Contributing writer for Wake Up World
If you aren’t attracted to the kind, loving and loyal woman . . . or to the reliable, drama-free guy this should concern you.
The a-hole or the b**ch—why do they draw us in so powerfully?
The answer might lie in our past and the way our brains try to (mistakenly) survive traumatic situations.
When trauma and wounding shape our past, we understand their pain to be what love must be. Then, from this blueprint in our nervous system, we seek out the same kind of “love” in other relationships, especially with romantic partners. Even if it’s destructive and painful, it’s familiar and feels safer than the unknown, or the good-loving we are not used to.
When I was in therapy many years ago, my therapist showed up with a deep love for me. I remember not knowing how to receive it. I told her, “I don’t have the receptor sites for this.” But, little by little, I learned how to let it in. I practiced just sitting in front of her, receiving her gaze and unconditional presence. I developed the receptor sites for the good, deep loving she provided. I remember how it felt: like water soaking into the sponge of my dry heart and nervous system—quenching what I had been missing my whole life.
I learned first-hand why I didn’t attract or pursue that kind of good loving in others; I wasn’t able to receive it. I pursued what was inadequate, even toxic. Nowadays, I seem to have gotten to the place where more often than not, I resist the toxic pattern of my past and choose to truly challenge myself to grow more deeply into sustainable, good loving.
This attraction to and merging with what we may recognize is bad news—yet seem unable to resist—is called trauma bonding. It’s when we merge with our abuser, or gravitate towards and stay in an impoverished relationship, because that’s what we know and because our brains are wired that way from years of defunct programming.
Powerful, addictive neurochemical patterning is also at play, such that when we jump on the bandwagon to get away from abuse, we can feel even worse than when we were being hurt. It’s like getting off a bad drug; withdrawl can hurt worse, at first. Slowly, with support, we can come clean and reclaim our lives from addiction to what is killing us.
This pattern is made possible due to the combination of a partner treating us poorly and giving us little bits of hope, remorse, and promise for change (rarely though is it actualized). According to psychologist Ingrid Clayton, our brains become neurochemically obsessed with surviving and getting through abuse. But when an abuser shows us kindness, we subconsciously equate the abuser with safety. We therefore keep trying to reach safety with the very one who is least likely to provide it or help us get there. In Dr. Clayton’s words:
When we are faced with abuse and neglect, we are chemically wired to focus on getting to the “other side.” When the abuser is the person that brings us relief, the brain associates them with safety.
The brain latches on to the positive experience of relief rather than the negative impact of the abuser.
This happens because the body’s threat response (fight, flight, freeze, fawn) turns off the part of the brain that can think long-term when we are in crisis. This creates the feeling that we need the abuser to survive, and is often mistaken for “love.”
—Dr. Ingrid Clayton
When we suffered wounding as children and weren’t able to reconcile it, we may even recreate this very dynamic later in life to try to resolve what lies unresolved inside us. This is what psychologist and one of my personal mentors Dr. Dave Richo refers to as the familiar in the present actually being familial.
Leaving: Not Easy but Doable
Leaving an abusive relationship isn’t easy, at all. Recognizing what’s going on is a first step, rather than just thinking you are “crazy.” Most of us don’t consciously choose abuse, even when we realize someone isn’t good for us and we can already see the trouble coming. So beating ourselves up isn’t based on a realistic expectation that we can help it, or that it’s as simple as deciding to walk away. Nor is shaming and berating ourselves ultimately helpful.
Working with a trauma-informed therapist to break and truly heal these deeply seated patterns is helpful.
Depending on the context of our lives, such as if we are particularly stressed or needy, as well as what kind of trauma work we’ve done, we may be able to resist or simply leave an abusive relationship. But for most, this isn’t the case, unfortunately. Breaking trauma bonds take lots of work. Sufferers learn an emotional illiteracy of sorts. Learning a new love language is needed: learning little by little to find fulfillment in what feels foreign but is actually healthy. That strange feeling is good, healthy, sustainable loving. And we can let it trickle in little by little.
We may feel bored or like something is missing because our brains and nervous systems are chemically primed and wired for the drama and the pain. This, by the way, is one reason why we sabotage true love. But these are simply old addictions, old patterns screaming louder because they are not being fed the bad drug they have learned to love. Becoming satisfied with grounded, even “boring,” everyday care and goodness can be a worthy goal—peppered with some healthy doses of excitement and ecstatic, non-abusive, non-addictive pleasure.
The heart rush and “out-of-my mind” feeling of meeting someone new—you know, those bigger than life feelings—can be a sign that a trauma bond is afoot. When this happens, when that little whisper from deep inside you tries to alert you, try to pause, take some deep breaths, and be sober about it, while you still have the chance for objectivity and aren’t yet hooked. And, if you can’t resist, getting into therapy or at least asking good friends for help can be life-saving.
Again, none of this is easy. So go easy, try to take proactive steps, and don’t pile on unnecessary stress like self-shame and blame.
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