You've Probably Seen More Trauma Bonded Relationships Than You Realize
Whether or not you realize it, you’ve likely seen a gazillion depictions of what might be considered a trauma bonded relationship. There are the obvious cases, like in Beauty and the Beast, when Belle falls in love with her captor (also known as Stockholm Syndrome). But trauma bonds—or the bonds forged between an abused person and their abuser—appear regularly in popular narratives, even if on the surface they don’t exactly look like abusive relationships.
Take The Notebook. Though it may be a classic for a generation of girlies like me who grew up idolizing it as the pinnacle of true love, this 2004 flick was rife with relationship toxicity—even trauma bonds. Noah repeatedly showers Allie in love and attention, only to pressure and manipulate her when things don’t go his way. It reads to the audience as unwavering passion and devotion, but it’s masking something darker: Noah’s need to exert control.
Seattle-based relationship, intimacy, and sex therapist Claudia Johnson roughly defines a trauma bonded relationship as one in which there’s a repeated pattern of victimization followed by a show of affection. In popular culture, this is sometimes referred to as a “hot-and-cold” or “love-hate” relationship—a dynamic of pushing away and reeling back in. And though this behavior is often conflated with romance and desire, Johnson says it can have serious consequences.
“It’s about power,” Johnson says. “And for the person experiencing the abuse, their sense of love and caring is tied to the abuse—the verbal, the physical, or the emotional patterns.”
She adds that this often looks like a partner perpetrating abuse, then eventually making a point of coming back to their partner with apologies, and sometimes gifts or promises about the future. “They might say, ‘I love you and care for you, this will never happen again.’ And then each time it does,” Johnson explains. “It’s that pattern of behaving in a way that’s hurting the person and then showing those glimpses of, But I still care for you. Please forgive me.”
Though dominant narratives have trained us to see these volatile ups and downs as perfectly benign, if not outright desirable, bonds built on inflicted trauma can be dangerous.
Read on for more about what experts have to say about trauma bonded relationships.
What is a trauma bonded relationship?
Founder of the International Institute for Trauma and Addiction Professionals, Dr. Patrick Carnes, PhD, coined the term trauma bonding 2016, and defined trauma bonds as “dysfunctional attachments that occur in the presence of danger, shame, or exploitation.” These attachments are often compounded by traumatic shaming and repetition, Johnson says. The abuse is repeated, which leads to shame, both for the abuser and the abused. And breaking the cycle of abuse becomes harder as one’s identity grows more and more shame-based, she says, eating away at any grounded sense of self.
Before Carnes popularized the term “trauma bonding,” the broad experience of sympathizing with one’s abuser was characterized as Stockholm Syndrome, a phenomenon named for a group of hostages in Sweden who refused to testify in court against their captor. But while Stockholm Syndrome involves the drama of a kidnapping, most trauma bonded relationships look much more familiar to the average person. There may not be any kidnapping, restraining, or physical domination. Trauma bonds, more broadly, may involve emotional or financial abuse, or something less apparent to an outside viewer.
In a romantic relationship, a trauma bond can often involve one partner who treats the other poorly, making them feel less-than. Every once in a while, however, they’ll offer a positive affirmation or some encouragement; maybe they buy their partner flowers or perform some larger gesture meant to communicate their remorse for hurting them in the first place.
This pattern has been replicated—and romanticized—over and over in popular media, from 50 Shades of Grey to Gossip Girl, Twilight, A Star Is Born, and even some elements of The L Word (hello Bette and Tina). Johnson adds that there may be specific cultural expectations around trauma bonded relationships that make it harder to identify one when faced with the signs, and may influence a person’s understanding of abuse.
“Personally as a Latina, there’s almost this celebration of relationships that are very hot and cold, very loud and passionate, somebody would say maybe abusive to some extent,” Johnson says, of her own upbringing and frame of reference. “If that’s what you were exposed to, if that’s what you’re watching, if your friends are saying, ‘Oh he’s so romantic,’ when he or she or they are just being mean, but they think it’s out of love, it’s hard. The cultural component is definitely important.”
What relationship dynamics is trauma bonding often associated with?
