Trauma bonding is something you may have, on some level, always known about but never quite been able to give a name to. You may have participated in it several times in your life, or dated someone who seemed to be attempting it – whether or not he knew that that’s what he was doing. But there may have been times when you felt very close to someone, very quickly, and yet it also felt scary and unhealthy. There may have been times you felt instantly bonded to somebody, almost drawn to them – addicted to them – but you felt a bit strange or sad after spending time with the person. You had friends who also claimed to be in love or obsessed with someone they were dating, and you could tell that how they felt about their relationship was very different from how you felt about yours. You almost felt like you had some dark secret surrounding your relationship, but you weren’t quite sure what it was.
Right now, with the entire world experiencing some degree of trauma due to the COVID-19 pandemic (an overlooked side effect of this virus), the risk of trauma bonding is especially high. And with so many people looking to make new connections online to mend the loneliness that comes with isolation, the chances of trauma bonding increase yet again. It’s alright to relate to someone’s pain, and want them to relate to yours. That’s just called normal human empathy. But it shouldn’t be the foundation for your relationship. That’s when trauma bonding begins to happen. Let’s explore what trauma bonding is a bit more, and identify signs that it’s happening to you in your relationship.
You meet during a traumatic time
The most basic sign that a relationship is based on trauma bonding is that the two people in it met while going through trauma. They may have suffered the same trauma – like both were witness to the same violent event – or they may have suffered separate traumas, but met when both people were still fresh off the event, and very unstable.
You only spend time together, alone
You only spend time together with one another, and nobody else is allowed in. You don’t go out. You don’t meet his friends. He doesn’t meet your friends. For some reason, you feel the need to keep your relationship private – even secret. It’s almost as if it is some security blanket that you want to keep all to yourself.
The relationship feels like an escape
You retreat to this relationship – to this person – when you need an escape from the difficulties in your life. You want to see this person most when you are sad or angry or troubled. You don’t go to this person when you are happy, positive, and hopeful. Doing so would actually feel unnatural. You almost feel that, if this person saw you happy, he wouldn’t recognize you.
You almost exclusively discuss the trauma
Almost all of your conversations are about your trauma. You talk about the event, the insecurities and wounds it caused, your nightmares, your fears, your therapy sessions, your neurosis. You talk about your problems. You mostly talk about how broken you both are. You don’t talk about light things, like how your career is going or a funny movie you saw.
Sadness prompts sex
You exclusively have sad sex. You feel the closest after talking about how broken, wounded, or messed up you are. So sex usually follows a heavy and dramatic conversation. It’s common that one or both of you cried right before sex, or during sex, or after sex. It isn’t playful. Sex is dramatic.
You’ve revealed thoughts you aren’t proud of
You have said some rather frightening things to your partner – frightening things like terrible thoughts about yourself, your future, your potential, your family, your psyche. You’ve expressed some thoughts that were very dark and frightening, and would probably require analysis by a professional psychologist.
You love each other more for your wounds
After you express terrifying thoughts to your partner, he isn’t frightened: that is when he is most attracted to you. You feel closer, the more scary, unhealthy, unstable thoughts you express to one another. You take comfort in knowing that the other person is as unstable as you are, and almost take that as confirmation that what you’re thinking and feeling is “normal.”
External happiness is a threat
External sources of happiness, like a new job, a new hobby, a new friend, or anything that could improve someone’s mental state, feel like a threat to the relationship. When your partner tells you about something new and good in his life, you instantly feel worried that that thing could take him away from you – perhaps it could make him so happy that he no longer wants to be in a relationship that is so sad.
You don’t laugh together. Ever.
If you had to quickly draw a montage of the faces you two make when you’re together, there are a lot of frowns, contemplative gazes, crying, anger, and fear. There is no laughter. There is no smiling. You almost never experience feelings of joy around each other. The air is heavy and serious.
You conceal a lot from your friends
There are a lot of things that go on in your relationship that you would never tell your friends because you know they would find it deeply concerning. For example, sometimes your partner talks about wishing he weren’t alive or wishing you two ran off into the woods and never spoke to anyone else ever again. Maybe your partner cries every day. You don’t share these things with your friends.
It feels addictive
The relationship feels addictive. But it feels like a true addiction in the sense that, being with your partner doesn’t make you feel good – at this point, it just alleviates symptoms of withdrawal. Much like the way an alcoholic doesn’t have fun drinking, but rather the alcohol alleviates the pain they feel when they aren’t drinking.
Though, you feel worse after seeing him
And, much like an addiction, you feel much worse after interacting with the substance. After leaving your partner, you feel that you’ve done something that was bad for you. You can sense that you’re drawn to him not because he’s good for you – but because he appeals to some weakness in you.
Both parties are actively depressed
If both individuals are actively depressed when they meet and get involved with one another, trauma bonding is almost inevitable. That is almost the only kind of bonding that actively depressed individuals can experience. A healthy bond can only be formed between two people who are emotionally healthy at the time.
He wouldn’t fit into the rest of your world
When you think about it, he would seem entirely out of place in the rest of your world. Taking him to a birthday party or dinner party or beach barbecue – anything fun, light, and happy – would feel entirely unnatural. He belongs to a private, dark, sad part of your world.
Doing something normal together feels odd
When you have attempted to do something normal together, like go to the movies, go to brunch, go ice skating, or things like that, it has felt odd. You found you had nothing to talk about. When you’re out in the real world, amongst people who are happy and lively, you don’t feel connected to your partner.