What is Bonding over Trauma and What to do about it.
I understand trauma bonding…I really do. Its that very human need to share, to be part of a community, to find people that understand you and what you’ve been through. Of course, people want to have that. It is the reason for the beginnings of the very first hunter gathers to facebook groups and reddit threads. People seek out those who are ‘like’ them and have shared experiences. As an anthropologist, how can I not understand this very basic tenant of humanity? Not even humanity: primates, maybe even Mammals since whales and dolphins have been showed to do this two. Read any papers or articles on Orcas and you will see that pods have their own culture.
But trauma bonding isn’t something that I really thought about until I left my ex husband. I don’t need to go back into detail about what happened as I have already talked about it but the basic cheating, gaslighting, years of economic abuse that I didn’t know about and generally the stress of trying to hold something up all on my own for so long can be construed as ‘trauma’.
I made the mistake which I should have known but could not avoid. I told my mother. While my mother always has the best intensions she is not great at keeping anything to herself and of course as she was the one that came down, helped me pack all of my stuff and then drove with me half way across the country (22 hours in a care from Texas to eastern Pennsylvania, we had to talk about some of it. Not to mention the move back in with my parents that them literally sitting right next to me as I found out about the affair. Either way I got put on a “Prayer chain” Which meant everyone in my family was told to pray for me and exactly what had happened. While I respect my parents religion and actually credit being raised Catholic for a lot of my magical thinking, this is one part that absolutely erks me. Why does everyone have to know everything about my divorce to pray for me/ wish me well?
Anyway, this means that I was called by family, my parents friends, my parents friends kids and generally everyone that likes to rubberneck- I’m sorry- support people going through emotional trauma. Everyone that had been cheated on felt the need to call me and tell me that it wasn’t my fault and that it was going to be okay while at the same time trying to extract every salacious detail.
This is called trauma bonding and while I had never much thought about it before I knew instantly that I wanted no part of it. I did not want to constantly think about what had happened to me and to other people. I didn’t want to be told that I ‘didn’t waste ten years of my life’ which honestly wasn’t something that I had come to the conclusion of because I was more pissed and the constant lying then sad. I knew that it wasn’t my fault and that even the parts that might have been did not deserve the gaslighting and emotional manipulation that I had received as punishment.
But that’s what these specific people wanted to talk about, some of them that I hadn’t spoken to in years. One of which specifically had only talked to me to try and recruit me into her MLM in 15 years. I should lead by saying that I’m not very good and commiserating with other people. I prefer to wallow and get through things on my own. I don’t like sitting there and trading horror stories which is a bit weird considering how empathetic I am when other people go through things and I actually love listening to podcasts, true crime and horror specifically, where people tell their phycological thrillers. But sitting there and trading…it just feels dirty to me. Like almost one upping. Maybe it also has a bit to do with the fact that I do not feel shame about what happened. I don’t need everyone to know but when I do talk about it, I tend to do so frankly, not with misery or with guilt. Maybe in the beginning a felt a little but when I spell it out and after the first time I sat down and wrote everything out, it really became clear to me that nothing justified what he had done to me and certainly nothing I had done could ever justified what he had done to a teenager.
But people still wanted to talk about it. They wanted to talk about it repeatedly while I was busy trying to get my shit together. Of course, I went to my Aunt (I didn’t have insurance at the time) who is an abnormal psychologist and talked things through over sushi. She asked me some questions, but it was very obvious that it was clinical as well as loving (Bless you, Andy. This was actually the most productive conversation I’ve had emotionally and intellectually) and told me that I was emotionally right where I needed to be and was dealing with it but also not letting it consume me.
And that was it for me. That was what I needed, and I dealt with it like that. I didn’t want to talk about it with people that were on the periphery of my life. I didn’t want to get closer because of this thing that happened to me which was the result of another person’s actions. To me this isn’t the appropriate way to bond.
