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Understanding the Impact of Trauma Bonds in Our Lives

Where these relationships start and why they're so tough to leave.

Key points

  • A "trauma bond" is an attachment formed between two people who unconsciously bond to each other based on shared trauma.
  • Traumatic bonds are typically established in abusive childhoods and are learned as a product of intermittent positive and negative reinforcement.
  • Traumatic bonds in our intimate relationships are based on a compulsion to unconsciously repeat early unresolved trauma.
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A traumatic bond, or a "trauma bond," is an attachment formed between two people who unconsciously bond to each other based on shared trauma, which ultimately leads to relational betrayal and heartbreak. We commonly hear of traumatic bonds or a “push-pull” as synonymous with narcissistic abuse within our adult relationships. While this is often true, the reality is that traumatic bonds do not begin in our adult lives; they are perpetuated in our adult lives.

Traumatic bonds are learned as a product of intermittent positive and negative reinforcement during abusive childhoods. Kids who are praised for something one day and punished for it the next begin to navigate their world as unpredictable and inconsistent. They learn that their environment is unsafe and the people in their lives are unreliable. This type of situation can condition a child to become traumatically bonded to abusive, negligent, and narcissistic parents, and later in life to highly narcissistic partners.

When narcissistic values are in play, a child is likely not learning or receiving unconditional love. Kids reared in these conditions tend to learn that “acceptance” is based on their performance, that “validation” is based on approval-seeking (i.e. “people-pleasing”), and that “love” is conditional based on positive and negative reinforcement. Children raised with these expectations can become withdrawn, angry, or fear further betrayal. Because of this early conditioning, they may be at an increased vulnerability and predisposition to traumatic bonds in their adult relationships.

Four common red flags of traumatic bonding in childhood, which can generalize to our adult relationships, include:

1. Conditions of Worth

This is considered a core “value” of trauma bonds, where our basic needs for trust, safety, consistency, and belonging are exchanged for proving our worth. When Conditions of Worth are in play, narcissistic parents or caregivers place unrealistic and unobtainable conditions on a child and constantly move the goalposts, setting the child up for consistent failure. The harder the child tries to please their caregivers, the more the goalposts are moved which can negatively reinforce and strengthen a traumatic bond, and the “push-pull.”

Conditions of Worth can generalize to feelings of overall inadequacy and not feeling “good enough” in our adult lives. Because of this, it can affect our self-concept and our sense of self-worth. We may develop fears of abandonment or rejection if we believe we aren’t living up to someone’s expectations. We may shut down relationships altogether as too threatening, or we may find ourselves going from one narcissistic relationship to another trying to prove our worth.

2. Denying a Child’s Reality

If a parent or caregiver denies or rationalizes their abusive behavior, it can affect the child’s sense of reality. Highly narcissistic parents who fail to see any wrongdoing in their actions or deny any abuse can set the child up for questioning what they experienced or survived. When a child’s reality is denied, they can lose the ability to trust themselves, which can generalize into a spiral of self-sabotage later in life.

In our adult lives, self-sabotage is often the outcome from being unable to trust ourselves. These feelings can generalize in an inability to trust our own judgment about people, or in listening to our intuition. As a result, this can predispose us to one unhealthy relationship after another where we continue to feel unheard, our emotional needs go unseen, and trauma bonds feel familiar.

3. Invalidation

Children who are invalidated in childhood have their emotions, feelings, and basic needs ignored and neglected. Parents may shame the child for feeling sad, silence them for having an opinion, or otherwise invalidate them for having needs to feel loved, safe, and wanted.

If we have a history of being invalidated in childhood, we may neglect our self-care in our adult lives. Adults who struggle with these feelings may neglect their physical health, may develop drug or alcohol addictions to self-medicate, or may have histories of narcissistic partners that negatively reinforce their feelings of unworthiness.

4. Betrayal In Childhood

Betrayal is the underlying theme in all traumatically bonded relationships. In childhood, betrayal doesn’t usually play out in “discards” or “ghosting” as we often see in narcissistic intimate relationships. Betrayal may instead manifest as parents who physically abuse the child and don’t apologize for their actions, or who make their child believe they are unwanted or unlovable.

In our adult lives, this toxic shame that was conditioned in our childhood can show up as self-betrayal. We may have a history of unconsciously being attracted to partners who represent an abandoning or abusive parent, or who reinforce a dangerous ideology that we need to jump through hoops in order to be seen or heard.

Walking Away From The Cycle For Good

If you are experiencing a traumatic bond or have a history of narcissistic relationships, the healing process can be very painful, and walking away from the cycle can feel like you're weening yourself off of an addiction. The pull toward the person can be overwhelming, and make recovery that much more challenging each time the “pull” is experienced. When this happens, we can get caught up in the whirlwind of remembering the “good times” while dismissing the damage these relationships do to our emotional and physical health.

You are not alone, and help is available. A solid first step is awareness into the cycle and how both positive and negative reinforcement have strengthened an addictive quality to the relationship. However, awareness alone is not enough to move past a traumatic bond. Know that acceptance is also a necessary step in recognizing that trauma bonds in our adult lives are reminiscent of our childhood conditioning and wounds.

More from Annie Tanasugarn Ph.D., CCTSA
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