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Stop Mistaking Shared Trauma for Compatibility.

You can’t build a healthy relationship on an unstable foundation.

Original Post Arah Iloabugichukwu Jan 29, 2019

Two hopeless romantics meet at a bar. After a week of sharing flirty memes and sending early-morning text messages, the two agree to exchange judgments and pass opinions over a pair of pomegranate martinis. In true millennial fashion, their first face-to-face is ripe with sarcasm, slanted jokes, and side-eyes. Neither wants to show or say too much at the risk of appearing too interested, God forbid. Eventually, the topic of family comes up, and the date takes a serious turn as they discover a common theme in both of their upbringings: alcoholism in the family.

Over another round of drinks, they take turns diving into the deepest corners of their childhoods, unsure if the warm fuzzy feelings are the result of the martinis or the memories. About four hours into their expedited engagement, it becomes apparent that this courtship is nothing short of a divine calling. It’s not often they come across people who can relate to their pain and understand their perspectives. This must be meant to be, right? Before they know it, they’ll be fully entrenched in a bond that’s based on their shared trauma, and they won’t be the only ones.

Shared pain brings people together. Known to sociologists as “social glue,” trauma behaves like a binding agent in social settings, forging connections between survivors known as trauma bonds.

Stockholm syndrome, a term used to describe the distorted relationship between kidnappers and their victims turned defenders, demonstrates one form of these bonds can take over time. While confusing to us on the outside, Stockholm syndrome creates a mental escape for victims by reconfiguring the brain to find comfort in its captivity. Another common bond is the kind we see among people in military service. This trauma bond, known as unit cohesion, highlights the effectiveness of shared trauma in high-stress situations.

In a study conducted by The Society of Occupational Medicine, participants reported higher levels of cooperation and group morale, increased communication skills, and improved operational performance, especially following a traumatic event. Researchers found that while unit cohesion improved soldier mental wellness and increased mission success overall, it had little to no impact on soldier mental health and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) rates once the combat zone element was removed.

Let’s not confuse our ability to hurt the same with our capacity to love properly.

Unit cohesion serves a purpose just like all bonds built on pain, and that purpose is to manifest the support necessary to survive further trauma. When these bonds are forged outside of trauma zones, we find them far less beneficial. In romantic relationships, for example, we see trauma bonding has the same allure as it does to kidnapping victims and soldiers but serves no real purpose. The ability to withstand intermittent trauma is a necessity in a war zone where the likelihood of further traumatization is all but guaranteed—but not so much in a loving relationship where ongoing trauma has no place. There’s no doubt that we detect companionship in the experiences we share with others, even more so when those experiences are negative ones, but let’s not confuse our ability to hurt the same with our capacity to love properly.

The Black community is no stranger to trauma. According to a study by the University of Pennsylvania, police brutality alone is having population-level consequences for the mental health of the community as a whole. With an increase in depression, psychological distress, anxiety disorders, and a 9.1% prevalence rate for PTSD (compared with 6.8% in Whites), it’s no surprise that pain seems to be one of the things most Black people have in common. Anywhere we see an increase in PTSD, we see people utilizing unhealthy strategies to cope with it. Emotional numbness, or the avoidance of emotional experiences, is a common logical response to repeated trauma. We see this in our ability to watch police killings and bloody street fight videos without flinching. The more trauma you’re exposed to, the less it feels like trauma, and your brain prefers it that way.

But as people become collectively numb to external stimuli, it takes more for them to feel, meaning their interactions require a lot more intensity to feel “authentic.”

This explains why children exposed to trauma during their formative years engage in thrill-seeking and risky behaviors at a much higher rate than their peers; unfortunately, adult victims are no different. These cravings for heightened stimuli not only trickle into our daily decision-making but also affect our romantic pairings. Where others might view someone’s unaddressed trauma as a red flag, a similarly traumatized person would see the potential risks as being worth the camaraderie that comes with them. To a person enduring ongoing trauma, someone who can help them cope and survive is far more important in the moment than someone who can help them heal. These relationships are proof of that.

Anywhere we see an increase in PTSD we see people utilizing unhealthy strategies to cope with it.

A friend once told me that because she and her boyfriend both came from single-parent homes, they were less likely to create one for their unborn child. We may not all agree that the absence of a parent can traumatize a child, but there’s enough evidence to support that those children raised with only one active parent deal with a host of emotional, social, and psychological challenges that peers raised in healthy two-parent homes do not. And for those of us who know the pain of parental abandonment and have yet to heal from it, a person who relates to that pain may seem like a logical fit.

My friend was confident that because she and her then-boyfriend both knew the hurt that parental alienation caused, they’d be less likely to inflict that pain on their child. But my friend hadn’t chosen a partner who was familiar with the healing process; she chose a partner who knew how to live with their hurt, and together they formed a bond anchored by that relationship alone.

Too many of us believe we can build healthy relationships on unstable foundations.

We’re victims of stabbing who are looking for similarly wounded people when we should be seeking people who can help stop the bleeding. My friend and her boyfriend ultimately recreated for their child the same traumatic environment that they had both become so familiar with, splitting shortly after the child’s birth. They each blamed the other for the breakdown of a relationship that was doomed from the start. They made the mistake of expecting their shared trauma to translate into compatibility, assuming that because they hurt the same that they would also love the same.

It is the trauma in our histories that makes us more susceptible to trauma bonding. And it’s the resulting numbness that makes us seek out extreme feelings and extreme situations.

When two people come together with these things in common, they become both agents of pain and agents of coping for one another. Creating between them a vicious cycle of revictimization that ensures that neither of them advances beyond the pain that binds them together. There were times I mistook the pain I had in common with someone for something much deeper. I believed that two people having similar origins would have no issue manifesting similar destinations, but I was wrong.

When we are victims, our desire to pair with other victims is neither rational nor irrational, but it is a naturally occurring phenomenon we can’t afford to ignore. Part of the healing process is recognizing that although our behaviors are instinctual responses to trauma, we have the power to recognize their roots and correct them.

We are not slaves to our pain. Our pain may bring us together but it doesn’t help us stay there, and if health and longevity are the goals of our relationships, we have to address the ideologies that keep us from attaining them. We can work to end the cycle of trauma bonding as soon as we recognize that we’re in it, and there shouldn’t be any question as to whether or not we are.

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