A few weeks ago, I reposted a graphic from one of my favorite mental health Instagram accounts, @the.holistic.psychologist. In it, Dr. Nicole LePera (the holistic psychologist) posted some of the signs that a partnership may be a trauma bond, rather than authentic love. Here are some of the ways she listed to identify a trauma bond:
Shortly after I reposted the graphic, someone reached out to me with a question that was not so easily answered and encapsulated in an Instagram post. It’s a question that LaPera, in her work around reparenting our inner child, often writes about, and one that I find comes up often in session with my own clients:
I have a question about trauma bonding! Even though I’ve been so happy with my current relationship and feel like it really could last for a long time, if my partner says something that could even be perceived by me as similar to the verbal/emotional manipulation I experienced as a child, I get antsy and afraid. Like I feel like my partner is doing this on purpose, but if I confront them and tell them how it makes me feel, they apologize and try to make it better. It’s hard for me to accept that my partner is actually apologizing/taking responsibility for their actions. How do you know if you’re experiencing a trauma bond, or if you’re just experiencing the leftover trauma from other relationships manifesting itself in the current relationship?
There’s so much rich material here, and first of all, I want to commend you for being so aware of your process, even as it unfolds. This is something that not everyone can do, and requires the courage of our self-awareness, which we are not often taught to cultivate. Some of the psychological terms for what you’re grappling with are attachment and attachment wounds, your relationship with your early caregivers, trauma bonds (as you’ve correctly identified in relating to LaPera’s post); and the ways in which your inner child is responding to attachment in the present with the information that it had in the past. The question itself – how can I trust my partner, when what I learned in my earliest relationships was that attachment was related to fear, distrust, and betrayal – is a tale as old as time, yet can often feel brand new in each new relationship we find ourselves in.
One of the key factors in LaPera’s post, which on my first read skated right under my radar, was the point about our nervous systems – though on a reread, this is perhaps the most important part. Trauma bonding isn’t something that just happens to us emotionally or psychologically; or rather, our emotional responses to things have a neurobiological origin to them, which makes them physical, chemical, and embodied. Learning about this is a key part of understanding how trauma bonds work. So, get ready for some fancy science speak: The neurochemicals that the brain releases when you are trauma bonded to someone – “oxytocin (bonding), endogenous opioids (pleasure, pain, withdrawal, dependence), corticotropin-releasing factor (withdrawal, stress), and dopamine (craving, seeking, wanting)” – mirror those that are involved in addiction. (Funnily enough, these chemicals also share some overlap with the ones your brain releases when it experiences romantic love – especially early stages of romantic love known colloquially as New Relationship Energy. Love truly is a drug.)
Don’t worry so much about the specific details, unless you’re really interested in ‘em – there isn’t going to be a pop quiz or anything. But the point is, trauma bonds are difficult because they mimic regular patterns of attachment, and, because we need attachment bonds so much to survive, when they come under threat, our bodies respond to them as though we are experiencing actual, physical pain. We all want to move away from pain, and we’ll do almost anything to avoid it. This is why trauma bonds work. You become addicted to the cycle of emotional abuse: close bonding, confrontation (where the abuse most clearly happens), and reconcilation (coming back together to release those good, good bonding hormones.)
And on top of all this – this cycle can feel like its life or death because, at one point, it was! You needed to form attachments as a kid because it is literally how you made sure you stayed alive, and above all else, our nervous systems evolved to keep us here. If you grew up with toxic caregivers, it was in your best interest to adapt to the circumstances under which they cared for you – even if they were toxic. Now, you recognize the toxicity inherent in your early relationships when you were too helpless and dependent to be able to protect yourself or leave, and you want to make difficult choices for yourself now. That, in and of itself, is huge.
