One cannot understand the complexity of a Trauma Bond until they have experienced it.
Women who escape abusive relationships frequently recall how their connection to the abuser was more intense than anything they had ever experienced before. At its darkest, nothing and no one can come between the abuser and the abused. Not even the fear of death.
No matter how nonsensical and risky it may be, a painful sense of loyalty to the abuser persists. But the connection does not come from reciprocal love. It lies in the emotional charge from the trauma, and is characterized by intermittent reinforcement amid ceaseless abuse. This toxic cycle deepens the connection, and causes the abused to seek comfort from the abuser.
Leaving the relationship is difficult enough. On average, a woman will attempt to leave an abusive relationship seven times before she leaves for good. To escape, the challenges she faces can seem insurmountable, and they are not unfounded. She knows that her abuser is most likely to kill her as she tries to leave or shortly after. She worries she will not have the resources to support her children, let alone herself. She faces the insufficient support of law enforcement, or her religion condones divorce.
On top of all this, she is chemically bound. The further she sinks into attachment and despair, the more unclear it becomes what will hurt worse: to stay or to leave. If she stays, perhaps her abuser will return to the loving, supportive, and caring person he was when they first met. The person who promises to change but never does. Who only emerges after he has knocked her to the ground or recklessly defiled her heart. Rare as the good times are, somehow, they still eclipse the bad.
Love is a drug that overrides reason. It's not rational. It's an addiction.
When we fall in love, we are governed entirely by an intoxicating blend of neurotransmitters. Of those, the first to kick in are estrogen (for women) and testosterone (for men). These drive us to lust, and are quickly followed by increased adrenaline and decreased serotonin, which grow attraction and reduce reason. A long-term attachment takes root next, with bursts of oxytocin and vasopressin, and all of these are accompanied by our dear friend, dopamine- the hormone we rely on for happiness.
Once the honeymoon phase settles, these frenzied neurotransmitters return to baseline. We regain our sense of reason and are able to see our partners and their flaws more clearly. If the relationship is healthy, it feels stable, calm, and secure. The emotional union strengthens, and the partners desire to protect one another. As dopamine levels off, the relationship feels less like a cocaine addiction and more like a safe place to land. Lovers no longer need to chase one another, and while good-feeling chemicals soften, they are comfortably consistent.
For toxic and abusive relationships that proceed beyond the honeymoon phase, the sequence of hormones that create attachment are flipped on their heads. Instead of these hormones stabilizing, a new pattern emerges, characterized by unregulated super highs and super lows. Whereas the highs exaggerate the initial chemical profiles experienced at the start of the relationship, the lows dip into dangerous waters. For the abused, the fight-or-flight response becomes normalized, and its frequent activation causes tremendous physiological and emotional damage.
In 1979, Lenore E. Walker modeled what’s known as the “Cycle of Abuse” after interviewing 1,500 women who had been subjected to domestic violence. Walker identified a pervasive cycle that can occur hundreds of times in an abusive relationship, with a single cycle lasting anywhere from a few hours to a year or more until the relationship ends. Over time, occurrences become more frequent and violent, until the “reconciliation” and “calm” phases have diminished entirely. The cycle consists of four phases:
• Tension building: Stress increases and communication breaks down as the abused feels a need to placate the abuser. The fight-or-flight response may activate preemptively, as the abused anticipates the incident to follow.
• Incident: A violent outburst of physical, verbal, and/or psychological abuse ensues by the primary aggressor in an attempt to gain power and control over the abused.
• Reconciliation: The abuser apologizes, gives excuses, denies any abuse occurred, or downplays its severity- tactics often referred to as gaslighting.
• Calm: The incident is “forgotten,” or so the abused feigns. For a moment, they’re able to catch a dose of the high they felt during the honeymoon phase.
