The Micro Behaviors Of A Trauma Bond
Understanding and recognizing a relationship bonded by trauma.
“Every form of addiction is bad, no matter whether the narcotic be alcohol, morphine or idealism.” — Carl Jung
Most of us have probably all heard the words, Trauma Bond. If you’re lucky, you’ve never experienced its mindfuck and heartfuck.
If you aren’t so lucky, then you are probably familiar with how it starts, why it starts and the push-pull that’s created because of it.
We know the obvious signs of a traumatic bonding. For example, everyone is always walking on eggshells. Neither partner knows what may trigger the next argument or the next make up, so no one is saying much while everyone is holding their breath and waiting to exhale.
One partner may tune the other one out, by choosing their tablet instead of conversation. Or, talking may be reduced to superficial chitchat.
What makes this so toxic is that it shuts down all lines of communication where one, or both partners often wind up forgoing their basic needs — of feeling safe, feeling loved and being heard — just to keep “the peace.”
When there is conversation, it may be tense, forced and uncomfortable where each partner is waiting for the other shoe to drop. In those intermittent moments where conversation flows almost effortlessly, it can transport each partner back to “happier times”, adding another notch to the bond.
Another obvious sign of a trauma bond is to rationalize the situation or each other’s behavior — which keeps the game in play. You may find yourself making excuses for being third, forth or tenth on their list of priorities — coming after their career, their degree, or their hobbies.
Or they may flip the conversation to things you do that keep your side of the bond in gear. Then, when there’s intermittent moments where career, family, or the gym are ditched for quality time together…the bond is strengthened.
The biggest red flag of a traumatic bonding is the addictive rush. This is actually the biggest heads up that a relationship is unhealthy, and is the Gold Standard of a trauma bond.
Unhealthy relationships start out pretty much in sync with healthy ones. After all, if a relationship started out as a sinking ship, most people are going to jump ship.
When the relationship is addicting, it’s ruled by emotional highs and lows, where the highs are chased and the lows are run from or avoided at all costs. This dynamic is not only toxic to emotional growth and vulnerability with our partner, it keeps the relationship shallow, and as an option.
If things start going south, backup plans are brought to the front of the line.
Devaluation kicks into high gear.
The push-pull is triggered.
And, discard is inevitable.
One reason it’s an addiction is because of the chemical reaction that happens within the highs and lows. Both partners feel the dopamine, cortisol, serotonin, and oxytocin rush, and biochemically begin craving the highs.
When the relationship is good, it’s amazing and the rush of dopamine triggers the reward center in our brain.
When the relationship is only status quo, then fear or anxieties often get triggered. This may cause a fight/flight response if a threat of abandonment or engulfment are on the horizon (now cortisol kicks into gear).
Followed by making up (more dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin).
And, if this cycle plays out enough times….boom, trauma bonded.
The more the cycle of rewarding activity plays out, the stronger the addiction.
This is why traumatic bonds are said to be like kicking a bad habit. Only, in this case, the habit is not external to us; it’s based on our neurotransmitters, our hormones and our emotions.
Dutton and Painter (1981) are the theorists who initially coined “traumatic bonding” which is formed from two specific dynamics within a relationship: an imbalance of power and intermittent reinforcement. This theory is counterintuitive to earlier theories on attachment such as Bowlby’s, which argues that attachment bonds are strengthened through consistency and positive reinforcement.
However, what separates Bowlby’s theory is that his is based on healthy and secure attachments. Dutton and Painter’s theory is based on unhealthy and insecure attachments, further expanding on Bowlby’s theory.
There are two types of reinforcement seen in traumatic bonding: positive and negative. Each works in unison along with the biochemical reactions. When the relationship is new and idealization is in play, this cycle is identified by positive reinforcement, dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin. In essence, this is where we get hooked in the relationship.
When things get flipped to devaluation, cortisol kicks in and so does negative reinforcement. For example, if one partner has emotionally shut down (avoidant, “running”), there’s a good chance the other partner has kicked their emotional attachment into high gear.
By “chasing” their partner, they’re doing anything and everything to prove their investment, along with their value and worth.
I want to clarify a couple things. I’ve read a lot of misinformation that trauma bonds are a mix of positive reinforcement and punishment. This is incorrect. It’s actually a toxic combination of both positive and negative intermittent reinforcement which is why the bond is strengthened.
If talking in terms of behavior analysis, punishment is what should weaken a behavior (or bond), not strengthen it.
When relationships are healthy, we’ve likely already done damage control regarding our own unmet needs, are aware of where our needs may be lacking and are doing the legwork to empower ourselves. Ideally, this legwork happens before we even embark on a relationship, so that anything our partner offers complements us; it’s not about completing us.
Because unhealthy relationships are based on unmet needs, so is the trauma bond. What may be lesser known is how this all comes together like a perfect storm between chemical interaction, positive and negative reinforcement and unmet basic needs.
If you are lacking in feeling heard, or loved, then during idealization you’re being handed every one of your needs — even some you didn’t ask for — on a silver platter.
Never felt safe or secure in a relationship? Boom…you’re being protected, sheltered from the storm and held in their arms. And, about the same time, dopamine, oxytocin and serotonin start firing off in a chemical cocktail.
Never felt like you could completely trust anyone you got close to? Boom..now you’re being told to trust them, and they’re playing the role as trustworthy — while you’re feeling that rush of a chemical cocktail and positive reinforcement.
These are the types of situations that not only tune into our inner needs, they can strengthen a toxic bond.
