Have you ever wondered why a child desperately craves love and attention from their abusive parent? Or perhaps you always seem to end up in toxic relationships? You may not have come across this term, but, these are signs of trauma bonding.
What Is Trauma Bonding?
Trauma bonding is a kind of learned attachment style that occurs when intermittent abuse and love replace love and nurturing.
To form healthy relationships when we are older, our early attachments with primary caregivers must be positive. When we are born, fulfilling our needs quickly, experiencing comfort, positive attention, and unconditional love allows us to form healthy attachments.
These positive interactions with those closest to us allow us to grow in confidence and boost our self-esteem. They set the template in our minds for what healthy and normal relationships are.
But say our early interactions and needs meet with abuse or violence, which intersperse with random acts of affection? We begin to associate love with abuse. Abusive relationships become normalised for us. It is trauma that bonds us, not love. Yet, we still crave love and attention from the person abusing us.
If you have never experienced this kind of intermittent reinforcement, either as a child or an adult, it is difficult to understand trauma bonding. Perhaps it will make more sense to know that humans have a primal urge to form attachments with others, whether these attachments are loving or abusive. These attachments are essential to our survival.
Now, when we talk about survival, it’s important to know we activate the primitive part of our brain. All logic and reason go out of the window. We don’t think about the future or long-term consequences. Our immediate concern is surviving at that moment.
As a result, we learn what works to survive at the moment and what doesn’t. These patterns of behaviour become entrenched into our psyche. We repeat them in future relationships. We seek out partners who display similar characteristics to previous partners.
How Does Trauma Bonding Occur?
Trauma bonding occurs when two people experience heightened, intense, risky, and fearful situations together. In intermittent reinforcement, the abuser is cruel and callous and then randomly doles out affection or kindness.
We become hooked to this ‘small kindness perception’. Despite the overwhelming cruel and sadistic behaviour of the abuser, we exaggerate this kindness out of proportion.
“In threatening and survival situations, we look for evidence of hope – a small sign that the situation may improve. When an abuser/controller shows the victim some small kindness, even though it is to the abusers benefit as well, the victim interprets that small kindness as a positive trait of the captor.”
Dr Carver – author – Love and Stockholm Syndrome
Why Narcissists Use Trauma Bonding
Trauma bonding is an ideal tool in the manipulator or predator’s armoury. It is a particular favourite of the narcissist because it affords them such a high level of control over their victim.
To fully understand why victims are trapped within trauma bonding, we have to examine how the brain and body react during the initial stages of attachments.
When we are stressed, the body releases stress hormones such as cortisol. In moments of stress, the body releases the ‘fight or flight‘ hormone adrenaline.
Once adrenaline has flooded the body, the brain jumps into action to combat this and sends out massive doses of dopamine – the ‘feel-good’ hormone.
Our brain tells us to pay attention when dopamine is released because it is essential to our survival. More importantly, levels of dopamine are higher after abuse and with unexpected rewards.
Oxytocin is the love hormone that is also called the ‘cuddle’ hormone. It is released after sex, when we touch, even stroking a pet. Mothers experience high doses after the birth of their baby as it helps them to bond.
Narcissists use techniques such as love bombing or charming behaviour to initiate this powerful chemical. They will mirror your behaviour and pretend to understand your deepest desires to form a closer connection.
Signs You Confuse Abuse for love
1. It’s your fault that they are abusive
If only you had cooked the dinner just how he liked it, he wouldn’t have had to hit you. Perhaps if you’d got better grades, then your parents wouldn’t have blamed you for all the sacrifices they had to make.
2. They are only criticising you to help you
Constant putdowns or belittling you in public is not constructive criticism. Especially if it makes you feel worthless. In a healthy relationship, your partner will encourage you.
3. You stop expressing your true feelings
At the start of this new relationship, you felt like an equal. You would debate with your partner and express yourself. Now you keep quiet. You don’t want to start another argument.
4. You anticipate their wants and needs before your own
Are you always thinking ahead to the time they arrive home? Are you rearranging furniture or making sure everything looks just right? Do you have to watch the clock to make sure you are on time?
5. You start walking on eggshells around them
Do you find that the slightest little thing will set them off?
I remember being woken up at 3 am by my ex screaming at me because I hadn’t washed a chopping board correctly. He would complain that I was deliberately ironing his shirts wrong. I look back on that relationship now and it seems ridiculous that I put up with it for so long.
6. You lower your standards to be with this person
I remember the first time my ex called me the c-word. I was shocked. He didn’t even apologise. I knew he had crossed a line and that if I continued the relationship, it would only get worse. It did. By this time, I felt worthless anyway.
7. You think you can change them
At the start of the relationship, things were so different. They were kind, charming and treated you with respect. You fell hard and fast without realising they were love-bombing you. Now you think that with love and support, you can change them back to the person they once were.
But that person was fake.
8. You feel lucky that he puts up with you
My ex used to say this all the time. He had worn me down to the point where I felt grateful to him for staying with me. I think that having a mother that never expressed any love towards me always predisposed me to believe that I wasn’t worthy of being loved.
Predators are skilled at recognising people who might be vulnerable in this way.
9. You defend them against other people
One telling clue of trauma bonding is if you go out of your way to protect or justify their behaviour. For example, your family may have become concerned, or your friends might be urging you to leave the relationship.
But you stand up for them. You have excuses ready. It was their rotten childhood. They are not always like this. It is your fault for setting them off.
Only by understanding the complex relationship of the abuser and the victim can we begin to undo the damage of trauma bonding. It does no good to wonder why people can’t leave an abusive relationship. Only by trying to see what ties those to their abuser, we can help set them free.
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