The Ties That Bind

I recently had dinner with a friend and we were discussing relationships in general. He asked me what my flaws were in a relationship. He was able to just start listing issues he saw as flaws in himself. I was struggling. I answered with examples like expecting things to be done right, drawing black and white lines, being somewhat of a perfectionist and rule follower. He stopped me and said that seemed more like an answer for my business self than my personal relationship self. Was I really that way in a relationship? Astonishingly enough, the answer was no. I am a conformist. I change myself to suit my partner. But I did not want to admit this at first, not even to myself. So I came up with things like being critical of myself and other cliché answers and then just sort of shut down and the topic was changed. I was not even aware that I had shut down until he remarked on it later in the evening. Being considerate, he thought it was because I did not like to dwell on my flaws and preferred to stay positive. I responded that it was most likely due to spending tedious years of having every imaginable flaw painstakingly pointed out to me by someone who was supposed to love and support me. And my response was indeed to stop the conversation in its tracks. Not because I have no flaws, or because I am unaware of my flaws, but because the question had pulled a trigger in the dark recesses of my mind. And my self-preservation shields activated.

The conversation later progressed to why people stay in relationships where they are mistreated, disrespected and abused. My knee jerk answer…fear. Fear of the unknown results and consequences. Better the devil you know and all. I also equated it to something along the lines of Stockholm Syndrome, where the victim starts to align their thoughts with their captor’s. He had a hard time grasping this as I know most people do. And I knew it was much more complicated than that simple analogy.

Once I was back home, I finally decided to do some research and face some old demons. And lo and behold, there is actually a term and diagnosis that I was unaware of – trauma bonding. After reading numerous articles, I realized how spot on it was. Even to the excuses I still use to this very day! Some of the items I read brought back anger, and others led me to tears. But it was very helpful and cathartic, so it was a journey well worth taking. I decided to blog about it in hopes that it may help others better understand the psyche of abused women, even the women themselves. I also believe that addressing it head on brings further healing and closure. The following is based on my experiences and interpretations alone, and is in no way a scientific study or formal paper of the attributes and effects of abuse.

So what is trauma bonding? Well let’s start by defining a bond. Not everyone is bonded together in a relationship. There can be love without a bond. There can be hate without a bond. A bond is formed over an extended period of time. It gains strength from both positive and negative influences. The longer the relationship, the stronger the bond. And unlike love, hate and other emotions that can sometimes be temporary or superficial, a bond is extremely hard to break. For example, a married couple has a child together. They may later fall out of love and divorce. They can separate themselves from their spouse. But in most cases, they cannot separate themselves from their child. What they have with the child is a bond, not just love. A mother loves her child. But she can overlook and repeatedly forgive that child’s negative behavior and faults because of the bond. The bond would even lead her so far as to give her life for that child. And as in Stockholm Syndrome, captives will often bond with their captors as they rely on them for their very livelihood.

“Traumatic bonding occurs as the result of ongoing cycles of abuse in which the intermittent reinforcement of reward and punishment creates powerful emotional bonds that are resistant to change.” 1

“Initially the person that had become an abuser was inconsistent in approach, which developed into an intensity perhaps not matched in other relationships of the victim. The longer a relationship continues, the more difficult it is for people to leave the abusers with whom they have bonded.” 2

Okay, so you think you understand the bond now. But you really, really don’t. The person subjected to this form of bonding begins to see it as normal. They need the intensity of the relationship. They need the highs and the lows. It is like a drug addiction to them. They know that need is abnormal, so it just reinforces that something is wrong with them, just like the abuser has told them over and over again. The pain of leaving is just as strong as the pain of staying. And if they do leave, the pull and the desire to return is so strong that it often cannot be denied. And this is why the victims return over and over again. It is a vicious and unending cycle. It cannot truly be explained to outsiders and they will never really comprehend or believe it. Most of you are even shaking your heads right now. “Why don’t they leave? Don’t they see how wrong this is? They must be stupid.” So let me paint you a picture of how the cycle runs.

1. The abuser begins the relationship as a charmer of gold medal caliber. He is very supportive, loving, caring and complimentary. She is so lucky. But then things gradually change. Every once in a while he is abusive. She thinks something out of the ordinary triggered it. It was a one time thing. He apologizes profusely and woos her back. And the cycle repeats. She remembers how good it was. She holds up hope and truly believes things will get back on track. This is just a rough patch. Don’t forget “for better or worse”.

2. In the next phase, when the anger is triggered, she is the cause. She begins to believe that she is. If she changes, things will go back the way they were. He continues to apologize, make promises and give her small tastes of the way things were, rewarding her with the promised ring of hope. He bonds her with kindness. And she grasps hold. She defends him and makes excuses for his actions.

