During my abusive relationship, I refused to leave more times than I can count. When I did leave, I soon returned. The justification that I gave to myself, and others, for this? Well, I loved him, of course!
I really didn’t feel capable of living without him. I was miserable, frightened, and angry at myself – and him – every time I let it go. I didn’t understand how I could love someone who treated me so appallingly. What was wrong with me, I wanted to know? Was I really so crazy I thought this was a normal expression of love? Why was I seemingly prepared to sacrifice so much – my hopes, dreams, financial security, and sense of self – to stay in what I knew was a destructive relationship?
It is only after getting out – struggling with feelings of grief and missing him so madly I thought I must surely be the crazy one – that I began to read, and understand.
What I was feeling sure felt to me like love. But, it wasn’t. It was a result of ‘trauma bonding’.
What is trauma bonding?
Stockholm Syndrome is the most famous example of trauma bonding. The term was coined following a hostage incident in Stockholm, Sweden. Here, hostages refused to cooperate with the police that were trying to rescue them. The hostages viewed law enforcers as ‘the bad guys’ and sided with their captors. Afterwards, one of the hostages married one of her captors, and others refused to testify against them.
That’s the strength of the trauma bond after a number of hours. How strong is the bond when a woman is captive within an intimate relationship where abuse is unchallenged for weeks, months, or years?
Why does trauma bonding occur?
Trauma bonding occurs when your safety, happiness, or security depends upon your abuser. It’s in your interest to keep your controlling abuser happy. The bond works for your abuser: it keeps you tethered to him. It also, at times, works for you: if you resist and challenge your abuser you are more likely to be injured. For many in abusive relationships, the bond is a strong one – and you will see it as essential to your physical and/ or emotional survival.
What you do when the trauma bond is at work
- You make excuses for your abuser’s behavior – to yourself and others. He’s not mean, really: he’s just had a bad day and he really doesn’t like the short skirt that I’m wearing
- You deny the abuse is happening. That doorknob hit you in the face again, right?
- You feel there is no way out – you think that you can never leave him, and when you do get out, you go back to him
- You worry how you will survive financially, or practically, on your own. After all, you’re not used to making decisions on your own – how will you ever manage without him?
- You are isolated from friends and family, and believe that nobody would understand how you feel or be able to help you
- You live in wait (or hope) that he will return to the good guy he once was. You know, the one that treated you like a princess? He promises sometimes but he never does. You carry on waiting and hoping
- You feel that you’ve already invested so much time in the relationship, and made so many allowances for him, that payback on your investment must be coming. It isn’t
- Your self-confidence is so low that you believe nobody else would ever want you. And anyway, he has complete control of you and your life, and would kill any man that even looked twice at you, yes?
- You start to think like him and modify your behaviour accordingly: if I make sure his dinner is on the table when he gets home, he’ll be pleased and won’t abuse me. If I don’t talk to my friends, he won’t be insecure and he won’t abuse me. If we have a baby, he will know I’m not going to leave him and he won’t abuse me. It doesn’t work.
Service providers feed the bond
Less informed service providers see a woman’s willingness to defend or ignore the abuse she suffers as totally perplexing. ‘Stupid woman loves him. See what she puts up with? What can we do?’ They get fed up with us when we go back to him. They give up on us and take our children away. We become ‘no hopers’.
They and we need to understand that the woman are not experiencing a love-bond. Women need to be given the tools to understand the trauma-bond, and to separate their confusing feelings out from that catch all phrase: “But I love him”!
Text © Avalanche of the Soul, 2013