Traumatic Bonding

One question my husband has that I could never really answer is,

So why do these people matter so much to you?  You have nothing in common, you rarely see them, you never talk to them — why do they matter?

The answer, I think, is traumatic bonding.

For me, a milder form than what you’ll find if you google the term.  It usually refers to the reason why abused or battered women stay with their abuser.  But its definition is “Trauma bonding is loyalty to a person [for me, persons] who is destructive.”

I think it probably has its roots in the fact that my primary caregiver, my mother, completely disappeared twice during the first year of my life, for a month each time.

Each time I was abandoned by the one person that I was supposedly bonding to, the person who was supposed to care for me and keep me safe (although I have no idea, and no way to find out, how much of that she was actually doing — given that she was hospitalized for some unknown combination of mental illness, severe depression, and probably a psychotic break to start it all off).

Each time, that care was then provided by other people in my family:  namely, my father and three oldest siblings.

So on some level, I learned very early and very deep down that siblings (and my father) were very important.  They were who you had to rely on to take care of you when you were abandoned.

On some level also, I believe I learned in my early years that you had better not ask them, or my mother, for too much:  you better not bug them or they might get mad and stop taking care of you.

But, they were my family, and they were important to my survival.  And because they more-or-less took care of me, I thought they loved me and would always do so.

When my father died — the ultimate abandonment — and my siblings acted otherwise, that very deep belief was hugely betrayed, and became a moral injury.

Some other features of a traumatic bond:

You seem unable to detach from someone even though you can’t trust them or really don’t even like them.

There is a constant pattern of nonperformance, yet you continue to believe promises to the contrary…  Victims stay because they are holding on to that elusive “promise”…or hope for fulfillment of some deeply personal need within the victim…

You keep trying to do more and more to please [them], but nothing you do is ever good enough or acknowledged.

I believed in my younger days that if I wrote more letters, made regular phone calls, tried harder, got older — one day I’d finally do or be whatever it was I had to do to be “in the club”.

The promise here wasn’t a spoken one, but I saw the bonds that my older siblings had, and I was a sibling too, right?  So I’m supposed to be part of the family, right?  That’s automatic when you are born, right?

I still remember one trip my oldest brother made out here, when he and his wife brought her elderly parents out to see an uncle, I think it was, for what was obviously going to be a final visit.  The plane was horribly delayed, they didn’t get into town until very late, everyone was tired and hungry.  I think they were supposed to drive to the uncle’s house that night, but it was far too late for that.  So they came to our house.  My husband and I fed them a spaghetti dinner, put them all up for the night, and took care of them.  It wasn’t that much to do, but they were, naturally, very grateful.  I was so pleased to be able to do something for them, and be appreciated in return.  And it was perhaps the only time I can remember feeling like an adult, an equal, around one of my siblings.

The environment necessary to create a trauma bond involves intensity, complexity, inconsistency, and a promise.  Usually trauma bonds occur in relationships involving inconsistent reinforcement… Dysfunctional marriages also cause trauma bonds because there is always a time when things seem to be “normal.”

There were always times when we seemed to be a fairly normal, even happy, family.  There were good times.  There was fun and laughter.  My sister remembered birthdays and sent presents and so on.  There was enough of a “keeping up appearances” to fool me.  Then again, there was the lack of warmth, my inability to make her laugh, the casual remark by one of her daughters that made it clear she did not like me.

So often, those in a traumatic relationship are “looking right at it, but can’t see it.”  Only after time away from the unhealthy attachment can a person begin to see the destruction it caused.  In essence, people need to “detox” from trauma bonds by breaking them and staying away from the relationship.

An interesting list:  again, written about women in abusive spousal relationships but I can see some connections.

1. You think being treated badly is normal.

2. You have repetitive fights about the same thing, over and over, and no one ever wins, there’s never any insight.

5. You’re in love with the fantasy, not the reality.

6. “Auuuughhh!!!” You often feel like Charlie Brown, who repeatedly kicks the football that Lucy holds, only to have her pull it out at the last minute. The idea that THIS TIME he won’t pull the football continues to have power despite his always pulling the football and you always landing on your back.

I kept going to the reunions for a few years, thinking that things would get better.  They did not.

7. Conversion. You keep trying to “convert” your spouse into someone who treats you right, “convince” him to behave differently, or “prove” yourself to him. You think if only you can “prove” yourself, everything will be different. You try to get him to “understand” that what he does/says is hurtful to you. If only he would “understand”!

Probably what this blog is about.  Also, You continue to ruminate over the hurtful things your partner did, even though they might be out of the picture now.”

8. You don’t like him. You “love” your spouse, but you don’t like, respect, or even want to be around him.

They are all conservative; religious; some are bigoted and racist and mysogynist.  As my husband pointed out, they aren’t people I’d choose to socialize with.

10. Obsession. If you do manage to break away from your spouse, you obsess and long to the point of nostalgia about the horrible relationship you got away from and that almost destroyed you.

It’s not this dramatic, but I do get nostalgic and lonely at holidays and birthdays and so on.  Another source says “obsess means to be preoccupied, fantasize about, and wonder about even though you do not want to“.  That is a lot closer to my experience.

That same source lists these symptoms, among others:

  • When you want to be understood by those who clearly do not care.
  • When you choose to stay in conflict with others when it would cost you
    nothing to walk away.
  • When you persist in trying to convince people there is a problem and they
    won’t listen.
  • When you continue contact with an abuser who acknowledges no

Of course, the first item in the list of strategies is “no contact”.

Strangely, growing up in an emotionally unsafe home makes later emotionally unsafe situations have more holding power… traumatized people often respond positively to a dangerous person or situation because it feels natural to them.

I don’t know that it is so strange though.  What is familiar always feels comfortable, on some level.  Why is Susan such a natural fit for that family?  Because she is as unhealthy as our mother was.  I’m not the only person in this group who has a trauma bond.