One thing often asked by those in the helping profession when confronted with a person in an unhealthy relationship is, “Why do you stay?” This question has implications of weakness and failure on the part of the victim and usually causes shame. Rather than asking this question of a victim of abuse, it is best for a counselor to understand the concept of trauma bonding, and explain it to the individual who seems “stuck” in a bad relationship.
Trauma bonding is loyalty to a person who is destructive. While the idea of bonding tends to bring up connotations of something good and beneficial, trauma bonds are unhealthy. According to Patrick Carnes, in his book, Betrayal Bonds, there are a number of signs that a person is involved in an unhealthy bond with a partner or other significant person. Here are some thoughts to consider determining if you are in a trauma bond with someone:
- There is a constant pattern of nonperformance, yet you continue to believe promises to the contrary.
- Others seem disturbed by something that has happened to you or was said to you, and you are not.
- You feel stuck because the other person keeps doing destructive things, but you believe there is nothing you can do about it.
- You try to change the person into becoming less destructive by trying to get them to stop an addiction or become a non-abuser.
- You keep having repetitive, damaging fights with this person that nobody wins.
- You seem unable to detach from someone even though you can’t trust them or really don’t even like them.
- When you try to leave this person you find yourself missing them to the point of longing that is so awful that you believe it is going to destroy you.
Usually trauma bonds occur in relationships involving inconsistent reinforcement, such as those with addicts and alcoholics or in domestic violence situations. Dysfunctional marriages also cause trauma bonds because there is always a time when things seem to be “normal.” Other types of relationships involving trauma bonds include cult-like religious organizations, kidnapping and hostage situations, those involving child abuse or incest, and unhealthy work environments.
The environment necessary to create a trauma bond involves intensity, complexity, inconsistency, and a promise. Victims stay because they are holding on to that elusive “promise” or hope. There is always manipulation involved. Victims are prey to the manipulation because they are willing to tolerate anything for the payoff, which is that elusive promise and ever present hope for fulfillment of some deeply personal need within the victim.
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.