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On Episode 8.5 of The Turn On, we interview therapist Chloé Cook about the ins and outs of relationships that form as the result of shared trauma.
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Kenrya: Come here. Get off.
Kenrya: Today, we're talking to Chloé Cook. Chloé provides couples and family therapy from an emotionally focused perspective that helps her clients improve their communication skills, work through trust and fidelity issues, and build a healthy foundation that foster supportive partnerships. Chloé also helps folks in their relationships, and address sex and intimacy issues, including orgasm difficulties, unmatched and low desire, performance anxiety, and sexual empathy.
Kenrya: Chloé, thank you so much for joining us today.
Chloé: Thank you guys for having me. I'm so excited.
Kenrya: Me too. Before we get into the interview, as we always do, we always ask what your pronouns are.
Chloé: My pronouns are she and her.
Kenrya: Awesome. Ours are also.
Chloé: Thank you.
Erica: We'd like to start by asking all of our interviewees, tell us what you're doing, regular ass words.
Chloé: Well, I am a marriage and family therapist, so I help couples. I also help individuals though, and families, with life transitions, personality disorders, anxiety, things of that nature, in order to help live a better life.
Kenrya: Word. How did you start out as a therapist? Like, how did you come to this work?
Chloé: Okay, so actually this is a second career for me. I actually was an accountant, and I worked for a really large corporation.
Chloé: And I was unhappy. I was unfulfilled. I always felt like I was supposed to be somewhere else doing something helping people. And I just would think back to when I was in middle school and high school, I would always tell my friends that I was going to be a therapist. That's specifically when I-
Chloé: It's so weird. I remember telling my friends that, "I'm going to be a therapist." And specifically when I got to high school, I don't know why, I just ... Oh, sorry guys. I don't know why I specifically started telling people I was going to be a sex therapist. I think it was because I saw a show with Dr. Ruth on it, and I was like, "I want to do that."
Kenrya: You're like, "I can do what this white woman is doing."
Erica: I love it.
Chloé: But yeah, so I started thinking every day sitting at my desk like, "I can do this." I had gotten a divorce, and I was going through that life transition, and I said, "You know what? This is the time to do it. I've changed one part of my life, let me change another part of my life that's unfulfilling for me." So, I went back to school, and here we are, finally licensed, and very happy that I made that decision to change careers.
Kenrya: That's what's up.
Erica: That is so dope.
Kenrya: It makes me-
Erica: So, what's your favorite thing- Oh.
Kenrya: Oh, I was going to ask something unrelated. Well, kind of related. I'm sorry Erica. But I thought it was interesting that you said that you got a divorce and that you were like, "You know what? It's time for me to make other changes." Is that something that you seen a lot with your clients?
Chloé: Yeah, I tend to see people that are, especially when I have couples that come into my office, one or both of the individuals in the partnership are going through some sort of life transition, whether it's physically, or career wise, or with a family member, things of that nature, and they tend to start evaluating other parts of their lives. Because if you think about it, when one thing goes wrong, it messes everything else up too.
Chloé: So you start thinking about the other parts of your life that you want to correct when you get one part right. Like, "Hey, you know what?"
Erica: I did so well in this part. How can I-
Chloé: Yeah, exactly. And so a lot of things will come up in the session, not specifically relating to the one thing that they decided to come to therapy about.
Erica: Yeah, I found that it was very helpful as I went through my divorce and couples therapy to also invest as much time in just me.
Erica: Because you're looking at the whole, but you also need to look at that part of the whole.
Chloé: Yeah. I had to do the same thing. I decided, hey, what's going on with me? Why do I attract certain people into my life and what type of person do I want to attract in my life in the future? And it took some time, but I got there.
Erica: Cool. So as I was going to say, what's your favorite thing about your work?
