people tend to become co-dependent, while avoidant attached people are associated with narcissistic personalities. Unfortunately these two attachment styles tend to be drawn to each other because the behaviours of the avoidant partner, however damaging, reflect the learned patterns the anxious person was exposed to in childhood and vice versa.
A trauma bond as an adult begins just as it did in childhood. At the beginning of a relationship there is a period of strong connection which brings on a steady supply of dopamine. All is well and there is a feeling of belonging and security. If a partner is secure and comes from a place of integrity the connection grows and a healthy relationship develops, you will feel supported regardless of your past or any insecurities you may have. If, for some reason the relationship doesn’t blossom then the departure is handled with respect and consideration. But if your partner shows signs of narcissism and their behaviour is inconsistent you will experience surges of dopamine starting the cycle of addiction again. Secure people will walk away but when this has been your familiar you could find yourself becoming deeply entrenched in a trauma bond.
Toxic relationships can be subtle and difficult to recognise for anyone because they usually develop over time. A toxic partner shows many different signs after the honeymoon period wears off. They tend to be self-serving and ignore your needs, they can be aggressive, passive aggressive, dismissive, aloof, inconsistent with their time and affection, uncaring, inconsiderate, manipulative and domineering. A toxic partner will make you feel the negative aspects of the relationship are your fault and take no accountability or responsibility for their actions, they will blame you for the toxicity. It’s your fault they are shouting at you, your fault they are ignoring you, your fault they mistreat you. They like to create fights and drama, confusion and chaos. A caring secure person will show you respect, acknowledge your past traumas and support you with your growth, encourage you, listen to you and communicate openly. They will make you feel safe. Someone who is disingenuous or has ill intentions will trigger you and will even use your trauma to gaslight you. For example, if you told them you were ignored as a child and felt abandoned they might deliberately ignore you or leave you in unsafe situations. If you experienced aggression, they might behave aggressively by shouting at you, putting you down or getting physical with you. You may have told them you find it difficult to trust and instead of creating a safe space for you they see this as a problem. They might act aloof, flirt with others in front of you, break promises or their actions don’t match their words. They will exploit your unhealed childhood wounds by toying with your deepest insecurities and you will find yourself reliving your traumas all over again.
If you came from a secure and healthy childhood it is easy to see these huge red flags and go seek out healthier relationships but if you have an anxious attachment style or a distorted perception of love you will stick around and tolerate behaviours of punishment and reward. You will actually try harder to win over your abusive partner’s love and affection because it was misplaced growing up. A relationship with someone who has narcissistic traits usually goes from intense periods of love and excitement followed by periods of abuse, neglect, and mistreatment. The cycle of being devalued and then rewarded starts all over again and you are now trapped in a strong chemical bond between ‘victim’ and ‘abuser’. This is your ‘familiar’ and instead of recognising this and leaving, you subconsciously set out to fix this dynamic because now as an adult you have that chance.
There are many reasons why you stay in a toxic relationship, but what you might not be aware of is that the primary one is biological. You have a cocktail of chemicals and hormones coursing through your body and you are biologically attached and addicted to the rollercoaster. High levels of dopamine run through your veins during the love-bombing stage which is mixed with intermittent levels of the stress hormone cortisol when they are mistreating you, the decrease in dopamine makes you crash into depression and the cycle continues. When your partner is playing cat and mouse with your need for connection these chemicals wreak psychological and physiological havoc on your body and mind. You become chronically co-dependent and all rationality goes out the window. Good and bad behaviour is intermittent and you tend to latch on to the good times for obvious reasons. You try to recreate the love that was at the initial stages of the relationship because you have literally become so desperate for that love. Over time as you are more and more broken down you become more dependant on that person and look to them to help you through your suffering even though their behaviour is causing it. You may feel like you love your partner and hope that they will change. As a child you had little to no control over dysfunctional experiences but as an adult you might see this as an opportunity to make things right and be accepted, loved and validated. You may believe things will get better because you want them to be better but you become a hyper-vigilant mess in the process. What you think is endearing positivity is actually very toxic because you have sacrificed your own needs to meet their needs and it’s not reciprocal.
How do you break free from this trauma bond?
