Trauma Bonding Is the Emotional Cycle That Keeps People in Abusive Relationships. How Does It Start?
This is the first article in a two-part series about the psychology behind survivors of abuse often being unable to escape — or even recognize — the abuse within their relationships.
“Why didn’t they just leave?” or “Why couldn’t they just have told even one of their many friends?” — two questions people ask almost any time someone speaks about an abusive relationship. The abuser can be an intimate partner, a friend, sibling, or parent. The nature of abuse itself can be violent, non-violent, or both — ranging from sexual or physical violence to emotional abuse. Yet, the questions remain the same.
Defined as the psychological response to abuse, trauma bonding is the emotional attachment that survivors of abuse often form with their abusers as a result of repeated cycles of devaluating their self-worth, abuse, and positive reinforcement.
Psychologists note the existing relationship between a survivor and an abuser often forms the bedrock of this emotional bond. “There is already a sense of attachment that exists within that set role. In a parent-child relationship, for instance, the child already seeks affection from the parent. That bond is already just there,” Barnali Ghosh, Ph.D., a consultant psychotherapist at Columbia Asia, Kolkata, explains.
Once abuse becomes a part of the relationship, the survivor is often left confused. They struggle to process the abusive behavior and come to terms with the fact that it is taking place within the domain of an existing relationship meant to be defined by affection and care. “There’s a whole churning of emotions that takes place in the survivor’s mind. The cycle of abuse leads to a cycle of conflict, and the closer the relationship, the greater is this emotional turmoil,” Ghosh adds.
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In general, the cycle of abuse is interspersed with a cycle of remorse. But in cases of intimate relationships, the cycle is preceded by a courtship period — a “honeymoon stage,” wherein the survivor is showered with a lot of affection and attention, Samriti Makkar Midha, a Mumbai-based psychotherapist, explains. This stage is as crucial to the emotional attachment that survivors develop towards their intimate partner-abusers as existing relationships are to abusive parent-child or other familial relationships.
The trauma bond is then established and strengthened over repeated patterns of abuse. Once the honeymoon stage starts to fade, the abuser starts making critical, offhand remarks that begin to erode the self-esteem of the survivor. Though these remarks seem non-severe and isolated, they quickly become attacking, more frequent, and more intense. The peak is quickly followed by the abuser apologizing for their behavior, crying even, until a reconciliation happens. During this process, “they also gaslight the survivor by saying things like ‘I got agitated because you didn’t pick up the call — since I care about you, and worried about you,'” Midha explains.
This is again typically followed by a period of no conflict, calmness, one that often takes the survivor back to that honeymoon stage. This gives them hope the respite is actually the true nature of their relationship and casts the ‘rough patch’ as simply a result of their own mistakes; their partner was simply looking out for them. This can lead the survivor to believe if they work on themselves and don’t repeat the same mistakes again, happier times could be more permanent — thus, strengthening their emotional attachment to the abuser. Moreover, since the escalation of abuse is always gradual, the abusive behavior is almost normalized in the relationship.
However, since the survivor isn’t actually at fault, or responsible for the abuser’s behavior, no amount of so-called improvement can prevent the abuse.
“I thought that if I was was a good girlfriend, and listened to everything that he told me, cooked him a great meal, did this, did that … he would finally find me acceptable. But it was never enough,” said Samantha, 25, reflecting on an emotionally abusive relationship.
Survivors note that due to trauma bonding, it can take multiple cycles of abuse, across years, for them to realize they are being abused.
“Only when I went to the psychiatrist did I find out that I was being abused. And I was shocked because despite having been in abusive relationships in the past, how did I not realize it?” Samantha recalls.
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Since the abuse takes place within an intimate relationship first, the survivor can’t immediately recognize it as abuse; and second, the emotional attachment within such relationships, coupled with the now-diminished self-esteem of the survivor, makes them long for their abusive partner’s approval. “The more the [survivor] reaches out to the [abuser] for love, recognition, and approval, the more the trauma bond is strengthened,” Sherry Gaba, a psychotherapist from California, wrote in Psychology Today.
Even if a survivor recognizes the abuse, and manages to leave, the lure of the honeymoon stage can still be strong. In fact, in cases of intimate partner violence, a woman may leave her abuser seven to eight times before she leaves permanently. While this is mostly attributed to socio-economic factors, often trauma bonding plays a role as well. “If they do manage to break free, all the [abuser] has to do is go back to that courtship phase to win them back,” Gaba adds.
Midha notes that biology, too, can affect the strength of the trauma bond. The punishment is laced with “intermittent reinforcements of kindness and love,” thus forming a cortisol-dopamine cycle. Amid the high levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) within the relationship, the survivor unconsciously craves dopamine, the ‘happy’ hormone, which the reinforcements bring — making this a vicious cycle. “It’s like taking a drug: when you take it, you experience a high; when you don’t, you feel low — but you’re always craving that high,” she explains.
Experts note, however, that what lies at the very core of trauma bonding is control. Irrespective of the relation shared by the abuser and the survivor, abuse isn’t always about “physically hitting, or violating someone, it is more about asserting control on another’s life,” Midha notes, adding that anytime the abuser senses they are “losing control, the abuse also heightens to regain that control.” And when one is under someone else’s control, it is difficult to make sense of what’s happening — let alone exercise one’s will and walking out.