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How To Tell If It's True Love — Or Trauma Bonding

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Why Do Women Stay In Abusive Relationships? Definitions Of True Love Vs Trauma Bonding
Love, Self

Are my unstable love relationships a sign I'm trauma bonding?

Most people don't think about the definitions of true love as opposed to trauma bonding.

If you've never been traumatized, it might not occur to you that it's important to know the difference. And even if you have been traumatized, you may not understand how your experiences in the past are affecting your relationships as an adult.

The thing about trauma is that you never know when it is going to happen to you.

And if it has, even when you were young, it's important to understand how it may cause you to seek intense, unstable, and potentially abusive relationships.

What is trauma bonding?

Patrick Carnes has been credited with developing the concept of trauma bonding, which he uses to help people understand why they are in abusive or addictive relationships.

The way that you bond in your closest relationships creates the emotional memory that makes you want to repeat your prior experience. You will define love by the way you have been loved.

RELATED: What Is Trauma Bonding? The Scientific Reason So Many Women Stay Stuck In Emotionally Abusive Relationships

It's important to remember that the bonds that have the greatest impact on our emotional memory of love are formed in childhood.

As researcher Alan Schore has pointed out, it's between birth and two years of age that infants have an intense biologically programmed need to bond. They will bond with one primary relationship that they will look to meet their most important survival needs.

Infants and children need physical touch and loving emotional reassurance even more than they need food or clothing to survive and thrive. The quality of the consistent, loving emotional support from their caretakers tells their nervous system that you are safe and secure.

Your bond with your caretakers was shaped by their consistent, inconsistent, withholding or emotionally traumatizing behaviors.

These emotional experiences form the attachment style that you carry with you into your adult love relationships.

RELATED: Why Your Attachment Style May Be Keeping You Lonely

What is true love?

You would think that with as many poems and songs that have been written about true love that it would be easy to understand what it means.

There is actually nothing easy about understanding true love. Everybody has a different version of what true love means to them based on their childhood experiences.

If you grew up being consistently emotionally loved and nurtured, you will most likely have a secure attachment style. With that, finding a healthy true love relationship will come naturally.

If you grew up in a home that wasn't secure, you will be confused about what true love is.

True love means being accessible, responsive and emotionally engaged.

If you truly love your partner, you will try to understand and withhold judgment and anger. You will build your partner up and encourage, rather than shame.

RELATED: What It Really Means When People Talk About Finding 'True Love’

What is a trauma bond?

Trauma bonding happens in love relationships where there are extreme states of emotional arousal you unconsciously perceive as a threat to your survival.

When the person that you bond with and depend on threatens your survival with physical, emotional or sexual abuse you have no other choice but to adapt. You learn how to survive and depend on the person who makes you afraid.

The intensity of the extreme emotions you associate with the person you love will define for you what love is, even if it is dangerously abusive.

It only makes sense that you will be drawn to and want to take care of another person who is emotionally wired the same way that you are. This is great if your internal working model about true love is tender, loving and kind.

The power of the trauma bond is incredibly magnetic and addictive.

Take two people who had their survival threatened in prior relationships. When they find each other they are actually attracted to each other’s trauma injuries, and they'll make excuses for each other’s angry abusive defenses.

If you bonded in trauma where you were threatened, shamed and physically abused you will probably use or excuse these same behaviors.

This often creates a cycle of abuse that continues throughout the adult life span.

You will unconsciously be attracted to and bond with people that have the same emotional signature as the primary caretakers that you grew up with.

How trauma bonders can break the cycle and find true love

If you grew up in an insecure or abusive home and now find yourself in unhealthy, abusive relationships, you are probably unconsciously trauma bonding — seeking out people who have been abused the way you were because you want to be understood.

You may also have compassion for and want to love someone who shares a similar history. And while it is possible for two injured people to heal together, it is extremely difficult to do so without couple’s therapy.

If you are already in a trauma-bonded relationship you want to save, don’t despair. In most cases, unless your relationship is dangerous or permanently damaged, it will be worth doing the hard work.

This will require you to get to the root of your emotional confusion and learn how not to express or provoke reactive anger.

Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy (EFT) has been scientifically proven to have the highest rate of success for healing couples with trauma and in high conflict. You can find an EFT therapist in your area here on the International Centre for Excellence in Emotionally Focused Therapy (ICEEFT) website.

Focusing on healing your trauma fears and reactions in individual therapy can also be helpful. In particular, Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR) has been found to be effective for healing traumatic memories.

If you're single with a history of trauma, your best bet is to do your own therapy and to seek out relationships with people who have a secure attachment style.

The challenge for you will be to not sabotage a potentially great relationship because you carry a load of shame about the way you were raised. You'll need to continually remind yourself that your past injuries have nothing to do with how lovable you are.

If you can be vulnerable and transparent about your history, your partner may want to help you discover the joy of being in a true healthy love relationship.

RELATED: 7 Limiting Beliefs That Attract Negative Men Into Your Life

Michael W. Regier, Ph.D. is a highly trained and experienced clinical psychologist, Certified Emotionally Focused Couples Therapist and EFT Supervisor in Visalia and San Luis Obispo, California, who helps people understand and heal from their trauma bonds and create healthy secure adult relationships. He and his wife Paula are the authors of Emotional Connection: The Story & Science of Preventing Conflict & Creating Lifetime Love.