Chloé: I would say when one of my clients verbalizes to me that they've had some change in a positive way. And so when I recognize... Sometimes I recognize that in them before they do or vice versa. I might think that I'm not helping them or they're just coming in everyday and we're not getting anywhere and all of a sudden they'll say, "You know what? After we had this session, I noticed this change." And that, when I hear that, it makes me feel I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing. This is my life's purpose and this is what I worked so hard to do to help other people live the life that they want to live.
Kenrya: Right. So we talk about therapy a lot on this show, not just on the episodes where we talk to therapists.
Chloé: Well that's good to hear.
Kenrya: Yeah. It's every episode. One of our missions is to help black women, femmes, and our gender nonconforming family connect with mental health help. Because I think we all need it for various things, but we know that there's still a lot of folks who are just resistant to it. Why do you think that some folks refuse to engage with therapy? Especially, I guess in particular black folks.
Chloé: Yeah. And particularly in our community. That's, another reason, I have to add that, to why I wanted to become a therapist. In our communities, we still have that stigma of you're crazy if you go to a therapist. Or why are you telling a stranger your business? There's another side of it. Let me repeat what I just said, that you're telling a stranger your business. We tend to keep family problems and personal problems to ourselves.
Kenrya: And we don't air dirty laundry.
Chloé: Right? Don't air your dirty laundry. So we aren't in the habit of going to a stranger, so to say, to talk about the problems and issues that we're having in our relationships, in the workplace, with our families. And we keep that to ourselves. And that further makes the dysfunction even worse than what it already is.
Kenrya: Yeah. Because you're isolating yourself. Right? And trying to do with things on your own.
Kenrya: I feel like isolation can only make things worse.
Chloé: Mm-hmm (affirmative). And so another reason why I became a therapist is because we don't have as many black therapists as other races and particularly white therapists. And I think it's very important that black people are able to go to black therapists. When you can't identify with the struggle or with the things that we face on a daily basis, it's hard to have empathy, which all therapists must have in a session to understand what that person is faced with and the way it actually relates to the issue they're having.
Erica: Yeah. So on The Turn On, we like to bust myths, be it about sex or gender roles, whatever. So what's a myth about therapy that you want to bust?
Chloé: A myth about therapy? Let's see. Well, I guess the main one is we're not advice givers. We're not supposed to be giving you advice about what to do with your life. If a therapist is giving you advice and telling you what to do, you need to run. You need to find a new therapist. That is not the position that we're in. Yes, we can be in a position of being an expert on a topic because that's what maybe we got training in a specific topic, but we are not the expert of your life. You are the expert of your life. Only you can help fix the issues that are going on in your life. We're here as a catalyst for that change for you or to help you and educate you on certain things that you may not be aware of as far as emotional ties and bonds, what we might be talking about today and the way we grow up in the way we are raised in our families may affect our lives as adults today.
Kenrya: Right? Even when when we want them to tell us, I've definitely said to my therapist, "Just tell me. Just tell me what I should do in this situation."
Chloé: Yeah. And what does she say?
Kenrya: She say, "Bitch, you know I'm not going to tell you that."
Chloé: No, no. I'm not going to tell you what to do. I'm not going to tell you what to do. You have to figure that out. And now we can talk about, okay, what if you do this and what if you do that? And we can weigh the pros and cons about what what you think might happen if you make a certain decision on what to do regarding a workout in a situation that you may be in.
Kenrya: Word. That makes sense.
Erica: I think also that is why... I mean I've... So my therapist always says, "My goal is to have you not come to me anymore." Yeah, make me absolutely. And so I think there's so much a part of that journey and figuring out the what to do or how to respond, which is really the work and what you're coming there for to kind of train your brain and your psyche on how to come to these answers.
Chloé: Yeah. That was a perfect way to say that. Train your brain. A lot of times that's what you're doing when you recognize there's something that you want to change because our brains were meant to help us survive. It's helped us live and make it this far in the world from hundreds and thousands of years ago. And so we have to retrain our brain to not respond to things that have caused trauma to us in the past.