In “antsy and afraid” what I’m reading is somatic awareness – that is, how your body responds to emotional states of being afraid and wary (“antsy”-ness) – and this is the little nugget of information that I want you to really try to focus on as you move forward in this relationship. If you’ve worked with me, you probably know that the ways in which our bodies communicate to us with regard to things like trauma, stress/danger, and pleasure/safety, is one of my favorite topics, and a central focus of my work as a therapist and sex educator. Our bodies were the first means we had of communicating in the world, and they never stopped being our biggest and best source of information, but as we grow up, learning to use our words, and learning to fit ourselves into the molds and expectations of the social groups and systems around us, we often abandon the knowledge and wisdom of our bodies, relying on rationalization and intellectualization to interpret stimuli around us. This is in part because, in the Western world at least, the mind was exalted as divine (and associated with the supposed superiority of white masculinity, hmph), whereas the body, and its wisdom, was shunted aside and positioned as inferior (and associated with the perceived “shameful” eroticism of femininity and the racist perceptions of “savagery” in non-white experiences and ways of being). Screw all of that, of course – but it’s a good and important reminder that everything about our trauma (especially the self-doubt and gaslighting we do to ourselves to keep us stuck) comes back to white supremacy and capitalism, always. It is the water we’ve been swimming in for centuries.
I don’t say any of this to freak you out! That your body sometimes responds with antsy-ness and fear at some of the interactions you have with your partner does not necessarily mean that your partner is secretly as emotionally manipulative as your early caregivers, or that you have to throw the whole relationship away. What it does mean, though, is that your body is cluing you into an opportunity for growth. That growth is going to take the form of paying attention to your body, and also paying close attention to the context of the relationship. Here’s what I mean by that: According to Psychology Today, in trauma-bonded relationships, “there will be intense craving, a heightened value attributed to the abuser, and a hyperfocus on the relationship and conflict resolution. The victim’s thoughts will often follow to make sense of these feelings. [Their] brain usually turns to self-deception and rationalizations to resolve the cognitive dissonance.” What does this look like? “A victim might offer excuses to themselves, friends, and family to explain away or minimize the toxic partner’s violating behaviors.” By contrast, “Normal partners do not create the same emotionally charged climate as an abuser. Context is everything when it comes to the brain.”
This is all a complicated way of saying actions speak louder than words – and the information we get from our bodies can be purer and wiser before we run it through the mill of rationalization, self-doubt, a deep desire for safety and connection, and all the social conditioning that tells us we have to be nice and demure and polite and selfless, and abandon ourselves for the sake of love and acceptance. The growth opportunity here is to turn all those things on their head and engage with them critically, intentionally, and non-judgmentally.
It sounds like you’re taking that opportunity both when you express to your partner how you feel and give them the opportunity to clarify their statements and support you through vulnerable moments, and when you pay attention to what’s being kicked up for you in these circumstances. To take it further, I would suggest using these opportunities not only as a means of getting your partner to clarify, apologize, and support, but also get more curious about what’s coming up for you: What, exactly, about what they said triggered your inner child into squeamishness, into fidgeting and fear? Was a specific memory triggered by that interaction, or a dynamic more generally? Do you remember a specific person – your mother, father, grandparent, aunt or uncle, older sibling? What is your relationship with that person like now? Was there ever a moment when you stood up for yourself, or did you have to stay under the radar to keep the peace? How did they respond if you tried to voice your hurt and dismay? How does your partner, by contrast, respond to that, and does it feel different?
And, some harder questions: Are you having the same conversations with your partner over and over again, or do they take what you say to heart, and show changes in behavior? When they apologize to you, is their apology a real one, by which I mean, does it lead to changed behavior? Do they also confide in you about what the process is like for them, and do you share together what your childhoods were like and how you both learned to love? Quite frankly: Are they also proactively and intentionally doing healing work around their own experiences of early attachment? We all have baggage, and none of us came from perfect homes. (Again: Capitalism and white supremacy is the water we have been swimming in for centuries.)
