Updated: Dec 15, 2022
Bonding to trauma occurs when a person seems bound to an allegiance to another person despite obvious signs that it is not a healthy relationship for them. Their loved ones often can see the glaring ‘red flags” of the dysfunction but the bonded person is often blind: blind to the destruction, blind to the negativity, and blind to the consequences the relationship creates. The result is an environment that has great adverse effects on the person. It is toxic; poisonous to the system. No matter how destructive and no matter how many red flags are flown in the face of the relationship, they can not separate themselves from the toxicity and often experience great anxiety or confusion when they attempt to separate. This leaves the person feeling trapped. Unbeknownst to them there are deeply rooted emotional ties keeping the trauma bond secure. I liken it to one of those ‘Crazy Glue’ moments in which our fingers come in contact with the glue and can not be separated. A forceful separation sparks acute pain like a toothache does when the nerve is activated. Having the wherewithal to separate from the toxic person seems completely out of their control despite the difficulties and hurts experienced in the relationship. These destructive forces cycle with intermittent periods of unity and seemingly mended emotional health only to experience another downward spiral toward volatile occurrences.
The lyrics to the popular country song, “Tomorrow” give a snapshot of this common dilemma:
“…Tomorrow, I'm gonna leave here
I'm gonna let you go and walk away
Like every day I said I would
And tomorrow, I'm gonna listen
To that voice of reason inside my head
Telling me that we're no good
But tonight I'm gonna give in one last time
Rock you strong in these arms of mine
Forget all the regrets that are bound to follow
We're like fire and gasoline
I'm no good for you, you're no good for me
We only bring each other tears and sorrow….”
Songwriters: Frank Myers / Christopher Alan Young / Anthony L Smith
Tomorrow lyrics © Reservoir Media Music, Grand Poobah Publishing, Frank Myers Music, Chewin Cholla Music
In the book “Trauma Bonding,” Dr. Annely Alexander describes accurately how this toxic bond plays out:
“In unhealthy relationships one can find intense attachment even when one partner puts down and devalues the other; says one thing in one moment and the opposite in the next; treats the other as a thing instead of a human being; denies the truth or accuracy of the other's views, and there is just generally a sense of chaos, confusion and restlessness…”
It has been discovered that the emotional rollercoaster is a mirror image of childhood attachments. One may have experienced times of receiving love from their caretaker mixed with periods of anger, harsh words and rejection. The child’s initial reaction (rightfully so) is fear and/or confusion Not only do they experience fear of imminent danger because of possible abuse ignited by anger but also the fear that their only source of security and the sole provider of their basic needs may cease providing for those needs if the child doesn’t ride the rollercoaster with the caretaker. That fear carries over into their adult relationships as they seek to find love. The result is that this pattern of relating to loved ones feels familiar and completely natural.
But it's not.
It is the outward result of chemical responses from hormones inside a person. Hormones such as epinephrine, oxytocin and endorphins circulate throughout the body. These each have specific functions for a person's current feelings and reactions to loved ones and situations. Some are released when the feeling of stress or danger occurs and they activate the body to cope. For instance, a person's heart rate increases to pump more blood through the body for action. There are many other such responses that are activated to assist in times of need.
Since caretakers may engage the child in this toxic “dance” during their formative years it is so familiar that the child often will not realize it is dysfunctional. A light bulb moment may not happen until they are an adult in a situation that mirrors the anguish of their childhood and recognize it as an unhealthy relationship. This cycle can and needs to be readjusted so that the body will respond and the person no longer have the need to engage in this toxic bond.
If you or someone you know is trapped in this cycle please know there is help available. Counseling provides a safe space for individuals to recognize toxic roots and discover tools to create healthy relationships. Accelerated Resolution Therapy (ART) provides a treatment to rescript stored negative memories with positive ones. A person can begin to heal, find freedom and new, healthier ways of relating to others.
Toxic bonding doesn’t just go away on its own; however freedom is possible and can begin today…