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What Is Trauma-Bonding?

A Personal Perspective: Why you keep choosing unavailable or abusive partners.

Key points

  • Trauma-bonding lives in the nervous system. The brain makes associations between “love” and abuse or neglect.
  • Trauma-bonding is an attachment created by repeated abuse, sprinkled with being “saved” every now and then.
  • Trauma-bonding in adulthood can stem from childhood trauma.

Why do I keep choosing unavailable and abusive partners?

Well into my career as a clinical psychologist, I continued to ask myself this question. I saw many clients who wondered the same thing, and we swirled around the problem thick with shame.

I knew intellectually that my pattern’s roots went deep into childhood. But “knowing better” never relieved me of my chemistry. It felt as helpful as “knowing” pizza isn’t good for me, but I ordered it anyway because it tasted so good. I couldn’t force myself into being attracted to a kind and available person any more than I could find liver and onions super appealing.

When I finally learned about trauma-bonding, it was such a relief. It allowed me to judge myself a little less for how I’d been caught in this cycle. It wasn’t because I was broken or didn’t deserve love. It was because my nervous system was wired for trauma-bonding in adolescence. My brain had made associations based on what I experienced and witnessed: “love” comes with abuse and neglect. Of course, I sought out abusive and unavailable partners over and over again.

Trauma-bonding defined

When we are faced with abuse and neglect, we are chemically wired to focus on getting to the “other side.” When the abuser is the person that brings us relief, the brain associates them with safety.

The brain latches on to the positive experience of relief rather than the negative impact of the abuser.

This happens because the body’s threat response (fight, flight, freeze, fawn) turns off the part of the brain that can think long-term when we are in crisis. This creates the feeling that we need the abuser to survive, and is often mistaken for “love.”

Trauma-bonding is a hormonal attachment created by repeated abuse, sprinkled with being “saved” every now and then. A slightly different version of this cycle can be seen when we are sitting at a slot machine in Vegas. It’s called intermittent reinforcement and casinos have long used the data surrounding it to help us pour our life savings into their hands in the hope that we might finally “win.”

This type of conditioning is intuitively exploited by narcissists. They are masters at giving us just enough and then ripping it all away. In conjunction with gaslighting, emotional abuse and manipulation designed to make us question our reality, the major building blocks for trauma-bonding are formed.

In my experience with a narcissistic stepfather, I’d receive months of the silent treatment followed by expensive gifts. Or, he’d ground me for weeks because of an innocent mistake and then pull me aside to say we were “kindred souls,” grooming me as a girlfriend.

I repeated this well-worn cycle in adulthood. Part of the experience I was recreating included the hope that “he will change.” Just like I hoped as a kid, “He'll finally see me and love me for good, and then I’ll be okay!”

The necessary ingredient to start the cycle (but this time I’ll win) was being attracted to someone who was unavailable, narcissistic, addicted, and so on. And I re-enacted this trauma so many times, I lost count.

This will not surprise many folks, but the news flash to me was that none of my partners ever changed. I never won. It never got any better. I stayed in a dependent stew, believing I wasn’t capable of a healthy relationship.

Now I know I have always been a perfectly functioning human being. I reacted to my childhood traumas exactly the way I was meant to just to survive them. My body was wired to live in the cycle, and my mind was protecting me by believing “this time will be different.” I perpetually hoped the next person would see me, they would break the spell, and then I’d be free.

Actual Freedom

I finally became so beaten down, frustrated, and heartbroken that I started to lean into something I’d always heard, but never knew how to practice: Loving myself. Previously, I thought if I was the only person who really loved me, it didn’t count. Now I know that my own love is the most important of all.

Instead of waiting for “him” to love me or trying to convince him to see my worth, I finally saw my own pain and loved myself enough to leave. I couldn’t go one more round. I knew I couldn’t give anyone else the power to free me. I had to choose it. I had to choose me.

I had to choose me even though they never did.

It was incredibly difficult but it was profound. Acting on my own behalf in bold ways I’d previously been unwilling or able to do not only changed me, but it also changed my chemistry. When I walked away from the pattern, that old necessary ingredient to light a spark was snuffed out. And because I could see my worth, it wasn’t so scary when someone else did too.

Beating myself up for this cycle never helped me break it. Knowing better never stopped me from repeating it. It was when I practiced radical self-acceptance and self-love that I started to become free.

I love this quote by Alice Little.

“As traumatized children we always dreamed that someone would come and save us. We never dreamed that it would, in fact, be ourselves, as adults.”

If you think you've been stuck in a pattern of trauma-bonding, I hope you will find your version of the above. I hope you can stop beating yourself up for something that was beyond your control. I hope you can love yourself the way you wish "they" would. Perhaps this process can start with curiosity. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • How would I treat myself if I felt worthy of love?
  • What would I walk away from if I knew I deserved better?

If any answers arise, see how they feel in your body. Notice the difference between these ideas and the reality of your life. If answers don't arise today, just stay curious. Look at how other people practice self-love and acceptance. Simply noticing how they experience self-love will prime your brain to see it more and more. And if you haven't worked with a trauma therapist, someone who is well versed in childhood trauma and all the ways it can be re-enacted, it can be an incredibly valuable resource.

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