3. As time passes, he takes more and more control over her life. How she acts, how she dresses, what she eats, where she goes, finances, etc. Her goal is to keep him pleased and not rock the boat, so she submits. This is a major coup for him, a giant stepping stone in the plan. He wants her to feel it is her responsibility to keep him happy and even keeled. But the abuse does not stop. He will randomly choose a time to punish her for some irrelevant wrong doing so that she will yearn for the reward and not become complacent.

If you understand nothing else, please understand this. No matter what she does, no matter how subservient or complacent she becomes, it will never be enough. He enjoys exerting the control he has. He thrives on the power he feels from punishing her and then seeing her submit when she is rewarded for “good” behavior. It is his drug of choice. And she is his addict.

4. At this point she may start thinking about leaving more often. But then the practicality kicks in. Where will she go, how will she afford it, how can she support the kids? And if he is as good as most abusers are in deviant behavior, he will recognize this and add threats to his game play. He will threaten to take the children from her. He will promise to make sure everyone knows what a horrible person she is. He’ll tell her she is not competent enough or smart enough to go out on her own. Plus, he will ever so politely remind her he is in control of the finances. She fears he is right, gives in to the fear, and becomes putty in his narcissistic hands. He ups his game, increasing the intensity more and thus increasing her need for the relationship.

5. She is now alienated. She is too embarrassed to tell friends and family what is going on. She feels shame. She knows they will not understand. Plus, most of the time, he gives the appearance of being an upstanding member of society, honest, gentle, loving, etc. In public, he showers her with affection and defers to her in conversations and decision making. Outsiders think he is great, but she knows what is waiting at home.

And that is just the way things are. And she accepts it. She conforms. I know what you are thinking! You are shaking your head in disbelief. But she does indeed accept it. It is the normal she knows.

Now I am not saying everyone stays in these relationships. Some do manage to leave, but with long-term scars. Their everyday interactions, especially regarding relationships, carry some level of the damage. And that bond? Well, it never disappears. It just becomes more manageable. It must be fought against every single day. It carries with it the ability of transference to another controlling relationship. It is to be feared.

Those who do make it out carry the poisons in their system. They have tendencies and characteristics that continue to arise like recurrent toxic emissions. Some of the characteristics are as follows:

1. They downplay what happened. “It wasn’t that bad”, ‘Others had it worse”, “I never ended up in the hospital”. This is very common as they no longer want to remind themselves that they were a victim. Because then the guilt of “allowing” themselves to be victimized rears its ugly head. Besides, others do not understand and can be so judgmental. So they minimize it to shield themselves.

2. Their self esteem is basically non-existent. They struggle every day to prove they can make it outside of the relationship. Depression is a major problem and sometimes thoughts of suicide emerge.

3. Initially, the urge to return is constantly on their mind. That bond is still strong and has not yet broken. And it never will. They experience something similar to withdrawal and yearn for a hit of the intensity they are used to.

4. They replace the intensity of the relationship by engaging in extreme levels of physical, mental and/or sexual activities in order to fill the empty needy space left from the relationship. Or in some cases, turn to a new addiction with drugs or alcohol.

5. They continue patterns of behavior they are used to, regardless of whether or not they are still necessary. For example, folding towels a certain way, buying particular brands or items at the store, making the bed a specific way, eating at the same restaurants, dressing the way he preferred, and so on.

6. They live in constant fear of his threats coming to fruition – losing the kids, being ostracized, failing professionally or financially. And if kids are involved, you better believe he pushes that button every chance he gets. And, usually, until the kids are 18, he has access to enforce those fears under the guise of visitation, parent conferences, and any other joint venture involving the children. His constant presence makes the effects of the abuse linger. It may actually even still continue to some degree, because the last thing he wants to admit or accept is that he is no longer in control.

7. The ability to trust is completely destroyed at first. Not just trusting others, men particularly, but also trusting their own judgment.

8. In extreme cases, fear for their personal safety may be an issue, especially if he is the violent, jealous, stalker type. They must never assume he has given up and walked away. Remember, control is very very important to him.

9. They will never truly be free of the bond. In fact, they are more susceptible than ever. Their shields have been damaged and they must be forever vigilant.

I must confess I have been guilty of a number of these myself. Seeing it in print, knowing others felt the same way, and acknowledging I have still have issues was a tough thing to do. But this is not about me or my story. This is just a heartfelt blog that I hope has been somewhat enlightening and helpful to at least one person who reads it. The victims of this form of abuse are not weak or stupid or gullible. They deserve your attempt at understanding and your support. So please just offer that, and leave your opinions and platitudes behind. Trust me, she has heard them all before and can see them in your eyes. You need not speak them aloud.

1 Chrissie Sanderson. Counseling Survivors of Domestic Abuse. Jessica Kingsley Publishers; 15 June 2008. ISBN 978-1-84642-811-1. p. 84.

2 Trauma bonding. Abuse and relationships. Retrieved April 20, 2014.

Other helpful sources:

The Meadows press release: The Case for Traumatic Bonding: The Betrayal Bond Patrick J. Carnes, Ph.D., C.A.S.

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