Will love always hurt you? The truth about traumatic bonding.
Updated: Nov 13
Intellectually, it makes no sense; love isn’t supposed to hurt. If it does, then it is absolutely not a true love. But for people who are trauma bonded, love and hurt are inseparable.
All bonds aren’t positive. Intense attachments to some people can be destructive or addictive. Have you ever tried to comfort a friend who kept complaining their partner was addicted, unfaithful or emotionally and physically abusive? They were showing you the bruises and complained about how jealous and unforgiving their partner was, and you were getting impatient. “Why on Earth won’t you leave him? Things are looking really bad,” you might suggest. “After all, this is 21th century and you have a choice!”
“Yes, but ...” was the answer, suggesting that there’s more there than what meets the eye.
“Nobody ever loved me so much! I can’t live without him/her!” And, inevitably, their phone rang and they dutifully brushed their tears, and free-willingly returned to their lover, only to be back complaining about the same things a couple of weeks later.
Traumatic bond is a very powerful emotional bond created by the intermittent reinforcement of reward and punishment. This inconsistent love creates an emotional rubber band that pulls people back in after they have decided to leave.
Intermittent reinforcement is a mechanism that plays a role in addictions. American psychologist B.F. Skinner proposed a theory about the way human behavior is reinforced by its consequences: If a behavior has negative consequences, the person engaging in that behavior will likely stop doing so.
On the other hand, if the result is positive, they will continue until satisfied. But if the results of a behavior are sometimes positive and sometimes negative—that is, if they follow a variable schedule—continuing to undertake that behavior will be almost irresistible. That’s the effect of dopamine, the neurotransmitter that prompts humans to expect extraordinary rewards. It is produced in the brain’s reward centers and plays a major role in addictions of all sorts. It’s the same mechanism that captivates gamblers, incentivizing them to keep pulling the handle of the fruit machine, expecting to hear the rattle of coins, (see Why are video games addictive?) and social media junkies, who keep swiping down their screens, afraid to miss something important. (See Social media addiction).
Another mechanism that helps dopamine create such a powerful bond is adrenaline, the stress hormone. When those two combine, they may create a very powerful, almost irresistible craving to get in touch with the lover. Dramatic and passionate sexual reconciliations seal the unbreakable bond between the two. I love you to death. Sometimes literally.
“Schedules of Reinforcement,” Burrhus Frederic (B.F.) Skinner, 14 September 2023, https://burrhusfredericskinner.weebly.com/schedules-of-reinforcement.html.
The stages of trauma bonding
Exploitive relationships can create trauma bonds--chains that link a victim to someone who is dangerous to them. Divorce, employee relations, litigation of any type, incest and child abuse, family and marital systems, domestic violence, hostage negotiations, kidnapping, professional exploitation and religious abuse are all areas of trauma bonding. All these relationships share one thing: they are situations of incredible intensity or importance where there is an exploitation of trust or power.
But at the beginning, it does not usually seem dangerous or exploitive at all. The partner who is interesting in seducing someone into a trauma bonded relationship, usually knows very well what he’s up to and knows how to select needy and insecure future victims. The first stage of such a relationship is everything you have ever dreamed for: flowers, expensive gifts, poems. It’s called “love bombing” and it ends when they get you hooked and gain your trust. Then they shift to criticism, devaluation and gaslighting. When you complain, you occasionally get a bouquet of roses or a passionate sexual makeup, but also psychological blackmail like sullen silence or even physical violence for which they blame you. “You made me do it! See how I love you? You’re making me mad!” Gaslighted and confused, you stop resisting, becoming ever more passive and submissive. Finally, you lose your sense of self and become emotionally addicted to your partner.
All addictions are attachment disorders—complex defense mechanisms by which people try to escape and numb their painful feelings generated by insecure and traumatic attachment to parental figures in their childhood.
In their adult lives, these people often attach themselves to partners similar to those who hurt them during their childhoods. It’s no wonder, then, that traumatized people often choose to have relationships with harmful or dangerous people. In them, they find the perfect actors for replaying their childhood dramas! In psychotherapy, we call this phenomenon traumatic bonding. Sometimes it is referred to as the Stockholm syndrome, after a famous situation in Sweden where hostages in a bank robbery developed a psychological alliance with their captors.
Kids love their parents, no matter how badly they treat them; it’s the only source of love they know. In an atmosphere of chronic neglect and physical and sexual violence, they believe that this is love and subconsciously keep looking for the same in their adult relationships.
When looking for suitable mates, the children of alcoholics often find alcoholics and other addicts. They establish very painful but incredibly stable relationships with them, full of dramatic conflicts and passionate reconciliations. The attraction to dangerous people is subconscious and intensive. Risk and adrenaline function like boosters, intensifying the experience. Dangerous people display power and seem strong, although, on the inside, they may be weak and prefer to choose submissive partners whom they can control. If the behavior is repeated long enough so that an addiction cycle and system are established, as strong as it is, the relationship can become obsessive, pathological, compulsive, and grow into addiction. (see The behaviors of relationship addicts).
Why don’t they leave the destructive relationship?
It can be hard to understand why someone would just accept the trauma bond as their reality, regardless of how terrible things get. Usually, a person in a trauma-bonded situation is unhappy. They may not even like their partner anymore, but they still can't seem to actually end things, because they believe that what they feel is love, and an especially passionate one. They won’t let go because they fear abandonment more than anything else. Fear also plays a large role in why they can't. In a physically abusive situation, they may legitimately fear for their life. (see Should I stay or should I go?)
Sanja Rozman is a medical doctor, psychotherapist and author of 8 books on behavioral addictions.
Read more in her book Serenity: How to Recognize, Understand, and Recover from Behavioral Addictions
that is about to be published by Brandylane Publishers Inc., Belle Isle Books.