By Rachel, an Advocate at The Hotline
The Basic Components
Oftentimes at The Hotline, we hear from a victim or survivor experiencing mixed feelings for a partner who behaves abusively. It’s completely valid to still feel love for someone with whom we’ve invested so much time and energy into building a relationship. After all, it probably wasn’t the abusive behavior that ignited the attraction to begin with or stirred up those feelings. Even after the abusive behaviors begin, we know leaning into these feelings of love, compassion and hope can help us cope with the violence in the short-term. That said, we also know that abusive behaviors tend to escalate over time, so using these feelings as coping mechanisms can have detrimental impacts in the long-term.
Survivors also often tell us that their abusive partners exhibit “good” behaviors too. Many survivors comment that their partners are “perfect” or “wonderful” 90% of the time, and that it’s just 10% of the time that’s a problem. However, what we’ve learned is that the positive behaviors actually enable the abusive behaviors to continue and escalate, because they make it so hard to honor the impulse to leave when abuse occurs. If your partner were abusive all the time and never respectful or kind, you probably wouldn’t stick around. The good behavior, in other words, is what fosters the attachment that makes getting away from an abusive partner feel so painful and difficult.
The above scenario, in which one party cycles between violence and non-violence while the other party copes, demonstrates the basic components of traumatic bonding. Let’s break it down further so we can better understand the science behind attachment to a partner who behaves abusively, the dangers ingrained in it, and ways to overcome the trauma bond.
Biologically speaking, the bonds we develop originate from our infantile dependence on someone else for survival, usually our primary caregiver/parent. Survival is the foundation of human attachment, so when safety is threatened, i.e. trauma, we naturally turn to someone seen as a caregiver in our lives, someone who provides support, protection, and care. When this bonding occurs, oxytocin (often called the “love hormone”) is released in our brains, furthering comfort and attachment with the caregiver. In adult relationships, this “caregiver” is often our significant other.
We can see then how trauma bonds occur—when the person we regard as our significant other, the “caregiver,” is also the one creating trauma by threatening our safety through abusive behavior. Given that we are hard-wired from birth to turn to an attachment figure when threatened, we naturally turn to our romantic partners when abuse occurs, even if they are the ones who are being abusive to us. This leads to us feeling bonded to them. We also have a tendency to try to make sense of our experiences, and so we work hard to rationalize the dissonance between our abusive partner’s caring and harmful actions. This rationalization strengthens the bond further. On top of all that, abusive partners often promise change and actively tend to the wounds they create, precisely at those moments when we feel most vulnerable and hurt. It is no wonder that we feel strongly connected to them and have a hard time imagining life without them.
The danger of traumatic bonding lies in the impact repeated trauma has on us. While some effects are more overt, such as marks from physically abusive behaviors, others may be less noticeable. One common impact of experiencing any type of abuse is the overproduction of cortisol. Normally released to provide energy when faced with stress, too much cortisol can damage our immune system and make us more susceptible to illness, cause anxiety, and create high blood pressure. On top of physical marks or the overproduction of cortisol, there are a slew of other health concerns that may result from abuse. From asthma and fibromyalgia, to sexual dysfunction, flashbacks and depression, repeated trauma can impact our health in surprising ways.
How to Overcome the Trauma Bonds
With our understanding of what’s behind traumatic bonding and its dangers in mind, it’s worthwhile to take steps toward overcoming the trauma bonds. While it may be easier said than done, it is still entirely possible.
In short, in order to overcome trauma bonds, we can’t compromise truth for promise. We must also remain aware of our current state and actively care for ourselves. What does this look like?
Not compromising truth for promise means refusing to fantasize about how a partner might change someday, and staying grounded in the evidence of the partner’s behavior remaining the same. It means reminding ourselves that the patterns of experienced abuse are truly patterns, because overcoming abusiveness is typically a decades-long process, even if the partner who behaves abusively is currently practicing non-violence. It means being honest with ourselves about how our partner’s choice to behave violently towards us in any way has impacted us in the past, is currently impacting us, and may impact us down the road, without dismissing this reality.
Remaining aware of our current state involves clearly and explicitly acknowledging what we’re going through. This can mean simply pausing to mind a thought (or write it down to remind yourself of it later) to recognize what’s happening and what its impact is on us:
- “I love them, but I don’t want to love them.”
- “Oops, I was just fantasizing about the good times even though they never last with a partner who behaves abusively.”
- “They just did it again. I feel broken.”
- “I just told someone. That was scary, but I feel better. That was brave.”
Actively caring for ourselves means behaving gently with ourselves, intercepting negative self-talk with positive self-truths, and building a life we love without people who hurt us. In order to be gentle rather than condemning ourselves when we notice we’ve gotten caught up in promises or a fantasy about our abuser, we can stop and acknowledge the progress we’ve made in changing our thinking, and recognize that forgetting is part of the healing process.
If thoughts or self-talk turn into something degrading, like “I’m so stupid,” or “How could I let this happen again?,” it can be helpful to make a conscious effort to say a positive truth to ourselves. Try something like, “I’m smart, because I’m taking steps to empower my future at this very moment,” or “I am not at fault for someone else’s chosen behavior. My behavior is kind.” When we’ve invested so much of our life with someone we love who also hurts us, building a life we love without people who hurt us can feel daunting. Change takes effort, effort takes motivation, and we’ve gotten used to motivation from someone who behaves abusively. It helps to take life moment by moment, taking time for introspection, considering personal goals, and then identifying and taking steps to achieve those goals. It also helps to have self-care activities in our back pocket, like journaling, prayer or meditation, talking to a trusted friend, exercise and/or individual therapy. The Hotline may be able to find free services for survivors in your community, including individual professional counseling.
Remember, even your choice to seek help through The Hotline today has been an act of self-care, and is evidence of your ability to begin the process of overcoming trauma bonds. If, after reading this, you’re wondering if maybe you have a traumatic bond to a partner, check out the following traumatic bond symptoms (Carnes, 2016):
- Obsessing about people who have hurt you, though they are long gone
- Continuing to seek contact with people whom you know will cause you further pain
- Going “overboard” to help people who have been destructive to you
- Continuing to be a “team member” when obviously things are becoming destructive
- Continuing attempts to get people to like you, though they are clearly using you
- Trusting people again and again who have proven to be unreliable
- Being unable to retreat from unhealthy relationships
- Wanting to be understood by those who clearly do not care
- Choosing to stay in conflict with others, though it would cost you nothing to walk away
- Persisting in trying to convince people there is a problem and they won’t listen
- Remaining loyal to people who have betrayed you
- Being attracted to untrustworthy people
- Being forced to keep damaging secrets about exploitation or abuse
- Maintaining contact with an abuser who acknowledges no responsibility
As always, our advocates are available 24/7/365 to talk through any fears, frustrations, doubts or concerns you might have around your relationship. Call us today at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or chat at www.thehotline.org.