What are the signs that it is a trauma bond and not a healthy relationship based on love?
A trauma bond is not a connection based on love but on abuse and trauma. In a trauma bond, your fears are amplified and exploited; you frequently feel anxious and doubt yourself. You do not express or honor your needs and desires. In a healthy relationship, you feel safe, express your needs and desires, and they are respected. You trust yourself and your partner.
In a trauma bond, there is no love; instead, there is control and manipulation. The abused person often confuses dependency with love and abuse with love. It might be an intense, incredible, and passionate relationship that evolves rapidly, with a chemistry unlike anything you've felt before. Importantly, the "magnetic attraction" or chemistry can often be familiarity. We may be drawn to it because it feels familiar.
If, for example, you have been abused in childhood, if you have lived in a chaotic environment where you received attention and affection only sporadically and in an unpredictable manner, and then you were neglected or mistreated (as can happen in the case of children of drug or alcohol addicted parents, children of parents suffering from various mental disorders, or serious physical conditions), it is very likely that you may be attracted to a partner who reminds you of your mother or father, even if you are not consciously aware of it.
As a child, you cling to any crumb of attention, affection, and validation you receive from your parents, especially when subjected to repeated abuse. As an adult, you may have developed a very high tolerance for these kinds of behaviors, meaning you perceive it as normal to be ignored, spoken to rudely, yelled at, not spoken to at all, being blamed, criticized, assaulted, manipulated, scolded, and "punished."
A child living in such conditions often justifies their parents' harmful behaviors and, most commonly, blames themselves. In the child's mind, an idea is formed along the lines of: "if the parent is 'bad,' is dangerous, who will take care of me?". Because their own survival is at stake, the child thus develops a strategy to eliminate the idea that the parent is 'bad.' It is a survival tactic to do whatever is necessary to remain protected and connected to a parent, even if that parent is abusive.
Finding justifications, excuses, and self-blame will be patterns that the adult will manifest in their romantic relationship as well. And the beautiful moments, those "rewards" we mentioned earlier, will make the adult in a trauma bond unable to see anything else, rationalizing negative behaviors. This means justifying unacceptable attitudes or actions by finding somewhat plausible explanations or excuses to make them tolerable for oneself. For example: "I want this relationship to last, but he/she treats me badly." To eliminate this dissonance, you will find justifications for that bad behavior: "he/she is tired, he/she is going through a difficult time at work, he/she didn't mean it, I provoked him/her, etc."
In a trauma bonding relationship, there are many promises that are never kept. It is a way for the abused person to live in a wonderful but entirely fake future, in an illusion rather than reality. They feed their hopes and accept self-deception, even though the past has repeatedly shown that their partner's promises were just empty words.
Another interesting aspect is that, if you find yourself in such a relationship, when asked what you love about your partner or what this relationship brings you, or how you feel in this relationship, you might say things like: "I don't know... it's something I can't even understand," "it's something impossible to define," "it's something very powerful/beyond words/magical," "no one can understand me/no one can understand what I feel." Such responses are also a way to justify why you accept this relationship. Someone in a healthy, mature relationship will be able to articulate the basis of their relationship (such as reciprocity, respect, compatibility, empathy, understanding, personal growth, etc.), why they are in that relationship, and what it brings to their life.
In a trauma bonding relationship, there is an extreme fear of losing the relationship, a fear of the unknown, and a fear associated with the idea that you won't be able to cope or live without your partner. You feel devastated if you end up breaking up and you feel like you would do anything to get back into that relationship, even if you know it's not good for you. When a healthy relationship ends, you may suffer and become nostalgic, but you are grateful and have a sense of fulfillment looking back – realizing that you have grown, evolved, and developed, that the relationship and the person enriched your life, and that you also contributed. There may be sadness and regrets, but you don't experience the kind of devastation, inner emptiness, or thoughts like "my life has no meaning without him/her," "I would do anything to get back together" (and that "anything" could include doing things that are extremely harmful to you).
