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Are You Really In Love Or Just Trauma Bonding?

Here's how you spot trouble before it even starts.

Love & Relationships

What is the difference between being in a loving healthy relationship and trauma bonding? Can you spot the difference between a healthy bond and a toxic one? Sometimes the red flags are so subtle in the beginning, they can be mistaken for love. Growing into a true, loving relationship takes time and is an investment in getting to truly know a person. Being swept off your feet sounds like a fairy tale, but those sometimes only exist in Disney. Trauma and unhealthy dating habits have a way of masquerading as love, and if you are not self-aware, you could get caught in a dangerous situation. Depending on where you are mentally, it may be extremely hard to tell the difference between love and toxicity.

According to Psychology Today, "Trauma bonding is similar to Stockholm Syndrome, in which people held captive come to have feelings of trust or even affection for the very people who captured and held them against their will. This type of survival strategy can also occur in a relationship. It is called trauma bonding, and it can occur when a person is in a relationship with a narcissist."

There are so many times when I think back on my own dating life and wonder what was the connection that I had to that person. It never occurred to me to examine where I was emotionally or mentally at that particular time. It also never dawned on me to understand how I create connections or what I value as important in developing a bond. Oftentimes we are not healed from the traumas of past relationships (whether familial or not) and drag that invisible luggage into every relationship. The bonds and connections we make with new partners are steeped in the traumas of what we never confronted.

What is trauma bonding?

Trauma bonding can be tough to identify. There are a lot of toxic characteristics that disguise themselves as love. Having a clear understanding of what trauma bonding is and how it cultivates can help you navigate your way through any relationship. So how can we recognize what trauma bonding is?

According to Rhonda Richards-Smith, a licensed psychotherapist, it can be tricky to understand. "Essentially trauma bonding is oftentimes steeped in our experiences as kids," she says. "It is how we attach ourselves to our partners and to our abusers." The experiences we have as children bonding with a caretaker shape how we maintain a bond with a romantic partner. If your childhood was filled with abuse and trauma, you will be attracted to that in a partner and a relationship because it is how you understand love.

Richards-Smith states that these patterns are adopted in childhood through a specific means of delivery. For children, it is a survival tool that is learned in order to protect themselves. "So if we experience any kind of childhood abuse, whether it be emotional or physical, we learn as kids that if you want to keep yourself safe and you don't want to be hurt, you have to do everything that you can to please your abuser." If this abuse goes unchecked, it will continue to manifest in a never-ending cycle.

"We replicate the same pattern in our romantic relationships if those issues have not been resolved," explains Richards-Smith. "So, if our partner is physically or emotionally abusive, it's sometimes difficult to even identify that you are being abused because you associate abuse with love."

The connection between receiving love to avoid punishment is conditioned from childhood. The survival tools used then for protection are still being used as an adult, no matter how unhealthy they are.

How do we know when we are trauma bonding vs when we are in a loving healthy relationship?

There are always red flags that should alert you to potential problems you might encounter. A lot of times, abusers use their past traumas to relate to a potential partner to reel them into a relationship, only to use intimate details shared by their partner as a method of control. It is important to take the time to get to know someone you are interested in romantically. Richards-Smith details the following signs/signals that you are in a trauma bond:

1. The relationship is moving too fast.

"One of the signs that you might be heading towards trauma bonding is if the relationship starts and progresses really quickly. Anytime you have a person who is an abuser and looking to get into a relationship, they are going to move things along as quickly as they possibly can in the beginning."

If you are on the receiving end, this may feel very romantic, like a whirlwind love affair or love at first sight. The quickness and intensity are used as ways to mask what the abuser doesn't want you to know. Richards-Smith adds, "When all of that is happening that is typically because that abuser doesn't want you to discover certain things about their past. If there is an insistence to elevate the relationship very quickly, that is definitely a warning sign that trauma bonding might be happening."

2. You have a preoccupation with always presenting the good in your partner.

You might say things like, "He is controlling because of the way he grew up." If you find yourself doing this excessively, it may be a sign you are bonding to your partner's trauma and allowing it to cloud your judgment.

