While being cheated on is one of the most devastating relationship experiences, it doesn’t have to break you. The healthiest response would be to either work together to move past the betrayal or to walk away entirely. However, some people take neither root, instead resorting to hysterical bonding to hold their relationship together. Here’s what you need to know about this potentially damaging behavioral pattern, according to experts.
What is hysterical bonding?
Hysterical bonding is the term used to describe what happens to many people when they find out their partner has been unfaithful or they get dumped. This betrayal and/or rejection ignites a desperate need in them to do anything and everything to win their partner back even if they know it’s unhealthy.
“Hysterical bonding occurs when, after learning your partner has cheated on you, you attempt to win them back and recreate a strong relationship without fully processing the pain of the betrayal that you experienced,” says licensed professional counselor Kara Nassour, LPC, NCC. “It may involve sexual intimacy as well.”
She adds that these behaviors are often ignited as a response to a deep-rooted fear of loss. “When you’re faced with the threat of losing a relationship you care deeply about, attempting to quickly reconnect and return to normal is a natural response,” she explains. “Hysterical bonding stems from a fear of losing someone important to us.”
If you’re unwilling or unable to process the experience of being cheated on or the relationship ending, you may instead cling to a partner by whatever means necessary to avoid having to deal with doing so.
Is the term for this behavior problematic?
While the concept of hysterical bonding hasn’t been widely studied, many mental health professionals do take issue with the terminology, especially given that it’s more often than not applied to women.
As Michelle Mays, LPC, CSAT-S, tells Bolde, there’s an inherent misogyny in describing any predominantly female behavior as “hysterical,” historically speaking.
“Ever since Freud’s use of the term hysteria in a pejorative manner to misdiagnose females, any term that is used to address a largely female audience and uses the term hysterical is suspect,” she explains.
“Also, hysterical bonding pathologizes a normal psychobiological response to betrayal. This response is explained by the science of attachment theory. It is rooted in how our bodies/brains/minds react to the impossible dilemma that betrayed partners face when their significant other is unsafe to connect to, yet connection is the key to healing.”
Instead, Mays recommends referring to this response as “Attachment Ambivalence,” which “occurs when the threat response system and attachment system come into conflict. Normally these two systems in our bodies work together. We have a difficult conversation with our boss, and we pick up the phone and text our partner. This is our attachment system operating the way it is designed to and prompting us to seek connection with our primary attachment figure in a moment of stress.”
What does hysterical bonding look like in relationships?
- You’re willing to forgive or overlook the affair to stay together.
- You change your sexual behaviors to seem more desirable to them (i.e. being willing to try things you dislike, etc.).
- You use sex to increase a feeling of connectedness.
- You vow to win them back by any means necessary.
- You obsess over every detail of your partner’s affair.
- You experienced heightened depression and anxiety in the wake of the news.
- You’re plagued with thoughts about their infidelity/betrayal daily.
- While you’re upset with them, you’re desperate to be close to them.
How to break the trend
- Practice self-love. If you don’t love and value yourself, you’ll be more likely to develop toxic and unhealthy patterns. Looking inward can help break the patterns of hysterical bonding. “Some ways to practice self-love include doing things that make you feel good. You should be spending time with people who support and care about you. Also, take some time for yourself to relax and recharge,” suggests licensed clinical social worker Steve Carleton, LCSW, CACIII.
- So some self-reflection. “Take time to explore your feelings about the infidelity. Also, talk to friends and family about it. By giving yourself time to understand what you feel, and what you need, you’ll be able to reapproach your relationship more effectively,” Nassour says. “Remember also that healthy relationships take a long time to build — and rebuild. Use this time to focus on healing yourself and re-establishing trust.”
- Cut off contact with your ex. Wanting to save your relationship is a natural instinct. Since you can’t trust yourself to act rationally at the moment, distance is key. This means no hanging out, no texting, no calling. Don’t like their social media posts or even pass messages between friends. Complete and utter separation is what’s needed to avoid hysterical bonding.
- If all else fails, see a therapist. There’s no shame in admitting you need help to move on. “If you are struggling to break out of the cycle of hysterical bonding, it might be beneficial to seek professional help. A therapist or counselor can provide guidance and support. They do this helping you healthily work through your emotions. They can also help identify any underlying issues that may be contributing to your behavior. This way, you can better understand why you’re engaging in it. Plus, you learn how to break the pattern, Carleton adds.