Bonding is a biological and emotional process that makes people more important to each other over time. Unlike love, trust, or attraction, bonding is not something that can be lost. It is cumulative and only gets greater, never smaller. Bonding grows with spending time together, living together, eating together, making love together, having children together, and being together during stress or difficulty. Bad times bond people as strongly as good times, perhaps more so.
Bonding is in part why it is harder to leave an abusive relationship the longer it continues. Bonding makes it hard to enforce boundaries, because it is much harder to keep away from people to whom we have bonded. In leaving a long relationship, it is not always useful to judge the correctness of the decision by how hard it is, because it will always be hard.
Moreover, experiencing together extreme situations and extreme feelings tends to bond people in a special way.Trauma bonding, a term developed by Patrick Carnes, is the misuse of fear, excitement, sexual feelings, and sexual physiology to entangle another person. Many primary aggressors tend toward extreme behavior and risk taking, and trauma bonding is a factor in their relationships.
Strangely, growing up in an abusive home makes later unhealthy situations have more holding power. This has a biological basis beyond any cognitive learning. It is trauma in one’s history that makes for trauma bonding. Because trauma (and developmental trauma or early relational trauma is epidemic) causes numbing around many aspects of intimacy, traumatized people often respond positively to a dangerous person or situation because it makes them feel. It is neither rational nor irrational. If survivors can come to see that part of the attraction is, while very unwanted, a natural process, they may be able to understand those feelings and manage the situation more intentionally.
An excellent book on the effects of trauma (and repair) is The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk MD
Intense relationships also tend to hijack all of a survivor’s relating capacity. It is like a state of being burnt out. First, while it is very easy to become attached to a very chaotic and inconsistent person, it is simply not possible to form a consistent internal object representation (feeling memory) about them. When separated from the intense partner, the urge to make contact is usually intense because it is a stable feeling memory (or internal object) that makes separation from an important other person tolerable in any circumstance.
Second. the survivor can come to find that it can be almost impossible to relate to anyone, even family or old friends, except superficially. There is a biological craving for intensity that no normal relationship will satisfy. This provides a feeling of being totally alone, and totally empty. At first, only going back to the primary aggressor can overcome it. It would be normal in this state to believe that something is horribly wrong with leaving (even if it seems equally true that something is horribly wrong with staying. If it can be understood that abstinence from unnatural intensity will eventually restore normal relating capacity, the period of distress can be better endured.
What Is Trauma Bonding?
Everyone deals with stress, but when it comes with danger, fear, anxiety or risk, it can become traumatic. When this trauma is tied to a relationship, it can form a “trauma bond.”
Trauma bonding happens when someone uses fear, sexual feelings, sexual physiology and excitement to entrap someone else. It is a result of continuing cycles of abuse where alternating reward and mistreatment form an emotional bond that is not easy to break. This bond is basically a compulsive relationship fostering specific patterns of compulsive behavior.
Because those in these types of relationships have experienced extreme situations and feelings, it becomes particularly difficult to get out and away from the abuse. A trauma bond often becomes a life pattern which is repeated. After creating one, you are likely to have other similar relationships with comparable patterns. Trauma bonds can also form almost instantly and last “forever,” surviving even the death of the abuser. Even though the relationship comes with violence or degrading actions, the victim is generally extremely loyal to the abuser.
Situations that create trauma bonds often have some common characteristics. Strong trauma bonds are often present when the relationship has certain elements, such as:
- Abuse of spirit
- Recurring cycles of abuse
- Seduction and betrayal
- High intensity without real intimacy
- No apparent way to get out
- Abuse of power
- Abuse of intimacy
- Failure of the victim to protect him- or herself
- Growing fear
How Can Trauma Bonds Be an Addiction?
Trauma bonds are often born from a biological need for intensity and can become an addiction, much like alcohol, drugs or sex. Victims become addicted to these relationships because they are both compelling and mood altering. When people have a trauma bond that has become addictive, they continue the relationship even though there are negative consequences, they lose the ability to decide to leave the other person, and they obsess over the relationship. A trauma bond addiction also results in losing sense of the right priorities in life to keep the relationship and obsession with it going.
Unfortunately, an addictive relationship can bring out other compulsive behaviors, such as alcohol and drug abuse, gambling, compulsive working, sex addiction and eating disorders. In fact, it is rare to come across a traumatic bond without other addictions woven in and those with addiction are generally vulnerable to traumatic bonding.
Do I Have a Trauma Bond?
Identifying the existence of trauma bonds in your life is an important first step. To recover from trauma bonding, the victim has to accept the relationship is not healthy and view the compulsive patterns as a problem. These patterns could include the following:
- Obsessing about people who have hurt you, even if they are no longer in your life
- Trusting people who consistently let you down
- Staying loyal to those who have betrayed you
- Putting the abuser and/or the abusive relationship ahead of other relationships
- Attempting to continue relationships with those who have hurt you
- Going out of your way to help others who have abused you
- Keeping quiet about abuse or exploitation
It’s not easy to admit that you’re in an unhealthy relationship or that you are addicted to the narcissist or person who treats you like crap. So it’s extremely difficult but important to acknowledge that you are in fact bonded by the trauma. Only then can you start to set yourself free and take back the rest of your life. It’s not easy but it is absolutely 100% worth it to be truly loved, cherished and accepted for who you are.