It’s sad, and painful, yet it’s also true: a trauma bond is not authentic love. Authentic love is positive and transforming; a trauma bond is weakening, depleting, and confusing.
Yet that’s often not how it feels, at least when in the love-bombing phase of the abuse cycle. Excitement, giddy exhilaration, clinging attachment to regain a sense of safety, “soul mate” obsessions—these are all the hallmarks of a trauma bond, and they all mimic feelings of love.
A trauma bond is formed by the intermittent reinforcement inherent in abusive relationships. After being verbally battered, psychologically manipulated, emotionally attacked, or physically threatened, a victim of intimate partner violence is left feeling crumpled and broken. Often the silent treatment follows an abusive tirade, adding more pain and confusion to the swelter of trauma already swirling through the body, mind, and spirit of a victim.
And then the wheel revolves once again. Oh, blessed relief! Kindness has returned to the relationship. He’s being loving again, perhaps bringing home flowers or other gifts, maybe even apologizing for his behavior. The relationship begins to feel “normal.”
Yet this isn’t normal; rather, it’s another phase in the abuse cycle. Even so, the “nice times” create a façade of love, a false sense of anticipation that maybe, just maybe, the bad times are over for good. Maybe, just maybe, this time will be different and change will be permanent.
These “good times” are like bread crumbs to a starving person. If you haven’t eaten for days, weeks, or longer, even a pile of crumbs will taste delicious. You’ll feel incredibly grateful to anyone who offers these crumbs to you.
That’s how the trauma bond is formed. You develop an attachment with your abuser because you feel so relieved and grateful when he (or she) gives you even the smallest crumb of kindness.
“The cycles, the uniqueness, and the reactivity in traumatic bonding become even more volatile, all of which add to the anxiety and terror … Attachment deepens with terror.”
(Patrick Carnes, Ph.D.)
This leads me to wonder why some people are more prone to developing a trauma bond than others, and why that bond may be tighter in some relationships.
There are, of course, many reasons for this. A trauma bond is formed—and strengthened—over time, so the longer you’re in an abusive situation, the stronger the bond will be. Another factor may include the intensity of the abuse, coupled with the intensity of the love-bombing stage. Financial considerations also come into play, along with family relations—particularly when children are involved.
I also wonder if the victim’s attachment style, formed in childhood, may play a prominent role.
Attachment theory was pioneered by Dr. John Bowlby in 1939, when he presented a paper of his studies to the British Psychoanalytic Society showing how early childhood experiences can lead to psychological disfunctions. During WWII, Bowlby studied the impact of child/parent separation for those unfortunate children who had to be torn from their homes in London and placed in foster care in the English countryside, to keep them safe from enemy bombing raids. He later went on to author a series of seminal books titled Attachment and Loss. Since that time, a great deal of clinical studies and intense psychological research have enhanced his findings.
In brief, attachment theory puts forth the idea that children require a nurturing, attentive parent (or parental figure) to attach to in order to grow into emotionally stable, secure adults. Separation experiences that happen at an early age—including abuse, neglect, death, divorce, or other traumatic experiences—fragment secure development, which in adulthood means the individual is unable to bond to others in a healthy way.
Anxious (also called insecure, ambivalent, or preoccupied)
Avoidant (also called dismissive)
Anxious-Avoidant (also called fearful-avoidant or disorganized)
This is when an infant/child receives the nurturing and attentive love they need in order to grow into healthy individuals. They’ve been consistently responded to by their parents, receive empathy and not dismissal during times of anxiety and distress, and know they can count on their parents (or parental figures) to meet everything they need for secure development.
Sometimes they give the proper care, attention, and empathy, while at other times they’re dismissive, non-attentive or extremely critical and controlling.
When a parent is sometimes attuned to their child’s needs yet at other times is neglectful, a child learns that they can’t depend on their parent. This creates confusion, anxiety, and a sense of displacement.
An adult who has developed an anxious attachment style has a core wound of insecurity and distrust of self and others. They don’t believe they’re worthy of consistent love and care, and they don’t trust that others can provide that for them. They’re always waiting to be neglected or abandoned by their loved ones, and have a deep fear of abandonment.
This means they tend to bring fear into their adult relationships. If they’re enduring an abusive relationship, the “good times” bring enormous relief to their frightened heart, and they tend to cling to the relationship as if it’s a life-preserver, the only thing keeping their head above water. This sense of terror helps tighten the trauma bond as they gobble up any crumbs they may receive from their abuser, all in an effort to relieve to their feelings of anxiety and relationship loss.
Their parents consistently rejected their emotions, were never attuned to their needs, were unavailable, neglectful, disapproving or highly judgmental.
This can have dire effects on adult relationships. A child who developed an avoidant attachment style will often become an adult who has a craving for basic relational needs with others, but because they learned to repress their core wounds and disconnect from the desire for healthy attachment to those they love, they often don’t realize they still harbor those repressed needs. They believe that being close to someone else is likely dangerous; therefore they avoid intimate relationships.
For those with an avoidant attachment style, the effects of a trauma bond will likely less severe, if at all. Relationships are scary, so they tend to back away from them or avoid them altogether. Someone with this style of attachment is less likely to even be involved with an abuser, instead preferring independence and relationships that don’t require much emotional effort.
Research indicates that this style of relating to others is a result of abuse and trauma in childhood, but can also be caused by the preoccupation of the primary caregiver with ongoing trauma of their own.
If the people who are supposed to keep a child safe prove to be harmful, this creates a cognitive dissonance within the developing brain that’s too overwhelming for the child to comprehend. As a result, an adult who has developed this attachment style often feels unlovable, depressed, and afraid of intimacy. At the same time, they long to be close to their intimate partner, so they’ll often draw that partner close, then push them away when they feel too frightened and overwhelmed by that closeness.
But what if someone enters an abusive relationship with a secure attachment style, yet it changes during the course of the partnership?
Trauma expert Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, in his crucial work The Body Keeps the Score, states that individuals with a secure attachment “will maintain a fundamental state of emotional security throughout their lives … barring exposure to some overwhelming life event—trauma—that breaks down the self-regulatory system.”
Michelle Mays, author of The Betrayal Bind and founder of the Braving Hope Treatment Model, echoes this finding by stating that an adult with secure attachment may later develop an anxious-avoidant attachment style due to complex and repeated trauma, most often caused by domestic abuse and betrayal.
Betrayal and abuse creates a war within the very core of the self. Disbelief, immense pain, and devastating shock battle with feelings of commitment and love for the offending spouse. Is his true self Dr. Jekyll, or Mr. Hyde? A victim wants to trust the person she committed her life to in a sacramental marriage bond, and to draw close to him, yet her intuition is telling her to run far, far away.
And never come back.
This push-pull is the core of the anxious-avoidant attachment style. Even the strongest of us can fall prey to the manipulations of an abuser, especially when the tactics are covert. The inner conflict of loving a betraying spouse while needing to be free of the toxicity and abuse is excruciating. The mind is constantly engaging in fierce and bloody battles with itself.
When healing from attachment trauma, we have to be gentle with our wounds. No matter what our core attachment styles are, we developed them in early childhood as a way to cope with whatever situation we were in. This was a good thing—it served an important purpose. In adulthood, understanding what our attachment style is and how it may be playing a role in our current situation can go a long way in helping us to know how to heal from our trauma. If any of our attachment styles are no longer healthy in our adult lives, awareness can usher in healing and recuperation of our true selves.