Trauma Bonding: The Unseen Pull of Your Abuser
Why We Stay in an Abusive Relationship
Feeling attached to a narcissist or sociopath even though he treats us badly is a constant source of angst for those in recovery from toxic relationships. Victims want to know why…why can’t I just let go of this guy? Why can’t I move on? Why am I obsessed with no closure? Why do I feel so connected to someone who feels no connection to me? One logical answer to this is that we’re normal and they’re not and normal people want to fix things that are broken so that they work again.
I think that it must be understood that these relationships are just different than the normal ones you are used to. They are so much more difficult to leave. This is primarily because of the destructive emotional bonds, known as trauma bonds, that are formed within the partner who is subjected to abuse.
Traumatic bonding is “strong emotional ties that develop between two persons where one person intermittently harasses, beats, threatens, abuses, or intimidates the other.” (Dutton & Painter, 1981). Several conditions have been identified that must be present for a traumatic bond to occur.
- There must be an imbalance of power, so the relationship has become lopsided.
- The abusive behavior is sporadic in nature.
- The victim engages in denial of the abuse
- The victim "dissociates" himself from the abuse. This allows him to compartmentalize the abusive aspects of the relationship in order to focus on the positive aspects.
- The victim masks that the abuse is happening, may not have admitted it to anyone, not even themselves.
Trauma bonding makes it easier for a victim to survive within the relationship, but it severely undermines the victim’s self-structures, undermining their ability to accurately evaluate danger, and impairs their ability to perceive of alternatives to the situation.
Once a trauma bond is established it becomes extremely difficult for the victim to break free of the relationship. The way humans respond to trauma is thought to have a biological basis and reactions to trauma was first described a century ago, with the term “railroad spine” being used. Another term used has been “shell shocked”.
Victims overwhelmed with terror suffer from an overload of their system, and to be able to function they must distort reality. They often shut down emotionally, and sometimes later describe themselves as having felt “robotic”, intellectually knowing what happened, but feeling frozen or numb and unable to take action. A victim must feel safe and out of “survival mode” before they will be able to make cognitive changes.
Many victims feel the compulsion to tell and retell the events of the trauma in an attempt to come to terms with what happened to them and to try to integrate it, reaching out to others for contact, safety, and stability. Other victims react in an opposite manner, withdrawing into a shell of self-imposed isolation. The trauma bond can persist even after the victim leaves the relationship, with it sometimes taking months, or even years, for them to completely break the bond.
There are many ways traumatic bonding occurs, and listed below are what I find to be the seven major reasons why it is so hard to break free from your abusive partner, and they all have to do with your emotions.
How Trauma Bonds Are Formed
- Intermittent Reinforcement
The abusive behavior is sporadic in nature. It is characterized by intermittent reinforcement, which means there is the alternating of highly intense positives (such as intense kindness or affection) and the negatives of the abusive behavior.
Intermittent reinforcement is a powerful tactic, and one that keeps you hooked in far longer than you should be.
The use of denial and distancing oneself from the abuse are forms of what is called cognitive dissonance. In abusive relationships this means that what is happening to the victim is so horrible, so far removed from their thoughts and expectations of the world, that it is “dissonant” or “out of tune” or “at odds” with their pre-existing expectations and reality. Since the victim feels powerless to change the situation, they rely on emotional strategies to try to make it less dissonant, to try to somehow make it fit. To cope with the contradicting behaviors of the abuser, and to survive the abuse, the person literally has to change how they perceive reality. Studies also show a person is more loyal and committed to a person or situation that is difficult, uncomfortable, or even humiliating, and the more the victim has invested in the relationship, the more they need to justify their position. Cognitive dissonance is a powerful “self-preservation” mechanism which can completely distort and override the truth, with the victim developing a tolerance for the abuse and “normalizing” the abuser’s behavior, despite evidence to the contrary.
3. Stockholm Syndrome
Stockholm Syndrome (SS) is a psychological involuntary state in which victims of kidnapping or abuse begin to feel sympathy, emotional bonding, and solidarity for those who are abusing them or keeping them captive in oppressive situations. As a basic concept, Stockholm Syndrome is the duality of a power relationship over someone. A person captured becomes deeply involved with the captor due to the typical confine of the circumstances, and because even through the abuse and threats, they still must accept them as the only source of contact and nurturing that focuses on them. The need, under duress, of approval and reassurance, when combined with a fear of severe punishment, creates the precondition for the type of aberrant attachment described as Stockholm Syndrome. The same coping mechanisms have been found in domestic violence victims.
Studies tell us we are more loyal and committed to something that is difficult, uncomfortable, and even humiliating. The initiation rituals of college fraternities, Marine boot camp, and graduate school all produce loyal and committed individuals. Almost any ordeal creates a bonding experience. Every couple, no matter how mismatched, falls in love in the movies after going through a terrorist takeover, being stalked by a killer, being stranded on an island, or being involved in an alien abduction. Investment and an ordeal are ingredients for a strong bonding — even if the bonding is unhealthy. No one bonds or falls in love by being a member of the Automobile Club or a music CD club. Struggling to survive on a deserted island — you bet!
