Understanding the Intersections Between Trauma Bonding and Codependency

By Briana MacWilliam MPS, ATR-BC, LCAT Art Therapist, Author, & Attachment Coach.

“In the arithmetic of love, one plus one equals everything, and two minus one equals nothing.” – Mignon McLaughlin.

These poetic words hide a complex and challenging reality: not all relationships are built on healthy equations. Some are forged in the fiery crucible of trauma bonding and codependency, creating a painful paradox of love and suffering. You may wonder, why do we hold onto relationships that harm us more than they heal? Why does love sometimes feel more like a prison than a partnership? The answer, my dear reader, often lies in the perplexing dynamics of trauma bonding and codependency.

Trauma bonding is a broad term that refers to a specific pattern of relating to others. Trauma bonding is often a re-enactment of our early attachment traumas, where we repeat the same dynamics we experienced in the past. This is because there is a powerful physiological component, in which our nervous system has come to associate a degree of stress and adrenaline with affection, love, arousal and familiarity. There is also an emotional and psychological component, in which the inner child may be trying to re-live, in order to revise, old and painful ways of relating.

Codependency is a specific kind of trauma bond that is characterized by a focus on meeting the needs of others at the expense of our own needs. A codependent relationship is one where someone often becomes a caretaker or rescuer and the other person, as a result, becomes dependent.

Now consider this: nearly half of all adults have an insecure attachment pattern, which can predispose them to codependency and trauma bonds. That’s right—almost one in every two people. It’s a sobering statistic, but it also points to the silent suffering many endure within their relationships.

This blog post aims to explore the often-unspoken connection between trauma bonding and codependency. It’s an ambitious endeavor—akin to untangling a knotted skein of yarn. But by understanding these patterns, we can arm ourselves with the knowledge and tools to break free. Let’s delve into the labyrinth of trauma bonding and codependency, shedding light on the shadows that often cloud our relationships.

Understanding Trauma Bonding:

Trauma bonding is a complex and perplexing phenomenon that occurs when individuals form strong emotional attachments in the context of ongoing abuse or mistreatment. This can exist with clearly defined and extreme roles, including an abuser and the abused. It can also occur when two individuals who share the same experience of past trauma, bond to each other and then create a re-enactment of the original dysfunction, in the context of their relationship. It’s as if the victims are tethered to each other, tied by invisible ropes that hold them captive within the cycle of negativity and dysfunction. This cycle is not consistently distressing, however. Instead, it’s a disorienting dance of devaluation interspersed with periods of affection, attention, or even remorse, serving to tighten the bond and deepen the confusion.

To better comprehend this concept, let’s examine an anonymized case study: Meet ‘Anna’, a successful architect. Anna found herself caught in a whirlwind romance with ‘Rob’, whose charisma and affection initially swept her off her feet. As time wore on, however, Rob’s charm was intermittently replaced with bouts of anger and aggression. Despite these distressing episodes, Anna remained bound to Rob, drawn in by his sporadic affection and apology-laden periods of calm. This is an example of trauma bonding, wherein the abuse inflicted is paradoxically interwoven with the love received, making it challenging for the victim to leave.

The emotional and psychological effects of trauma bonding can be severe. Individuals in such bonds often grapple with feelings of helplessness and entrapment, bound to their partners by a mix of fear, loyalty, and misplaced hope. They may experience a significant erosion of self-esteem, as they frequently blame themselves for the confusing and sometimes abusive behaviors of their partners. Moreover, the emotional roller-coaster they ride—swinging from highs of affection and attention to lows of mistreatment and neglect—can cause anxiety, depression, and even post-traumatic stress disorder.

In understanding trauma bonding, we uncover a heart-wrenching truth: not all bonds are built on mutual respect and healthy love. Some are born out of a turbulent mix of affection and abuse, leaving deep scars on the hearts of those ensnared. As we move forward, let’s seek to understand not just the how, but also the why behind these bonds, as we take a closer look at the interplay between trauma bonding and codependency.

Unpacking Codependency:

While trauma bonding sheds light on one facet of toxic relationships, another significant piece of the puzzle is codependency. Codependency is a type of trauma bond that emerges in relationships where one person enables another’s addiction, poor mental health, immaturity, irresponsibility, or under-achievement. It’s as if two people have become so entwined that the line between where one person ends and the other begins becomes blurred. This results in a loss of individuality, autonomy, and often, self-esteem.

Common manifestations of codependency include an excessive reliance on the other person for validation and self-worth, a pattern of people-pleasing behaviors, an extreme fear of abandonment, and a tendency to take responsibility for the other person’s actions, emotions, or problems. In essence, the codependent person becomes so enmeshed with their partner that they often lose sight of their own needs and desires.

To illustrate, let’s consider ‘Tom’ and ‘Sarah’. Tom struggles with alcohol addiction, while Sarah finds her self-worth in ‘saving’ Tom. She covers for him when he’s unable to fulfill his responsibilities, she’s constantly preoccupied with his well-being, and she neglects her own needs in the process. Sarah has become codependent, enabling Tom’s destructive behavior while sacrificing her own happiness and well-being.

