Stuck In A Trauma Bond? This Factor Could Be Making It Even Worse
“Why doesn’t she just leave?” is a question that protects those who have never been privy to an abusive situation. It makes the abused seem to be of another ilk altogether, and thinking "I would just leave if it were me," conflates abuse into something a mindset or mantra could change.
Because the truth is, abuse happens so insidiously, you're like the frog in a pot of cold water slowly being heated up—you have no idea by the time it’s boiling.
And when the steam rises, a trauma bond has become deeply rooted—physiologically, emotionally and mentally—because your body wants to keep you alive. The trauma bond in itself is a survival mechanism, involving some primitive parts of your nervous system (that you have little or no control over), and all it cares about is that you do not die.
Because in an abusive relationship, you may die. Intimate Partner Violence makes the home a dangerous place, and women are likeliest to be killed by someone they know. 2018 statistics put the figure at 137 women dying everyday at the hands of their partner or family member.
And like many of the words that have made their way into daily vernacular courtesy of therapy speak, trauma bonding should not be trivialized or misappropriated. It is a cornerstone of the toxic relationship, describing the bond the abused party has with their abuser, and it goes way beyond a mindset or something that can be severed overnight.
Note: This piece is written in the context of a cis relationship for ease. Abuse can happen in all types of relationships, and abusers and victims can be of either sex or any gender.
What is trauma bonding?
Coined by psychologist Patrick Carnes in 1997, trauma bonding describes the dysfunctional attachment that develops as a result of shame, danger, and exploitation within an abusive relationship.
An abusive relationship is punctuated by intense highs and lows—the honeymoon period and the loved up moments can feel so out-of-this world, and then the phases when you’re abused, punished, and neglected can feel like hell. You never know when you’re doing right or wrong, because the goalposts keep changing without your knowledge. And because you’ve tasted how amazing life can be with your partner, you know it wasn’t a pipe dream. So what do you do? You work harder and harder, so as to get a taste of bliss again.
You are an addict, waiting for the next high. Even if sometimes, the high could be a night of relative peace when you are allowed to sleep or you will be left alone. Sometimes your hard work pays off. At others, it doesn’t. And you get different levels of "rewards" to keep you on your toes.
Welcome to the world of intermittent reinforcement. The same intermittent reinforcement concept that pioneer behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner studied in pigeons, where he trained them to peck on levers, in case they might receive seeds.
And on top of that, you have been intensely gaslighted, blamed, and shamed. But you aren’t aware that’s going on, because you have also been actively blaming and shaming yourself. And so in your head, that fault is yours.
You’ve been surreptitiously trained not to complain or show that you’ve been hurt after a bout of abuse, because you’ve made him feel bad for what he did to you in the first place. You’ve learned to watch your behaviors, so that you do not appear to do something that might trigger him. And you’ve psychoanalyzed him to bits, considering how his family or past relationships may have caused his paranoia, jealousy, or controlling behavior. And because you know all these things, you’ve placed the burden of duty squarely upon your own shoulders to be more understanding, and shoulder every single episode he flares up.
In other words, you are loyal. And you hope to win his understanding and love again.
But what’s really going on in your nervous system—which comprises your nerves, brain and spinal cord—is that your nervous system has become blunted, and only comes online during times of danger (i.e. abuse). You feel alive only during these episodes of abuse, even if you’re scared, sad, and angry at the same time.
And you think, it is love. Then he tells you he loves you so much, and that’s why he cannot help his control and jealousy and hurting you. So you believe, again, it is love.
Trauma bonding is precisely this convoluted and intricate.
It is not people bonding over shared traumas, overcoming hard times together, or people trivializing being triggered and saying they've bonded over that. Nor is it the bond that the abuser has for you.
Why trauma bonding seems to have become more serious
As a psychologist specializing in supporting clients to safely leave toxic relationships, a curious case I’ve noticed is that clients have found it harder to leave post-COVID. I also remember musing with my colleagues at the beginning of lockdown if the pandemic would worsen abuse, and wondered what the fallout would be.
The hotbed? Lockdown.
Abusers are typically charming in their public lives and privately monstrous. During lockdown, there was no such public outlet for receiving adulation, and proximity to their victims meant more opportunity, and therefore more frequency, for abuse. Additionally, chronic unemployment or major change in financial status can be a major risk factor in partner violence and/or homicide, especially in tandem with others such as substance abuse, victim isolation, and access to a gun.
It stands to reason that as the frequency of abusive episodes increased within a confined space, the abused’s nervous system was going through continuous rounds of "coming alive"—the high of the abuse, then "coming down from the high"—having to face the pain and suffering, and the repercussions in one’s physical and mental health.
Multiple rounds of such exposure in my clients led to accentuated helplessness and hopelessness. In countries and states where there were curfews imposed, and where leaving one’s house was difficult or impossible, this compounded that feeling where one could not do anything else but be abused.
And the feelings that one was resigned to being in such a situation. Forever.
The sneaky factor that makes trauma bonding worse
Contrary to what everyone says, time does not heal. It does not make things better. Sometimes, time makes things worse.
If you feed your body primarily junk food and sodas over time, for instance, the damage compounds. So, expose yourself to an abuser who is abusing you more and more frequently, and the pattern stands.
In a toxic relationship, the abuser plays three roles in what we call the drama triangle. They can be the "savior" to whom you should be grateful to for saving you or helping you become a better person; the "persecutor" who blames you and points out all the things you’re doing wrong; and the "victim" who’s going through a very hard time.
