Ever wondered why you’ve stayed in a relationship you know is bad for you? Or why it’s hard to shake off an abusive ex-partner months or even years after you’ve broken up?
Bonding is a biological and emotional process that makes people more important to each other over time. Bonding is cumulative and grows with spending time together, living together, eating together, making love together, having children together, and being together during stress or difficulty. Experiencing extreme situations and feelings together tends to bond people in a special way, which may be healthy or unhealthy.
Where one person exerts power or control over another, with the result that the other person feels intimidated or confused, harmed or diminished in some way, we can say that abuse has taken place. The abuse can be physical, verbal, psychological, financial or spiritual, and can be intentional or unintentional.
The term “Trauma Bond” (also known as Stockholm Syndrome and the Betrayal Bond), describes a deep bond which forms between a victim of abuse and their abuser. Victims of abuse often develop a strong sense of loyalty and compassion towards their abuser, despite the fact that the bond is detrimental to the victim. Such a bond seems quite bizarre and incomprehensible to an observer of the relationship, who can see quite clearly what is going on.
Why do people develop trauma bonds?
The way human beings respond to trauma has a biological basis, which is neither rational nor irrational. People who are overwhelmed with distressing emotions suffer from an overload of their system and shut down emotionally, feeling frozen or numb, in order to cope. They simply cannot take action, even if it would be more helpful for their longer term well-being to leave the dangerous or unhealthy situation. The immediate priority is to survive, whether that means protecting themselves physically, or remaining emotionally intact.
People tend to seek consistency in their beliefs and perceptions.
When a person’s behaviour conflicts with your beliefs about what you think he or she is like, you might experience cognitive dissonance. Consider the following example. A woman begins a relationship with a man she is attracted to because of his apparently kind and caring nature. He then drops into conversation that he once caused grievous bodily harm to somebody in a pub who disagreed with him. The woman is likely to experience cognitive dissonance, because her initial impression of the man (as one whose values fit with her own) conflicts with what she has just heard. There are various ways in which she can reduce this dissonance: she can walk away from the relationship there and then, she can deny, minimise or distort what she has just heard, she can focus on the positives, or she can give him the benefit of the doubt: “Maybe I misheard him” or “There must have been a good reason why he did that” or “That was in the past. He’s a different person now” or “He’s the perfect partner otherwise”. The woman’s response will depend a lot on how she sees herself and others. If she sees herself as trusting, and others as basically trustworthy, she is likely to give him the benefit of the doubt.
This seems a healthy enough response. But trauma bonds become stronger over time, and strategies of denial and distortion severely undermine people’s ability to accurately evaluate the state of their relationship and impairs their ability to see or even look for a way out. Even when people do realise that their relationship is abusive, by that time they have invested a lot of time and energy and resources in it, making it all the more difficult to leave.
You may be caught in a trauma bond if:
- You stay in relationships with people who use you or treat you badly
- You cover up or make excuses for your partner’s anger, abuse or addictions
- You continue to support someone who is financially irresponsible
- You repeatedly invest energy in trying to get your partner to “see the light”
- You don’t listen to trusted friends who are worried about your situation
- Your partner expects you to isolate yourself from others and always behave as expected.
- You and your partner have destructive arguments in which you hurt each other physically or verbally rather than try and resolve the issue
- You have given up your sense of self to meet the needs of someone who is selfish and uses you
- You are preoccupied with a previous partner who hurt or used you.
Leaving a trauma bonded relationship
In a healthy relationship, a stable internal object representation (feeling memory) of an important person makes separation manageable. While it is very easy to become attached to a very chaotic and inconsistent person, it is simply not possible to form a consistent internal object representation about them, so that when separated from them, the urge to make contact is usually intense.
During the separation, the survivor may find it difficult to relate to anyone, even family or old friends, except superficially. This creates a feeling of isolation and emptiness. At first, it seems as if only going back to the abuser can relieve these feelings. When out of the relationship if feels right to be in it, and when in the relationship it feels right to get out. Therapy can provide a safe and supportive relationship in which people can gain clarity and self-understanding and make necessary changes.