It Wasn't Love, It Was a Co-dependent Trauma Bond
I've had another epiphany. This one came to me earlier in the week and took me back to the beginning of 2002; to the time before Steve and I were married, and to the time before we had children.
Whilst leaving a supplier one day, Steve was invited to enter a competition in which a romantic trip for two to Paris was up for grabs. Steve entered the competition with little thought or expectation, but he won, and we found ourselves in Paris.
We did some touristy things, not least a river boat tour of the Seine; past Notre Dame and disembarking at the feet of the Eiffel Tower, for some freshly made crepes from a Parisian street vendor. What didn't register as a thing for me until earlier this week, twenty years later when the memory was returned to my conscious mind, was that for the entire duration of the river boat tour, I chose to sit on the exterior bow of the boat, whilst Steve remained largely alone within the interior seating area. Why?
Why did I choose to sit alone outside, video recording the magnificent architecture of a beautiful city, rather than spending what could have been a romantic interlude with Steve? Because it was a more interesting and appealing prospect, evidently. This is the revelation that's materialised this week, and the brutality of it made me wince. How must Steve have felt watching me make and maintain those choices? But then, why didn't he come out to join me, or at least encourage me to spend some of the river tour with him? Only he can answer that, but it's a question that's going to fester. The broader point is that we were in trouble long before 2013's Bomb Drop.
EPIPHANY BEGETS EPIPHANY
Following the Parisian boat trip memory, more recollections began to burst through the dam, such as the mind movies of me being left home alone almost every night, whilst Steve was working, by one definition or another. I recall the hours upon hours either reading alone, or on the phone to friends, or sitting in front of the stereo compiling mixed tapes for my car. I endeavoured to excuse and rationalise this all as important support for Steve's noble attempts to build a business, for the ultimate prize of securing our future financial comfort and stability. Meanwhile, I went to work in jobs that for the most part I hated, paid the mortgage and took care of everything else. No bills went unpaid, no groceries unbought, no chores untouched, and no birthdays forgotten - you get the gist - but equally all of his business admin was completed too. My days were full, but the silence of my nights was deafening. On occasion when Steve was home, he was asleep (understandably)... and snoring. Stealthy alienation started to creep in.
I spent my time earnestly reading books about relationships, even those published by Relate, trying to find a positive way forward and doing the work at least one of us had to do. But therein lies my error, because there can't only be one of you working to keep the relationship alive, the equilibrium will get out of whack and it's a strategy doomed to fail from the beginning; but I was young and naive and still had to learn this the hard way.
Relate recommended writing him a letter - and I ended up writing many letters but not sending a single one of them. Instead, I would leave them buried in my underwear drawer for him to find e.g.: should I have died or left unexpectedly. I am embarrassed about this now, and not entirely sure what the rationale was behind these decisions, but it is what happened.
Writing appealed to me because the multiple attempts I made to discuss my thoughts and feelings with Steve directly was met with a defend, deflect and Whataboutism strategy, which was exhausting and exasperating. In many cases I was being gaslit but didn't understand that concept, then. By writing I could get it all down, and purged out of myself, without any destabilising interruptions or the ever-present 'Poor Me!' victim card being played. Urgh. So of course, because these letters were never given or received, nor the conversations had and built upon, we were on a slippery slope, but we pretended not to be - certainly enough to get married (specifically to have children) in September 2002. Sofia was born in 2003, and Alex 2008.
WHY DIDN'T I LEAVE?
When Steve ended our marriage in September 2013, he stated defiantly that only he had had the courage to leave and end things. Hmmm. Courage? In such a cowardly, brutal and selfish manner, and with two young children emotionally brutalised in the process? Courage isn't the word I'd use.
So why hadn't I left long beforehand? Especially when, following more recent epiphanies, it has become clear to me that our relationship had run its course by the mid-1990's, after several years of excusing the business-building-related alienation. And the answer to that question has been returned to me vividly, following years of lying dormant in my unconscious mind. I can now recall, as clear as day, thinking about ending the relationship multiple times, but walking myself back from the ledge with: "But who will look after him?" And that's what kept me small, trapped, and suffocated: me!
