Do you think you can’t leave your abusive partner? Do you feel hopeless when you return to a relationship filled with pain? Or, do you dwell on your toxic ex and struggle to stay away? Then you may be caught in a carefully crafted trauma bond – but you don’t need to be Houdini to escape.
Traumatic bonding is a hit with abusers, because it helps him to maintain much-needed control. It helps him keep you where he wants you: tethered to him and his soul-destroying behaviour. But, the bond isn’t as iron-clad as he imagines. Here’s FIVE things he hopes you don’t know about traumatic-bonding, and how to shake off the shackles.
1. What is trauma bonding?
Traumatic-bonding is an intense attachment to your abuser. It happens when you feel emotionally and physically dependent upon a dominant partner – who dishes out abuse and rewards so you believe that he’s all-powerful.
“powerful emotional attachments are seen to develop from two specific features of abusive relationships: power imbalances and intermittent good-bad treatment.”(Dutton and Painter, 1981)
2. Abusers reward and abuse to maintain power
Your abuser is all about power and control. He (or she) systematically erodes your ability to think and act independently, using a range of manipulative tactics which may include:
- physically abusing or intimidating you
- gas-lighting you so you doubt our own judgement
- isolating you from friends and family that may be able to help
- manipulative lies designed to undermine your self-esteem and run you down
- making sure that your time, energy and other resources are focussed on solely his needs
- keeping you continually short of money (financial abuse).
What’s more, most abusers pepper their abuse with ‘rewards for good behaviour’. Maybe you get a thank-you kiss for managing to get his dinner on the table at the right time. Perhaps he takes you out for dinner to make up for last night’s drunken tirade. You may have heard – at least once, and probably repeatedly – that you are the best thing that ever happened to him (when he isn’t labelling you a worthless whore, that is). You feel relief, hope, and even happiness – however temporary.
3. Abusers want us to feel dependent
He controls whether you are happy or sad, whether you are safe or in pain, if you are secure and comfortable or lonely and filled with self-loathing. Under this determined conditioning, you may (inaccurately) believe he is stronger than you. While this may make you cleave to him for protection, it also fuels your sense of powerlessness – making it harder to challenge or escape him.
In time, like a baby, you feel dependent upon your abuser for all of your emotional and physical needs. You form a powerful emotional attachment to him, which he doggedly reinforces through a pattern of abuse and reward.
Learning theorists have found that this intermittent reinforcement/punishment pattern develops the strongest of emotional bonds. Particularly intense relationships and extreme abuse forms even stronger feelings of attachment.
The trauma bond from intermittent abuse and power imbalance makes it hard but not impossible to escape domestic violence.
This powerful attachment – which arises directly from sustained periods of intermittent abuse and power imbalance – is known as traumatic-bonding.
4. Resisting the bond isn’t easy, but we can break free
Some suggest that the trauma bond triggers biological changes as well as emotional ones. This may cause you to be dependent on the highs and lows of the abuse cycle. Going ‘cold turkey’ seems impossible.
In addition, abusers are difficult to shake off. To get free, you have likely endured physical or emotional assaults including emotional blackmail and hoovering campaigns. These are the abuser’s attempts to maintain control, and they haul repeatedly on the trauma-bond to do it.
Often, you bounce back because – painful though it is to live with an abuser – your sense of self-reliance is utterly eroded and it hurts to battle the emotional attachment to him. I was only able to successfully leave my abuser on the third serious attempt. Many other times I was determined to leave, but didn’t.
5. Time really is a healer
To stay out, I had to fight not only my abuser and his determined hoovering – I also had to fight myself. Many times I wanted to answer his calls. Often, I lay in bed at night, imagining the route I’d drive to get back to him. I could just hop in the car and go! That would stop the ache in my ribs, right? When he came to my door to insist on my return, a part of me cried out to give in each time.
I was exhausted, hypersensitive and anxious – all symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Waves of grief and pangs of longing left me breathless. But, as his hoovering turned to stalking, I listened to my head rather than my heart. Sticking to my Essential To Do list, the trauma-bond weakened with each day that passed. Life got easier. I grew stronger.
Researchers have found that after six months, attachment decreases by about 27 per cent. For those of us struggling with traumatic bonding, time really is a healer.
“You have nothing to lose but your chains. You have a world to win.” (Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels)
You are always stronger than your abuser. You have the ability to leave, at any time. Getting out is hard, but not impossible. You can help yourself by recognising that it is not love that’s pulling you back – rather, it’s a powerful emotional attachment that he created as a direct result of his abuse. The avalanche of emotions that you feel are normal. You are not crazy or weak because you feel that tug on the trauma-bond. In time, the bond will weaken – and working on your own recovery can help this process along.
Have you felt the pull of the trauma bond? How did it make you feel, and what impact did it have?
ALSO SEE: Find out if you are trapped by traumatic-bonding, in Why we stay: trauma bonding.