I feel so far from where I was two years ago, right before the worst six months of my life began. While I may have just moved across country to officially begin my new life in Florida April 1, my healing journey began about two years ago when I recognized that I was stuck in a never ending cycle of unhealthy relational bonding. I have done a lot of work in trying to heal from the bonds of codependency and narcissistic abuse since that time, and that was after I was already part of a codependency support group for the better part of a year.
I’ve went through several different phases in this journey and think that I have a solid grasp of my codependency; I’ve even managed to shake much of it off. What I haven’t been able to deal with yet is heal the trauma bond with my ex husband and figure out how to stop that cycle from repeating.
What is a Trauma Bond?
Before we dive into understanding trauma bonds, let’s first start with the healthy version- a normal bond between two or more people. A bond is something that makes people feel more important to each other. Bonds are the foundation of attachment and they help us survive.
Think of your first day as a member of a new club at school or on a new sports team- what kinds of things did you do with your fellow classmates? Icebreakers and trust falls. Because… bonding!
Think about your first few weeks at a new job or as part of a new team- what kinds of things did you do? Team building events, right? Because…. bonding!
Bonds also strengthen over time. Some of the people I’m closest to in the world have been my good friends for 20-25 years. We’ve experienced so many different aspects of our lives together that there is an extraordinarily strong bond between us by virtue of the amount of time that has passed.
Bonds also get stronger when sex enters the picture; moreso when you have children with someone. Growing up, I remember learning that “everything changes once sex is involved,” because of the intimacy required. That is one of the primary reasons that, from a moral perspective at least, it is generally advised that sex be shared between consenting and trusting partners within the context of a loving and trusting relationship.
Lastly, bonds can be strengthened by macro events and periods of transitions. I always say that I have a bond with those that I was studying for the Bar Exam with. We felt like we were in the trenches for a few months and working day and night through a dark tunnel and eventually emerged on the other side. We were bonded through those months of 16 hour study days and no breaks.
Transitional bonds are those that form when people are with you through stages of growth or change. I was in a serious relationship from the time I was in my final year of college, through graduate school, through a cross country move, through law school, and through bar prep. Because of experiencing new stages of our lives together, several of them in fact, there is a shared sense of experience and comradery that exists between us and made our bond stronger. These kinds of bonds strengthen relationships because of a shared experience from one part of your life to another.
Those are all types of healthy bonds and ways that they can be strengthened. But now let’s look more specifically at trauma bonds. A trauma bond is exactly what it sounds like – something that bonds people together after going through something traumatic together. Trauma doesn’t have to be something that we may see on an episode of Law & Order, it can form from a power imbalance, intense emotional experiences, intermittent good and bad treatment, periods of danger, and even periods of intimacy. They exist for the very same reason that healthy bonds exist- humans crave connection with other humans.
Think of the kids that were part of the horrific shooting at Parkland a few years ago. They were survivors of a mass shooting at their school and will be bonded together for life by virtue of going through that situation. They lost friends and family members and were hiding out from the gunman in classrooms and bathrooms and anywhere they could find. They were bonded due to the trauma they endured together.
Trauma bonds can also apply to people that never met or barely know each other. Think of the USA Gymnastics scandal involving the team physician, Larry Nassar, who used his position of power and privilege to abuse female members of the USA gymnastics program. After the story broke, the victims shared a form of trauma bond, where they felt united due to their shared abuse, even though they may not have endured the trauma at the same moment in time.
People can also trauma bond within the context of relationships. Empaths and codependents like myself tend to trauma bond to partners. This makes them especially vulnerable targets, magnets really, for narcissistic partners. In addition to the unhealthy style of bonding, the danger of the trauma bond is that even when the person escapes the relationship, the trauma bond doesn’t just go away. In fact, it’s most likely to transfer to another person and be a major factor in another unhealthy relationship dynamic.
What’s the Problem?
At their core, trauma bonds lack one of the most important things we all need from relationships: safety. They’re unpredictable and chaotic. Or they’re void of emotion. This activates our nervous system which confuses both our mind and body. We need to practice social distancing from people and things in our lives that didn’t deserve to be a part of it in the first place, and we need to get ourselves to a healthy place to avoid these kinds of people and things in the future.
For me, I have done enough digging to understand that I haven’t felt like I have a place to be emotionally safe in a really long time. And by tempering my reactions to things, I am not being authentic. One of my best friends told me how hypersensitive I was just the other day; it may be true that the pendulum has swung the complete other way, but that’s because I’m working at just identifying my emotions as I feel them and giving them the space to be. Eventually I’ll settle into the middle. I hope.
