Trauma Bonding in Friendships
As people reach their 20s and 30s, they may be thinking deeply about their social circle. Who belongs in my life? Who do I think about reaching out to when I want to share good news? Sometimes, bad news? Who do I feel close to? Do they feel close to me? Even more so, as people are continuing to navigate the tiresome COVID-19 pandemic, these questions have been brought to the forefront. Some people feel a newfound distance within their friendships, some recognize that everyone is universally exhausted, and others have noticed an amplification of existing patterns within their relationships. As we have these realizations, we feel obligated to continue to include our friends to be part of our major milestones. When it comes to wedding planning, whether we notice red flags within our friendship or we may not be fully aware of them, we still feel the need to invite an emotionally unstable or historically toxic friend to be part of a wedding party or a celebration. In this piece, I will talk more about why we may feel this need and the many reasons it can be challenging to let go of a toxic friendship. There are many social media posts about giving your friends grace and patience as everyone navigates tough times, so when do you actually know whether someone is being a genuine friend?
What can a trauma bond look like? Typically, when people talk about trauma bonding, they are referring to partners in a romantic relationship, in which one or both partners have been abusive towards each other and when both partners have experienced their own traumatic experiences (either childhood or in the past). In a relationship like this, people don’t perceive it as a trauma bond at first, they feel seen and understood due to their connected experiences. In friendships, a bond is initially created when you find so many similarities between the two of you and you feel happy being around them. This person may make you laugh and may have been there for you during your own challenges. When we start new friendships, some people feel instant connections; you’ve probably heard, “It’s as if I’ve known you my entire life!” These instant connections make us feel good and understood in a given moment. You may feel like you’ve found your best friend and your biggest support. For a while, they are the person you spend the most time with, in person, over the phone, and you may even introduce them to other friends. The connection you build might feel so great that you begin to ignore red flags or moments they have made you feel uncomfortable. It might become challenging to address your concerns with this friend, you might not want to hurt them, you feel scared about approaching them, or worry you might escalate an already tense situation. You may notice how they respond to disagreements, differences in opinions/perspectives, and whether they continue to respect you in the same way as they do when you agree with them. People tend to notice red flags or “toxic patterns” when they have shown growth in a way their friend hasn’t, for example, getting a new job, moving to another city, or starting a new relationship with someone else. Think about whether a friend has ever made you uncomfortable, whether intentionally or unintentionally, and how you responded or tend to respond in these situations. Do you confront the issue? Do you avoid and not say anything? Does it depend on the person? Ask yourself what comes up for you, if it depends on the person? Some people are easier to speak to and others, we might feel afraid or anxious about their reactions to us bringing forward something that hurts us or concerns us. When there are conflicts, these friendships become tricky to navigate - you may realize it is hard to please the other person and at the same time, it becomes hard to let go of them. In these situations, people have shared not letting go of difficult friendships for various reasons:
“I’ve known them since childhood, I’ve known them forever or X amount of years!”
“They’re not bad… they just act like this when…”
“I thought she was my best friend.”
“I have never seen this side of him.”
“They were my first friend in NYC/any other place.”
“We are always like this.” / “This is how they’ve always been.”
“This is how everyone is.”
“We have so many memories together.”
“We have other moments that aren’t like this.”
“She is toxic, but not always.”
“I just need to take some space, then I can speak to them again.”
“They are the only ones who get me.”
How do people get into trauma bonds? When people are accustomed to dealing with unhealthy relationships throughout their life, certain behaviors may feel normal. It may be hard to differentiate between what is toxic, what is typical, and what is not. You may find similarities within another person or you might say, “They went through the same thing I did, so they must understand me.” When people don’t have insight or awareness towards their own patterns of communication and/or conflict resolution, it can be easy to ignore a red flag or toxic pattern. For others, a trauma bond may be the first time they are finding love, care, and attention or the first time they are finding this in a new place. Trauma bonds momentarily help people alleviate their isolation and you may instinctually assume that is enough to sustain a friendship. Finally, if you did not grow up with role models for what healthy friendships look like, it can be challenging to navigate this as an adult. If your parents or other adults around you demonstrated unhealthy behavior in their friendships or directly towards you, this may be the only version of friendship you know. Alternatively, if your parents had no friends and were socially isolated, it becomes harder to know what a healthy friendship could actually look like.
What does a genuine friendship look like? Genuine and healthy friendships can look unique to each set of friends, however there are some commonalities. I like to share with clients the concept of reciprocity. If one person is putting forth more physical and emotional labor into a friendship, this does not seem like an equal relationship and there is no reciprocity. You may be the friend who is constantly giving (your stressors, your problems, your joyous moments), however you do not receive the same from your friend. Or you may be the friend who is constantly receiving/hearing about your friend’s stressors and concerns, however you do not get the space to share your own. Without reciprocity, there isn’t friendship. There are exceptions to this, of course. There are moments in every relationship, in which one person is in crisis or has a higher need and they may not be able to reciprocate the same level of love, care, and attention. That is okay, however that should not be the base level expectation all of the time. In a genuine friendship, conflict resolution looks different. A friend is more open to hearing what hurt you or bothered you, they are able to apologize, and respect any boundaries you set. There is support and acceptance towards your life goals and vice versa. I like to share Sara Kuburic’s outline of “friendship green flags” below as it presents a general idea of what a friendship should and can look like.
This is a good reminder that everyone deserves someone/group of people who can provide them support, emotional safety, and understanding and it is okay to continue evaluating who belongs in your life and who does not.
Are you navigating a difficult situation with a friend or thinking about what kind of friendships you want in your life? Reach out to us! We’re here to talk. About the author: Farzana Rahman, LMHC is a wedding and relationship therapist with AisleTalk. AisleTalk is a therapy and coaching practice devoted to supporting individuals and couples through wedding stress. Whether it’s related to COVID-19 or other factors, we are here for you! Book a free consultation call if you think our team can help you navigate this weird time.