"If you seem preoccupied with presenting your partner as being a good partner in the relationship, meaning you are going to do and say whatever to elevate them in the relationship, you are probably in a trauma bond," Richards-Smith says. "You will do this to be sure that there are no outsiders that can criticize that person in any shape or form on how they behave or how they treat you because they are the cream of the crop. If you are constantly having to make excuses for your partner's negative or bad behavior, that is a sign of trauma bonding. What ultimately ends up happening is that you start to blame yourself for anything that goes wrong in the relationship."

Richards-Smith says this is problematic because the abuser will transfer blame to you and you will internalize that blame. "It is reinforced by the partner in these relationships. Anything that goes wrong in the relationship is going to be your fault," she explains. The abuser in this case is able to capitalize on you letting their behavior slide which gives them an in to blame you. As the relationship progresses, you will become so accustomed to this negative feedback cycle that you start to believe the lie and accept blame.

3. You have an extreme fear of abandonment.

This is more of a sign that you need to work on yourself before getting into any relationship. A fear of abandonment can lead you to lend yourself to any type of treatment because you want to stay with someone no matter what. This is the most common theme I see in a lot of relationships but most of the time it is subtle.

If you know that you have an extreme fear of abandonment, you should address those issues head-on. This ties itself back to your attachment style and how you were raised. Just as childhood trauma can create an abuser, it can also create victims. "Nobody wants to break up, but if you have this extreme fear of abandonment in your relationships that is how trauma bonding can crop up," Richards-Smith says.

"Your abuser can sense that and you will do anything to stay with them. This is related to attachment, if you are so worried about bonding and staying attached to this person, they are going to use that."

What do you do when you recognize you are in a relationship that is based in trauma bonding?

"If it is a true trauma bond, the relationship is not repairable because the foundation of the relationship is toxic," Richards-Smith says. "If the foundation is toxic, you have to do your own healing, and your partner has to do their own healing. But a lot of times you have narcissists that are involved in trauma-bonded relationships. A narcissist is pretty much not going to counseling because [they believe] they are not the issue—it's you. So oftentimes it is really difficult to repair them.

Richards-Smith offers these resources and suggestions for breaking trauma bonds:

"Reach out to a licensed mental health professional who can help work through some of these things. Since trauma bonding begins in early childhood, there is a lot of work and healing that needs to be done to really make the changes stick in terms of the behaviors we really want to alter. Also, take a look at your existing support network. A lot of times when you are in a trauma-bonded relationship, you will also have a lot of friends who are in trauma-bonded relationships. So this normalizes the trauma bonding. Your perspective can get a little bit skewed when everyone around you is engaging in the same way. Surround yourself with people who are involved in healthy relationships."

If all we know is trauma bonding, how do we recognize a healthy relationship?

It is always good to have someone give a different outside opinion to challenge what you already know. "Consult a mental health professional because you need help from an outsider. We usually go to friends and family but they may not know how to recognize it either, [especially] if they are doing the same thing. It is important to have an outsider to have an objective opinion on what skills you may need and what changes you may need to make. It is tough when you are making the changes to not isolate friends and family, but you have to look at how you are interacting with those people to be sure that it is not reinforcing those trauma-bonding behaviors."

We tend to look to the people closest to us for guidance but if that circle of support is engaged in the same behavior, you will end up with the same results. There is a really great tweet that reads:

"I think the reason people think their partners can be their therapists is because they think therapy is just talking about their feelings. Therapy is a treatment plan, and psychology is a science. Having someone listen to you vent is not the same as creating a plan to heal trauma."

Now that we have taken a deep dive into the depths of trauma bonding, can you assess if you are in a trauma bond? Do you know how to recognize a trauma bond before it starts? Most importantly, do you feel empowered and confident to seek help? There are healthy connections available to us at any time, and we must be mentally prepared to know that the best is what we deserve.

If you would like to reach out for services or information, visit Rhonda Richards-Smith's website, or follow her on Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter, or Facebook.

Featured image by Shutterstock.

Mental health awareness is at an all-time high with many of us seeking self-improvement and healing with the support of therapists. Tucked away in cozy offices, or in the comfort of our own homes, millions of women receive the tools needed to navigate our emotions, relate to those around us, or simply exist in a judgment-free space.

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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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