Moreover, in a trauma bonding relationship, there can be many conflicts, breakups, and reconciliations, precisely for the pleasure and joy of reconciliation. It is as if you were depriving a young child of what they need most, scaring them by suddenly disappearing even for five minutes, only to reappear in their visual field. The feeling of abandonment and the terror felt by the child, thinking they lost their parent in the crowd and are left helpless, make the reunion with that parent the most ecstatic thing possible. It's a relief and a pleasure to return to the arms of the one who "abandoned" you. That feeling of relief can be experienced in those moments as love, the greatest love you have ever felt. But it's not actually love.
Trauma bonds lack balance – there are extremely intense moments where you feel heavenly, followed by sudden falls and "crashes." They are like an emotional rollercoaster. Every relationship has ups and downs, but in a stable, healthy relationship, positive moments and feelings predominate, not fear, sadness, confusion, and frustration.
Additionally, a person involved in a toxic relationship has an intense fear of abandonment, they may feel confused about their own identity, has low self-esteem, and depends largely on the abuser for support, despite their toxic behaviors. The abusive partner encourages this dependence through manipulation, emotional blackmail, gaslighting or other tactics. In a healthy relationship, partners support and encourage each other's independence, personal growth, and mental, emotional, and physical wellbeing.
What can help you leave a toxic, traumatic relationship and heal?
Anyone in an abusive relationship can develop a trauma bond with their aggressor. If you have experienced childhood trauma, you may be more susceptible to forming such attachments as an adult. A psychotherapist can help you better explore and understand the traumas from your past and how they have influenced your life. You may have developed certain coping strategies that once helped you survive but may now be counterproductive. It takes time and assistance to change those patterns and heal. Psychotherapy can also help you better understand what you are currently going through, identify and develop healthy coping strategies instead of unhealthy ones you may have developed in the past, and strengthen your personal resources.
You may feel powerless, lack confidence, and be afraid to make the decision to leave that toxic relationship. Perhaps you still hope that everything will be okay, and all promises will come true. If you daydream about that fairytale future, stop and turn your attention to the present. What is happening now? What is the actual reality of the situation you are in? What emotions do you have now? How do you truly feel beyond the masks you display? Are you still dreaming of what is not happening but you wish would happen? How long have you been deceiving yourself? If your present is so difficult that you feel the need to find solace into the past or the future, perhaps you should change something precisely in the present in which you live.
Try to become aware of the unfulfilled need, the vulnerable aspect your partner is actually exploiting. Perhaps they promised you marriage, children, more time together, moving to another city where you desire, maybe they promised to get a job, and you would have more resources to continue your studies as you've long dreamed, and so on. What do you think you might lose? Something you don't have anyway?
Stop finding excuses and justifications. Ask yourself what do you want from the relationship you're in and whether you have or have not got what you wanted until now. Evaluate the difference between your aspirations and the lived reality. In any relationship, difficulties arise, but even in those moments, you should feel that overall everything is fine, you should feel love, respect, and support. If, generally, you don't feel good and feel that this relationship is not right for you, it probably isn't.
When you decide to leave, to put an end to the relationship, plan in advance what you need to do. Start securing the resources you need and leave.
Make a list of all the things in your relationship that bother you, make you feel uncomfortable or bad, and hurt you. In your most vulnerable moments, when you're on the verge of giving in and trying to get back together with your partner, read again that list. It's a list where you enumerate all the abuses to which you have actually been subjected.
Talk to trusted people, your close ones, tell them what you're going through, what your situation is, and ask for help. It's important to avoid isolating yourself or sweeping everything under the rug and to surround yourself with people who can support you during this period of your life.
After the breakup, avoid contact with your partner to prevent any attempts of reconciliation or manipulation, and instead start prioritizing self-care. Pay attention to your needs and desires, respect them, set future goals and plans, no matter how small or insignificant they may seem, and do something every day to achieve those goals.
Focus your attention on yourself, on constructive and healthy activities, on what can enrich your life, on what can help you feel better about yourself, grow, and develop. This time, choose yourself!
Dr. Ursula Sandner