Exploring abandonment anxiety and trauma bonding in dysfunctional families.

Jason Brien.

     Trauma bonding is the bond which is created as the consequence of intense and prolific emotional experiences with a toxic person. The toxic person in a relationship uses mental, physical or emotional abuse to create a trauma bond which, ultimately, serves to keep the other party from escaping the relationship. The toxic person often fears abandonment, lacks empathy and altruism and is insecure, immature, manipulative, selfish and demanding. The toxic person uses the trauma bond as a replacement for the love, trust, empathy and reciprocity which keeps healthy and functional relationships together.  

     The emotional bond that is created by the toxic person is often confused as love by both parties when, in reality, the emotions holding the innocent person to the toxic person may well be fear, guilt, shame, or a sense of obligation. Unfortunately, trauma bonding is usually only discussed in relation to intimate sexual relationships between two people. It is often the relationships with toxic parents, siblings and other family members which are the most difficult for people to understand and which can be the most harmful to peoples mental, physical or emotional health. 

     Trauma bonding with parents, siblings and other family members is more likely to be mischaracterised as ‘love’ primarily as a result of increased exposure (since birth) and societal, cultural or religious expectations/demands regarding family cohesion/love. Let me give you an example. Let’s assume that a person has been physically, mentally or sexually abused by their parents, siblings or other family members since the day that they were born. It would be hard to argue that love would form under these conditions however it would be much easier to argue that a sense of fear would most definitely be created.  

     Over years and years of exposure and social conditioning, this sense of fear becomes mischaracterised as ‘love’. When they reach their adult years, the person finds themselves still calling or visiting their family members on a regular basis. They rush to the family members side when they have been beckoned. They abandon themselves and their priorities in favour of their family. They do all of this despite the emotional, physical, verbal abuse that is thrown at them in return. They go home at the end of the day and say “Well I do it out of love” or “They hurt me but I love them and they love me”.

     The reality is though, they live in fear not love. They are fearful that if they don’t rush to their family members side they will get beaten just like they were beaten when they were a child. They are fearful of being abused if they disagree or say no. The abuse does not necessarily need to be happening right now because the fear factor has already been conditioned in childhood. Let’s look at an example of trauma bonding and parentification. In this example, lets pretend that the child acted as the therapist for one or both of the parents and the child was always present when the parent talked about suicide or self-harm.  

     The child continually tried to convince the mother/father that she/he was worthy and loved. The child had to beg them not to kill or hurt themselves. Perhaps the mother/father constantly said things like “I could never live without you” or “I would just kill myself if you ever left me”. Again, come the adult years, the person finds themselves jumping through hoops for the parent out of ‘love’. The underlying fear, guilt or shame however is that the parent will kill or hurt themselves if they are ‘rejected’ by the child. The person becomes fearful that they will be held responsible if the parent killed themselves.

     Trauma bonding between siblings can also be mischaracterised as love when in fact the underlying emotion is fear, guilt or shame. Siblings can mischaracterise a dependence on each other for safety as sibling love. As an adult, a person may feel guilty if they abandon a sibling who would then be left to fend for themselves against the abusive and toxic family member/s. Ultimately, it is this lack of understanding which often makes it so difficult for people to go ‘no contact’ with family members should it be absolutely necessary to do so. The trauma bond can become so strong and distorted that it becomes extremely difficult for people to escape abusive and toxic families.  

     It is up to you to assess whether trauma bonding or love is the most likely explanation for the relationship you may have with a toxic parent, sibling or family member by taking into account the circumstances in which you were raised. It is always important to assess the degree to which the family toxicity affects your own physical, mental and emotional health and safety before deciding to reduce or eliminate contact. Assess the degree of reciprocity and determine whether both sides are equal or you give 100% and they give nothing. Assess the percentage of toxicity you can realistically live with without compromising your health and safety before making any final decisions.