What is a Trauma Bond? Getting Hamilton‘s Help in Understanding Toxic Relationships

Like so many others in recent weeks, I finally curled up on my couch to watch the riveting musical Hamilton, which recently became available to stream on Disney+. I’m not usually one for musicals, but I now understand what all the hubbub is about. If you haven’t caught it yet, it’s fantastic.

 

 

In watching the musical, my favorite character is easily King George III, who was brilliantly played by Jonathan Groff (the same guy in Mindhunter—crazy, right?). His three songs throughout the show, the last two of which are essentially continuations of his first song, are extremely catchy. I had them in my head for days afterward. I, like one YouTube commenter on the above video, have been singing his songs so often that my family may be ready to declare their independence from me.

 

As entertaining as his character is, if you’re in a toxic or abusive relationship, his words may be hauntingly familiar. King George III is so memorable because he embodies the characteristics of individuals who form exploitive, harmful relationships with others. These relationships are called trauma bonds.

 

Before explaining the traits of trauma bonds, we need to define what trauma bonds actually are more fully. So what is a trauma bond?

 

What is a Trauma Bond, Anyway?

According to The Betrayal Bond: Breaking Free of Exploitive Relationships by Patrick Carnes (2019), a trauma bond is any relationship in which a victim forms a bond with someone who is destructive to him or her. These bonds always involve some form of betrayal and abuse. In a trauma bond, the victim forms a loyalty to the abuser that keeps him or her in the harmful, abusive relationship.

 

“Thus,” for example, Carnes writes, “the hostage becomes the champion of the hostage taker, the incest victim covers for the parent, and the exploited employee fails to expose the wrongdoing of the boss” (p. 6). Tragically, the victims of these relationships feel extreme loyalty to the perpetrators, doubt their own feelings, and question their realities.

 

Trauma bonds are everywhere, but Carnes lists a few of the most common contexts for these relationships:

  • Domestic violence
  • Dysfunctional marriages
  • Exploitation in the workplace
  • Kidnapping
  • Physical abuse
  • Addictions (substances, sex, gambling, high-risk behavior, etc.)
  • Sexual abuse
  • Online exploitation

 

Signs You Might Be in a Trauma Bond

Here are a few of the ways that you might know if you’re in a trauma bond:

  • The relationship is intense and usually involves fighting that doesn’t get better and that no one wins.
  • You feel stuck and powerless in the relationship but stay anyway.
  • The relationship involves one or more promises, few of which, if any, are kept.
  • Other people are surprised, concerned, or aghast when you describe your experiences in the relationship.
  • You sometimes have deep reservations about trusting the other person but remain loyal to the relationship.
  • You defend the other person’s behavior to others and/or rationalize it to yourself.
  • You’re afraid to leave the relationship, or you feel that you can’t.

 

Let’s take a look at Jonathan Groff’s King George III in Hamilton to identify just a few more qualities of betrayal bonds.

 

Trauma Bonds are Manipulative and Coercive

Trauma bonds use manipulation and coercion to assert control and domination in the relationship. Often such tactics are very subtle and are intended to create doubt, fear, shame, and guilt in the victim to maintain his or her loyalty. We see this in King George III when he sings,

“You say our love is draining and you can’t go on
You’ll be the one complaining when I am gone…”

and,

“When you’re gone, I’ll go mad
So don’t throw away this thing we had…”

These statements create guilt about the victim’s feelings questioning the relationship, which strengthen the victim’s loyalty and dependence on the perpetrator.

 

Trauma Bonds are Exploitive

The orchestrator of a trauma bond constructs the relationship to assert power and control, which is usually a means of avoiding his or her own unconscious feelings of shame, inadequacy, and worthlessness. So, the bond is exploitive in that the relationship exists solely for getting the needs of the perpetrator met and is therefore exploitive.

 

We see this in a number of different ways in King George III’s brief song. His love has a price, the price of loyalty. Moreover, he’s not interested in what the colonies might be needing; he’s simply interested in fighting to win their “love” and “praise” to meet his narcissistic needs.

 

There is therefore an inherent contingency in trauma bonds, especially with narcissistic abuse: The abuser needs the victim to be be loyal in ways that further his or her exploitation in order to fulfill narcissistic needs. Disloyalty is punished with abuse to wear the victim down into submission and continued loyalty. Over time, the victim cannot even conceive of leaving, cementing the trauma bond further.

“And no, don’t change the subject
‘Cause you’re my favorite subject
My sweet, submissive subject
My loyal, royal subject
Forever and ever and ever and ever and ever…”

 

Trauma Bonds are Involve Broken Promises

Trauma bonds always involve promises that are never kept. “Someday, I’ll propose to you and we’ll get married. It’ll be just like we always talk about.” “I’ll pay you for your work, I promise.” But despite the abuser’s assurances, these promises are never fulfilled or, worse, repeatedly broken.

 

Jonathan Groff’s King George III implies that he’s made good on the “arrangement” that he had with the colonies. Of course, history indicates that this was far from true. He insists that he has “served [them] well,” and that because of this, they’ll be loyal to him once again.

 

Trauma Bonds Are Abusive

Perpetrators of trauma bonds employ emotional, verbal, physical, and sexual abuse to maintain their position of power. In faith communities, when trauma bonds are present there is usually also spiritual abuse.

 

What is so crazy-making about this abuse is that the orchestrator of the trauma bond may profess to love the victim, as King George III does repeatedly. We see this dissonance so powerfully in his coercive threats that it’s comical in the show:

“And when push comes to shove
I will send a fully armed battalion to remind you of my love…”

and,

“‘Cause when push comes to shove
I will kill your friends and family to remind you of my love…”

 

What to Do If You Think You Might Be in a Trauma Bond

If you’re concerned that you’re in a betrayal bond, it’s no laughing matter. Consider reading a copy of Carnes’ book to educate yourself on trauma bonds. Talk with a trained mental health professional with experience in helping victims break free and heal from such bonds. And always, if you’re in immediate danger, get help right away.

 

If you need help with your toxic, abusive trauma bonding, please reach out for help. Breaking free from trauma bonds is possible. Healing begins when you take the first step of getting help.

 

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Jeremy Mast
jeremy@jeremymast.com

Jeremy is a licensed marriage and family therapist (CA LMFT90961) in private practice in Ventura, California. He helps those struggling with drugs, alcohol, and out-of-control sexual behaviors awaken to new possibilities for their lives. He lives with his wife, son, and cat in beautiful southern California.

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