I have a question for you, but before I ask it, I want you to picture the scene.
Imagine that every evening at 7pm you leave your house and take a 30-minute walk into town to the same bar. You sit in the same chair at the same table and you order the same drink, because it’s your favourite and it’s the only place for miles where you can buy it.
But the problem is that every night, at 9pm, a well-dressed and apparently normal guy walks into the bar, comes over to your table and punches you in the face.
This happens every night, every week, every month. Without fail.
My question is, would you stop going to the bar? Or would you keep going, but ask your doctor to prescribe something to help you cope with the pain you know you’ll be dealing with every night?
You’d stop going to the bar, wouldn’t you? Forget the fact it’s the only place where you can get your favourite drink, it’s not worth the pain. So, it’s a stupid question, right?
Well, not really.
You see, this behaviour, whilst not as extreme as the scenario I’ve set out, isn’t at all uncommon. I see it a lot and the only difference is, the pain is usually emotional rather than physical – though there are certainly exceptions. And it’s almost always down to the health of a relationship.
Often, it’ll be a client who’s in a relationship but is feeling anxious about it, and they book a consultation with me in an effort to resolve their perceived self-esteem issues and help them to be more confident in the relationship.
More often than not, though, the anxiety isn’t linked to self-belief or confidence or self-esteem, but is instead a warning flag from the subconscious that the other person in the relationship is unavailable – and by that, I mean emotionally unavailable.
The subconscious – which is far better than the conscious mind at reading psychology – responds to this emotional detachment by kicking into ‘protection’ mode.
In commercial aviation, airliners are fitted with a ‘stick-shaker’ which vibrates when the aircraft is about to stall. Anxiety, if you like, becomes the body’s stick-shaker a times of danger – a physical reaction to a subconscious warning. An urgent message that you need to do something to avoid crashing.
People, especially women, often blame themselves in relationships, believing they must be doing something wrong to feel as anxious as they do, but more often than not it’s their subconscious and body picking up on cues.
As a society, we’re completely conditioned to respond to certain inputs in specific ways. Love is no exception. We’ve all seen the perfume adverts where love is portrayed as a spontaneous combustion of breathless emotion and nervous tension that should leave you open, unguarded and emotionally drained.
In fact, what we’re actually being sold, apart from perfume of course, is the idea that anxiety is love
Recently, I asked a client who I helped to leave an abusive relationship how she felt when she started dating her partner. No one is abusive on the first date – quite the contrary, in fact abusive people are often very charming in the beginning and hide their true nature behind a veneer of charisma and charm.
The client said that before every date she would feel physically sick with anxiety. Your subconscious often knows the truth long before you do. But it can take skill to read what you’re being told and, sometimes, courage to act on it.
These situations can be particularly damaging for people who have experienced trauma as children and who suffer confusing fight or flight signals, causing them to approach dangerous situations rather than retreat from them and putting them at risk of repeating the same mistakes over and over again.
When this happens, relationships become ‘trauma bonds’. Shannon Thomas, the author of Healing from Hidden Abuse likens the trauma bonding to a destructive process of punishment and reward where abuse punctuated by moments of kindness when you ‘behave’.
Thomas says: “This means the body is going through its own turmoil, with high levels of the stress hormone cortisol, paired with dopamine when given affection as a reward and the body becomes addicted. When we’re looking for something that we want, that we once had, which is a connection with somebody, and they are playing cat and mouse where they are pulling it back and forth, then the body really does become dependent on having that approval.”
And by the way, we all experience a few first- second- and third-date nerves. But anxiety that won’t go away and stops you from feeling at ease after a period of time probably suggests something’s up
Relationships with unavailable people also produce a version of trauma bonding. Patrick Carnes, author of the brilliant The Betrayal Bond talks about survivors of childhood trauma in this way:
“Some survivors are continually attracted to people who were like the people that caused the childhood pain, people who can re-create the same situations over and over again. These people can re-seduce them repeatedly because the attraction is so powerful.
“Healthy people with integrity and boundaries are boring. There is no adrenaline rush, no phenylethyliamine high – the key chemical in falling in love.”
He adds that when a person feels flawed and unlovable, flattery attention and kindness can negate any concerns. When flattered or fawned over, the person will ignore that voice within that says, ‘Don’t do this’.
We see examples of trauma bonding in the most extreme circumstances. Hostages can sometimes develop a strong emotional bond with their kidnappers or captors. It’s known as Stockholm Syndrome and was formally recognised in 1973 when four hostages held following a bank robbery in the Swedish capital not only refused to testify against their captors but two of them then went onto wait for their captors whilst they were 10 years in prison and go onto marry them – with the other hostages attending the wedding ceremony. Proof indeed of the power of trauma bonds in its extremity.
For people who are repeatedly drawn to unavailable people and unfulfilling relationships, it’s vital to begin looking at one’s own emotional availability and to start letting intuition rather than fantasy guide you in your choices.
Natalie Lue is an exceptional writer on this subject and has a brilliant website and blog which is a great resource for healing and understanding why you keep getting drawn into painful re-creations of the past.
Love is a wonderful emotion that can leave you breathless – but even though it can bring its own challenges and issues to work through, it’s also supposed to leave you feeling joyful. Love should enhance our lives and nourish our sense of self-worth and value.
But if instead we find we’re involved in something that makes us a lesser version of ourselves, scrabbling around for emotional scraps, then the chances are that what we’re experiencing isn’t actually love at all.