Trauma-bonding offers a compelling insight into why people struggle to escape abusive relationships. Here are four facts about what it is and why it works – and how to break the destructive bond.
1) Trauma-bonding is a real thing
Emerging research is shedding new light onto traumatic-bonding, and its role in abusive relationships. Also known as the ‘betrayal bond’, researchers have found it occurs in a variety of traumatic situations:
“the general phenomenon of victims developing emotional attachments to their abusers or captors has been observed in situations of intimate partner violence, child abuse, hostage situations, human trafficking, and cults.” (Reid, Haskell, Dillahunt-Aspillaga, Thor, 2013)
Typically likened to Stockholm Syndrome – named after a high-profile incident in which hostages sided with their captors rather than those that tried to rescue them – traumatic-bonding is an intense attachment to someone to upon whom we feel our survival depends. This could include our physical safety, emotional welfare, financial circumstances, relationship with the children or any other factor which believe is directly reliant upon the whims of our abusive partner.
Typically, the more extreme the abuse, the stronger the trauma-bond becomes. This offers an explanation as to why individuals may for many years stay in violent relationships without feeling able to break free.
2) Abusive partners deliberately cultivate trauma-bonding
Whether or not an abusive partner is aware of the term, most instinctively cultivate trauma-bonding because it gives them an advantage in:
- Establishing and maintaining control over their partner
- Eroding their partner’s self-esteem, confidence in their judgement, and ability to act independently
- Compelling their partner to stay in an abusive relationship or to return if they have left.
They do this, according to Dutton and Painter (1981), by ensuring that there is a strong imbalance of power in the relationship, and with a pattern of abuse that includes rewards for ‘good behavior’ or times where abuse is lessened/ not present.
3) The trauma-bond maintains the abusive status quo
Many of us that have experienced domestic abuse will recognise this situation as familiar: a dominant, controlling partner is seen as all-powerful, with often unpredictable mood-swings – so we never know whether Dr Jekyll or Mr Hyde is walking through the door. We feel relief when they are nice to us, but are permanently wired waiting for the abuse to flare up again, as it inevitably does.
And, when we are abused again, we experience this as validation that yes, our partner does have God-like control over our emotional or physical wellbeing. As a result, we come to believe what our abusive partner wants us to believe, which is that we have no autonomy beyond that which they grant us, are dependent upon them, and literally could not survive without them – despite the pain and suffering we endure.
We may find ourselves covering up for our partner, or defending them when someone else challenges their abuse. We may – and often do – resist well-meaning attempts to ‘rescue’ us from the situation. It’s another reason that it is vital for concerned friends and family to learn as much as possible about domestic abuse/violence, and persist in reaching out to offer support.
4) The trauma-bond is breakable
Like a drug, the trauma-bond is addictive. Counter-intuitive as it may sound, we often become dependent on our abuser as the sole source of relief from abuse. We invest time and energy in strategies to mitigate or cope with the abuse, waiting for the ‘high’ when it temporarily ceases. These survival strategies are essential, but they change our thinking so that we become accustomed to the abuse (even whilst it terrifies and appalls us). Abuse becomes what we know, it becomes what we understand. This makes us resistant and afraid to be without our abusive partner.
When we do summon up the strength to leave, the trauma-bond manifests itself as an intense longing for our abusive ex. Sometimes we return to them because we genuinely feel we love them, we need them, and we miss them (I did, many times).
However, this is an illusion. It is the trauma-bond speaking to us. Those that have lived with domestic abuse are often more resilient, strong, resourceful and intelligent than their abuser allows them to believe. We are certainly stronger than our abuser: just look at everything we have done just to survive!
Learn more about traumatic-bonding. Make a safe exit plan and put it into action. Ignore the insistent pull back to your abuser. It hurts to resist, but the trauma-bond is not a permanent noose around your neck. Research shows that it reduces over time. And it really does.
What do you think? What has been your experience? How did you escape a traumatic bond, and what advice would you offer to others struggling to get free?
© Avalanche of the Soul, 2013-14