In short, trauma bonded relationships are the brain’s way of coping with abuse. “It’s a psychological response to trauma,” Johnson explains. They can manifest in any number of ways, from the mundane to the more extreme. Many cults have been described as forms of trauma bonded relationships, wherein cult members develop loyalty to and sympathy for their leaders, even to the point of self-harm, and in some cases, suicide.
Domestic violence and incest are often associated with trauma bonds, too, wherein the abuser is the person or one of the people to whom the abused feels closest. When a person’s own identity is caught up in their abuser’s, the trauma bond can be strengthened.
Sometimes, the term “trauma bonding” refers to the process of forging a connection with someone based on your shared traumatic history. In that context, Johnson says, it can actually be a very powerful relationship builder and pathway to healing from abuse. But in Dr. Carnes’ context, trauma bonded relationships are functions of abuse itself.
What are the signs that I might be in a trauma bonded relationship?
Johnson says trauma bonds can form in all kinds of non-romantic relationships, between family members, bosses and their employees, friends, and others. But where romance is involved, there are some clear signs to look for: love bombing, gaining trust, criticism, gaslighting or manipulation, and yielding control.
She defines love bombing as “the extreme showing of affection, but with the intention to manipulate and deceive the other person.” This could be a yellow flag at the beginning of a relationship that may indicate a possibly abusive connection down the line.
Once an abuser has passed the love bombing phase, they’ll do everything they can to gain trust with their partner. “The more trust gained, the more the person will be open and get comfortable with them, which will leave the person in a vulnerable position,” Johnson says.
With that trust established, criticism may start to slip in about their partner’s abilities, appearance, attitudes, or beliefs. This can lead to gaslighting, giving the abuser the ability to manipulate their partner’s sense of reality, squaring the blame for any relationship issues on the abused partner.
And finally, the yielding of control may look like the abused partner “walking on eggshells,” Johnson says, “as to not activate the partner [or] make the abuser uncomfortable.”
“At this point, they may start to rationalize or defend their partner’s behaviors,” she explains. “So if somebody calls it out, like family or friends, by saying, ‘I don’t like how they’re speaking to you, I didn’t like how you were treated,’ the abused person might start isolating or actually separating from those relationships”—which can be even more dangerous, as the abused has now lost their social support network.
What should I do if I think I’m in a trauma bonded relationship?
If you suspect you might be part of a trauma bond dynamic but aren’t entirely sure, Johnson says it’s important to try to reconnect with who you were before this person came into your life. Are you able to access that part of yourself? What were you like? Who did you enjoy spending time with, and how? What was your self-care routine like?
“If you’re able to recognize that there are a lot of things you haven’t done in a while, or a lot of friends or family members you don’t connect to anymore, that would be a sign,” she says.
In these relationships, a lot of one’s identity and what they enjoy doing may become tied up in caring for the person who is abusing them. To break that dynamic, she recommends trying to ground yourself in the present moment.
“Reconnect with yourself and start looking at your core values and the things that make you you,” she adds.
If your partner regularly inflicts abuse and tries to walk it back with kind gestures, that creates sympathy and can make you hopeful about the future. “If you’re being more future-oriented instead of present-oriented, and hoping that they will change,” that may be a sign that yours is a trauma bond.
“You really know what [your partner] looks like when they’re shining, when they’re kind and loving,” she adds. “But in the present, how are you feeling now?” Even if you know they have the potential to engage in non-toxic behaviors, trust your instincts in the moment.
If you are in immediate danger, there are steps you can take for your safety. If you’re concerned about your partner tracking your internet usage, clear your browser history regularly and try safe browsing practices, like using a VPN; otherwise safe computers are typically available at your local library, shelter, or workplace. Johnson says it’s best to avoid using shared computers when researching things like travel plans, housing options, legal issues, and safety plans. If internet use is an obstacle, there are numbers to call or text (below) for 24/7 help.
The National Domestic Violence Hotline is available 24/7 via:
Live chat: https://www.thehotline.org/
Text: Text LOVEIS to 22522
For more information on resources including in-person support, and temporary housing, you can visit:
The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence: https://ncadv.org/resources
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