Erica: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Kenrya: That's the whole word. And it's actually a really good transition because we asked you on because we read a book last week called Fire Baptized. And it features a couple and a pair of childhood friends who get close in the wake of traumatic events. And we figured that this was a really good opportunity for us to talk about trauma bonds and the different types of trauma bonds and how they can form. But first, can you tell our listeners what trauma bonds are?
Chloé: Okay. Trauma bonding is the misuse of emotions to entangle another person. So if you think about all the emotions that are involved when you meet somebody and there's an attraction and you begin a relationship. We talk about fear, excitement, and sexual feelings, and even the physiology of sexuality in a relationship. When a person misuses those feelings, they become entangled in a relationship and it creates a trauma bond. And this usually happens in abusive relationships.
Erica: So what are some signs that a relationship is held together by trauma?
Chloé: I would say when you notice yourself that something isn't right, but you can't seem to remove yourself from the situation. There's this feeling, "Okay, I know this isn't right." Or maybe you had a friend tell you and you agree with it. When... Let's see. When you want to leave, but you can't. That's a good sign. You want to leave because you know there's something wrong. You're being abused, whether it's physically or emotionally, and you try to leaving and you can't. There's this feeling of addiction there.
Chloé: When we think about addiction, we think about drugs, but you can actually become addicted to a person. I don't know if you've ever heard the term love addict, right? So you become addicted to that person because you're feeling all of those feelings that you want to feel in your brain. That fear and excitement I talked about in a relationship and all those feel good feelings that get our blood moving. We get addicted to that feeling. And so there's an inconsistency... This is another way to tell in the relationship. There's inconsistent with the amount of feel good feelings in the relationship and you hold onto that. That's part of the reason why you can't let go.
Kenrya: Oh cause you're chasing the good times, the highs?
Chloé: Mm-hmm (affirmative). And that's that addict type behavior. You're chasing the good times and those feel good feelings. And they're there, but very inconsistently. Just enough to keep you there and wanting to hold on to what you used to feel or what you feel every now and then.
Kenrya: Yeah, I've been there.
Erica: Girl. Would you quit talking... Shut up. Why you so loud?
Chloé: Quite a few people... I mean I would probably say the majority of people have been in some type of relationship where they feel that way.
Kenrya: It's interesting too because I'm thinking about... And tell me if this is not trauma bonding. But when you have been through... Well two different things I'm going to describe. One, when you form a relationship with someone because you both have a history of trauma and that brings you together. And then also when you've gone through a lot of things with someone and it feels like you need to stay together because y'all helped each other through this tough time.
Kenrya: Are those also types of trauma bonds?
Chloé: Those are trauma bonds too. And specifically because that rough time... You always see in the movies that there's some tragedy or they end up falling in love trying to get away from the killer or all that, whatever, right? We think about the movies we see. Those are trauma bonds too and those are created from that fear and excitement just like I was explaining in the beginning. So you get that rush of emotion and it mimics the feeling of being in love.
Kenrya: How? And you talked about some of the signs of it, how can this impact your relationship longterm? If you're bound together, whether it's trauma bonds in the form of an abusive relationship or trauma bonds because you are chasing that high that comes with having made it through this tough time together. How can that impact your relationship in the long term?
Chloé: Well, it can impact in the long term because that's not something that can be sustained. So if the relationship was brought on because of a tragedy and you guys were feeling this fear and excitement and you were clinging to each other to survive, remember you got to keep bringing the brain back into this. Our brains help us to survive. So we cling to each other to survive this tragedy. So that tragic moment isn't always going to be there. So some people that end up creating a bond during moments like that find that once things have finally died down, that that feeling isn't there any longer. So now feelings of confusion start to set in because now we're in reality.
Erica: So I think we're talking a lot about unhealthy trauma bonds and I'm wondering two things. One, are there such things as healthy trauma bonds? And two, do we have... And this kind of comes hand in hand, do we have to cut off those relationships that are built around trauma bonds?
