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When Love Feels Abusive

Explaining the difference between love, attachment, and trauma bonds.

Key points

  • Unhealthy attachments are based on fear, not emotional generosity.
  • Emotionally mature people who love each other do not behave like they hate each other even when they get upset or frustrated.
  • If someone says they love you but acts in a cruel or demeaning manner, that may be a sign of a trauma bond.
Source: Eric Ward/Unsplash
Are you in love or trauma-bonded?
Source: Eric Ward/Unsplash

Advice columns are rife with examples of people who tolerate seemingly intolerable relationships. Many seem to follow a formula. “He does (name terrible thing), but we really love each other and want to make it work.”

This isn’t love—this is an unhealthy attachment.

The word “attachment” comes from the old French word atachier, meaning “to fix or to fasten.” Emotionally, when we fall in love, we fix on another person, and separating or “unfastening” from them feels terrible. Yet sometimes, breaking the attachment is what we need to do to be happy and healthy.

Unhealthy attachments are based on fear, not emotional generosity. You know the relationship is not good, but you feel helpless to change it. You can see that the relationship doesn’t bring out the best in yourself or the other person, but leaving feels terrifying. Unhealthily attached relationships are like two people who are suctioned together. The people around you might clearly see that you’re trapped, but the suction seemingly won’t budge.

Attachment occurs in any relationship of some length where there is an intensity of feeling and where our emotional needs are, at least for a short time, met. We are evolved to attach whether love is present or not. In terms of our survival as a species, it is more important that we stay with the tribe for safety and stay with a partner to procreate than to make sure we are respected and walk away from relationships that are hurting us. In a healthy relationship, the attachment created during the euphoric first stages of romantic love encourages us to stay and build a life with the love object even after the dizzying feelings have subsided. In this type of relationship, love deepens into “interdependence,” where we can meet our own needs, but we are also able to turn to a loving partner for support and reciprocate that loving support.

An unhealthy relationship creates a “trauma bond” instead of interdependence.

A trauma bond occurs when a person relies on an abuser to get their emotional needs met. The abuse itself creates the emotional needs that the abuser soothes, perpetuating the cycle of abuse. Trauma bonding is common in domestic violence, child abuse, Stockholm syndrome, cults, and toxic work environments.

Although the classic definition of “trauma bonding” includes one clear victim and one clear abuser, there are also instances where each partner takes turns in each role. In high-conflict couples, it can be hard to determine who is causing more damage to whom. In Tennessee Williams’ famous play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf, a married couple, George and Martha, attack each, each verbal blow more incisive than the last. As audience members, we’re meant to understand that, deep down, they really love each other. But do they? Or can they simply not leave? Trauma bonds masquerade as love, but they are not the same thing. In any relationship where you feel victimized but also in love, a trauma bond has likely formed.

An argument between people who love each other might be painful and upsetting, but it’s not a scorched-earth situation where the participants limp away battered and broken. If you regularly have fights where vicious things are said, it doesn’t mean much to say later that you didn’t really mean them. If you said it, no matter how upset you were, some part of you meant it. The only other explanation is that you are just aiming to cause pain. Either way, this isn’t how a loving person acts, even when upset.

Here’s a classic example of a trauma bond masquerading as love: Katherine and Jacob were scheduled to meet me for couple’s therapy. The day of the first appointment came, and Jacob refused to get out of bed for the midday appointment, so Katherine showed up at my office alone and decided to do individual therapy instead. Katherine complained that Jacob slept all day and then went out all night, not telling Katherine who he was with or where he was going. When Katherine asked, he would blow up at her for “micromanaging” him and treating him like a child. For her part, Katherine was secretive—hiding packages, lying about who she was with, and even stopping taking birth control when she knew Jacob didn’t want a child.

Katherine described their marriage as hours-long screaming matches alternated by peaceful periods where they pretended nothing had happened. She insisted that sometimes things were good between them, and if only Jacob changed, the relationship would be perfect. One day, I asked Katherine, “If I were to watch a movie of you and Jacob interacting on an average day, what would I think was going on?” She thought about it and said, “Some days, we’d seem completely in love. Other days you would think we hated each other.”

Emotionally mature people who love each other do not behave like they hate each other.

They might need some time apart. They might feel like they don’t like each other very much at particular moments. But they don’t act hatefully. Love sometimes involves seeing each other at our worst—in sickness and in health, for richer or poorer, etc. But it does not mean bringing out the worst in each other.

Are you in a trauma bond with your partner, family members, or a friend? Here are some signs you might be trauma bonded as opposed to in love:

1. People who love you worry about your relationship.

2. You know you aren’t happy, but it feels too difficult/scary/sad to leave.

3. You or your partner, family member, or friend say that this is the worst relationship they have ever had, yet you stay together.

There are certain relationships we are encouraged to stay in almost no matter what. It’s very hard for people who have not experienced abuse or neglect to understand why anyone would estrange themselves from their parents, for example. But, as adults, we get to choose who we stay in relationship with, even if they gave birth to us.

Love is active and actionable.

If someone says they love you but acts in a cruel or demeaning manner, what does “love” even mean? What does it matter if someone “loves” you, if their daily actions tell a different story? Finding the love in your relationship shouldn’t be like searching for a needle in the haystack—it should be the whole haystack.

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