You may respond to what the victim is saying, like showing them empathy and kindness, only to suddenly be met by the callous persecutor who cuts you with their hurtful comments. It is a confusing time, making the eggshells you already tread feel even more precarious. And in this way, your trauma bond also deepens as you side with them to explain away why they act this way—at the expense of hurting yourself—whilst you blame yourself even more.
You spend a lot of time engaging in what I call Cognitive Photoshop—applying all sorts of mental filters to the situation to make meaning out of it. Such as, “We weathered a new crisis together, we will come out even stronger," or, “At least he doesn’t beat me,” or, “At least he apologizes sometimes."
More sophisticated abusers also know the art of the con, hooking you in with accountability. They tell you they really want to get better but sometimes their old demons (an addiction, their past relationship histories) get the better of them. So could you please help keep them accountable even if they might find it hard to change? And even though every change is piecemeal, transient, and they will regress—and you will pay for it dearly—you think it’s your job to help them, or love them better so they heal.
The more we invest, the harder it is to walk away. As Annie Duke, champion poker player and author of the book Quit writes, both behavioral experiments and real-life situations show that human beings are terrible at knowing when to cut their losses.
At the end of the day, after multiple rounds of increased abuse and the subsequent intensification of your trauma bond, you are exhausted.
You may have run away because you felt unsafe, but it was unplanned, so you went back again. And every time you go back, it feels like you’re just doomed to be there. (The stats show that the average abused woman leaves seven times, during one of which times she may be killed).
You may have called the police and realized that the system is rigged against you. It’s dismissed as a domestic, a private situation, a hysterical woman.
Or you realize you have few resources left inside or around you. You’ve alienated your friends because he’s slowly primed you to isolate yourself, or they’re just so sick of listening to your latest ideas on how to help him. And you’re so afraid of all the other people who judge you.
And chances are, he’s had a smear campaign against you for a long time, so everyone thinks you are the loose cannon who’s indebted to him. You’re the lucky one to have him.
You don’t know where to start—and the trauma bond is quietly working in the background so you stay alive.
But "alive" simply means you're functioning, your heart is beating, maybe you’re going to work or taking care of the kids. "Alive" doesn’t mean you have any quality of life left. You are an empty shell.
What to do about it
First, know that you are not stupid for being trauma bonded, for not seeing the red flags initially, or for not knowing what boundaries are, how to set them, or that you even have permission to set them. For staying. For going back—anything. The abuse started so insidiously, to have said or done anything at first would have seemed petty and even mad—and abuse is precisely designed that way to break you.
Yes, you may even be incredibly educated and professionally successful, and you should have known better. But guess what? You are the demographic abusers seek out.
Everyone has their weak spots, so your task is to strengthen that weak point in your defense system—such as by having a great "Toxic Person Detector," and focusing on the people that matter, especially yourself.
As someone who does this professionally with her clients, and has gone through it herself, the truth is, leaving is not a simple task. For starters, you will have that trauma bond to contend with. And it will tell you that it’s game over for you, especially if he’s threatened you about the repercussions of leaving, or that you are nothing without him. You may have made your own career path, but somehow along the way, he may have convinced you that he made you. True story.
Plus, it's always easier to live and adapt one more day to a known bad situation (the abuse) than the great unknown of your new life.
With all that acknowledged, here are the things you’ll need to do.
- Lock down your devices, change your passwords; if possible, get new ones.
- Connect with reliable non-judgmental support. Tell them, “I have been in a terrible situation, I am sorry I have neglected our relationship. What can I do to reconnect again?" And know it’s okay to ignore all the terrible judgy people who’d tell you “I told you so."
- Get your situation documented with your physician and/or a domestic violence shelter, and have a danger assessment done.
- Write down a list of everything bad he’s ever done to you; you will need this. Create a timeline of the abuse so you know it IS affirmatively worsening.
- Engage a professional to help you in your healing, especially so to look credible in cases of custody or cross-examinations, because trauma can make the abused look unreliable or flakey.
- Engage a professional to help you leave safely. This includes logistics, thinking through the other people to engage (e.g. lawyers, realtors, mediators), the safety of children and pets, and what to say. And more importantly, they can help you chart your path forward so you know you have a new chapter to look forward to.
- Everyday, do a little thing to reclaim yourself back again. It’s even better if you say it’s small, stupid, or trivial. Maybe you’ve forgotten what it’s like to drink your favorite coffee because he’s always ordering it for you. Or maybe he’s banned you from wearing your favorite dresses or lipstick.
Most importantly, remember, you have a future.
I tell the story of the pigeons and intermittent reinforcement to every client because at the end of the experiment, the pigeons die. It is a horrific realization. Every client mutters, “I am not a pigeon."
Yes, you are not a pigeon. You stayed because you are trauma bonded, and lockdown made it worse. And while it's not "all in your head," your head is what saves you. Your head is what helps you to work with healing your body, so you override the trauma bond.
Because just as traumas and pains are stored in our body, so too can love, awe, and hope be present in our bodies. And instead of hearing that horrid “Why didn’t you just leave?”—which you don’t have to explain to anyone—your leaving is an act of courage that inspires other people in your situation.
And maybe one day, they will ask instead, “Why does he abuse?"
Perpetua Neo, DClinPsy, is a psychologist and executive coach currently living in Singapore. She received her doctorate in clinical psychology from University College London and her master's in philosophy from University of Cambridge. Her first book This Is What Matters was published by Simon & Schuster in May 2022, which guides you to transform crisis to strength, or design an #EverydayAmazing life.
She has been featured in Elle, Forbes, and Business Insider and has previously worked with Olympians, business professionals, and individuals seeking to master their psychological capital. She works globally in English and Mandarin-Chinese via Skype and Facetime, blending cutting-edge neuroscience, psychology, and ancient wisdom.