Updated: Dec 18, 2022
I learnt about the concept of trauma bonds last year and I can't believe I'd not heard of it before.
Most people know what it's like to be, and perhaps have to leave, an unhealthy relationship. However, not everyone might recognise one happening here and now, or why it is happening and how to change it.
Trauma bonding can happen in any kind of relationship, not just romantic ones. They can happen at work, within families, in your neighbourhood or with people you've met online.
The big driver behind trauma bonding compared to a healthy relationship is that the trauma bond feels dramatic and exciting, and that anxiety is being mistaken for healthy love.
Why do they happen?
In a trauma bonded relationship, the extreme highs and lows might be a replication of an experience had in childhood. Maybe a parent or other significant person you were trusting of, or needed to attach to, blew hot and cold and your nervous system has come to consider this normal. All those unconscious cues given off by a seemingly normal but still wounded person, is firing up the same parts of our brain as have been activated in childhood and we mistakenly think this must be love because it's so dynamic!
Those most common to find themselves, often unwittingly, in a trauma bond are those that had unstable beginnings. They find themselves drawn to people with issues and challenges, not because they like the person underneath, but because the drama is all they know.
Once in a trauma bonded relationship, the same issues as they experienced when young happen over and over again. Maybe the other person is inattentive or unreliable, or perhaps the partner isn't able to be self-reliant and are unable to meet their own needs or anyone else's needs either.
The big clue is the electric chemistry feeling that isn't backed up with a deep sense of perpetual safety, security and stability (often considered boring by those used to trauma bonds). This creates a rollercoaster type experience, with participants never knowing when the next twist or turn will be.
In a healthy relationship, whilst there may be challenges, there's no reliance on the relationship to validate self-worth. Instead, two people bring their own sense of love, worthiness and security and have it mirrored back to them by the other person. The more each individual loves themselves, the greater the health of the relationship, even if it means ending the relationship due to the realisation you are mismatched.
In healthy bonding, there is no hiding away from difficult conversations, with a high regard given to the health of the relationship. There is also a sense of safety that difficult topics can be brought up and discussed without rejection or later reproach.
Finally, in healthy relationships, there is a willingness to let the other person be both independent and interdependent, rather than the co-dependency of trauma bonding.
The first step to knowing if you are trauma bonded is to ask how safe you feel with a person. If the relationship makes you feel anxious (often mistaken for excitement) then you may wish to talk over the relationship with a professional or friend. Anxiety isn't excitement, it's a warning sign you're in danger and it is sensible to listen to it.
Boundaries are an important part of healthy relationships, so make sure you are setting yours, not compromising them in order "to get love". Instead seek a trusted person to build a healthy non-romantic relationship with that builds your own sense of self-worth and allows you to understand what you like and what works best for you.
In my experience, whilst a healthy relationship may feel unexciting compared to a trauma bonded one, they instead permit much greater self-exploration and excitement shows up in other ways. You'll find the other invites you to work on yourself rather than offers to complete or fix you. They are the greatest champion of your success. These relationships tend to last the distance.
Those bonded by trauma can transition to a healthy relationship if both parties are willing to put in the work necessary. It can be a hard, but rewarding journey. I offer one to one coaching for those looking to explore their relationships.
Only by taking the leap of faith will you ever know whether you have what it takes to love and love others in a healthy way.