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Is Your Tightest Friendship Nothing More Than A Trauma Bond?

Not all closeness is...good.

What About Your Friends?

Yeah buddy. If ever there was a time when I recommend that you read an article when you're in a pretty good mood (meaning, not easily triggered) and you can be uninterrupted so that you take some time to process all that's been said, this one would be it. As someone who is quite clear on the fact that my first so-called friendship with a girl was the worst kind of trauma bond on the planet—one that paved the way for other trauma bonds to occur over the course of a lot of my life—I will give the heads up that while a write-up like this can provide all kinds of ah-ha moments, sometimes the reality of the truth can be quite jarring too.


Because, c'mon y'all—who ever really goes into a relationship, thinking that it is to be based on some form of trauma? And yet, whether a lot of us want to accept it or not…that is exactly what some of us do. Often. In part, because we don't get what a trauma bond actually is and/or how to avoid cultivating one before we find ourselves feeling wounded, heartbroken and/or devastated.

And here's the real trip of it all. While I've experienced a few trauma bonds with relatives and boyfriends, oftentimes folks don't realize that where they tend to be highly prevalent is in platonic situations. And listen, when your close friendships are toxic, that tends to affect, infect and negatively influence you in ways that you don't even realize—until you break free.

So, now that we're entering a new year and a new season, take a moment to see if one of your nearest and dearest friendships is actually one of the worst things that has ever happened to you. (Take a deep breath, now. Ready? Let's go.)

What Exactly Is a Trauma Bond?

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"Trauma bond" is the kind of phrase that's used so much that it has taken on a lot of meanings. While I do personally think that an extension of a classic trauma bond is when two people connect on nothing more than unhealthy habits and/or brokenness and/or toxic personality traits (which means they aren't building on anything healthy, purposeful or meaningful), that isn't what a true trauma bond is all about.

A trauma bond is when a narcissist finds a victim to bring into their world and then manifests a cycle of abuse that becomes so unbelievably insane that 1) it's hard for the victim to even grasp what is going on and 2) even once they do, they don't really know how to get out.

Keeping this in mind, in order for a trauma bond to make even more sense, we should break down what some traits of a narcissist actually are.

A narcissist:

  • Needs constant praise
  • Is an ego maniac
  • Intimidates and belittles others
  • Is apathetic
  • Makes everything be about them
  • Feels envious of others
  • Is obsessed with power, beauty and/or success
  • Is a snob (thinks only certain people are "qualified" to be in their intimate space)
  • Idealizes relationships in a way that is unrealistic

Off top, a sho 'nuf example of a narcissist is Donald John Trump. And while there are a billion and one reasons why that man has been able to get away with as much as he has, a big part of it is because so much of this country politically trauma bonded to him. For whatever the reason, they initially found him to be charming and/or funny and/or intriguing, he manipulated that, then proved himself to be nothing that he promised. Yet, because certain folks made him up to be something bigger in their own minds, the remained loyal anyway. They remain trauma bonded.

OK, but how does this all happen? Outside of political mayhem, how can people who seem to be really smart and self-aware still find themselves caught up? That's a really good question. I'll do my best to break it down.

How Do So Many of Us Get Caught Up in a Trauma Bond?

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When it comes to how a person either becomes a narcissist or involved with one, it typically has to do with one's childhood. Oftentimes, narcissists grow up feeling abandoned or not properly nurtured in some way, so they create a really toxic way to self-preserve and self-persevere. On the other hand, a victim of a narcissist was usually raised by a narcissistic parent or caregiver (check out "What If It's Your Parents Who Happen To Be The Narcissists?"). As children, we want (and deserve) to be loved. When we're not, it can create voids (narcissism). Children are also innately very pure and desirous of wanting to make their parents or caregivers happy. When an abusive parent takes advantage of that, the child keeps doing more in hopes that their parents will be pleased. And since our parents are usually our first introduction to love, respect and relationships in general, we think that the emotional roller coaster ride that they put us on is how relationships are supposed to go. And so, in walks other narcissistic people who are more than ready, willing and able to take advantage of our vulnerability; especially since a lot of us aren't even aware that the shaky foundation that our parents created for us even exists.

