We as a generation have become determined to unpack our trauma in order to create better lives for ourselves and our future families (however we choose to fulfill that role). No matter how obnoxious it may get, for better or worse, we’ve started to familiarize ourselves with terms such as gaslighting or trauma bond. The more we unpack, the more “come to Jesus” moments we may have about the state of our current relationships.
Eventually, this requires loving ourselves more than we love others – it means showing up for ourselves in the face of what appears to be love but is often a trauma bond. Though easier to spot in romantic relationships, they do also occur in friendships as well. My focus today will be the romantic kind because the intimate concoction of trauma conflated with sex and sometimes love is a bit more complicated to navigate.
I chatted with Shawnessa Devonish MA, LCPC, NCC Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor so that we could fully understand what a trauma bond might look like.
The first thing obviously is for us to clearly define a trauma bond. Devonish matter of factly explains that “trauma bonds are developed when feelings of compatibility are sparked based off of suffering from both individuals. The connection is so enhanced that it intensifies intimacy.” She later adds, “Any traumatic [or] distressing experience can trigger the development of a trauma bond with others. In addition, a person’s susceptibility to becoming trapped in a trauma bond can be determined by childhood interactions and experiences.”
Dunno about you, but this is sorta what I envisioned the whole time I was tossing the word around. What I wasn’t aware of was the fact that a trauma bond can take an alternative form and the bond can also be built when the relationship is initiated with abusive red flags. When it does, it almost ends up looking like Stockholm syndrome. The abuse breaks the victim down and the abuser initially gives large doses of affection, but the longer the abuse goes on, the less the affection follows. The victim can grow dependent on this affection, and the sex can feel like a reward.
I, however, would like to focus on the former because I think this is often the type of trauma bond we’re often speaking of. The trauma bonds that have us in a chokehold because the sex and overall experience are so intense that it feels like the purest form of love in the midst of darkness.
Why Is Trauma Bond Sex So Damn Good?
You might have guessed it but the one and only “feel-good hormone” is responsible for the intense, mind-blowing sex. Our expert goes into more detail stating, “Trauma bounds intensify the sexual experience because it increases dopamine (‘the feel-good hormone’) levels in our minds–they enhance the sexual act and motivate more sexual encounters.”
Despite the glaring fact that all you two may have in common is trauma and good sex, this connection is strong enough to omit indications of a pleasurable experience to your brain because “we as humans have an innate need for connection/companionship and that alone can become addictive to some. Specifically when a person becomes hyper-focused on maintaining those [feelings of ] pleasure, even if it is temporary and toxic. The craving for connection becomes so intense that it can prevent some people from thinking logically.”
She later adds, “This leaves the door open for potentially toxic relationship dynamics because people neglect to search for compatibility in other areas [careers, hobbies, etc]. Hence, people are at risk of being blinded by the manipulative, disrespectful, critical, and/or callous partner.” This in turn means the relationship dynamic is easily transformed into an abusive one. With that, I had to question whether this dynamic can ever actually be mutual, authentic love and the answer is yes, it can.
However, Devonish warns that because the relational dynamic isn’t the best, to begin with, it's likely a dysfunctional type of love. She provides the analogy of having a love for junk food. Furthermore, she says, “It is important that individuals refrain from allowing the ‘love’ to blind them to the point where they are making illogical and impulsive decisions pertaining to the unhealthy relationship.”
Trauma Bonds: Red Flags to Look Out for, According to Our Expert
1. Dissatisfaction Outside of Sexual Encounters
Is the partner providing you with satisfaction outside of sexual encounters? When you take a moment to review things, you may notice that your partner is inconsistent, disrespectful, controlling, or even critical. It is important to assess how you overall feel in the relationship and not solely base that assessment on sex.
2. All You Have in Common Is…Trauma
Do you and that person talk about anything else? Connecting with a person solely because of a common trauma experience can be risky since it can trigger flashbacks, nightmares, or even re-traumatize you. If you discover that you have nothing else to talk about, you may be in a trauma bonding situation.
3. Make Note of Narcissistic Traits
When it comes to trauma bonding in intimate relationships, it is important to assess manipulative and controlling behaviors from your partner. Some may be overlooking them due to their need to maintain that connection or even because of the sympathy they have for that person.
Can Trauma Bonds be Broken?
Short answer: yes. But that doesn’t necessarily result in your being with this partner anymore. Nonetheless, here are a few expert-approved ways to do so:
- Talk to professionals to gain an objective/realistic view of the dynamic. Trauma bonds are so intense that they prevent people from thinking logically. Reaching out to professionals (ex: therapists, healers) can be helpful because we educate and assist clients with seeing things from new lenses.
- Look into EMDR Therapy. EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. It is a trauma treatment approach to therapy that assists clients with reprocessing trauma so that the experience is no longer physically or emotionally distressing to the client. During the EMDR process, clients can also develop insight that may encourage them to release themselves from the shackles of any trauma bonds.
- Assess your options. In trauma bonding relationships, it may feel like your only option is to be with that partner. However, you are capable of leaving. Work on developing a plan of action. You can also reach out to a professional or even the National Domestic Violence Hotlines to obtain some strategies and resources (if you are in an abusive relationship).
Ultimately, it’s up to you and your partner to determine if the bond you two have is deeper than the trauma you share and if it is in turn salvageable. Because so much of the criteria for what constitutes the bond being "salvageable" leaves little to no room for commonalities, you may find when you all go to do the work that there’s not much of a solid foundation to stand on, much less grow from.
In fact, I urge you and your partner to simultaneously seek out individual help while communicating your observations as you work to shift the nature of your relationship. One-on-one expert help will create a safe place for you to process hard truths on your own time, in your own space.
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