It is very difficult to walk away from a trauma bond without the knowledge that your body is acting as a pharmacy, prescribing dopamine and cortisol on tap as you are on that rollercoaster of highs and lows. Your logical intelligent mind knows that you are being mistreated but yet you are hell bent on winning their respect and validation because you know you deserve both. You also know that a person who has such little regard for you will never be the person you need them to be but yet this becomes your burning desire. You are addicted, not to the person but to the cycle. The longer you are entangled, the more difficult it is to listen to logic. Science has found that it takes at least six months to regulate the chemical imbalance in our bodies and level out after a trauma bond. People caught in this bond are not aware of what is happening biologically in their bodies and tend to suffer on.
It normally takes a brutal discard to finally accept that your partner has no value or consideration for you or your wellbeing. Or maybe the people closest to you will intervene if they are aware of the toxic cycle of abuse. It is easier to recognise it from the outside looking in. When you step outside of it you can slowly begin to see how damaging it was. It is important to cut all contact, avoid blaming yourself and seek professional help. The healing process can be a long road but a necessary road because it takes you on a journey of healing your core childhood wounds. Try work with a trauma-informed therapist that has experience working with clients who have PTSD or CPTSD. It is so important to understand that abuse is never your fault and neither is the development of a trauma bond. It may take some time to regain a sense of self-worth and feel as if you’ve finally broken free but when you have, you will learn how to change the toxic cycles that were your familiar. You will recognise these behaviours and you will understand your reaction to them. You will learn to build secure, supportive, loving relationships and make them your new familiar. It is so important to heal and do the inner work. If you don’t, you could potentially invite a similar relationship into your life again. It’s important to see the patterns and learn to build healthy boundaries.
Tips to help you heal from a trauma bond.
- Recognise what is happening to you and become trauma informed:
Recognise that what you are going through is not healthy and can cause very real mental and physical damage. Our bodies are not designed to stay in such a heightened state of stress for long periods of time. They don’t call it dis-ease for any old reason. Talk therapy is great initially but true healing from a trauma bond involves changing the way our brains are wired. RTT is an excellent therapy to help rewire these ingrained patterns and belief systems. It is also important to take a holistic approach because trauma is stored in the body. Somatic or body-centred therapies can help you become trauma informed. Working on our sympathetic and para-sympathetic nervous system through breathwork, yoga, singing, dancing, swaying, cold exposure through sea swimming, etc (vagus nerve techniques) help alleviate the trauma that is stored in our bodies.
2. Reconcile with your childhood wounds:
You can start building a secure attachment style by reconciling traumatic childhood experiences and becoming aware of the impact they had on your past and on your present. Awareness and knowledge are key to your healing process. In order to develop a sense of security it is important to have a coherent narrative about what happened to you as a child and how that transferred to similar experiences as an adult. Reach out to a professional to help guide you through the process. Talk to your loved ones. In order to build a secure attachment style you will need to build a secure, loving and supportive environment around you. A great way to ensure you get the help you need and separate yourself from this person is to talk to a loved one. This might not be easy because you may be carrying a lot of shame and embarrassment, or you’ve pushed those closest to you away when they’ve asked you about your relationship in the past. However, loved ones can offer an unbiased perspective and support. They can give you the clarity and push that you need to leave the person and begin healing.
3. Look at the relationship from a different perspective
Try to detach yourself from the relationship and ask yourself, would I stand by and watch my sibling, friend, child, etc. go through this? Ask the tough questions like; what is wrong with this behaviour and why is it wrong? Why do I accept it? How am I feeling? What about this situation is making me uncomfortable and causing me pain? Do I think I deserve to be treated like this? If yes, why? If no, why? Do I think this is healthy? Do I think my partner’s behaviour is truly loving? Why am I settling for less than I deserve? What part do I play in all of it? When you get real with yourself, you will see a clearer picture.
4. Identify the hook:
Identify what exactly it is that is keeping you in the bond, what are you afraid to let go of? The hook is usually the illusion you have of the relationship you wanted, the hopes and dreams you had for the relationship. You become hooked to the idea of that person and the future you could have. This has become more of a focus than the actual reality of the relationship. The fear of letting go and starting again can be incentive enough to stay, better the devil you know than the one you don’t. Maybe you have invested so much of yourself into the relationship, that you have lost who you are. Your world revolved around them so it can be a very scary realisation. Being alone can be very daunting, especially if you have been with your partner for years; starting out on your own takes courage and strength. Ask yourself, what’s truly keeping you attached to this person?