When the relationship is stable, so too is the flow of oxytocin- the love hormone that is released anytime we bond with someone else, whether that is by living and eating together, by making love, or by sticking together through a stressful event. In abusive relationships, oxytocin is not a constant. Rather, it only comes around after a violent episode, when the abuser rewards the abused with the longed-for drug that is the honeymoon phase. But in the words of Michael Samsel, “Bad times bond people as strongly as good times, perhaps more so.”
How ironic it is to be captive and captivated all at once.
On August 23rd, 1973, two criminals toting machine guns entered a bank in Stockholm Sweden. One of them, a man by the name of Jan-Erik Olssom, fired at the ceiling, then disguised his voice with an American accent and hollered, “The party has just begun!” Over the next 131 hours, four hostages strapped with dynamite were stuffed in a bank vault, where they were abused and threatened with their lives.
In their media interviews following the incident, it was clear the hostages empathized and even supported their captors. So much so that a hostage and a captor went on to get engaged, and another hostage set up a legal defense fund for the two criminals. One hostage recalled to the New York Times how she became claustrophobic, and the captors allowed her to walk outside the vault attached to a rope. She told the paper, “I remember thinking he was very kind to let me leave the vault.”
The emotional bonds of the hostages to the captors were so intense that the hostages resisted and even physically attacked the police officers as they tried to come to their defense. This psychological condition would come to be known as Stockholm Syndrome, and is regarded as an unconscious survival strategy wherein the abused forms an emotional bond with their abuser. According to the research of Dr. Joe Carver, four conditions will be present for its development:
• A perceived threat to one’s physical or psychological survival, and the belief that the abuser would carry out the threat should the abused fail to comply to their demands.
• The presence of a perceived “small kindness” from the abuser, or evidence that hope exists for the abuser to change. The abused may also perceive a “soft side” to their abuser, or empathize with their abuser’s personal history.
• Isolation from perspectives other than those of the abuser’s. The abused has the sense that they are always walking on eggshells, so to placate their abuser, they become preoccupied with the abuser’s needs, desires, and habits, and cut themselves off from anything that could prompt an outburst. This can become so intense that the abused may develop anger against anyone who tries to help them.
• A perceived inability to escape reinforced by numerous control tactics. The abused may increase financial obligations and debt in the relationship, threaten to commit suicide should the abused leave, or use extreme threats that undermine the abused person’s survival outside the relationship.
When Stockholm syndrome couples with cognitive dissonance, the abused firmly believes the relationship is both acceptable and desperately needed for their survival.
Studies show that we are more loyal and committed to something when a lot is at stake, or when the experience of it is difficult, uncomfortable, or humiliating. Likewise, the more we invest in something, the harder it is for us to separate ourselves from it, even when we know that separating would be the right thing to do. This misalignment of our actions and our values is the disharmonious feeling of cognitive dissonance.
In this context, the warped perception of the abused person is supplemented by the instinct to resolve the inconsistencies of the relationship rather than attempt to separate from it. Healthy relationships require great investment, but the level of investment in an abusive relationship is magnified, as the abused has sacrificed their mental health, financial health, physical health, and any sense of stability in order to appease the abuser and survive.
In 1995, the National Research Council fulfilled a congressional request to investigate causes, consequences, and prevention of violence against women. The panel determined that PTSD is the most common disorder among survivors of domestic violence, and that its severity correlated with the severity of the abuse. Later in 2005, an exploration into coping strategies associated with PTSD found that the majority of individuals with PTSD presented avoidance coping techniques and wishful thinking, techniques that coincide with Stockholm syndrome.
Rather than acknowledging the reality of the situation, abused persons exhibit a significant amount of self-delusion, and cope by either pretending the trauma hadn’t occurred or preoccupying themselves with how they may have caused it. The literature also identifies how many women who are beaten and estranged from their support systems continue to claim they love and care for their abuser. Compounded with PTSD, the presence of these coping mechanisms further demonstrates how trauma fuses the abused to their abuser despite all rationale.
Understanding the psychological mechanisms at work is beneficial for trauma bonded survivors.
