Relationships can be difficult on their own even when the world around the couple presents no additional challenges. However, when one or both partners suffer from mental illness resulting from trauma, it can lead to more complex relationship bonds that may or may not be entirely healthy.
What is Trauma Bonding?
Trauma bonding, in the most neutral sense, refers to an attachment process that often occurs from a very intense, emotional connection. Many times, however, the term is more commonly associated with a negative relationship experience where a person is overly dedicated, attached or otherwise loyal in a relationship with someone who introduces toxic behaviors and treatment.
When Trauma Bonding is positive
Trauma bonding can be a positive aspect, such as sharing a common pain with someone who has experienced a shared traumatic experience like a car accident or losing a family member. Many times this form of trauma bonding occurs in social relationships, such as friendships or with family members. The experience of the trauma can cause a more secure attachment due to the presence of support and understanding by those who shared the experience.
Similarly, in romantic relationships, trauma bonding can bring a couple closer together and allow them to overcome the challenges which follow the traumatic event. For example, in some rare cases where a couple has experienced a miscarriage, stillbirth or other late-term pregnancy loss, the experience is shared by both partners. Both will feel the loss and will have to process their emotions individually and within the marriage. For these couples that choose to move forward in a positive experience, the support received from an intimate partner can solidify the existing bond between the couple.
However, more often than not, experiences of trauma in a relationship are more likely to result in the negative form of trauma bonding.
What negative trauma bonding looks like
Negative trauma bonding is most commonly present in relationships where one individual has a highly toxic personality. This can be seen in relationships with those with Narcissistic Personality Disorder or other personality disorders. There are a few signs that indicate if there is a negative trauma bond in the relationship.
- Your friends, family, and social circle all believe you should end the relationship – Many times for individuals in a negative trauma bond, they are oblivious to the dangerous and unhealthy behaviors that are happening. Some individuals may try to explain away bad behaviors or poor treatment by blaming themselves for the actions or using excuses. Those outside of the relationship, however, are usually more aware of the behavior and often petition for the abused to end the relationship.
- You know the relationship isn’t great, but you wanna see it through no matter how bad it gets – Maybe you realize that the behaviors from your toxic partner are destroying the relationship. Maybe he/she yells at you, makes you question your self-worth or sanity but you’re just in love with them so much that you’re willing to do anything to be with them, even if it lowers your own value. This is typically a signal that the relationship you are in is toxic and most likely unsalvageable. It is also an indicator that you are in a negative trauma bond with your partner.
- You’re never good enough for your partner, no matter what you do – You’ve tried everything you can to make your partner happy, but no matter what you do, it’s always wrong. You can spend months searching for the perfect gift or work hard to get the house ready for a romantic night, but your efforts are not only unnoticed, but they are also criticized or complained about by your partner. You chose the wrong color, burned the meal, or just otherwise didn’t do enough to warrant your partner’s approval.
- You’re addicted, and not in a good way – You know you should leave. Everyone tells you but you can’t imagine your life without your partner. Sure things could be a lot better, but you know that losing them would cause you physical, emotional, and mental anguish. You ache for their presence, even though it is destructive and unencouraging.
- You’ve lost your identity – You used to be a fun and energetic individual with a social life that demonstrated love and happiness. Yet, now you only focus on trying to achieve the impossible approval of your partner. Everything you do, eat, wear, and enjoy is determined solely by your partner’s desires. It’s their way or the highway and you’ve willingly complied to the point of losing yourself and your own identity as an individual.
- You can’t seem to find your friends – Some individuals who help to create negative trauma bonds do so intentionally and try to isolate their partner from friends or relatives. Maybe you used to go on weekly lunch dates with your mother, but you’ve not been attending or you’ve cleared your social calendar to spend as much time as you can with your partner. This unhealthy behavior is a clear indication of the formation of a negative trauma bond.
How are trauma bonds maintained?
For those with personality disorders, negative trauma bonds are created and reinforced as a part of the process for control. For example, individuals with NPD or BPD may find ways to create trauma bonds to ensure their source of narcissistic supply goes on uninterrupted. They will use a combination of techniques such as love bombing, hoovering, triangulation, and other manipulative tactics to keep their partner in a cycle of toxic and unhealthy behavior and abuse.
There can be instances where real trauma has helped to form the bond and is periodically reinforced by the abuser. In these cases, there will be a number of instances of false promises and periods of over-attention by the partner in order to help their victim feel a connection despite the negative atmosphere of the relationship.
If you or someone you love is suspected of being involved in a negative trauma bond, it is important to seek the help of a licensed professional psychologist or therapist to help you begin to overcome this unhealthy relationship and mentality.