People bonding over shared trauma sometimes do so under the supervision of others to move forward. But there are people who are just rubber neckers for trauma. There are people who try to one up another with their own trauma. There are people who genuinely need to talk about it – in that case I would always suggest seeing a professional. Individuals that are in the thick of similar problems do not have the kind of prospective needed to see the other side. This kind of bonding can be very unhealthy. It can promote wallowing and imped being able to move forward.
When people try to bond over this, be respectful. Tell them you’re sorry for what they went through, listen and of course if you want to share, share. But if it keeps being talked about, if that is the thing that you have in common, talking about it constantly can impede your ability to move forward. The truth of life and trauma is this. There will seldom be closure when something traumatic happens. If its someone dying, if it’s a breakup…any of those things mean that you will probably not get all the answers you want. You might not ever get any answers at all in some cases like death or disaster (No one can answer why someone dies before their time, even at their time or why their house got set on fire) and facing that and understanding it is part of the healing processes.
One of the best things that you can do according to a lot of psychologists and healing books is to acknowledge it, talk about it to an extent and work on yourself. Working on yourself is the best way to move forward. Reexploring the things that you wanted to do but neglected was the way that I healed. Yes you should talk about it, you should not feel shame, but you need to have more in common with friends then just your shared pain. If you can do that….great. But if its all that is being talked about, if you are rehashing your most painful moment repeatedly, that could be inhibiting the both of you from moving forward.
This is a moment in your life and the people in your life that support you are precious, processing your trauma is precious and important. But bonding over it should be kept to a minimum. Support groups are great (If you’re that type of person) but are not meant to be your entire life. The amount of time you spend processing should not be forever. It should lead to the rest of your life.
I have lost a lot of friends due to my inability to bond over trauma, for telling people I was done talking about it. For telling people that I was working on myself instead of jumping back into dating. For telling people that I didn’t have the emotional capacity to talk about their problems on top of my own. These types of boundaries are something that I had never had to erect before. I wasn’t good at setting boundaries ever. I don’t think many women are actually taught to set proper boundaries. We are told we are emotional and encouraged and discouraged at the same time for setting boundaries. However, I was actually pretty good at setting them at this point in my life. Telling people that while I appreciated their concern, they are not professionals and that I did not feel like talking about it with them (Aka the nice way to say its none of your damn business).
I think having trauma is kind of like having a baby. Suddenly its like you have a big sign on you that you want advise, even when you don’t. That people can unload on you what they did or what happened to them. Like suddenly you need a new best friend and they are that person. I don’t particularly like this and I don’t like people knowing my business, even if they are ‘family’. Even if I’ve known them since I was 13 (Still not close). I’m just not that kind of person.
Even when I’m emotional I know this. In fact that’s one of the things that I noticed when I was really in the thick of it. People are more then willing to take you on when you’re emotionally vulnerable. You aren’t even thinking about setting boundaries because there is just so much turmoil in your mind. This is important when you are talking to people going through trauma. Be aware that they are in a vulnerable state and you should- please for the love of god- be aware of that. Be aware that yes while they/ you need to share, that is not an open invitation to the rest of their life. As a friend, as someone who cares about them, to be healthy you should be helping them heal, not keeping them in that position by constantly bonding over shared trauma.
So, what are the take away from this:
- Talking about trauma is good. Wallowing in it is not
- Seek out professionals; not just people who have been through the same experiences.
- Allow yourself to accept not having all the explanations/ ideal closure
- Trauma is not an open invitation into someone’s life.
- Protect people’s privacy, even when they share with you.
- When bonding, make sure you have other things in common
- Closure can sometimes- most of the time- mean working on yourself
The things that you go though make you but never give that much credit to one thing or one person. If you go through trauma with another person that can also create a bond, a state of dissociation but at the same time bonding. This has been seen in the military or on cult groups but can also happen in the healing process. But there are other things that make you and you need that variety and the support from other people around you to move forward. Not to be stuck in the past.