Although the vast majority of abused women feel desperately attached to the abuser, they’re ultimately able to recognize that the relationship is not healthy, and that they would be better off if they could break free and heal from the trauma. Not all abusive relationships begin with abuse, and what may start out as a seemingly healthy bond may not morph into a trauma bond until the cycle of abuse becomes present, making it all the more difficult to cope with the aftermath.
It’s often not until after the relationship has ended that many abused women identify their emotional bond to the abuser as reminiscent of Stockholm syndrome. At this point, they experience what can only be compared to as withdrawal following a disrupt discontinuation from their physical and/or psychological dependence to a drug. A drug they relied on to soothe the very pain it causes. And exactly as the withdrawals cannot simply disappear overnight, the trauma bond and PTSD will follow an abused individual after the relationship has ended, or until the abused individual has sought treatment.
Safely escaping from an abuser is commonly a life-or-death situation that requires careful planning and the support of trusted others. During its execution, survivors report feeling out of their bodies and driven by little more than adrenaline. These symptoms are part and parcel of the fight-or-flight response, and frequently they will not subside until the abused is no longer in survival mode.
Moreover, the symptoms of PTSD do not always kick in until hours or days after a traumatic event or a departure from a traumatic relationship. Survivors typically need some time to cool off, but because many symptoms of PTSD may only worsen until addressed, it is advisable for survivors to seek treatment as expeditiously as possible. As always, different patients experience different symptoms and thus require different treatments. A combination of therapeutic approaches, safety precautions, and self-care are indispensable to the recovery process.
• First and foremost, all contact with the abuser must be permanently broken without delay. If contact is necessary due to custody agreements, then it should be limited to only that which is required.
• Survivors should proceed by seeking domestic violence treatment, either in the form of psychotherapy, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), or one-on-one counseling. CBT is known to be particularly effective in treating PTSD as well.
• Just because the abuser confused love with control does not mean the survivor’s feelings were any less real. Grief is a healthy part of letting go, and survivors are encouraged to honor the feelings they had in the relationship. The capacity for them to love was always there, and it always will be.
• Similarly, survivors must commit themselves to staying present with reality and not allowing themselves to fixate on any form of “what ifs” or “if onlys”. In other words, the survivor must constantly reinforce any delusions about the fact that they were not the cause of abuse.
• Knowledge is hugely empowering for survivors to help reinforce reality, grow into acceptance, and forgive themselves for not leaving sooner. Survivors may find it constructive to educate themselves on why abusers abuse and why they are physiologically incapable of change. To validate their experiences, survivors may also educate themselves on the various emotionally abusive tactics likely used against them.
• Finally, survivors should return to dreaming about their future and the life they wish to build for themselves now that they are free from their abuser. This may include beginning a journal, diving back into hobbies they enjoyed before the relationship, and building upon new and existing relationships with healthy, centered, supportive, and drama-free individuals.
These are your “go-to” people, and they are the true spice of life.
If you are experiencing a trauma bond, be patient with yourself. Recovering can take months or even years in the case of long-term relationships.
There are several thought leaders, psychologists, and life coaches on YouTube that we highly recommend:
• For when you are feeling weak or in need of validation and empowerment, check out The Tea on NPD. In addition to being a Certified Professional Life Coach, Telsha is an absolute ray of sunshine who is as fiery and hilarious as she is informative.
• Dr. Ramani is a very well-known Clinical Psychologist devoting her career to educating people about narcissism and narcissistic abuse. Her channel is an excellent starting point to educate yourself about the mind of an abuser.
• Dr. Todd Grande is a fascinating Mental Health Counselor specialized in human behavior, psychopathology, personality theory, true crime, and more. Dr. Grande leaves no stone overturned with his work, and it’s very easy to spend hours watching his channel.
• On top of having a PhD in philosophy, Sam Vaknin is a Professor of Psychology who has been diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder twice. His work offers a deep (and sometimes harsh) dive into disordered, abusive, and narcissistic minds.