“Domestic” Stockholm Syndrome is a coping mechanism to endure continual psychological abuse and violence. The abused partner is always thinking about their survival and how they can control their non-controllable environment.
They are in a constant sensation of numbness separating from a part of themselves yet holding on to the piece of reality so they don’t completely disconnect. They are continually strategizing to emotionally survive and in order to do this, the abused partner focuses on their abuser’s kindness rather than his/her brutality. A high stress environment keeps one from seeing clearly. The abuser creates an environment so that they can emotionally and physically control their partner. Once they have control over their partner with the fear of abandonment or violence, then they start to isolate their partner from their family, job and any other threat that the abuser sees as a possible vehicle of their partner seeing reality.
Isolation is a key point in the abuser’s method. If the abused partner is not getting any other stimuli other than fear and intimidation, then in her mind he will be easier to control and manipulate. Eventually, he sees himself as she sees him; an object to abuse and not worth anything else.
A man who is suffering from “Domestic” Stockholm Syndrome has been brainwashed into believing in her world. To him she holds his safety, his life, his survival. She has convinced him of this through continual emotional, psychologically and physical intimidation. Through this he sees that his only way to survive is to be loyal to her.
In unhealthy relationships and definitely in Stockholm Syndrome there is a daily preoccupation with “trouble”. Trouble is any individual, group, situation, comment, casual glance, or cold meal that may produce a temper tantrum or verbal abuse from the controller or abuser. To survive, “trouble” is to be avoided at all costs. The victim must control situations that produce trouble. That may include avoiding family, friends, co-workers, and anyone who may create “trouble” in the abusive relationship. The victim does not hate family and friends; they are only avoiding “trouble”! The victim also cleans the house, calms the children, scans the mail, avoids certain topics, and anticipates every issue of the controller or abuse in an effort to avoid “trouble”. In this situation, children who are noisy become “trouble”. Loved ones and friends are sources of “trouble” for the victim who is attempting to avoid verbal or physical aggression.
Stockholm Syndrome produces an unhealthy bond with the controller and abuser. It is the reason many victims continue to support an abuser even after the relationship is over. It’s also the reason they continue to see “the good side” of an abusive individual and appear sympathetic to someone who has mentally and sometimes physically abused them.
4. Cognitive Dissonance
Throughout history, people have found themselves supporting and participating in life situations that range from abusive to bizarre. In talking to these active and willing participants in bad and bizarre situations, it is clear they have developed feelings and attitudes that support their participation. One way these feelings and thoughts are developed is known as “cognitive dissonance”.
“Cognitive Dissonance” explains how and why people change their ideas and opinions to support situations that do not appear to be healthy, positive, or normal. In the theory, an individual seeks to reduce information or opinions that make him or her uncomfortable. When we have two sets of cognitions (knowledge, opinion, feelings, input from others, etc.) that are the opposite, the situation becomes emotionally uncomfortable. Even though we might find ourselves in a foolish or difficult situation — few want to admit that fact. Instead, we attempt to reduce the dissonance — the fact that our cognitions don’t match, agree, or make sense when combined. “Cognitive Dissonance” can be reduced by adding new cognitions — adding new thoughts and attitudes. An example is when your partner has become abusive, and you tell yourself you can't leave due to finances, children, etc.
Through cognitive dissonance, you begin telling yourself “She never hits me open-handed” and “She’s had a lot of stress at work or because of her ex.”
5. Combining Two Unhealthy Conditions of Stockholm Syndrome & Cognitive Dissonance
The combination of “Stockholm Syndrome” and “cognitive dissonance” produces a victim who firmly believes the relationship is not only acceptable, but also desperately needed for their survival. The victim feels they would mentally collapse if the relationship ended. In long-term relationships, the victims have invested everything and placed “all their eggs in one basket”. The relationship now decides their level of self-esteem, self-worth, and emotional health.
For reasons described above, the victim feels family and friends are a threat to the relationship and eventually to their personal health and existence. The more family/friends protest the controlling and abusive nature of the relationship, the more the victim develops cognitive dissonance and becomes defensive. At this point, family and friends become victims of the abusive and controlling individual.
Importantly, both Stockholm Syndrome and cognitive dissonance develop on an involuntary basis. The victim does not purposely invent this attitude. Both develop as an attempt to exist and survive in a threatening and controlling environment and relationship. Despite what we might think, our loved one is not in the unhealthy relationship to irritate us, embarrass us, or drive us to drink. What might have begun as a normal relationship has turned into a controlling and abusive situation. They are trying to survive. Their personality is developing the feelings and thoughts needed to survive the situation and lower their emotional and physical risks. All of us have developed attitudes and feelings that help us accept and survive situations. We have these attitudes/feelings about our jobs, our community, and other aspects of our life. As we have found throughout history, the more dysfunctional the situation, the more dysfunctional our adaptation and thoughts to survive. The victim is engaged in an attempt to survive and make a relationship work. Once they decide it doesn’t work and can’t be fixed, they will need our support as we patiently await their decision to return to a healthy and positive lifestyle.