The Subtle Signs
Now that the major signs and historical backdrop have been introduced, I want to explain some of the subtle warning signs and red flags of a trauma bond. However, just because some of these signs may trigger your radar to start going into overdrive, it doesn’t necessarily mean you and your partner are trauma bonded.
It doesn’t mean you’re not, either.
Things like your relationship history, their relationship history, your personal experiences and theirs, should be taken into consideration before jumping to any conclusion.
My goal is not to alarm, but to inform.
Both Partners Have Painful Childhoods. When a couple reaches that level in their relationship where they are comfortable with self-disclosing, they may tell each other about painful or traumatic things that they each experienced earlier in their lives that probably impacted how they view the world today.
This can be seen as a way to understand where each partner is coming from, or as a way to help relate and empathize if they fly off the handle during an argument. This type of disclosure is also a great way to help emotionally support each other, either as part of couples’ therapy or as part of self-improvement.
The idea is that self-disclosure should be based on emotional vulnerability, and honesty.
And, many times it is.
When it’s based on an authentic connection, partners are building the foundation for having a deeper understanding of each other, which ultimately can take your relationship to the next level.
But, sometimes it’s based on ulterior motives or agendas. For example, a partner may be wanting to know your history to see what they can get away with, or to shame you during devaluation by making comparisons on your childhood vs. theirs, or downplaying what happened to you.
Or, when a trauma bond is in play, sadly your Self-disclosure, or painful experiences may be used against you. For example, instead of using a painful memory of abandonment to help guide and strengthen your understanding and empathy towards each other, it can be used as power to traumatize and discard.
Covertly Crave the Drama. This subtle sign is actually not-so-subtle if we look closer. Because unhealthy relationships are based on self-serving agendas and emotional roller coasters, partners tend to bore easily when things turn “comfortable”. When things are calm, then fear, boredom, infidelity or sabotage are often triggered in order to stir up a dopamine, and oxytocin rush.
For example, if things are “dull” between partners, one may pick a fight to stir up some excitement (along with the chemical cocktail, some positive or negative reinforcement, and any unmet needs that get satisfied in the moment). Or, a partner may try to sabotage the other’s job to stir up drama, and then come in as a hero afterward.
You Become Self-Destructive. When a traumatic bond is in play, so is self-destruction. It may be overt, as in constantly seeking out arguments or cheating on their partner because these actions trigger a momentary “rush”.
Or, self-destruction may be more covert where there’s a history of discarding relationships when vulnerable feelings surface, or with seeking out a partner that is an unconscious rreminder of their unresolved trauma.
Changes in Appetite & Weight. Because neurotransmitters and hormones are constantly elevated during a traumatic bond, this can wreak havoc on weight and appetite. For example, when it’s a healthy relationship, the honeymoon phase may have us sleeping less or eating less. This is a normal physiological response to being in love.
However, when a traumatic bond is in play, elevated serotonin and dopamine levels may interfere with sleep and weight during the highs, while cortisol levels from chronic stress can cause significant changes in appetite, including weight gain during the lows. This can almost mimic bipolar symptoms.
Thus, it’s common to see a person either chronically obsessing on their weight and/or losing weight or ballooning up depending on where the trauma bond is.
Covertly Bonded & Overly Traumatized. I saved this point for the last because it is the most severe, and often causes the most damage. While most traumatic bonds are synonymous with the roller coaster highs and lows and the emotional push-pull, there’s a more dangerous, but lesser-known type of trauma bond.
This bond is identified with constant “highs” throughout the relationship. There’s no obvious “lows”. Thus, the entire relationship is based on a full-throttle dopamine, oxytocin and serotonin hook.
To an unsuspecting partner, they probably think they found their soulmate — everything is adding up perfectly, where there’s rarely any disagreements, both partners seem perfectly in sync with values, career goals, motivation, personality, sense of humor, favorite foods, favorite vacation spots, and even favorite workouts.
This seemingly “two-peas-in-a-pod” act can go on for years, where to the unsuspecting partner’s face, everything is pretty amazing. Little by little, tensions may build, or the unsuspecting partner is starting to be pushed or challenged as part of a covert devaluation that may not last for longer than a few weeks (long enough time for the other partner to find a replacement).
Then, without warning, the partner then goes ghost on the unsuspecting partner, often leaving them severely emotionally traumatized.
What separates this type of traumatic bond from the “typical” one, is that this one operates covertly — there’s no back and forth push-pull. The relationship is seen as healthy, happy and satisfying to the unsuspecting partner. However, to the other partner, the “relationship” is an addiction, and when the high stops, the relationship does….and on to the next relationship.
A Final Thought…
If any of this sounds familiar, it’s not to shame you, or what you may have experienced. I want to shed light on how these bonds are formed, how they represent non-love, and how they continue as part of an emotional addiction, until the sources of the addiction are healed and resolved.
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Bowlby, J. (1977). The making and breaking of affectional bonds. British Journal of Psychiatry, 130, 201–210.
Dutton, G.G., & Painter, S.L. (1997). Emotional attachments in abusive relationships: A test of traumatic bonding theory. Violence & Victims, 8(2), 105- 121.
Dutton, D. G., & Painter, S. L. (1981). Traumatic bonding: The development of emotional attachments in battered women and other relationships of intermittent abuse. Victimology: An International Journal, 7(4), 139–155.
Earp, B.D., et al. (2017). Addicted to love: What is love addiction and when should it be treated? Philosophy, Psychiatry & Psychology, 24(1), 77–92.
Maslow, A. H. (1954). Motivation and personality. New York: Harper.