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.
Featured image by Shutterstock.
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This article is in partnership with Sensodyne.
Our teeth are connected to so many things - our nutrition, our confidence, and our overall mood. We often take for granted how important healthy teeth are, until issues like tooth sensitivity or gum recession come to remind us. Like most things related to our bodies, prevention is the best medicine. Here are five things you can do immediately to improve your oral hygiene, prevent tooth sensitivity, and avoid dental issues down the road.
1) Go Easy On the Rough Brushing: Brushing your teeth is and always will be priority number one in the oral hygiene department. No surprises there! However, there is such a thing as applying too much pressure when brushing…and that can lead to problems over time. Use a toothbrush with soft bristles and brush in smooth, circular motions. It may seem counterintuitive, but a gentle approach to brushing is the most effective way to clean those pearly whites without wearing away enamel and exposing sensitive areas of the teeth.
2) Use A Desensitizing Toothpaste: As everyone knows, mouth pain can be highly uncomfortable; but tooth sensitivity is a whole different beast. Hot weather favorites like ice cream and popsicles have the ability to trigger tooth sensitivity, which might make you want to stay away from icy foods altogether. But as always, prevention is the best medicine here. Switching to a toothpaste like Sensodyne’s Sensitivity & Gum toothpaste specifically designed for sensitive teeth will help build a protective layer over sensitive areas of the tooth. Over time, those sharp sensations that occur with extremely cold foods will subside, and you’ll be back to treating yourself to your icy faves like this one!
3) Floss, Rinse, Brush. (And In That Order!): Have you ever heard the saying, “It’s not what you do, but how you do it”? Well, the same thing applies to taking care of your teeth. Even if you are flossing and brushing religiously, you could be missing out on some of the benefits simply because you aren’t doing so in the right order. Flossing is best to do before brushing because it removes food particles and plaque from places your toothbrush can’t reach. After a proper flossing sesh, it is important to rinse out your mouth with water after. Finally, you can whip out your toothbrush and get to brushing. Though many of us commonly rinse with water after brushing to remove excess toothpaste, it may not be the best thing for our teeth. That’s because fluoride, the active ingredient in toothpaste that protects your enamel, works best when it gets to sit on the teeth and continue working its magic. Rinsing with water after brushing doesn’t let the toothpaste go to work like it really can. Changing up your order may take some getting used to, but over time, you’ll see the difference.
4) Stay Hydrated: Upping your water supply is a no-fail way to level up your health overall, and your teeth are no exception to this rule. Drinking water not only helps maintain a healthy pH balance in your mouth, but it also washes away residue and acids that can cause enamel erosion. It also helps you steer clear of dry mouth, which is a gateway to bad breath. And who needs that?
5) Show Your Gums Some Love: When it comes to improving your smile, you may be laser-focused on getting your teeth whiter, straighter, and overall healthier. Rightfully so, as these are all attributes of a megawatt smile; but you certainly don’t want to leave gum health out of the equation. If you neglect your gums, you’ll start to notice the effects of plaque buildup, which can irritate the gums and cause gingivitis, the earliest stage of gum disease. Seeing blood while brushing and flossing is a tell-tale sign that your gums are suffering. You may also experience gum recession — a condition where the gum tissue surrounding your teeth pulls back, exposing more of your tooth. Brushing at least twice a day with a gum-protecting toothpaste like Sensodyne Sensitivity and Gum, coupled with regular dentist visits, will keep your gums shining as bright as those pearly whites.
Russell and Nina Westbrook are one of those low-key, unproblematic couples we don’t talk about enough. They met in college and got married in 2015. They also have a beautiful family with three kids. While Russell is an NBA star, Nina is a licensed family and marriage therapist and a mental health advocate.
She recently launched the podcast The Relationship Chronicles with Nina Westbrook, and in the latest episode, she had none other than her husband on as a guest. The college sweethearts dived into important topics from marriage to children and how they navigate it all.
One of the topics they touched on was dealing with resentment in your relationship. The former MVP highlighted the sacrifices his wife has had to make in order for him to pursue a career in the NBA, and that’s why it’s also important for him to support his wife whenever he can.
“For me is respecting and understanding what your partner do and the time it takes,” Russell said. “Not kind of downplaying what they do, understanding the time and energy and effort they're doing to make sure whether it’s their job or making sure home is taken care of, and understanding that, I think that is the challenge of not being resentful.”
Nina agreed and also shared her thoughts on resentment. According to her, one of the best things couples should do is have their own identity and passions outside of the relationship in an effort to be fulfilled.
“I also think that when you’re in a relationship, that’s why it’s so important that each individual kinda pursue their own passions and follow their own dreams as I feel like it only becomes or leads to resentment when one person is not feeling fulfilled in what they're doing in their lives,” she explained.
“And so, they will start to look at the other partner who’s happy or excelling or promoting or moving along in their journey, then they’re left feeling stuck like they sacrificed themselves, their happiness, their career, their future and have not pursued it in the name of the relationship or their partner. So, it’s so much easier to avoid those feelings of resentment when you’re each equally pursuing your passions.”
The couple has many passions that they work on together and separately. Outside of basketball and his family, Russell has become known for his eclectic style and started the fashion brand Honor The Gift. Nina has her podcast, and she also started the mental health website Bene. Together, they run the Why Not? Foundation, which works with kids in underserved communities.
“I’m a firm believer that one person can’t be everything to you, so you have to sort of seek out those different friendships or groups or hobbies or activities that help to fulfill you,” Nina concluded.
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Feature image by Jon Kopaloff/Getty Images for Religion of Sports