What Abusers Hope We Never Learn About Traumatic Bonding
Updated May 09, 2019
Reviewer Kelly L. Burns, MA, LPC, ATR-P
Abusive relationships are more common than we like to believe. Statistics show that 1 out of 4 women will experience abuse at the hands of a partner at some point in their lives, and sadly, remains the crime which goes unreported most often, meaning there could be a lot more incidents going on than we're aware of. Additionally, a psychological phenomenon known as traumatic bonding can be created as a result of these unhealthy relationships.
Bonding vs traumatic bonding
Bonding is a biological process which allows two people to develop a strong emotional connection with each other, often through positive experiences. When we think of the word 'bonding', we conjure up images of intimate moments being shared by loving couples and families. By contrast, traumatic bonding is a relationship created as a result of negative experiences such as physical, verbal or emotional abuse between victim and abuser.
Why do people develop trauma bonds?
The question often arises of why victims of abuse willingly remain in hostile relationships, and the answer comes down to the psychological notion of survival. When we suffer traumatic experiences, we emotionally shut ourselves off and don't allow ourselves to take action. We become numb, and thusly resort to our primitive instincts to cope. To ensure survival, the victim subconsciously focuses on the positive attributes of their abuser, not their negative ones. How often do we hear people tell stories of their partner's violent streak, followed by "but apart from that, he's a nice guy"?
How to break free from traumatic bonds
It is vital to understand and remembers that the abuser is focused solely on maintaining power over their victim. They will use whatever methods they can - physical abuse, isolation, psychological manipulation, verbal degradation - in order to assert total control of a person. The powerful connection which comes as a result of the intermittent highs and lows felt by the victim makes it difficult for them to break free, particularly if the victim has become entirely dependent on them for their 'positive' experiences. This may have developed over time as the victim has become increasingly isolated and perhaps financially dependent, and the abuser has acted in caring ways as well. But it is important to understand that these happy and fun experiences do not reflect a true change in the abuser. The underlying rage and need for power and control over others are deeply rooted and do not come and go. Indeed, the good times are more of a smoke screen, making it harder for the victim to see the true nature of the abuser, and defend against the traumatic bond.
When the victim realizes that the abuser is in the quest for power and control and that he is not simply overcome with emotion or making a mistake,( the mindsets of both themselves and their abuser,) it will help them to separate from the internal confusion they have been manipulated to believe and see the abuser as simply harmful. Once a victim understands the true underlying intentions of the abuser, she can begin to see and manage her responses more effectively. She can consider leaving. While a sudden quick departure is not always possible, she can begin to develop some internal resistance to the concept that she is weak, ineffectual, or incapable but that this definition of herself has been given to her by someone else and it is a lie grounded on the abuser's self-interest. The victim can begin to see that she can redefine herself and her value and understand that freedom is entirely within her own control. They have the ability to leave the abuser within them, and with the right help, guidance, and support they can break free of their abuser and learn to more fulfilling life without a domineering presence.
Of course, to many victims, it is never as simple as to just walk out and never look back - far from it. Leaving an abusive spouse will immediately trigger feelings of emptiness or a sense of loss of drama and direction. The victim may feel as though no one else could understand their ordeal and they may long to return to their abusive partner-seeking some form of resolution or change. Victims may feel as though they need to see their abuser "one last time", which offers the abuser another chase to manipulate and make false promises which can then turns into another period of violent behavior.
Abusers will never change, despite their empty promises. Recognize that victims do not return to their abusers through romantic attachment but through desperation and resentment. The power to change their circumstance is always present. It can be difficult to make the decision to stop being a victim, but it is never impossible.
If you are experiencing an abusive relationship try finding more literature to read about it to better understand what is happening to you. There are books and articles available regarding both physical and verbally abusive relationships. If you have the ability to reach out to a counselor for help, you may be able to find one in your area or even a walk-in clinic for abused women. Another alternative is online counseling platforms that can meet your needs for confidentiality and schedule issues. One such platform is BetterHelp which has many counselors available that have reviews from clients that have worked with them successfully.