5. Don’t blame yourself:
People who have been in abusive relationships tend to always blame themselves for the abuse they’ve suffered. It’s important to remember that no matter what, it’s not your fault. No matter how many times you’ve gone back to them, how much you fear being away from them, or anything you’ve done, it’s not your fault. Your partner may tell you it’s your fault they are disrespecting you, shouting at you, stonewalling you, gaslighting you, but please, please, please know that it most certainly is NOT your fault. They may blame you for their anger but people have choices, people can choose to respect or disrespect you, people can choose to communicate with you in a healthy manner or not. It is not your fault that this person has chosen to exploit you and your vulnerability. Their behaviour towards you says more about them than you. Please do not internalise their behaviour. It is wrong to abuse someone, period! I have had some clients say, “but they are not like that with other people so it must be me”. No No No The only thing you did wrong is let it happen more than once when you should have walked. Your partner learned that their disrespectful behaviour was ok. You may not have put strong boundaries in place but that’s ok, it’s still not an excuse for abuse. When we love someone we usually ignore the red flags, that’s o.k. You came from a place of love, that is a great quality and one of your strengths. Do not blame yourself!
6. Cut all contact:
This is one of the hardest things to do, especially if you really wanted the relationship to work and you were so hopeful, but it is a necessity for your healing journey to begin. Whether you decided to leave or you were discarded, it is crucial for your own wellbeing to cut off all contact entirely. It takes two to create a coherent and healthy relationship. If your partner disrespects you and doesn’t take accountability for it, you have no other choice. You are in a one-sided relationship and the imbalance just invites in more toxicity. Accepting this will make it easier. Keep reminding yourself what a truly loving relationship looks like to you and ask yourself is this it? A therapist told me once; “it’s like a big black hole, a bottomless bit, your needs, wants, words and desires will only echo back at you if you fall in”. You cannot make people see what they don’t want to see. Trying to keep contact only further impounds the rejection from someone who really doesn’t care. If a person can shout you down when you are in distress, trying to stay in contact or looking for closure just continues the addictive cycle. Only a healthy person will give you closure and you know by now your partner is not that. Make a decision to make a permanent cut. You may have been hoovered back in several times before with false promises and future faking until the mask drops and they repeat their abusive behaviour. This time make a solemn promise to yourself, enough is enough. Create distance and get into new healthy routines, change your environment and distract yourself. Make yourself busy, take on a new course, exercise, break the habit of wanting to reach out. Reach out to people that bring joy into your life.
7. Practice self-care
Practice self-care and look for honesty and consistency in your relationships. Journal daily, write things down so you can identify patterns and behaviours. Journaling helps you keep a record of the toxic cycles and serves as evidence as to why you should leave. It also allows you to access yourself, your thoughts, behaviours, emotions and limiting beliefs. Become aware of your feelings and emotions. Don’t ignore them, tend to them, they are your warning system. Take one day at a time and practice mindfulness, meditation or breathwork daily to help regulate your nervous system. Avoid people who don’t show up for you, are inconsistent, put you down or have a negative impact on your life. Know that you cannot make life work committed to and believing in someone who does not want to commit and believe in you, so invest in yourself instead. Reclaim your energy and power. If you start investing in yourself things will start to fall into place. Accepting the truth about your situation will set you free. Learn new skills, turn your pain and experiences into growth and evolution. Believe in yourself, change your mental and emotional state and go gently with yourself day-by-day. Repetition is the mother of mastery so make new repetitive beliefs about yourself that serve you, not keep you stuck. Reach out to a trusted confidante, therapist or coach if you are struggling and need direction. But above all else, be kind and loving to yourself everyday. Become securely attached to yourself first and foremost. Make peace with your past and know that you are enough, you are more than enough, you are loveable, you are loved and you are valued exactly as you are. You’ve got this!
Reach out to me if you are feeling stuck and need help moving forward. You can make an appointment for a free discovery call on my contact page. Make the choice to start your healing journey today. It is possible to rise and thrive, believe me!