If you have experienced stress and trauma bonds in your past, you might not realize how your trauma can wreak havoc in your present. Realizing the tricky ways trauma bonds keep you stuck in the past is a major step in changing unwanted relationship patterns and moving forward with your life.
What are Trauma Bonds?
Trauma bonds occur when you are involved in a toxic or abusive relationship and form a strong bond with your abuser. They also involve idealizing your abuser. This strong emotional connection to someone who is abusing you is the way human beings cope with trauma.
A trauma bond is a negative relationship pattern. It usually develops out of childhood stress, anxiety and/or depression.
A Power Imbalance
This trauma bond occurs slowly and subtly over time. It becomes stronger and more difficult to break. It starts with an imbalance of power, such as between a parent and a child, a teacher/professor and student, a boss and employee or an adult and child.
There is nothing necessarily wrong with these power imbalances. They are a normal part of life. Eventually, with good enough parenting, the child grows up and comes into their own power and competence. The student graduates and gets their first job and starts their career. A power imbalance is supposed to help you become autonomous, coming into your own power as an independent person.
Negative Relationship Patterns
Ongoing abuse, and going back and forth between warmth/love and fear of or actual violence, does not help you become a strong, independent person. Instead, it traps you in a trauma bond that negatively effects you, even as an adult. It stops your growth and development towards a successful life.
You wind up repeating these trauma bond patterns at work, with your choice of partners, and in your friendships. These relationship patterns keep you stuck. You will likely feel extremely frustrated and held back in some part of your life.
You’d like to have relationships that further your career, and bring you more love, self esteem and positive connection and support. But, somehow, you repeat your trauma bond relationship pattern and feel held back, dependent, and bad about yourself. You continue to be involved with toxic people.
Childhood trauma experiences can create a trauma bond. These experiences are overwhelming to a child and can include things like loss of a significant loved one, lack of encouragement and physical touch, lack of emotional support, shaming and criticizing children, difficult divorce between caregivers, car accidents, and witnessing acts of violence. These things lead to feelings of fear, a lack of safety, and poor self esteem.
How does childhood trauma and trauma bonds affect adulthood?
Left untreated, childhood trauma can contribute to many issues in adulthood, from an inability to hold meaningful relationships, to failing to develop your career.
You might find yourself in a relationship where violence is not apparent until the relationship is solidly established. The abuser initially uses charm and manipulation to “win” you over and build a strong connection.
Once the bond has formed, the abuser demonstrates controlling behavior that can turn into physical, sexual, or psychological violence and uses a mix of continued manipulation by showing remorse, warmth, and kindness to keep you in the relationship.
The Tricky Ways Trauma Bonds Keep You Stuck in the Past
Another tricky way trauma bonds keep you stuck in the past is that your partner might devalue the things you do, making you doubt yourself. You might start to feel incapable and lack self confidence. This might mimic a trauma bond that developed in childhood.
It is common to feel love for the person you are in the trauma bond with. This is a complicated connection. Even after the relationship has ended, you may still feel a bond that is difficult to break.
You might not even realize you’re in a trauma bonded relationship until you realize you are unhappy and unfulfilled. Then, you can start to become aware of how you are being held back, unloved and unsupported just like what happened when the trauma bond was formed a long time ago.
If you are experiencing a trauma bond, it’s likely that your feelings of helplessness and inadequacy are reinforced by the roles you and your partner act out within your relationship.
For example, if you were criticized too much growing up, you might form a bond with a boss or lover that also involves too much criticism. This criticism holds you back, and keeps you feeling bad about yourself. It isn’t productive.
You slowly start to realize that you are bonded to someone who isn’t treating you right. Trauma bonds keep you stuck in the past!
Another example is your partner might want to make all the decisions for both of you. This does not allow you the chance to feel autonomous and empowered.
If you are seeking to leave a toxic relationship, you need to have a good support system. You may need professional help and the support of loved ones whenever possible.
The Power of a Trauma Bond: Intermittent Reinforcement Keeps You Hooked
It has been proven that the more unpredictable the positive rewards are in a relationship, the more addicted we become. The power of a trauma bond largely comes from not knowing when you will get the real love and support you crave. The displays of unpredictable affection and love, called intermittent reinforcement, become addictive. You’re always waiting for that time when your partner, boss, or other person you need something from is finally caring.
Intense love, affection, and attention often follow an abusive episode. They are the only reason you keep coming back to a person that hurts you. It keeps you in a low quality relationship. These unpredictable displays of affection can be very powerful and addictive, trapping you in a stressful situation, unable to leave.
Your nervous system becomes wired for a trauma bond starting at a young age. If you witness love that also comes from abuse and neglect, then you will seek out unavailable partners in adulthood. You are stuck in the past.
One Way to Start Overcoming Trauma Bonds
It is important to build your own identity, separate from the other person. Usually, trauma bonds result in you giving up yourself for another person, sometimes to the point that you don’t even know who you are.
So build back your identity by experiencing validation from other people, such as in a support group or a good friend or family member. Perhaps attend a class where you learn something artistic, do yoga, discover weight lifting, or learn a new language. Anything that sounds interesting or fun to you. Practice meditation, take up jogging, or learn calligraphy. Spend time in a different environment, doing something different that is just for you!
It is important to do this in as safe an environment as possible. Do it with the support of someone you trust, such as a good friend, a new healthy partner, or a therapist.
Trying to Get Childhood Needs Met
When you are a kid and go through a traumatic experience, you dream of someone who will come and save you. You never realized was that the person coming to save you, is you, as an adult!
When you are traumatized, all you want to do is to survive and get to safety. If that safety is provided by the person who traumatized you to begin with, this is mistaken for love. You experience relief from the very person who traumatized you to begin with. And that relief is what the brain remembers, not the abuse.
Then you keep hoping that they will change and finally love you. This is the love you longed for as a kid. You want to finally be “seen” and your pain acknowledged. We keep trying to get our needs met by the wrong people.
Remember, beating yourself up for this cycle will never help you stop it. Only learning to treat yourself like you are worthy of real love will start to turn things around. Learn how to make yourself happy and to care for yourself in the best way possible.
Working with someone who really understands childhood trauma, the trauma bonds that are created, and all the ways they might be re-enacted, can be a valuable resource.
If you’d like to explore the tricky ways trauma bonds keep you stuck in the past, creating stress, anxiety and depression, please contact me. We can uncover the root cause and work on changing these patterns. I can employ specific tools such as neurofeedback and EMDR, along with somatic work that will help you start living a better life. Feel free to email me at email@example.com or call 310-314-6933.