Out of a fear of abandonment, we unknowingly abandon ourselves.

Is It Trauma Bonding or Love

The line between love and hate, passion and pain (especially if you have experienced trauma) can feel as thin as a sliver. The reasons for this are complex, but what is essential to know is that when researchers put two strangers on a perilous, swinging bridge together, the strangers are more likely to be attracted to one another than if they are seated on a park bench or standing side-by-side, in the produce aisle. What is essential to know is that fear deepens human bonds and that bonds are not only little oxytocin bubbles floating blissfully between caregiver and infant. Bonds can be heavy as chains can shackle you to a relationship even as you hold out your hands willingly, asking to be tethered.

Ongoing relational strife, especially when it involves repeated betrayals, fear, and trauma, triggers our nervous system to remain in a perpetual state of vigilance. Essential feelings like loneliness, sorrow, disappointment, and even anger get shut down when our relationship’s history has demonstrated that our attempts at communicating predictably devolve into contempt and isolation. We become unplugged from ourselves, unknowingly grieving parts of us that have long since grown dormant. Emotions that were once easily accessible get swallowed whole by one singular focus: we must not lose the relationship. Out of a fear of abandonment, we unknowingly abandon ourselves.   

It Can Be Trauma Bonding and Love

Is it trauma bonding or love? Are relationships ever really that black and white-—that right or wrong-—that good or bad? How do we reconcile that sometimes [even good] love hurts and discern what is healthy from what is toxic? What do we do when faced with the very real scenario that it is possible to love someone you are trauma-bonded with, and therein lies the ache?

Intimacy Versus Intensity

Love, at its best, pushes both people to grow; it is hallmarked by mutuality. Intimacy is the engine of this growth, which means there is a continual familiarity and friendship and closeness nurtured by the couple, who believe that “what is good for me must be good for we” and embody their commitment regardless of circumstance. Sometimes, this stance manifests in counter-intuitive ways. In firmly but kindly holding a partner accountable. In not being reasonable when un-reasonability is all we are given. We must be brave with this kind of love. We must be willing to choose courage over comfort, getting better over getting along, and running headlong into heartbreak.

Trauma bonds feed off intensity, with one person assuming the role of victim and the other of victimizer. Fear and arousal get conflated with passion and vulnerability. Commitment is often a moving target, with one person leaning in and the other leaning out and threats of abandonment or betrayal intermittently looming in the ethers. This intermittentness is the hook; interspersed between episodes of contempt, withdrawal, and intense drama, there can be sweetness, seduction, and even fun. Not a lot, but enough. Enough to keep us coming back because, at its core, trauma bonding is an addiction. And like any addiction, we lose our ability to choose freely whether to stop or continue a behavior—whether to stay or leave our partner. Trapped in a relationship that, over time, has adverse consequences on our health, freedom, job, family, and friendships, we become consumed, neglecting to nurture the very things that would give us strength and empower us to make healthier choices.

There are exceptions. Sometimes, a stance of chronic ambivalence, of vacillating between leaning out and leaning in, is a ploy to avoid deeper commitment. But other times, we are procrastinating because we are afraid and hoping to thwart the inevitable—that moment when we face the fallout and must function securely with a partner who will not.

Educate Yourself

The truth is that knowing how to discern trauma-bonding from love is not enough. Most of us know that swinging on that perilous bridge is fraught and that the highs can be oh-so spectacular but that the lows are slowly killing us. This is not so far from the truth: the Harvard Study of Adult Development, the most extensive study of its kind, established a strong correlation between high-conflict, lonely relationships and poor health. It turns out that bad relationships are worse for you than smoking. That loneliness, particularly in proximity to an unreachable other, is a unique kind of agony devoid of the peace and solace our hearts and minds require to thrive.

Acknowledging we are trauma-bonded with someone we love is painful: riddled with shame, confusion, and lurking anticipatory grief that unknowingly mires us down. Healing is a long road. No amount of therapy, ongoing or short-term, will help if we do not deal with the core problem: trauma bonding. Which, as formidable as it sounds, is doable. There are many essential resources, classics like Betrayal Bonds by Patrick Carnes, Codependent No More by Melody Beattie, and Daring Greatly by Brené Brown.

Shift Your Perspective

There is (slowly) learning to shift your perspective and appreciating that bonds (of all kinds) are not good or bad but inherently neutral, having evolved to serve a purpose: to establish a link and foster connection that supports (and enhances) survival. Meaning your bonds, at their best, were and are a physical and psychological footprint of your desire to love and be loved—to form healthy attachments. Despite things having gone awry, nothing can change that.


And there is grief; as contradictory (and unpleasant) as it may feel, making room for any sorrow you have pushed away because it’s just too painful is your key out of trauma bonding because grief is sister to acceptance, and acceptance is about dealing with reality. Reality is not the relationship you dreamt of or longed for but the relationship you are in—trauma bonds and all. Even if this relationship endures, it will change. The relationship you had, or the relationship you thought you had, or the one you had hoped for is no more. And as hard as it may be to believe, ultimately, this might bring healthier things you can’t yet see.

We have many relationships in one lifetime, sometimes with one person and sometimes with multitudes. As existentially provocative as this may sound, it is an inherently hopeful stance abounding with grace: we can change, heal, and better ourselves. With hard work, patience, and proper support, we can free ourselves from trauma bonds, form secure attachments, and love well.

Originally published on the Gottman website.


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