Still in many cases, it’s not simply our feelings for an individual that keep us in an unhealthy relationship — it’s often the amount of investment. Relationships are complex and we often only see the tip of the iceberg in public. For this reason, the most common phrase offered by the victim in defense of their unhealthy relationship is “You just don’t understand!”
In many cases we tend to remain and support the abusive relationship due to our investment in the relationship. Several types of investments keep us in the bad relationship:
Emotional Investment - We’ve invested so many emotions, cried so much, and worried so much that we feel we must see the relationship through to the finish.
Social Investment - We’ve got our pride! To avoid social embarrassment and uncomfortable social situations, we remain in the relationship.
Family Investments - If children are present in the relationship, decisions regarding the relationship are clouded by the status and needs of the children.
Financial Investment - In many cases, the controlling and abusive partner has created a complex financial situation. Many victims remain in a bad relationship, waiting for a better financial situation to develop that would make their departure and detachment easier.
Lifestyle Investment - Many controlling/abusive partners use money or a lifestyle as an investment. Victims in this situation may not want to lose their current lifestyle.
Intimacy Investment - We often invest emotional and sexual intimacy. Some victims have experienced a destruction of their emotional and/or sexual self-esteem in the unhealthy relationship. The abusing partner may threaten to spread rumors or tell intimate details or secrets. A type of blackmail using intimacy is often found in these situations.
Frozen with fear. Unable to think clearly about your next move. What if you leave and she finds someone else? Where will you go? What if you end up all alone? Fear is a primary factor that keeps the targets of abuse from making that final step to leave.
Here's a bit of serendipity. Recently, I was reviewing an illustration that shows how some tennis players try to control the tempo of a game, and lo and behold! This illustration has other uses!
For example, why does a tennis player interrupt a game so that a match doesn’t continue until he or she personally allows it to do so, when the rules clearly state the game is supposed to be "continuous play" for long periods? Why do some players even turn and speak to spectators, bossing them around? Telling them where to sit and when they may move? Why do some players presume to judge the linespersons' vision and inner motives or intents? Why do they judge the judges of their own performance (i.e., the officials)? Why do they stall and press to control the tempo of play? In other words, why are they control freaks?
It's all psychological control tactics. What are control tactics for?
Their purpose is to suggest superiority. It's just a superiority act. The same as with the abusive narcopath in your life.
The purpose of control tactics is to create the illusion of superiority. Superiority is suggested by control, which is suggested by control tactics. This is a mental trick. You must allow the presumption for it to work. You may believe that you aren’t allowing this person to control your mind, but think about this: normal people have a natural desire to avoid conflict, and it is this quality that tempts us to do just that – avoid conflict, and your controlling partner relies on it.
So, they PRESUME the right to control things that they have no right to control (like your feelings and thoughts), and if you acquiesce to this presumed right and allow then the right to control how you feel and what you should think of one thing or another, then you are playing the role of an inferior with respect to your partner. When you don’t confront this imposition by asking them who they think they are, then you are reinforcing their control over you in your own mind.
Note that they will purposefully steer a collision course toward conflict, while normal people try to avoid it. Narcopaths don't mind conflict. They use it. It's a tool that serves them well, because we hate it and try to avoid it. So, they cross you with the threat of it at every turn. What do you think? What do you feel? What will you wear today? Whatever -- the narcissist goes into Imperious Mode and acts like God is mad at you for breaking one of his 10 commandments.
To avoid their wrath, you just let them have their way. Then the brat is instantly all smiles.
Which is why they like conflict. They confront you with it (or the threat of it) constantly to control you, and each time this is done reinforces in your mind that this person is superior to you, and they know best. Each time you allow them to control your feelings and your thoughts, you are building up a subconscious memory bank that signals to your consciousness to obey.
This example will bring the point home: You have always called your mother on her birthday, but your partner does not. When you pick up the phone to call mom, she wants to know why, and when you tell her she says that’s stupid. You’re a grown man, and grown men don’t call their mommy to wish them happy birthday. You put the phone down, but tell her you feel guilty for not calling mom. She tells you that’s stupid and that your mother is controlling you. She flies into a rage over something so minor or stomps off to the bedroom giving you the silent treatment, and your brain goes into flight or fight mode. Since you “love” her, you find yourself agreeing that it’s time to stop letting mom control you. Ironically, she has controlled you not to feel guilt, and to not think about what might make your mom happy (a birthday wish). This will happen over and over again each time you and her have different thoughts or ideas about how things should be, until your brain finally gets it and an alarm goes off alerting you that conflict is on the horizon unless you think, act and feel whatever it is she wants you to think, act and feel at any given time.
Point to Ponder: What HUMAN being is supposed to have such rights with respect to us? The right to judge us. The right to determine what we may think and feel? None, right? Those are rights reserved for you and your God or Higher Power.