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"You find yourself lying." 5 signs you're in a trauma bonded relationship.

"Why don’t they just end the relationship?"

It’s a phrase I hear often as a therapist when it comes to abusive or neglectful relationships.

The truth is almost all of us have experienced or know someone who has experienced an abusive or neglectful relationship, but few of us realise that the relationship may have been a form of trauma bonding, which can make ending it incredibly difficult.

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Trauma bonds are actually quite common and occur when a person bonds with someone who is destructive to them. This powerful and unhealthy emotional attachment develops out of a repeated cycle of abuse (physical and/or emotional) and intermittent positive reinforcement.

Survivors of childhood trauma are particularly prone to trauma bonding. They unconsciously or consciously recreate relationships that mirror past relationships, and this allows the cycle to continue. For example, a child who was neglected by a parent might find themselves attracted to a partner who shows them little attention or love when they are an adult. 

When we’re in the midst of a trauma bonded relationship, we may experience a range of emotions and feelings – many of which we may find difficult to comprehend. This is particularly common when the relationship switches between love and kindness to abuse and/or neglect.

These types of relationships often begin with the person giving us compliments, confessing their love for us and showering us with affection and even buying us gifts. Those of us who work with clients trying to make sense of this behaviour call it ‘love bombing’. A trauma bonding relationship also tends to feel intense and progress unusually fast – an overwhelming feeling that masks itself as love. 

So when the abuse starts, many feel surprised, shocked and overwhelmed. Afterward, our partner might apologise, promise to change, or insist ‘that everyone makes mistakes’ and ‘it will never happen again’. These promises and attempts to manipulate often work, as we recall the positive feelings from the beginning of the relationship. We want to believe that they can be that amazing person again and we are convinced they can change. 

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However, trauma bonding doesn’t just happen in traditional relationships. It can also occur between a child and an abusive caregiver or another adult, a hostage and kidnapper, or a leader and members of a cult. Indeed, Stockholm Syndrome is a type of trauma bond.

Because trauma bonds are exploitative relationships where there is an unbalanced power dynamic, the impact of a trauma bonding relationship on our physical and mental health can be significant. We may feel depressed, fatigued, or like we are in a constant state of fight or flight. Trauma bonding relationships can also lead to poor self-esteem, low confidence, and anxiety. In trauma bonding relationships, there are also times where a person may feel excited and psychologically addicted to their abuser.

It’s important to understand that not all abusive situations result in trauma bonding. These are some of the warning signs and symptoms of being in a trauma bonded relationship:

1. You find yourself lying to or defending your partner’s bad behaviour to family and friends or keeping any abuse secret from them.

2. You try to avoid ‘setting them off’ - you may hide things for fear of reprisals, or feel like you’re constantly walking on eggshells.

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3. You are struggling to feel comfortable with your relationship, but are also feeling like you are unable to leave the situation.

4. You make excuses to yourself for their behaviour or try to rationalise it - in many cases you might be starting to think you have been in denial about the control they have over you.

5. You find yourself thinking that their abusive behaviour is your fault - you tell yourself ‘if only I hadn’t spoken up’ or ‘if only I had behaved differently or tried harder’ they wouldn't have reacted as they did.

Diane Young is a trauma specialist and therapist at South Pacific Private, Australia’s leading treatment centre for trauma, addiction and mental health conditions. Diane has completed postgraduate training in Holistic Counselling and Psychotherapy, Post Induction Training with The Meadows, Arizona USA, EMDR Practitioner, Family and Systemic Constellations Practitioner and is presently undertaking the Advanced Training in Gestalt Supervision.

To seek support for yourself or others in dealing with trauma, you can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or South Pacific Private on (02) 9905 3667.

Feature Image: Canva.