I have a lot of experience with trauma bonding and unfortunately, it’s firsthand. I talked about it in my workbook Self-Care For Break-Ups: Healing from Toxic, Abusive, and Codependent Relationships. But I am still in shock sometimes about how much I accepted in my last relationship. It was over two years ago but at the time I was deep into self-love. I knew my mental health was important – and I still stayed in a toxic relationship.
My ex cheated on me multiple times (once with my friend), lied to me, stole money from me, manipulated me, and gaslighted me, all while deep into first alcohol, and then drug addiction. We broke up an average of three times a week. She told me that I was disgusting and gross. While my mom was dying of cancer my ex told me that she was in love with someone else, but it was a short-term thing, and she’d like me to wait for her. At my mom’s funeral, she left me there with no ride home so that she could go drink.
And through all of this, I was convinced we were soulmates. I was so sure that my love would inspire her to get healthy and sober. I kept thinking of the first few months of our relationship and how great it was even though I had years of horrible memories to follow it. If we broke up I was so sure that something terrible would happen because I wouldn’t be there to make things better.
There were so many highs and lows in that relationship.
She would go on alcohol binges and I wouldn’t hear from her for days – I’d be so stressed out, worrying that she was dead. There’s a hormone called cortisol that’s released when we’re stressed and I would be full of it. Shaky, sick to my stomach, unable to sleep.
Then magically she’d return and tell me how much she loved me and how much she wanted to change and that was *everything* that I’d want to hear and I was *so* happy that she was okay – so then my brain would go into an over-production of feel-good, happy, chemicals.
And it repeats over and over again and your brain starts to associate that as love. It becomes addicted to those spikes and anything else (like normal healthy relationships) feels boring. Like there isn’t the same strength/amount of love.
It’s not love. It’s trauma bonding.
Trauma Bonding: A cycle of physical or emotional abuse that creates a strong attachment between an abused person and their abuser. Reinforced by periods of love and affection and then periods of devaluation and emotional abuse.
Signs you’re trauma-bonded.
- You feel like fights, break-ups, and extreme events bring you closer than the happy times. (Hard times do bring couples together but it shouldn’t be list after list of hard times)
- You crave making the other person happy at the expense of your own wants, needs, and mental health. If you’re on the verge of a mental breakdown because you’re trying to prove you love someone – reevaluate.
- You don’t have a strong reaction toward cheating, abuse, or the pushing of your boundaries because you’re used to it or it could be worse.
- You believe you can change them. If you just love them a little bit more.
- You worry that if you leave, something bad will happen to them.
- Constant breaking up and getting back together.
- Feeling like you’ve been through so much bad together that you can’t just “throw the relationship away” after so much.
- They’re always promising that things will change and they never do.
- Feeling like you will die if you aren’t together.
- Feeling completely in love and then hating the other person.
- Thinking that no one else will ever love or understand you like they do – especially because you’ve seen the worst in each other.
How to get help.
- Leave the relationship and cut off all contact if possible.
- Therapy, therapy, therapy. Our friends get so tired of the constant drama that you might find it hard to talk to them because they’re so frustrated you not leaving the relationship. Therapy will allow you to talk about your experiences without judgment.
- Focus on your own mental health and meeting your needs.
- When you want to reach out or go back to the relationship – remind yourself why you left in the first place.
Know that you are not alone.
Know that you are strong enough to break the cycle.
And know that you deserve to be happy.
You are worthy of being loved in a healthy way.
What did trauma bonding look like for you?
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Trauma bonding, for me, was everything.
After he’d hit me, or choke me, hurling insults at me that my father used to call me, he’d leave. He’d finally leave after I’d been begging him to leave for hours. I felt like he finally snapped out of it, and he must still love me because he stopped, and he left, just like I asked, and I’d cry but all I wanted was for him to hold me, tell me he’s sorry, love me. I needed someone to love me and to take this pain, physical and otherwise, away, but I wanted it to be him – the father of my children, the man I married, the love of my life. And when he came back, he did none of that. He’d stand at the other side of the room and apologize like a child being forced to say sorry while saying that I pushed his buttons, and I would end up begging him to come to me, to hug me, to love me. And within an hour, we’d be playing video games together, or watching a show and holding each other, as if nothing happened.
This was, of course, only one of the ways, but it was probably the strongest that kept me. I just felt it was okay, we could do this together.