I felt so duty bound to him, especially because he "... was working so hard for us", and it truly did feel like what I imagined mature love to feel like - but I was young when we met, so what the hell did I know? It has taken nine years, post-Bomb Drop, for me to realise that it wasn't love. Sure, there was an initial attraction and infatuation, but it wasn't true love, it was a co-dependent trauma bond.
THE SCIENCE BIT
My subsequent Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) training has taught me that our unconscious minds will repress hurtful things to protect us from pain, a defence mechanism. However, once the unconscious mind deems us ready to deal with these painful things, it will throw them up to the conscious mind for resolution, regardless of whether it's convenient, or not. You could feasibly be standing in a queue at Tesco when your unconscious mind essentially decrees: "Right, it's time you dealt with this, you're ready, have at it!" and boom, you're potentially lumped with a heavy suitcase of stuff to sift through, make sense of and process.
More often than not, this happens to me when I'm driving. Largely, I think, because my conscious mind is busy navigating traffic, and my unconscious mind has the time and space to figure things out. Like when the boss is out for the day, leaving you alone and letting you get stuff done. I can put myself into a state of pure Awareness, which allows space for ideas, solutions, guidance and wisdom to get in between my thoughts. The more time I spend in Awareness, the more ideas, solutions, guidance and wisdom I'm exposed to, and quite frankly it's wonderful. It's the most divine and peaceful state to be in, which obviously benefits my physical and mental health.
In this state of pure Awareness, my unconscious mind more readily and regularly throws up long forgotten and/or repressed memories, especially now that chronological detachment has occurred, the pain has gone, and the multiple veils of illusion have been dropped - so I'm gradually decluttering and purging past pain, which feels great, obviously.
So, let's go back to why I didn't give Steve the letters. Because I had a trauma bonding Rescuer complex, which started in childhood for a complex web of reasons, and spilled over into my relationship with Steve, simply because I didn't consciously know what I was doing or why. My former rescuing tendencies were fuelled by the extrinsic motivation behind our shared co-dependent trauma bond. We both needed it to be love, we both believed it was love at the time, but it wasn't, and he further validated this point by taking the callous, soulless actions outlined in Too Relieved To Grieve.
It wasn't love. We were both looking extrinsically - looking outside of ourselves - to find someone to attach to, and who would make us feel better. We both came into the relationship with baggage [who doesn't?], but because we were young and unsupported, we were not guided towards finding the healing from within, intrinsically, as I recommend my clients do now.
Because during Steve's childhood he was never good enough and constantly denigrated by cold and hypercritical adults and elders, who could not find it within themselves to nurture his young sensibilities, but opted instead to ritually humiliate him, it's not surprising he was driven to work so fiendishly hard to prove them wrong, before burning himself out for the privilege. The problem came however, following decades of being told he would never be anything, he found himself on the cusp of being something (notably a husband, father, mortgage-free homeowner and hugely successful entrepreneur), and unable to reconcile the inner conflict. This led to him figuratively blowing himself up, in an unconscious act of self-sabotage, essentially allowing him to prove the deeply embedded childhood imprinting to be true, whilst aligning himself into the comfort of the false negatives he'd always known. Now he truly is none of those things he was before, what a waste and what a shame. Now he appears to be self-soothing by cycling, which represents yet another regression into a former source of escape, solace and solitude.
For me, these continuing revelations are enormously freeing, as it's clear to me that I was living a lie. A well-intentioned and much needed lie, but a lie, nonetheless. After a painful breakup and people start telling you let go, it can leave you thoroughly frustrated at not understanding how to let go, but seeing the ugly truth is how it's done. And that truly does require courage, to see the warts and all, but you'll never make progress and feel better until you do.
So, enough about me, let's talk about you. Has any of this struck a chord with you? Would you like to learn more about trauma bonds? If so, here is a brief summary, but I'm here to discuss it in more detail should you like to delve and heal. Please feel to contact me via email at email@example.com and we'll take it from there.