Chloé: Initially the term trauma bond was not developed based on something healthy. The term was brought about because it is the creation of a relationship built on the misuse of emotions. So there's...
Erica: So like abusive relationships?
Chloé: Bingo. So even though a a bond can be established, a relationship can be established, through trauma, meaning two people can be experiencing a similar trauma, it's still unhealthy use of the emotions that are being experienced in the moment. So I'm clinging to you, I need you to survive this moment. Instead of managing the emotion yourself, you're clinging to the other person or you guys are clinging to each other. Not saying that that's wrong because we do have situations where... But keep in mind, if you create a partnership before the tragedy, it's okay because you already have a healthy foundation for the partnership in the beginning.
Kenrya: I wonder if, kind of expanding or complicating that question... So I grew up in a situation with family members who were drug addicted and that impacted the way that I grew up and the way that I'm looking at the world now. I have friends who grew up in similar situations and it's kind of how we came together because we understood those things about each other. Is that an inherently negative thing? Is it negative if it only stays at that level and you don't deepen your relationship around other parameters? What does that I guess clinging look like?
Chloé: What you're describing, I guess it can mimic trauma bonding, but what you're describing is creating a relationship based on commonalities in your past. And it only becomes unhealthy if you use each other in an unhealthy way in the relationship. So remember, the term trauma bonding was developed to be negative based on its definition. But if you create a relationship due to a mutual experience, that doesn't become unhealthy unless you guys are mistreating each other based on those emotions. Right? So I'm taking and pulling from you because I need this excitement and fear and understanding because you've been there before and then you do the same. So basically using each other. Sucking each other dry.
Kenrya: So question. We know that black folks in the United States experienced PTSD at higher rates than any other demographic group in the country, which means that there's a lot of us who are either dealing with or not dealing with trauma. To that end, it probably, I would imagine, especially since you just said that a lot of people who you come across have experienced this, make it difficult for us to create intimate relationships with people who also don't have trauma. So how can we make sure that we're keeping our relationships healthy when everybody's walking around with past trauma?
Chloé: That is a great question. And another reason why I'm so happy that you guys talk about therapy and are advocates for people of color, black people especially, to seek out therapy. Because that is the only way that we can overcome and start to establish healthier relationships with each other as we go along our lives meeting people. Because one thing to think about in trauma bonding, specifically when it comes to what you've experienced in your past and especially through your childhood, is that there's usually something that has gone wrong with one or both parents or somebody in your family that has created this emotional void, so to say, that you either are aware of and you're not. And so when we attract most often those people that we create these trauma bonds with them and get in abusive relationships with it's because we're really trying to fill that void and get a do over, if that makes sense.
So this is somebody that mimics a past experience and I did not get what I needed in that moment. Let me try again in this moment. And it's really a subconscious type of behavior that happens. And you can realize it through therapy, through discussion and talking about the way you grew up, your relationship with your parents or other guardians or family members that were close to you growing up and even past relationships that you had early on in adolescence and early adulthood that may be a contributor to why you continue to find yourself in abusive type relationships. Thank you guys for having me. I enjoyed it.
Kenrya: Thank you so much for joining us today, Chloé. It was great.
Erica: This episode was produced by us, Erica and Kenrya. And edited by B'Lystic. The theme song is from Brazy. First, please leave a review in your favorite podcast listening app. For real, we want to hear from y'all. Send your book recommendations and all the burning sex and related questions you want us to answer to firstname.lastname@example.org. And please subscribe to the show on your favorite podcast app. Follow us on Twitter @theturnonpod and Instagram @theturnonpodcast. And find links to books, transcripts, guest info, and other fun stuff at theturnonpodcast.com. Bye.
The Turn On
The Turn On is a podcast for Black people who want to get off. To open their minds. To learn. To be part of a community. To show that we love and fuck too, and it doesn't have to be political or scandalous or dirty. Unless we want it to be.