The Misconception of Trauma Bonding
As we find ourselves in the tail end of the pandemic and begin to emerge from isolation, it might be a hard adjustment- especially for those of us who have been in romantic relationships during lockdown.
New research suggests that romantic relationships during lockdown are at increased risk of becoming abusive. It’s the perfect storm for an abusive relationship to develop: relationships during the pandemic became serious very quickly due to isolation, we’re then isolated from our families and loved ones, and oftentimes these relationships can progress quickly into sharing a living space.
Forced isolation has destroyed some of the safeguards that can help us identify a toxic partner in the early stages of a relationship. We don’t see how our partner treats our friends, how our partner treats their friends, how they treat waitstaff, (a crucially important factor), and how they fit into our social network. We also can’t see the elements of control that often accompany an abusive relationship; our partner doesn’t need to isolate us from our loved ones because the pandemic is doing it for them.
This isolation also leaves relationships vulnerable to a less obvious form of abusive relationship, one that is hard to identify and even harder to leave: trauma bonding.
Trauma bonds are emotional connections and attachment with an abusive individual that arise from recurring, cyclical patterns of abuse perpetuated by periodic reinforcement via rewards and punishments.
Trauma bonds have existed long before the pandemic, and they aren’t limited to romantic relationships. They can occur in any dynamic that involves repeated trauma with intermittent positive reinforcement. This includes fraternity hazing, religious cults, military training, child abuse, and even kidnapping.
The reason we are so much more at risk of this type of relationship during the pandemic is, according to psychologist Dr. Liz Powell, that the pandemic itself is a form of collective trauma. This, coupled with all of the other factors that pave the way for an abuse relationship to develop, leaves us especially vulnerable.
Recognizing this type of abusive relationship is especially difficult, due in part to the fact that our own brain chemistry is working against us when they occur. Jimanekia Eborn, a sex educator specializing in trauma, told website Well + Good that cycles of abuse can result in a chemical bond between the abuser and the victim.
It works like this: the body’s natural stress response activates your sympathetic nervous system and limbic system, the parts of the brain that regulate emotions and bodily responses to your environment.
“When that sympathetic activation is in control, the parts of our brain that do things like long-term planning or risk analysis in our prefrontal cortex are shut off,” says Dr. Powell.
We become attached to anything that helps us get through a traumatic event, anything our brain associates with safety. In an abusive relationship, this can occur when the abuser comforts the victim or apologizes for the abuse.
How can I identify the signs of a trauma bond?
According to Medical News Today, the main sign that someone has bonded with their abuser is that they try to defend or justify the abuse. This can include:
- Agreeing with the abuser’s reasons for treating you poorly
- Trying to cover for the abuser
- Arguing with or distancing yourself from people trying to help, including family and friends
For example, a victim bonded with their abuser might say things like:
- “He/she is only like that because they love me so much, you wouldn’t understand.”
- “He/she is under a lot of pressure at work right now, they will make it up to me later.
- “It’s my fault, I make them angry.”
In private, relationships involving a trauma bond might have some of these characteristics:
- The relationship is moving at an accelerated pace
- You make huge life changes for a relatively new relationship
- You have an extreme fear of leaving the relationship
- You feel like they are the only person who can meet your needs
How to Heal From a Trauma Bond
While these relationships are especially hard to leave, and breaking a trauma bond can feel impossible, it will lead to healthier, happier relationships. If you feel like you are in this type of relationship, there are things you can do to begin the process of leaving and healing.
- Keep a journal. Since the trauma bond can affect our ability to process long-term consequences, one way to help ground yourself in reality is to keep a journal. Every day, write down what happens and how you feel. If abuse occurs, make a note of it and write down whether your partner said anything afterward to excuse it. This can help to identify patterns in behavior and help you notice things you might not have in the moment. Over time, it can help you come to terms with the reality of the relationship. You may want to keep a digital journal (if they don’t have access to your device) or keep the journal at work or at a friend’s house so your abuser doesn’t find it.
- Talk to loved ones. Opening up about abuse can be one of the hardest things to do. You might have found yourself getting defensive in the past when your loved ones expressed concern. Even if you aren’t ready to open up about the details of your experience, listen to what friends and family have to say about the relationship. The people who love you want the best for you, and they often notice things you might not. They may have noticed a change in your demeanor since entering the relationship, or they might have seen signs in your partner that you haven’t. Keep an open mind about their opinion. Even if you don’t talk about your partner, just engaging with friends and family can give you perspective and help you realize that you have a support system.
- Practice positive self-talk. Abuse can lower self esteem and self blame can make you feel like there’s nothing you can do about your situation. This might feel silly at first, but try writing down some of the problems you experience. Maybe these have to do with your relationship or your self image. Then, look at what you wrote and try to imagine this is a friend sharing these problems with you, and give advice from that perspective. You’ll find that the way we talk to ourselves is far more negative than the way we talk to our loved ones. If you can identify ways you put yourself down, you can start to actively change the way you treat yourself. The best way to feel comfortable leaving an abusive relationship is to feel comfortable in your relationship with yourself.
- Make a list of goals. Abusive relationships can make us feel hopeless, like the only thing we have is our partner. Try making a list of goals that don’t involve your partner. These can be small goals, maybe you want to join a club, or learn a new skill, or even get dressed up and go to a fancy restaurant with your friends. Try including larger goals too, maybe you want to go back to school, or work towards a promotion at work, any dreams that you have for yourself and yourself alone.
- Create a safety plan. Part of the reason it can be hard to leave is not knowing where to go. The most dangerous time in an abusive relationship can be trying to leave. Make a list of resources that can help support you and keep you safe when you leave. Some will be provided at the bottom of this post. Make a list of people you trust, whether it is friends or family or coworkers. These people can be a resource to you for both your physical and emotional wellbeing. Consider logistics, this can include money, a place to stay, and work. Make a plan to stay safe after leaving. This can include changing locks and phone numbers, altering work schedules, and even pursuing legal action. Writing it all down can help it seem more real, and help you to stay organized and grounded in reality. Here is more information about safety planning.
- Consider seeking professional help. As you navigate the end of an abusive relationship, it is absolutely normal to need help. A licensed therapist can provide support that others cannot. They can help you identify factors that fuel your trauma bond, help you to set boundaries, develop a self-care plan, and work on skills for building healthy relationships. Additionally, a therapist can help address the mental health symptoms that are related to long-term abuse and trauma. When finding a therapist, it is best to look for someone who is trauma-informed, and professionals who specialize in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are often best equipped to work through this type of trauma.
While you might feel stuck and hopeless now, leaving an abusive relationship is possible, and is the first step towards moving on towards a better life. If you or a loved one identifies with a trauma bond, here are some resources that can help.
The National Domestic Violence Hotline is available 24/7 via:
Live chat: https://www.thehotline.org/
Text: by texting LOVEIS to 22522
For more information on resources including in-person support, and temporary housing, visit:
The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence at https://ncadv.org/resources