Trauma Bonding and Complex PTSD

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Trauma bonding is loyalty to a person who is destructive.  While the idea of bonding tends to bring up connotations of something good and beneficial, trauma bonds are unhealthy.  There are a number of signs that a person is involved in an unhealthy bond with a partner or other significant person.  Here are some thoughts to consider determining if you are in a trauma bond with someone:

There is a constant pattern of nonperformance, yet you continue to believe promises to the contrary. Others seem disturbed by something that has happened to you or was said to you, and you are not. You feel stuck because the other person keeps doing destructive things, but you believe there is nothing you can do about it. You try to change the person into becoming less destructive by trying to get them to stop an addiction or become a non-abuser. You keep having repetitive, damaging fights with this person that nobody wins. You seem unable to detach from someone even though you can’t trust them or really don’t even like them. When you try to leave this person you find yourself missing them to the point of longing that is so awful that you believe it is going to destroy you.

Usually trauma bonds occur in relationships involving inconsistent reinforcement, such as those with addicts and alcoholics or in domestic violence situations.  Dysfunctional marriages also cause trauma bonds because there is always a time when things seem to be “normal.”  Other types of relationships involving trauma bonds include cult-like religious organisations, kidnapping and hostage situations, those involving child abuse or incest, and unhealthy work environments.

The environment necessary to create a trauma bond involves intensity, complexity, inconsistency, and a promise.  Victims stay because they are holding on to that elusive “promise” or hope.  There is always manipulation involved.  Victims are prey to the manipulation because they are willing to tolerate anything for the payoff, which is that elusive promise and ever present hope for fulfillment of some deeply personal need within the victim.

So often, those in a traumatic relationship are “looking right at it, but can’t see it.”  Only after time away from the unhealthy attachment can a person begin to see the destruction it caused.  In essence, people need to “detox” from trauma bonds by breaking them and staying away from the relationship.

People often don’t even realise they are in an abusive relationship. It can be hard for others to understand why someone stays with an abusive partner. It’s often because of something called “trauma bonding,” where you become addicted to the hormonal rollercoaster an abuser sends you on.  Those who have never been in an abusive relationship struggle to understand how people remain in one for so long. If somebody was mistreating you, “why did you stick around?” they ask.

For survivors, this can be a really tough question to answer. The lucky ones escape, and stumble upon articles or books that give them the terms to be able to understand what happened to them, and thus describe their experience. Other times, though, this doesn’t happen, and people might not even be aware they were in a relationship that could be classed as “abusive.”

This is because we are conditioned to believe abuse is always physical. On TV and in films, we see characters who are obviously evil. They are violent to their partners, shout at them aggressively, or even murder them in a fit of rage. While this does happen, it’s not a true representation of the abuse many others experience..

It starts with an off-hand comment here, or an insult there, but often victims brush these moments off. This is because abusive people are great at pretending to be everything you’re looking for in a partner, and they love bomb you with affection. Victims tend to believe this is the abuser’s real self, and when the mask starts to slip more and more, they believe its “out of character” and it must be their own fault for making their partner angry.

People stay in these relationships partly because they are trying to win back the abuser’s affection. However, Thomas told Business Insider that victims also become biologically attached to their abusers through something called “trauma bonding.”

It’s like an addictive drug.

It’s a bit like becoming addicted to a drug. A psychologically abusive relationship is a rollercoaster, with punishment and then intermittent reinforcement of kindness when you “behave.” This means the body is going through its own turmoil, with high levels of the stress hormone cortisol, paired with dopamine when given affection as a reward.

You have this back and forth, and the body becomes addicted. When we’re looking for something that we want, that we once had, which is a connection with somebody, and they are playing cat and mouse where they are pulling it back and forth, then the body really does become dependent on having that approval.

This hormonal rollercoaster really takes its toll on someone’s body. Victims might find they break out in acne, even though they have always had good skin. They might have chest pains. Thomas has said that in her practise she has even seen her clients develop autoimmune disorders.