So with that breakdown, I'm thinking that it might make sense how you can have a tight trauma bond with someone who you consider to be a really close friend. Because if that friend is a narcissist, then already something is "off". That said, do me a favor and think about the people who you consider to be in your inner circle. Do they have a huge ego? Do you find yourself praising them as they belittle you? Do you have moments when it seems like they are a closet hater or envious of you? Are you way more "into them" (committed, devoted, supportive) than they are into you (check out "Ever Wonder If A Friend Is Just...Not That Into You?")? Do they not seem interested in understanding what you need and how you feel?

Deeper still, have you not even really stopped to consider all of this because, up until now, the amount of time, effort and energy that you've put into the relationship has caused you to keep enduring what they are dishing out because you've chalked it up to being "That's just how they are" with a dash of ill-defined loyalty to them and the friendship?

Matter of fact, have you even stopped to ponder if you're even happy and fulfilled in your friendship? Because unfortunately, a lot of us seem to feel like that way of thinking should only be reserved for romantic relationships (or perhaps even professional ones), when the reality is you deserve to be happy, fulfilled and nurtured in every single relationship you've got. So, if all you and your homie have are "all these years" (shout-out to one of my favorite lines from the movie,Love Jones), no matter how much you love and care about them, not only is that not a good enough reason to remain in the relationship, chances are, you are subjecting yourself to abuse—a trauma bond.

What Does a Trauma Bond Between Friends Look Like?

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If some of this is rattling you a bit and you would like a little more info, just to be sure, here are some signs that you could have a trauma bond with a so-called friend:

If your friend:

  • Guilt trips you into getting you to do what they want you to do
  • Uses manipulation to get what they desire
  • Makes you feel uneasy or uncomfortable in some way and, if you bring it up, they not only attack you for doing so but find a way to make you feel like a bad person for even mentioning in
  • Rarely takes accountability and responsibility for the wrong that they've done and, if they ever do, the remorse seems fake AF
  • Never wants to deal with real issues within the relationship
  • Has unrealistic expectations and/or are hypocritical in the sense that they expect you to do what they are unwilling to do in the friendship
  • Is never wrong
  • Is hypersensitive and/or super defensive most of the time
  • Is self-righteous
  • Hurts you, deflects, and then hurts you again (and it feels like a pattern)

While none of us are perfect (and anyone who feels otherwise about themselves; they too could easily fall into the narcissism demographic), if you've got someone in your life who you could easily check off 3-5 of these traits—while it might be a bitter pill to swallow, you very well could be involved with narcissist. Not only that but you could very easily be trauma bonded to them as well.

While we're here, another clear sign that there is some trauma bonding going on is if you read all of this, you feel a pit in the bottom of your stomach and yet, your immediate inclination is to defend your friend or the dynamic rather than figure out a way to actually grieve the reality, heal yourself and set up some firm boundaries, moving forward. Because, I speak from personal experience when I say that, being in a relationship with a narcissist is a vicious cycle that absolutely will not change until 1) they are forced to face some consequences of their actions and 2) they get some assistance from a reputable counselor or therapist. Please never forget that it's pretty close to impossible for a narcissist to heal on their own because they've got to be humble enough to recognize that something is wrong with them and humility is a trait that narcissists simply do not have.

How to Heal from Breaking a Trauma Bond.

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So, what are you saying, Shellie? If I've got a trauma bond with someone, I need to cut them off. Some of you may have check out an article that I wrote a couple of years back for the site entitled, "Why I Don't 'Cut People Off' Anymore, I Release Them Instead", so no, I don't necessarily recommend that you turn around and be as "violent" to a friend as they've been to you. What I will say, though, is if it is now abundantly clear that you've been in a relationship with a narcissist, why would you want to keep them in the honored and privileged space that really belongs to those who are going to love you right and well?

So yeah, for a season, I think that you should take some time away from the "friend", so that you can figure out what you want and need, what the counterproductive patterns have been and why you tolerated their BS for so long. It can help to journal out where you think your codependency in this area stems from and how long it's been going on. I'm all about you establishing firm and necessary boundaries with them in order to protect yourself from further harm. It can also be smart to come up with your own definition of what a real friend means to you, in this season of your life.

Also, I've always been about—and will continue to be about—creating pros and cons lists. That said, the friend who you think you are so close to and love so much, figure out the great things about having them in your life and the not-so-awesome ones.