Get really honest with yourself about the answers to these questions, because it’s very easy, and tempting, to explain all our reactions away are responses to trauma. “I’m broken, and this partner will save me” is what keeps us vulnerable. Possibly your trauma history is being triggered out of context in this relationship – but maybe it’s not. Or maybe you’re reacting to things that are not abuse in the way you experienced it as a child, but are clues the changes you want and need in how you and your partner relate to each other. YOU are the expert, no matter what your trauma history is.
Take note of what stress response is being triggered in you. Many of us have heard the usual culprits: fight, or flight, in response to stress and trauma, but less well-known are freeze – when our bodies shut down in the face of threat, and we experience things like disassociation; fawn – when we bend over backwards to try to appease the people hurting us, abandoning our own needs and desires in our bids for safety (this can show up a lot in codependent relationships); and tend and befriend, or seeking nurturance and social support through the stress response. Examining this is a practice of mindful self-awareness, and the curiosity required to do it is what creates enough distance between the stress of your response and your experience of it.
Pay attention to how your body responds to your partner’s reassurance, as well, and not just the event that triggered your stress response. Every interaction is an opportunity to gather more information. Similarly: How can you bring your body into these moments of vulnerability and connection with your partner? Our bodies are not just vehicles for us to receive information about the world, they’re also the most powerful way for us to unlearn, relearn, and heal. If it feels safe enough, what would it be like to incorporate touch, closeness, or movement into these moments of rupture (the psych term for conflict in a relationship), vulnerability, and repair (the psych term for healing that conflict and integrating it into the relationship) with your partner? This doesn’t mean anything hot and heavy, it can be as simple as linking pinkies while you talk, as silly as a mini-dance party, or as deliberate as a twenty-second hug – most importantly, though, it needs to feel freely chosen and safe for you.
Please know that you’re not alone in this process, at all. In fact, recently, Feminista Jones wrote for Zora about her own experience of relationship trauma, and how therapy is helping her sort out early attachment’s role in it: “My therapist helps me dig deeper into the reasons why I kept revisiting the same relationship with the same type of man, only to end up with the same devastating results. I now understand more about my relationship with my father, and its effects on how I interact with men. The biggest ‘aha!’ moment for me was in my understanding that relationship trauma is very real, can alter your brain and its functioning, and the symptoms can completely change your life.” As you can probably tell by now, our brains do a whole lot of developing in childhood, and they also seek patterns and familiarity. But that doesn’t mean we’re pre-destined to always be in unhealthy relationships, and that doesn’t mean that your relationship is unhealthy just because you experienced manipulation early in your childhood. Another possibility, though, is related to this – that because emotional manipulation was what you experienced in childhood in your early attachments, your brain is seeking to create that familiarity in this relationship, because what feels familiar (even if it is unhealthy!) is what our brains perceive as safe.
The trick, of course, is that all of this discernment is easier said than done. When we start asking ourselves these questions related to our early childhood experiences, a lot of scary stuff can come up for us, and many of us choose to avoid it all because the process is too painful. You’ll need support around this work, so I would also recommend seeking out a therapist who can guide you through this process, if that is accessible to you, or at least think about opening up these conversations with your friends. A common saying around attachment theory is that we heal in relationships. That doesn’t have to only mean your romantic relationship, though we’re pressured into thinking that our romantic relationships should be the central focus of our lives. But your friendships, or even the therapeutic relationship you create with a good therapist, give you other forms of context for healthy attachment – more information! – against which you can examine your experience of your romantic relationship.
As my mama always says: actions speak louder than words. You’re already doing it: paying attention to how this relationship is different from what you grew up knowing, and how your partner’s actions are different from your previous history. Hold onto that. Pay attention to your body. Don’t judge your anxiety, but thank it. You’re not broken; your body is doing exactly what it is meant to do to keep you safe. As LaPera says, “Authentic love must be learned,” and you’re right on track in the process of it. While it makes sense for your inner child to be fearful, you now have the opportunity to comfort her the way you needed to be comforted when you were her. Be brave, for her, and for you, because you deserve it.