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Sex & Love Trauma bonding versus true love

Oct. 30, 2020
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Trigger warning: this piece discusses domestic violence.

The text illuminated my cracked iPhone screen. “I’m not the person you can talk to about this. As your mother, it’s too hard for me to see you hang on to people who hurt you so badly.”

We were talking about my first boyfriend, Nick*. At first, the story of our relationship might sound like something you’d see in a movie. Nick was three years older than me, and he’d pick me up from high school in his red pick-up truck—making the other girls jealous. He’d let me make drinks behind the counter of the coffee shop where he worked. He (attempted) to teach me how to longboard. We went on too many fro-yo dates to count and loved wandering around the city together. 

We formed a bond. From what I’ve learned while studying psychology, the bonding that happens in romantic relationships isn’t purely for pleasure or social status—it meets a biological and emotional evolutionary need. Given that humans are social creatures, in infancy we learn to trust that our needs will be listened to and met by our caregivers. As we grow up, we meet our attachment needs by forming other relationships, including those with our peers and partners. The more vulnerable we are with someone, the deeper the emotional connection we share with them. 

Nick and I became so intimate with each other that I quite literally thought I couldn’t live without him. After a few months of our seemingly fairytale romance, little red flags began to surface. I know I’m not a perfect person myself, so I quickly dismissed the warning signs as “normal” flaws showing up in a relationship.

The red flags grew and grew until they manifested into nearly every possible form of abuse: sexual, physical, emotional, psychological. Although I never told anyone around me what was actually going on, my family could tell the relationship was toxic. They urged me to get out of it, but for some reason our emotional tie felt so strong that no matter how much he was hurting me, I didn’t feel anything at all. His abuse made me feel invincible.

How did I ever become so emotionally dependent on another human being? I recognize now that the first and largest warning sign was how we met.

I struggled with an eating disorder throughout childhood, and at 15 I was sent to an inpatient facility for treatment. I was there for over three months. It may come as no surprise that the other patients and I developed extremely unique, deep relationships with each other.

I met Nick at that treatment center. Several months after I was discharged, he messaged me on Facebook saying that he was moving to my home state and wanted to know if we could meet up sometime. I was ecstatic. Returning to “normal life” after living in a treatment center had felt somewhat agonizing. I struggled to feel connected to my classmates because the depth of vulnerability I had in my relationships with people at the treatment center made every other relationship feel shallow in comparison.

Nick soon asked me to be his girlfriend. It was insanely comforting to know that someone who had seen me at my lowest still wanted to date me. He understood me and welcomed all aspects of who I was with open arms, making all forms of intimacy come easily. It also made it easy for him to abuse me.

I was trapped in what is known by psychologists as a trauma bond—when abuse happens after emotional ties have been made. Abusers use behavioral tactics to manipulate the release of hormones including adrenaline, oxytocin, serotonin, and dopamine to create intense biochemical ties with their victim. These hormones give victims a sense of euphoria that lock them into the relationship. Victims often say they feel more connected to their abuser than people in their life who treat them well, and that’s thanks to the foundational bonds that were established prior to the abuse.

There were many periods of time when I desperately wanted to leave Nick, but the emotional connection we shared felt irreplaceable. Eventually, moving out of state to go to college gave me the opportunity to finally let go of him. But I found myself struggling to date after leaving him, even when I knew the people I was seeing had good intentions.

After reading her book Dating After Trauma, I began working with relationship expert Emily Avagliano on my personal healing process. I took her course Dating to Get Married and we continue to do individual coaching. She’s taught me how to recognize signs of unhealthy partners and made me confident that I’m capable and worthy of experiencing true, healthy love. Avagliano says there are three characteristics healthy partners must demonstrate: maturity, empathy, and appropriateness.

According to her, healthy relationships feel boring or slow to people who have been in a trauma bond before. She says that it’s important to recognize that true intimacy and vulnerability take time to develop. The three key traits Avagliano teaches cannot be faked by abusers for longer than a month.

She explains that mature partners respond respectfully and responsibly to not getting their way. They take an active interest in getting to know who we are and appropriately express their feelings toward us. As Avagliano  says, “a mature partner will respond to your boundaries with empathy, because they do not want to hurt you. If your partner lacks an interest in understanding what’s harming or hurting you, you’ve got to get out.”

Although I’m currently single, I’ve learned to be assertive in my communication. I’m grateful to have dated a few people who have been extremely respectful of me and my boundaries. At first, I was afraid that my assertiveness would make me less attractive to prospective partners. It takes my body a very long time to be comfortable with physical intimacy, even when my head and heart desire those forms of connection. I fear being labeled as playing “hard to get,” and I know my behavior can sometimes be rather confusing to those around me. I enjoy and value all forms of intimacy, but sometimes I still need space. But now, I have a much better idea of what my needs and wants are when it comes to relationships. If anything, I’ve found that me being clear about expressing those boundaries has actually made the guys I’ve dated even more attracted to me. As Avagliano says, a healthy partner doesn’t want to hurt you. Your heart is sacred, and love really is a beautiful thing. 

Learn more Emily Avagliano’s work on her website or follow her on Instagram and Facebook.

*Name has been changed.

Photo illustration by Mike McQuade for The New York Times.