Ask yourself if you're "in this" because that's just the way it is, because you are afraid of what life looks like without them or you don't really have any other friends but that friend. If any of those reasons resonate, give yourself permission to accept that they simply aren't good enough. You should never remain in a friendship merely out of habit, fear or loneliness. Besides, it's not until you remove yourself from your emotional abuser that you can get into friendships that are better for you anyway.

I know this was a lot to take in. Believe me when I say that I do. Yet your time and the very essence of your being are way too precious to be on a hamster wheel with someone who, at the end of the day, really doesn't have your best interest at heart; someone who mostly keeps you around, so that they have a tool to manipulate and a fan to make them feel like their stratagems really aren't "all that bad".

2020 was traumatic enough, don't you think? Purpose in your mind to go into 2021, releasing the pain, drama and lack of personal satisfaction that you actually can control. Start by shifting that trauma bond you've got with that friend of yours. It'll be one of the best decisions that you've ever made in your entire life. Trust me.

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You may not know her by Elisabeth Ovesen – writer and host of the love, sex and relationships advice podcast Asking for a Friend. But you definitely know her other alter ego, Karrine Steffans, the New York Times best-selling author who lit up the literary and entertainment world when she released what she called a “tell some” memoir, Confessions of a Video Vixen.

Her 2005 barn-burning book gave an inside look at the seemingly glamorous world of being a video vixen in the ‘90s and early 2000s, and exposed the industry’s culture of abuse, intimidation, and misogyny years before the Me Too Movement hit the mainstream. Her follow-up books, The Vixen Diaries (2007) and The Vixen Manual: How To Find, Seduce And Keep The Man You Want (2009) all topped the New York Times best-seller list. After a long social media break, she's back. xoNecole caught up with Ovesen about the impact of her groundbreaking book, what life is like for her now, and why she was never “before her time”– everyone else was just late to the revolution.

xoNecole: Tell me about your new podcast Asking for a Friend with Elisabeth Ovesen and how that came about.

Elisabeth Ovesen: I have a friend who is over [at Blavity] and he just asked me if I wanted to do something with him. And that's just kinda how it happened. It wasn't like some big master plan. Somebody over there was like, “Hey, we need content. We want to do this podcast. Can you do it?” And I was like, “Sure.” And that's that. That was around the holidays and so we started working on it.

xoNecole: Your life and work seem incredibly different from when you first broke out on the scene. Can you talk a bit about the change in your career and how your life is now?

EO: Not that different. I mean my life is very different, of course, but my work isn't really that different. My life is different, of course, because I'm 43. My career started when I was in my 20s, so we're looking at almost 20 years since the beginning of my career. So, naturally life has changed a lot since then.

I don’t think my career has changed a whole lot – not as far as my writing is concerned, and my stream of consciousness with my writing, and my concerns and the subject matter hasn’t changed much. I've always written about interpersonal relationships, sexual shame, male ego fragility, respectability politics – things like that. I always put myself in the center of that to make those points, which I think were greatly missed when I first started writing. I think that society has changed quite a bit. People are more aware. People tell me a lot that I have always been “before my time.” I was writing about things before other people were talking about that; I was concerned about things before my generation seemed to be concerned about things. I wasn't “before my time.” I think it just seems that way to people who are late to the revolution, you know what I mean?

I retired from publishing in 2015, which was always the plan to do 10 years and retire. I was retired from my pen name and just from the business in general in 2015, I could focus on my business, my education and other things, my family. I came back to writing in 2020 over at Medium. The same friend that got me into the podcast, actually as the vice president of content over at Medium and was like, “Hey, we need some content.” I guess I’m his go-to content creator.

xoNecole: Can you expound on why you went back to your birth name versus your stage name?