WHAT IS A TRAUMA BOND?
It's common for people to believe that a trauma bond relates to a bond with someone over a shared trauma, but that's not the case. A trauma bond is the defining characteristic of toxic and abusive relationships and is often a main reason why many people find themselves unable to leave.
A trauma bond relates to the deep emotional attachment people can feel towards those being abusive and/or negligent, and it's something more likely to evolve in those who have already experienced abuse, exploitation or emotional co-dependency in past relationships. Trauma bonds are commonly misidentified as feelings of love, so here are eight signs that it's not love but a trauma bond:
1. They begin by being outwardly charming.
Think about it, who on Earth would willingly enter into a relationship with someone who was openly exhibiting abusive behaviours from the beginning? The old saying of attracting more bees with honey than vinegar comes to mind, which is why toxic relationships never start out as toxic, they become toxic the more emotionally invested you become.
2. They are emotionally unpredictable.
Emotionally abusive/negligent partners can be manipulative too, and often resort to an alternating pattern of devaluing you before pivoting towards love bombing you; emotionally unpredictable. This serves to keep you off balance, to never let you settle into knowing where you truly stand, and to disrupt your cognitive equilibrium. Let's face it, the more certain you are, the less control they have over you, so keeping you uncertain and unsure is their main aim. This method also serves as a means of providing positive reinforcement - training you to behave in their preferred ways - whilst encouraging you to second guess any ideas you may have about leaving them.
3. They habitually take their problems out on you.
Let me ask you this, when confronted with a problem or challenge, how do they react? Do they lash out, taking their frustrations and anger out on you? Is it possible they are keeping you within their grasp or orbit because you make a handy and compliant psychological punching bag? If this is resonating with you now, please know that you deserve better than this. Much better!
4. They are systematically isolating you from your friends and family.
I have known people to almost take pleasure, pride and comfort in their partner's jealousy and possessiveness, believing it to be a powerful confirmation of love and their partner's fear of losing them. However, there is a huge difference between wanting to spend as much time with your paramour as possible, and actively working towards isolating them from their friends and family; that ain't love! Please answer this question as honestly and bravely as you can: Are they trying to distance you from those you love? If the answer is yes, then you have a red flag to deal with, because why would they do that?
5. You are denying or minimising their abuse/neglect.
Do you regularly choose to look past their mistreatment of you by saying things like: "It's not that bad", or "I don't' mind" because in the moment it's easier to brush these things off than it is to challenge them and confront the possibility that you're with a person who's abusing you?
6. You are always making excuses for them.
The moment you can no longer deny or minimise what they are doing to you, is the moment you have accepted you are in a trauma bond, and not a loving relationship. From this realisation is where you find the strength and mental clarity to seek the help and support you need to move forwards.
7. You have noticed yourself becoming increasingly emotionally numb.
If you are feeling less and less, detached and emotionally numb, please know this is for a good reason, as it may be your unconscious mind trying to cope with all the abuse/neglect you're dealing with; you just can't take any more pain and are closing yourself off to your emotions instead. You're refusing to feel your feelings in the name of emotional self-defence. You're no longer as vibrant talkative or expressive as you once were. Please reach out for help.
8. You're concealing aspects of your relationship from those who care about you.
If you are doing this, then you already know there's something wrong with your relationship. Why else would you actively be trying to conceal the bad things that are probably getting worse? Unquestioning, steadfast loyalty towards an abusive/negligent partner is a hallmark of trauma bonding, leading you to become defensive and even angry towards those who are looking out for you, and care about your wellbeing.
If I am speaking directly to your heart and mind right now, please reach out to me - in the strictest of confidence - and I will do all that I can to help you. Here's my email again: firstname.lastname@example.org - there is no need for you to go through this alone. There are many, many helpful avenues help out there, but you must puncture the bubble of denial you're in first.
Above all else, take good care of yourself.