Hands up if you ever played doctors or nurses – and focus at the back, there … we’re talking about role-play when you were six, not cosplay when you were, well … older (that’s a whole different article).
Most of us acted out the part of a doctor or a nurse or a dentist when we were kids, and I bet that even though you probably won’t remember or associate it in this way, when you did, it was often just after an appointment with your own doctor or dentist.
More than that, I’d be willing to stake a little money on the fact that on those occasions, you acted out whatever treatment you’d just received. An injection, maybe. Or drilling a tooth.
Even now, you probably think that was just a simplistic process of taking a ‘new’ childhood experience and contextualising it in your own relatively new world.
Actually, what you were really doing was detoxing a negative and potentially traumatic experience. Maybe you succeeded, maybe you’re still nervous around needles and the dentist’s chair.
But regardless of the outcome, that time you spent immunising a doll or perhaps an unwilling sibling was practical, tangible evidence of your subconscious processing your ‘negative’ experience to try to resolve it. Because in resolution lies immunity.
When trauma goes unresolved, the process of trying to deal with it never actually stops. Instead, your subconscious quietly gets on with trying to find a mental hack that will finally allow it to lay to rest the ghosts of the past. This can and often does take place over many years, without you ever being aware of it.
The simple, unavoidable truth is that trauma is actually chemistry – and it’s a chemistry that’s as addictive as any when it comes to messing with your head.
Take love, for example.
We like to think that when we fall in love it’s something akin to the planets aligning, an unstoppable destiny-defining force of nature that we always interpret as something unremittingly positive.
Spoiler Alert: it’s not.
Well, not always, at any rate, and not always in the way we think it is. Without wishing to be unnecessarily forensic and unromantic about it, love and relationships are often like a petri dish … full of really interesting things but riddled with fungus and bacteria.
Having stumbled upon such a delightful analogy, let’s wring it dry.
Some of the fungus and bacteria is good – for example, the challenging partner who’s the pragmatic Yin to your wild-hearted Yang (or vice versa). This is the guy or girl who’ll calmly ask you what you’ve done with your parachute before you jump out of the plane.
He or she is the Actimel or Benecol in your relationship – doing you good even if it’s not the tastiest thing in your fridge.
But for those of us who’ve been laid bare by serious trauma, some of the darker, more damaging emotional fungus is only visible under a microscope. And as unromantic as it sounds, when people in this group fall in love, it’s often not love at all but rather our damage locking into theirs.
If you grew up in a loving family with parents who loved each other, loved themselves and loved you and who, crucially even if accidentally, taught you that it was all right to love yourself, too, then you’re likely to have a much smoother route to romantic happiness.
But people who’ve been affected by trauma (and especially trauma with a capital T) may begin to notice patterns in their behaviour which, if they ever get the chance to lift the bonnet on their own wellbeing, they’ll find are the product of the subconscious trying to heal the past.
That may play out as tending to attract people who display the same character and behaviour traits of whoever was responsible for hurting them – emotionally, physically or both – all those months or years ago.
It’s an unconscious, but very resolute, attempt to relive the past in the hope of a better outcome that heals the wounds inflicted in childhood or youth.
To achieve that end, the subconscious seeks out and pushes you toward what is ‘familiar’, even if ‘familiar’ is a toxic neurochemical cocktail that starts with a combined oxytocin/dopamine high and is followed by a massive cortisol adrenalin dump crash that’s accompanied by dynastic levels of drama.
The end result? Horror-struck friends and family who can’t understand why this otherwise rational and grounded human they know so well always seems to wipe out on love’s great surfboard.
What are the signs that something’s wrong in your own personal petri dish? You may find yourself passing up or passing over really good women/men because they don’t give off that familiar neurochemical cocktail that matches the drama (actually, trauma, but you just don’t know it yet) of childhood, and they feel ‘dull’.
When your damage connects to someone else’s (I’m done with the petri dish analogy now), you enter a cycle where the toxicity of the traumatic relationship in your past is reinforced. That may be defined as abuse, emotional toxicity, abandonment or something else – and it’s known as a trauma bond.
Trauma bonds are addictive and they’re addictive because they trade on the powerful – almost superhuman – brain chemistry that’s created by equally powerful emotional experiences.
Breaking that connection is really hard to do on your own, because those connections are so much stronger than the connections you form with other people in your life – and so the pain of giving them up by ending the relationship (or having it ended for you by the other person) is infinitely more painful.
Simply, we’re not done with trauma until the work to resolve it is done – and until then we unconsciously ‘fetishise’ our trauma in the now by recreating the traumatic dynamics of our childhood.
So, the principle is much like that role-playing of the doctor in childhood, but with often catastrophic outcomes.
When both people in a relationship are ‘unprocessed’, it’s a bit like going to the Grim Reaper for a cuddle: it’s not going to be pretty and you can bet your bottom dollar on cosmic levels of drama.
So what are the danger signs of a trauma bond relationship?
1. Massive intensity – I often describe this as the process of trying to hotwire intimacy. It’s the mutual first-date oversharing of the gory details of each other’s childhood
2. On/Off cycles: The relationships that are unpredictable and involve regular making up and breaking up. This is intermittent reinforcement hell.
A 1950 study using rats discovered that reward plays a large part in reinforcing behaviour. The experiment found the rats pressed a lever for food more steadily when they didn’t know when the next food pellet was coming than when they always received the pellet after pressing. This proved that consistent rewards for a certain behaviour actually produce less of that behaviour over time than an inconsistent schedule of rewards.
3. You just can’t say goodbye: Even when your friends and family are Whatsapping WTAF? about you and you know you should be ending the relationship, you just can’t bring yourself to do it.
The good news is that if you have big T trauma and this has played out across your relationships, resolving the problem is entirely possible – though it’ll take time and effort.
Here’s what you can expect when you do the work:
The healthier you are the healthier the partner you will attract. Relationships are always mirrors and as you heal you’ll feel a natural chemistry for healthy available people.
The potential to find an amazing and conscious relationship: Partners who’ve been through trauma and worked on their trauma prior to meeting will usually continue to work on their trauma in the relationship, which also involves working on the relationship itself.
We’re hardwired to heal: We need the right conditions to do it, but some of the most amazing people in the world are those that have overcome trauma and come out the other side with compassion, wisdom and positive awareness of their own flaws
Relationships are the most amazing vehicle for growth: When you can see them as being less Mills & Boon and more as a reflection of where you are in your emotional journey, you’re much more likely to be able to recognise and stick with something really good when it comes around.
A wonderful reality check on the past: When you’ve done the work, you’ll see your toxic relationship for the s**t-show it really was and realise its ending was just the beginning for you.