Their bodies start to shut down, and they start really struggling with chronic pain, migraines, and some arthritic type pains and conditions, and they just can’t fight infections as well.The body really can only take so much stress.

Victims stay in these relationships despite of the stress on their bodies, because often it isn’t clear to them what the problems really are. Through gaslighting, control, and intermittent love, the abuser has their partner backed into a corner of self-blame and desperation of trying to win back the affection of the person they love.

Unfortunately, for many people, when they try to leave these relationships they are so bonded to their abuser that they return. Others don’t try to leave at all, and are only freed from the clutches of the abuse when they are discarded.

An abusive relationship with a narcissist or psychopath tends to follow the same pattern: idealisation, devaluation, and discarding. At some point, the victim will be so broken, the abuser will no longer get any benefit from using them. They may have totally bankrupted them, or destroyed their confidence, or worse, and they move on to their next target.

However, once they are gone, the victim — or survivor  can finally start coming round to the idea they were abused. They can grieve, and finally see the damage that was being done, and realise it wasn’t their fault.

That’s when the healing can really begin and the survivor can realise that they were targeted not because they were weak, but because they had so much to give.

These are the signs you might be in a trauma bond with someone.

A constant pattern of nonperformance — your partner promises you things, but keeps behaving to the contrary. Others are disturbed by something that is said or done to you in your relationship, but you brush it off. You feel stuck in the relationship because you see no way out. You keep having the same fights with your partner that go round in circles with no real winner. You’re punished or given the silent treatment by your partner when you say or do something “wrong.”

You feel unable to detach from your relationship even though you don’t truly trust or even like the person you’re in it with. When you try and leave, you are plagued by such longing to get back with your partner you feel it might destroy you.

There are three effective ways you can manage trauma bonding:

Write a story about the relationship. Gaining some perspective on an abusive or dysfunctional relationship can be helpful when you are trying to break a trauma bond. One way that you can do this is by writing story about your relationship.[2]

Write the story in the third person, such as by calling yourself by your proper name. For example, if your name is Janet, then refer to yourself as Janet in the story.

Tell the story of the relationship from beginning to end. Try to include information about the highs and lows of the relationship. For example, you might say something like, “Janet and Bill were a happy loving couple at first, but then Bill started to hit her when he became frustrated with her or when he had a bad day.”

Share the story with a close friend or with your therapist when you are finished. Reading the story may be therapeutic and it will give you a chance to talk about some of the things you have experienced.

Ask questions about your relationship. Another way that you can examine your relationship is to ask and answer certain questions about it. You can also ask and answer questions about your ideal relationship so that you can compare what you currently have with what you would like to have. Some questions you might ask yourself include:[3]

What do I want from a relationship? What kind of person would I like to be bonded to?

How does my current relationship affect me?

Am I being valued in this relationship? If not, then what is the other person doing to devalue me? What am I doing to devalue me?

In what ways do I overreact and/or under-react in this relationship?

Examine your attempts to change the person. Another important factor in breaking a trauma bond is making a commitment to stop trying to change the person you are bonded to. You may feel as though you can explain your feelings to this person and get them to change their behavior, but this is not realistic thinking.[4]

Think about how often you have tried to explain your perspective to the other person. Or perhaps you have tried to write letters to the person to explain your feelings and perspective. These are normal behaviors in a trauma bonded relationship, but it is unlikely that these measures will be effective.

Acknowledge that you cannot control how the other person feels, thinks, or acts. You can only control your actions and words.

2 comments

  1. I reblogged! Thank you for writing this! I’ve more recently detached myself from a psychologically abusive relationship and I painfully relate to every sentence in this post

    • Thank you for taking the trouble to comment. I am glad the article resonated with you. Congratulations on detaching yourself. It must have taken a lot of guts. Well done. Hope you’re having a good Christmas. Erin

I would love to hear from you so please leave a comment. All feedback is much appreciated. Thank you. Erin