A trauma bond is a bond that forms due to intense, emotional experiences, usually with a toxic person. Similar to Stockholm Syndrome, it holds us emotionally captive to a manipulator who keeps us “hostage” – whether that be through physical or emotional abuse. According to Dr. Patrick Carnes, these types of destructive attachments are known as “betrayal bonds” and can take place in any context where a relationship can be forged. They can occur in romantic relationships, friendships, within the family, and the workplace.
Trauma bonds are rampant in unhealthy, abusive or otherwise toxic relationships. They are usually strengthened by intermittent reinforcement, the periodic love-bombing, false promises or “small kindnesses” that a manipulator throws our way to keep us ensnared to the relationship. They can also be exacerbated by our own abandonment wounds.
Here are five signs you may be in a trauma bond with a toxic person:
1. You know they’re deceptive and conniving, but you can’t seem to let go.
You may be a rational, discerning person who sees through all of this person’s mind games and attempts to manipulate you. You may very well know that you’re being unjustly mistreated. You may even hold some unresolved anger and resentment towards this person for violating you. Yet whenever you attempt to leave, this toxic person throws you a few crumbs of affection and you are more than willing to mistake it for the entire loaf of bread. Whenever they’re kind, you doubt yourself. You’re gaslighted into believing that they really do want the best for you, even while they’re busy serving their own self-interest.
2. You do everything to please them and are loyal to a fault, even when they give you nothing in return but pain.
Despite the fact that this person has terrorized you time and time again, you’ve lost your grasp on reality. They hurt you, time and time again, yet you’re always ready and willing to take them back at the first sign of their remorse or a hint of their attention. Like a frog in slowly boiling water, you’ve grown accustomed to the heat to a point where it’s become deadly. You find yourself walking on eggshells, trying to bend over backwards to meet their needs while neglecting your own. You defend them to others, even when your loved ones try to give you a healthy reality check about who this really person is and the harm they’re causing you. Your loved ones can see how much this person is draining you, physically and mentally. Yet you’re not quite ready to face the truth. You’re committed to investing in the false image of this unhealthy person, rather than confronting the nature of their true self.
3. You feel addicted to them and lose far more than you gain.
You develop an addiction to this person that is not only psychological but biochemical and physiological. Your body, mind and spirit aches for them; your whole world is starting to revolve around them. You lose sleep, time, endless amounts of energy, countless hours and copious days – of explaining yourself to them, of trying to get them to see your perspective, of attempting to get them to reciprocate your efforts, or even just to stop hurting you.
You expend vast amounts of emotional labor trying to make this person a decent human being – rather than recognizing that they may never change. You develop a hyperfocus on what can be done to appease them while foregoing what needs to be done for your basic self-care.
4. You are driven to the brink of self-destruction.
Toxic people drive you to destroy yourself – it is like psychological murder with clean hands. The nature of a trauma bond is that it makes the person unable to see reality or themselves clearly. When you’re in a toxic trauma bond, your self-worth takes a hit and your sense of agency plummets. Self-sabotage becomes an automatic reflex; you’re subconsciously programmed to harm yourself because you’ve been conditioned to believe that you’re not worthy of safety or peace. You feel trapped and develop a sense of learned helplessness. Even if you do have other choices and options, you feel unable or unwilling to take them if it means cutting the cord to the person you’re tethered to.
5. You forget your worth and value – and you’re willing to lower your standards for this toxic individual, time and time again.
Where once you felt confident, self-assured and had a firm grasp on your worth, this person has made you believe that you’re unworthy of attention, affection or respect. They’ve convinced you that you’re not enough and that you have to fight for their approval or to get your basic needs in a relationship met. You’ve been made to feel invisible, pushed to compete with others for their approval, and have been used for their benefit. As a result, you lower your standards and expectations for what constitutes a healthy relationship.
If you’re in a toxic trauma bond, the first step is to recognize it, reconnect with reality and gain support to begin to break it. Only through self-awareness and self-care can we cut the cords that continue to keep us chained.