Codependency can have profound effects on an individual’s self-esteem and emotional health. As the codependent person continually prioritizes the needs of their partner over their own, they may struggle with feelings of worthlessness, anxiety, and depression. They often find themselves on an emotional roller-coaster, their mood determined by the state of their partner. This emotional instability can lead to chronic stress, which may, in turn, result in physical ailments, like headaches or digestive issues.

In essence, codependency binds individuals in a cycle of self-neglect and unhealthy attachment. It can feel like being lost in a forest of emotion, unable to find a way out. But remember, understanding is the first step on the path to recovery. With awareness comes the potential for change and the hope for healthier, more fulfilling relationships. In our next section, we’ll explore how these two phenomena—trauma bonding and codependency—interact and often reinforce each other in a tangled web of emotional hardship.

The Interplay Between Trauma Bonding and Codependency:

As we dive deeper into the complexities of relationship dynamics, a startling picture begins to form: Trauma bonding and codependency, two potent forces, often dance a destructive duet, causing a ‘double whammy’ effect. This fusion creates a cycle of behavior that can be hard to break, entrapping individuals in relationships that are more about enduring than enjoying.

How do these dynamics interplay? Well, in a trauma-bonded relationship, particularly an extreme situation in which abuse is involved, the abused person becomes increasingly attached to their abuser due to the intense emotional experiences they share. Now, if this abused person also exhibits codependent traits—like prioritizing the abuser’s needs above their own or finding their self-worth in ‘helping’ the abuser—they essentially fortify this unhealthy bond. The abusive partner exploits these codependent tendencies, manipulating the other person into staying in the abusive relationship. This creates a cycle that’s hard to break.

To further clarify this interplay, let’s return to our previous example of ‘Tom’ and ‘Sarah’. Sarah not only enables Tom’s addiction—she’s also emotionally bonded to him through repeated cycles of abuse and reconciliation. When Tom is sober, he showers Sarah with love and affection, creating moments of intense emotional connection. But when he’s intoxicated, he becomes abusive, emotionally and sometimes physically. Yet Sarah remains, driven by her codependent need to ‘fix’ Tom and also by the trauma bond that pulls her back every time she tries to leave.

This mutual reinforcement of codependency (a type of trauma bond) often traps individuals in a vortex of pain and confusion. They become tangled in a toxic relationship dynamic where love is conflated with pain, care with control, and affection with abuse. It’s like being caught in a storm, the winds of trauma bonding and codependency pulling them in opposite directions, leaving them feeling lost and disoriented. But it’s important to remember: though the storm may be fierce, with the right guidance and support, it is possible to find a way out.

Breaking Free: Strategies for Change:

Understanding trauma bonding and codependency forms the cornerstone of change. By recognizing these patterns in your own relationships, you initiate the first step towards liberation. As renowned psychoanalyst Carl Jung said, “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” The same principle applies here. The power to break these destructive cycles lies within your grasp, hidden within the realms of understanding and awareness.

Now, how can you challenge trauma bonds and codependent behaviors? 

Firstly, it’s important to educate yourself further about these concepts. Read books, attend seminars, or seek therapy with professionals who specialize in these areas. Knowledge can be a powerful tool in breaking these bonds.

Secondly, begin to cultivate self-compassion and self-care. Prioritize your needs and desires, and start setting healthy boundaries. This may feel uncomfortable initially, particularly if you’ve been neglecting your needs for a long time, but remember, it’s okay to say ‘no’, and it’s necessary to put your wellbeing first.

Thirdly, seek support. This could be from trusted friends or family, support groups, or mental health professionals. You don’t have to go through this journey alone. Others have walked this path before you, and their wisdom and companionship can be invaluable.

Consider ‘Emily’, who was trapped in a web of trauma bonding and codependency for many years. Her partner, ‘Mark’, was emotionally abusive and struggled with addiction, while Emily found herself continually making excuses for his behavior, believing she could change him. Through therapy, she began to recognize her patterns of codependency and the trauma bond she had formed with Mark. It was a difficult realization, but it was also her first step towards freedom.

Emily began attending a support group for codependency, read extensively about trauma bonding, and started to prioritize her needs for the first time in years. Over time, with professional help and personal determination, she managed to break free from Mark and the destructive cycle that had held her captive. Today, Emily is in a healthy relationship, where mutual respect and caring are the norm, not the exception.

Emily’s story serves as a beacon of hope and resilience. It reminds us that change is possible, no matter how deep or intricate the patterns may seem. Remember, awareness is the first step towards transformation. By recognizing these harmful patterns and taking proactive steps to break free, you pave the way towards healthier, more fulfilling relationships. Remember, it’s not just about surviving, but thriving.

Briana MacWilliam is an author, educator and licensed and board-certified creative arts therapist with more than 15 years in the field, helping adults struggling with insecure attachment attract and/or cultivate loving relationships, using her trademarked method. To learn more, visit her website at https://brianamacwilliam.com/.

1 Response

  1. Kim says:

    I appreciate your warmth and kindness that is clear throughout the article. It is much easier to hear your words of wisdom when Grace is sprinkled throughout rather than cold, clinical writing.

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