What is a trauma bond?
It can be very difficult to clear the fog and “wake up” when caught in the web of a toxic relationship. We are wired from childhood to stay connected to those we love. The reason we stay in emotionally abusive relationships is complex and confusing, involving both mind and body. It is known as a “trauma bond”.
Trauma bonds can painfully bind us to an abusive partner, family member or friend. This bond is created and reinforced through our biological programming and our natural desire to connect with loved ones.
We are unwittingly programmed to develop an unhealthy attachment to the abuser due to a repeated cycle of emotional manipulation which toggles between devaluation (e.g. being cruelly criticized or having our needs ignored) and positive reinforcement (being complimented and praised).
Trauma bonds, are by their nature, extremely draining – confusion and brain fog are often side effects. Beginning to recognise and understand what a trauma bond is, is the first step in being able to break it.
Signs You Might Be Trapped in A Trauma Bond
There are a number of signs that you are stuck in an emotionally abusive relationship with a narcissist and stuck in a trauma bond. Take some time to consider the following characteristics of a trauma bond and see if they apply to your own situation.
- You feel like you need to walk on eggshells in an attempt to appease your partner. You find yourself tiptoeing around them and filtering how and what you say in an attempt to not upset them. Despite your attempts eventually, there is another incident of abuse.
- You understand that your relationship is not healthy and that your partner is being manipulative or abusive, but you cannot let them go. You replay the incidents of abuse you have experienced but you feel incapable of letting them go.
- You blame yourself for the incidents of abuse and feel like you are doing something wrong in the relationship.
- Your sense of worth and self-esteem is linked to the relationship. Your emotions are also tied to how they are feeling though you never really feel completely safe and trusting of them.
- You feel addicted to them and constantly seek their approval. You continue to seek their validation, especially after incidents of abuse.
- You find yourself defending your partner’s behaviour to your friends and hiding the pain you are really feeling from yourself and your loved ones. You may even work to present your relationship as happy to your friends and family and downplay and minimise the hurt and abuse you are experiencing.
- Despite knowing you are stuck in a toxic pattern and perhaps trying to leave you to continue to come back. Part of you believes in their remorse and their promises to change so you come back and recommit to the cycle.
- As time goes by you find yourself putting up with the abuse that you never would have believed or accepted in the past.
- You try to change and modify your behaviour and personality in an attempt to keep your partner happy.
- You find yourself using unhealthy coping skills to help numb the feelings of hurt and pain through heavy drinking, using drugs, compulsive eating or other self-sabotaging behaviours.
- You continue to hold on to hope that the person will change “If I just try a bit harder and change myself to make it work….just one more time”
How do Trauma Bonds start?
We are wired to connect with others and form intimate relationships with our loved ones as an innate survival strategy. The first bonds we develop are to our caregivers in childhood. This connection is created physically through the release of ‘happy chemicals’. The two main chemicals that have a huge part to play in trauma bonding are oxytocin and dopamine.
Oxytocin (the love hormone)
Oxytocin helps us feel connected to our caregivers regardless of how they treat us. We need connection for survival. We do not lose this need for connection as adults. When we form romantic, sexual or intimate loving relationships oxytocin is released and we naturally become attached. Our systems are flooded in the same way as a baby would be to become attached to a primary caregiver.
Dopamine (the transmitter of motivation and reward)
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter and it is part of the body’s reward system. It plays a huge part in how we experience pleasure and influences how we experience reward and motivation.
When dopamine is released, it motivates us to repeat behaviours – it tells us that what we have just experienced is something worth repeating. We want more. The behaviour is reinforced (helped by my dopamine) so we go back again and again.
This cycle helps us survive e.g. finding food and water but also hooks us into that extra slice of cake. For example, the ‘high’ we experience from sugar or alcohol can lead us to repeat the behaviour even though we know it isn’t healthy.
What do Trauma Bonds look like?
We never willingly walk into an abusive relationship. It develops over time. Often the new relationship starts off like a dream come true. In fact, in the honeymoon “love bombing” period, you may be showered with affection and the type of romantic love that feels magical. The target can experience a sense of deep connection as the abuser mirrors their wishes and apprently becomes all that you deeply desire. This idyllic love bombing phase sets the foundations to form the trauma bond, as the target will long to come back here. There may be red flags or warning signs but the flood of care and love blind targets from seeing them.
The desire to maintain this intense love and connection begins, creating a strong attachment that the victim is compelled to try to keep – often at huge cost to their wellbeing.
Trauma Bonds: The Cycle of Emotional Abuse
After the initial ‘love bombing’ stage of the relationship when the victim is ‘hooked’ an abuser will start to withdraw affection and only deliver kindness, love, warmth, and sex in a random, sporadic way. This powerful technique is known as intermittent reinforcement,
The cycle of abuse can create a very strong trauma bond built on attachment and the key hormones dopamine and oxytocin (see above).
When affection is withdrawn victims will experience spikes in cortisol and a desire to repair the relationship and find the intensity and deep connection of the original love bombing stage. There is often an intense fear of being hurt and abandoned by your partner and a deep desire to connect and repair the connection at all costs when things feel ‘off’.
This desire to reconnect is driven by a search for the dopamine ‘reward’ and the innate connection formed through oxytocin (strengthened by touch and sex) that helps us feel safe.
After the abuse, there is finally some reconciliation, the victim feels connected again and is flooded by oxytocin (remember it’s the love hormone that wires us to stay connected). Which only deepens the trauma bond.
As the cycle continues victims experience the feeling of walking on eggshells to keep the status quo and tension begins building again. Victims fear the next blowup and feel like they need to placate the abuser, to keep everything okay. In the cycle, however, no matter how hard victims try though there will be another incident of verbal, emotional or physical abuse. Each time someone moves through this cycle of abuse the trauma bond increases.
One can be at an increased risk of developing a trauma bond with someone if they had a traumatic childhood. When one’s caregivers were emotionally unavailable or abusive it creates a template for what relationships should feel like. Therefore, later in life one may be drawn to create a similar insecure attachment that mirrors what they experienced with their caregivers. We are attracted to what feels familiar even if it is not healthy.
However, you do NOT have to experience trauma in childhood to experience a trauma bond later in life. The intense roller coaster of emotions caused by an abuse cycle can also capture those who come from a healthy home environment.
Recovery – breaking a Trauma Bond
Often when victims begin to review the incidents of abuse, they have endured they can be flooded with feelings of self-blame and shame for staying and not leaving.
It’s important to understand that you are both biologically and psychologically bonded to the individual which makes it extremely challenging to walk away.
If it was easy, abusive relationships wouldn’t exist and you would have been able to walk away a long time ago.
You may also be the target who has walked away, and only in restrospect realising how deeply you were manipulated when caught in the trauma bond.
If this is you, remember to be gentle with yourself as you reflect on your relationships. Both your brain and body will need to take steps to heal. Recovery from this type of emotional abuse is a stepped process of:
- Despair & loss of self
- Education & Realisation
- Understanding and Connection
- Learning and Practicing Healthy Self Care
- Setting Boundaries
- Growth & Restoration
- Deepening & Maintenance
The more compassionate you can be with yourself as you begin to understand the abusive cycles that are keeping you addicted and connected to the abuser the easier it will be to see what is really happening and get the help needed to step away from the cycle. The cycle of recovery is a journey – but entirely possible with the right support and care.
If you would like help on this issue, know that you are not alone – or crazy. At the Narcissistic Abuse Recovery Centre we offer support and guidance through this process. For a 30-minute consultation email us at firstname.lastname@example.org