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  • Writer's pictureDr Sarah Bishop

Unravelling the Threads: “True Love” Bonds vs. Trauma Bonds

Updated: Jan 9


In the intricate tapestry of human relationships, the distinction between a “true love” bond and a trauma bond can be subtle yet profound. As a psychologist, my years of experience have led me to a fascination with the nuances that define these two distinct phenomena and the struggle so many have in distinguishing them in their personal lives.

In this article, I will use the term "wholehearted love" instead of "true love." This choice is made because the emotions associated with trauma bonds are undeniably deep and legitimate feelings. However, it is crucial to accurately interpret the significance and meaning of these feelings. I will delve into what the peaks and intense emotions of a trauma bond might signify, exploring alternatives to labelling them as "true love."

The process of understanding the type of bond you have involves working out whether the emotional connection you experience is rooted in what I define as wholehearted love found in stable relationships, or if it's merely a recurrence of familiar pain echoing from past wounds, manifesting in the turbulence of unstable relationships patterns —an aspect familiar to many individuals in therapy.

True Love Bonds: A Symphony of Connection

Wholehearted love is a deep and lasting emotional connection that is characterised by trust, support and commitment. It's a bond that fosters growth, empathy, and understanding between two individuals. In wholehearted love, partners provide a consistent and safe space for connection and personal evolution. Communication flows openly, creating an environment where both individuals can express themselves honestly without fear of repercussion or fear that the shared emotional landscape may suddenly change.

The foundation of wholehearted love is built on a willingness to trust. There is a sense of joy and fulfilment in each other's presence, and conflicts are seen as opportunities for growth rather than threats to the relationship. Wholehearted love allows individuals to be their authentic selves, free from judgment, fostering an environment where both partners can thrive emotionally and spiritually.

That is not to say that wholehearted love does not take work or is not "rocky" at times. There can be periods of struggle within the wholehearted love relationship however these are approached with respect for each person's individuality; each valuing the other person's wellbeing as much as their own.


Trauma Bonds: When Pain Feels Like Love

On the other side of the emotional spectrum lies the complex territory of trauma bonds. Often mistaken for “true love”, trauma bonds are formed when individuals become entangled in relationships that mimic past wounds. Psychologically, this is known as “repetition compulsion”. This is where a familiar pain is mistaken for love. For example, a child who felt loved one minute by their parents and then rejected the next, as an adult may feel strongly drawn towards partners who recreate those familiar feelings that they had as a child.

Perhaps it wasn't a parent who was rejecting, it may have been a terrible experience of bullying or maybe having values instilled that encouraged you to subjugate your own needs for others. With historic experiences like these there can at times be a compelling inclination toward an unstable partner, driven by the belief that obtaining their love might somehow heal an old emotional wound. Unconsciously, individuals may choose partners who share similarities with unavailable or abusive people from their past, leading them into conflicts where expressions like "If only they knew how much I care about them..." or "If I can just do enough to make them see..." become commonplace. These sentiments often reveal deep-seated emotions linked to the individual's childhood, manifesting subconsciously in their current relationship dynamics.

Trauma bonds are marked by intense and at times volatile emotional connections, where the rollercoaster of highs and lows can be addictively misleading, causing individuals to mistake the intensity of their emotions for wholehearted love. However, it's essential to understand that the foundation of these bonds lies in unresolved pain and unmet needs from the past.

The intermittent positive experiences that define unstable relationships and trauma bonds possess an addictive quality, akin to the dynamics of gambling. Our brains are wired to seek the euphoria associated with occasional victories. It's pivotal to acknowledge that this perceived high is only possible because of the preceding low. The classic "make-up sex" for example actually only feels that good because it puts a temporary (and desperately) needed end to the chaos and trauma the body is experiencing beforehand. In trauma bond relationships, these heightened emotions may be falsely interpreted as "true love" and "authentic feelings," but they are more likely a result of hormonal release during the temporary relief from the anguish of relationship turmoil. This can create a compelling cycle which is difficult to break.

The addictive nature of trauma bonds also contributes to the challenge faced by victims of domestic abuse in recognising the abuse and seeking an exit. The emotional rollercoaster orchestrated by the perpetrator, coupled with the resulting neurochemical chaos within the victim, can make clear thinking nearly impossible. This leaves individuals, even those without a history of trauma, feeling overwhelmed, confused, and paralyzed.

Distinguishing Between Wholehearted Love and Trauma Bonds

Recognizing the difference between wholehearted love and trauma bonds is crucial for emotional well-being. Here are some key indicators that can help individuals navigate this intricate terrain:


1. Healthy Communication vs. Co-dependency:

   - Wholehearted Love: Communication is open and honest, it fosters a sense of intimacy and understanding. It generally feels consistent, respectful and relaxed.

   - Trauma Bonds: Communication patterns are driven by a fear of abandonment and feel co-dependent. This may be marked by excessive reassurance-seeking, over-accommodation, conflict avoidance, insecurity-driven jealousy, and difficulty setting boundaries.


2. Individual Growth vs. Repetition Compulsion:

   - Wholehearted Love: Partners support each other's personal growth and celebrate individual achievements.

   - Trauma Bonds: Patterns from past relationships are repeated, inhibiting personal development. Partners feel threated by or worried about achievements.


3. Joyful Connection vs. Emotional Turmoil:

   - Wholehearted Love: Relationships bring joy, fulfilment, and a sense of security.

   - Trauma Bonds: Rollercoaster emotions and a cycle of unsustainable and unrealistic highs and anxiety provoking lows which feel like threats to the bond characterise the relationship.




As a psychologist, I urge individuals to reflect on the nature of their emotional connections. Is it a wholehearted love, a bond that nourishes and uplifts, or is it a trauma bond, a familiar pain that masks itself as love? By understanding the distinction between the two, individuals can embark on a journey towards healthier, more fulfilling relationships.

Wholehearted love requires time and effort, but it is a beacon of light that guides us to our highest potential, while trauma bonds keep us tethered to the shadows of our past. Nurture a love that empowers and liberates, for it is in these genuine connections that we find the true essence of a flourishing relationship.

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