EO: No, it was nothing to expound upon. I mean, writers have pen names. That’s like asking Diddy, why did he go by Sean? I didn't go back. I've always used that. Nobody was paying attention. I've never not been myself. Karrine Steffans wrote a certain kind of book for a certain kind of audience. She was invented for the urban audience, particularly. She was never meant to live more than 10 years. I have other pen names as well. I write under several names. So, the other ones are just nobody's business right now. Different pen names write different things. And Elisabeth isn’t my real name either. So you'll never know who I really am and you’ll never know what my real name is, because part of being a writer is, for me at least, keeping some sort of anonymity. Anything I do in entertainment is going to amass quite a bit because who I am as a person in my private life isn't the same a lot of times as who I am publicly.

xoNecole: I want to go back to when you published Confessions of a Video Vixen. We are now in this time where people are reevaluating how the media mistreated women in the spotlight in the 2000s, namely women like Britney Spears. So I’d be interested to hear how you feel about that period of your life and how you were treated by the media?

EO: What I said earlier. I think that much of society has evolved quite a bit. When you look back at that time, it was actually shocking how old-fashioned the thinking still was. How women were still treated and how they're still treated now. I mean, it hasn't changed completely. I think that especially for the audience, I think it was shocking for them to see a woman – a woman of color – not be sexually ashamed.

I hate being like other people. I don't want to do what anyone else is doing. I can't conform. I will not conform. I think in 2005 when Confessions was published, that attitude, especially about sex, was very upsetting. Number one, it was upsetting to the men, especially within urban and hip-hop culture, which is built on misogyny and thrives off of it to this day. And the women who protect these men, I think, you know, addressing a demographic that is rooted in trauma that is rooted in sexual shame, trauma, slavery of all kinds, including slavery of the mind – I think it triggered a lot of people to see a Black woman be free in this way.

I think it said a lot about the people who were upset by it. And then there were some in “crossover media,” a lot of white folks were upset too, not gonna lie. But to see it from Black women – Tyra Banks was really upset [when she interviewed me about Confessions in 2005]. Oprah wasn't mad [when she interviewed me]. As long as Oprah wasn’t mad, I was good. I didn't care what anybody else had to say. Oprah was amazing. So, watching Black women defend men, and Black women who had a platform, defend the sexual blackmailing of men: “If you don't do this with me, you won't get this job”; “If you don't do this in my trailer, you're going to have to leave the set”– these are things that I dealt with.

I just happened to be the kind of woman who, because I was a single mother raising my child all by myself and never got any help at all – which I still don't. Like, I'm 24 in college – not a cheap college either – one of the best colleges in the country, and I'm still taking care of him all by myself as a 21-year-old, 20-year-old, young, single mother with no family and no support – I wasn’t about to say no to something that could help me feed my son for a month or two or three.

xoNecole: We are in this post-Me Too climate where women in Hollywood have come forward to talk about the powerful men who have abused them. In the music industry in particular, it seems nearly impossible for any substantive change or movement to take place within music. It's only now after three decades of allegations that R. Kelly has finally been convicted and other men like Russell Simmons continue to roam free despite the multiple allegations against him. Why do you think it's hard for the music industry to face its reckoning?

EO: That's not the music industry, that's urban music. That’s just Black folks who make music and nobody cares about that. That's the thing; nobody cares...Nobody cares. It's not the music industry. It's just an "urban" thing. And when I say "urban," I say that in quotations. Literally, it’s a Black thing, where nobody gives a shit what Black people do to Black people. And Russell didn't go on unchecked, he just had enough money to keep it quiet. But you know, anytime you're dealing with Black women being disrespected, especially by Black men, nobody gives a shit.

And Black people don't police themselves so it doesn't matter. Why should anybody care? And Black women don't care. They'll buy an R. Kelly album right now. They’ll stream that shit right now. They don’t care. So, nobody cares. Nobody cares. And if you're not going to police yourself, then nobody's ever going to care.

xoNecole: Do you have any regrets about anything you wrote or perhaps something you may have omitted?

EO: Absolutely not. No. There's nothing that I wish I would've gone back and said to myself, no. I don’t think at 20-something years old, I'm supposed to understand every little thing. I don't think the 20-something-year-old woman is supposed to understand the world and know exactly what she's doing. I think that one of my biggest regrets, which isn't my regret, but a regret, is that I didn't have better parents. Because a 20-something only knows what she knows based on what she’s seen and what she’s been taught and what she’s told. I had shitty parents and a horrible family. Just terrible. These people had no business having children. None of them. And a lot of our families are like that. And we may pass down those familial curses.

*This interview has been edited and condensed

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Feature image courtesy of Elisabeth Ovesen

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