Speaking of tempered reactions, I write on this very blog about how I’m a great person to have around in emergencies. You know why? Because almost nothing rattles me. I have been in some objectively terrifying situations and haven’t so much as flinched. I used to talk about that as a point of pride. I think I did even last year. But it’s not. That’s not normal.
But because my emotions don’t trust me, they don’t feel safe to come to the surface. And I definitely don’t trust anyone else to handle them, so they get suppressed. Fortunately, that hasn’t led to any sort of boiling point / meltdown, but it could. For me it usually just leads to complete and utter burnout. Understandably so, right? I cannot tell you (my exes could, though) how many impromptu trips I booked over the last decade because I needed to take care of myself. I remember taking a cab to the airport without any bags on me and taking the next flight to Orlando sometime in early 2012. In 2017 I called a girlfriend and booked a trip to Vegas right there on the phone for two days later. This is a pattern, and an unhealthy one. Plus, it doesn’t solve the problem.
I need to learn how to trust myself with my emotions before I can trust someone else.
The 3 Core Human Desires and Unhealthy Childhood Bonds
There are supposedly three core human desires:
- To be seen
- To be heard
- To be loved for who we actually are
If these desires are not fulfilled in our lives, because of human nature, we will chase other things to fill these voids. Maybe material things, maybe achievement, maybe power or love. For me, it’s always been validation. I have a larger than life need to be validated by the people in my life- I need to know they hear me, even if they don’t agree with me. And I need to feel important to them. I can’t tell you how often I have said to a partner, I need to know exactly how you feel about me. What a nice prompt for someone to pour out their hearts, right? Gosh, Krista. Just let it happen. If it doesn’t, move on.
The first relationships you have in your life as a child set the foundation for all relationships in the future. That’s why, as a single mom of 3 young children, I work so hard to be intentional in my parenting. It doesn’t mean that I’m successful in it, just that I work at it constantly because I know how very important it is to their ability to grow up as whole human beings.
Childhood bonds rooted in fear, unpredictability, manipulation or abandonment are all unhealthy. As adult children that experienced these kinds of bonds, you will unconsciously seek those in adulthood. Trauma bonds are manisfestations of lived past trauma.
The Holistic Psychologist writes in a post on her social media that trauma bonds are represented by the following signs:
- A push-pull dynamic where neither partner feels safe or secure
- A feeling of “walking on egg-shells” where, for whatever reason, there is not open and honest communication about needs and emotions
- Cycles of emotional addiction where chaos and the fear of abandonment create the illusion of chemistry
- A partner is unreliable or unpredictable yet there is still a desire to be chosen
- A love/hate dynamic where there’s a strong nervous system activation and a fear of being seen as the true self
While I don’t feel like I fit in most traditional definitions of codependent or empath or narcissistic abuse victim, I 100% relate to every single one of her trauma bond signs. My work now is about figuring out where it came from so I can heal those unmet needs of my past and present myself forward as a whole person living her life as her authentic self.
My Search for Authenticity
One of my favorite Maslow quotes is represented in the graphic above, and is shaping my journey right now. One thing I can tell you for sure. Never mind, two things.
First, awareness of where you are is at least 50% of the struggle. Now that I have a grasp on my unhealthy relational style and my lack of allowing myself space to be human, I know I am so much closer to living the life I am meant to live.
Second, I am on a quest for authenticity. I want authenticity in my approach to my kids, my work, my personal life. I want authentic love from my friends and family and perhaps even a partner. Authentic love feels safe. It’s rooted in a self-knowing and an awareness and acceptance of another person. It has no ego, but a lot of soul. Authentic love creates a relationship dynamic of evolution. Two people allow each other freedom to be fully seen and heard. There’s no emotional roller coaster, just two people choosing to show up from a place of mutual respect and admiration.
Trauma bonding is a pattern, and it can be learned and unlearned as we grow and heal. Authenticity is the opposite of shame. It reveals our humanity and allows for human connection. From my understanding, shame creates most codependency issues, and perhaps one day I’ll need to do a deep dive into the dance between those two things as I continue to work through it.
The biggest thing I am left with – why I have been afraid to be me? Obviously, I have a fear of not being good enough to be loved, but I just don’t know why! Authenticity requires courage, that’s for sure. I’ve never been lacking in courage as far as I know. But it also requires identification of my feelings and wants and needs. And identifying those means that I am making myself vulnerable to the idea that they might not be met.
So buckle up, friends. I’m more determined than ever to enter the rest of my life as my best authentic self, and I hope you join me for the ride.