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How To Tell If It’s True Love Or Trauma Bonding

Most people don’t think about the difference between true love and trauma bonding.

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

The thing about trauma is 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?

People credit Patrick Carnes 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 received love.

It’s important to remember that the bonds with the greatest impact on our emotional memory of love form in childhood.

As researcher Alan Schore has pointed out, it’s between birth and two years old that infants have an intense biologically programmed need to bond. They will bond with one primary relationship that they 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. Having consistent, loving emotional support from their caretakers tells their nervous system they are safe and secure.

Consistent, inconsistent, withholding, or emotionally traumatizing behaviors shape your bond with your caretakers. These emotional experiences form the attachment style that you carry with you into your adult relationships.

What is true love?

You would think with as many poems and songs 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 feeling 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 feel 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.

What is a trauma bond?

Trauma bonding happens in relationships where there are extreme states of emotional arousal. You unconsciously perceive this 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 emotional intensity 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 want to care for another person emotionally wired the same way you are. This is great if your internal working model about true love is tender, loving, and kind.

The trauma bond is incredibly magnetic and addictive. Take two people whose prior relationships threatened their survival. 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 lifespan.

You will unconsciously feel 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 relationships, you are probably unconsciously trauma bonding. This means seeking people who have experienced abuse the way you have because you want to feel 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 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, it will be worth doing the hard work.

This will require you to find 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 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) can be effective for healing traumatic memories.

If you’re single with a history of trauma, your best bet is to do your own therapy. Also, seek 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 grew up. 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 truly healthy relationship.

Originally written by Michael W. Regier, PhD on YourTango

Photo by Kinga Cichewicz on Unsplash


  1. In relationships when there are high levels of emotional arousal, trauma bonding occurs.

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