Trauma Bonding

Someone told me once that the wrong kind of love grows stronger with trauma. Each traumatic event forges a link until what may have been a thread becomes a chain.

In the summer of 2010 I was being trained as a researcher for a study on under-aged prostitutes. Our task was to interview these commercially sexually exploited children in person, one-on-one, asking them questions like “when was the first time you had sex? and “what are the ethnicities of your clients? We were to ask them about pimps, their weekly expenditures, what kinds of acts they performed and for how much.

During the initial briefing we were prepared for some of the sort of stories we’d hear and were given a crash course in the world of child (under 18) prostitutes and pimps. I was introduced to the phrase “trauma bonding. It’s one of the tactics that pimps use to ensure loyalty from their girls and to even manufacture feelings of being “in love. These feelings come in handy when the girl is asked to do things she doesn’t want to do (like having sex with the pimp’s friends for free) or things that don’t make sense (like handing over money she earned).

Another more commonly used psych term for this is Stockholm Syndrome, but “trauma bonding made more sense to me; it felt more descriptive of the process that was actually being purposely undertaken.  Basically it’s when someone hurts you and then offers over- the-top gestures of “love “ effusive apologies, gift giving, compliments – and then hurts you and it starts all over, again and again. It’s a delicate balance: not too much pain, too often. The process of repetition cements the bond among people with certain psychological make-ups.

The candidates for trauma bonding, in this instance, were often young women of color who had been abused or neglected and often had run away from or had been kicked out of their homes. The behavior has an erratic nature which is part of the bonding. It’s a psychological phenomenon. Somehow hurting someone and then loving them creates the sort of relationship where the one will do nearly anything for the other, compelled by a feeling that is described as a deep love: feeling like you can’t be away from that person, obsession with losing them, willingness to surrender time, money, sanity, success regardless of how terribly you’re treated or how confused and conflicted you feel.

Sound like your last relationship? Sound like your current one?

This term “ “trauma bonding “ had such a resonance with me that I began to look around for evidence of its existence outside of the world of prostitution. It didn’t take long and I didn’t have to go farther than my own life.

Beyond what I learned from the study (results are confidential as of right now, but once they’re available I will write about them), I learned that I had been a person who had had a long line of relationships based on trauma bonding. It started with my mother. She was very young when she became pregnant and married and then divorced and a parent at nearly the same time. Nowadays “ after lots of therapy and crying and writing letters that I then crumpled and burned “ I know that she loved me in the real sense of the word. When I was a child I was sure that she hated me and that I was responsible for her never-ending abandonment.

Though she was divorced, she couldn’t find it in herself to give up the dream of a family with a mommy, daddy, cute little daughter, a dog and a little white house. She would come home and live with me, my grandmother and grandfather for several months at a time, and then, unannounced, she would up and leave to San Diego, where my father lived. Sometimes my grandparents and I would go to church on Sunday and I would be dying to return home to see my mom “ giggles overflowing, running to the front door, calling her name – only to find that she was nowhere to be found in the house and that the only remnant of her glorious visit was a note on which she had hastily written “gone to S.D.

I remember that after that particular incident with the note, I spent days and days trying to come up with an alternative for the initials, hoping that it was somewhere closer and that it didn’t mean what it most certainly did: that she would be gone for a long time and that I would have to cry every day and wish she were with me. The intensity of the peaks and valleys of our relationship created a bond that is beyond that of mother and daughter. I realize now that I was obsessed with her in the way that only someone unsure of and so deeply invested in her love could be. She had inadvertently sown the seeds that would become the basis of my expectation of what love felt like in my adolescence: desperate, aching pain.

So when my first few relationships felt like the one with my mother, I didn’t think anything was wrong or weird. Add to that the fact that women (and men) are taught that men are meant to be silent, stoic, mysterious, distant, reticent to express love, approval or affection. Add to that that I was a fat brown girl who had spent much of her life learning through a thousand subtle lessons that my body was worth so little. I was deeply attracted to men who liked to abandon me.

One of my first relationships was with a man who would sometimes not call me for a month and then would call me every day for a week. I was desperate for his attention. I would cry and miss him and then do whatever he wanted when he did come back just so that he might stay. He was married and had three kids and a limp dick that I apologized for. One of my most intense relationships was with a man 19 years my senior. He was married and I didn’t know. The third time we had sex he slid out of me, pulled the condom off his dick, and slid back inside as he looked into my eyes. I was in love with him and I got pregnant. He sent me roses and his apologies the day of my abortion. My mom went with me and held my hand. He didn’t call me for three months after that day. And the day he finally did call I picked up the phone and he said “Virginia? in his husky voice and I forgave him in that moment. I was crying with elation and comfort: he did want me after all.

And that was all I needed. I didn’t need something sweet or real. It was ok that the largest part of our relationship was the abandonment part. Leaving me was forgivable, understandable even, as long as he came back eventually. I needed to know that I was wanted and loved, and I presumed that those things didn’t come easily. The pain was a given.

It took a lot of time, some feminist literature, therapy and a dry spell (almost no penetrative sex but lots of foreplay were features of this dry spell) to stop being attracted to men like that, but once I was done being attracted to them they no longer popped up in my life. As magically as they had seemed to appear incessantly, they magically disappeared. At a sexuality workshop I attended once the trainer said “We attract what we need. I had needed to relive the relationship with my mother for some reason. It felt safe and familiar, addictive even, but it didn’t feel good.  I didn’t know that it was supposed to.

I “loved those assholes and desired those assholes with a fervor that felt so intense that, at times, I thought I might die. The love I felt for them felt like slowly losing my mind from a delicious poison. Was it love? Maybe. Since there’s so much debate about what love even is – a psychological phenomenon? A chemical one? Love looks different across eras, cultures, and genders “ I can’t say it wasn’t, but it wasn’t the kind of love I could live with.

It’s not just pimps who create trauma bonds. It’s easy to imagine that only truly sinister people would engage in something so deeply harmful, but it’s simply untrue. If you’re reading this and parts of my story are ringing true I encourage you to examine your love life, your past, your childhood. You don’t have to pay a therapist to ask yourself, “Where did I learn that this was ok? and “Is this working for me? I’ve found that it’s often the answers to these questions that have led to realizations and changes that had been previously unthinkable.

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