Today we meet J who is in an abusive relationship with S. In therapy, she has documented evidence of frequent physical, emotional and verbal abuse. She has lost all her self-confidence that she claimed to have had before and spends most of her time wondering why she is in the kind of relationship she is and what is says about her. S often gives her the silent treatment followed by gestures like gifts or promises. When she challenges him or tries to set boundaries, he abuses her. A typical cycle then develops of abuse, silent treatment and nice behaviour. She is at her wits end and has no idea what to do. In the end, she does nothing and her focus is on changing him and hoping he will someday become the partner she wants.
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What’s wrong with me? Why do I always attract these types and why can’t I get away from them? I know I have abandonment issues and codependency, we established this in therapy and my logical self knows that I should get as far away as possible from him but I can’t. I spend all week waiting for his call and as we don’t live together, he can avoid me for as long as he likes. We spend weekends together but it always ends up in arguments when I feel ignored and the abuse then follows. He always blames me even though he always starts things with anger and raging. On the other hand, I feel that we are in a bubble where only he is capable of giving me the validation I need and I put him on a pedestal. This gives me the chance to negate and downplay the abuse. I feel I am stuck in a cycle with him that I cannot change. Whenever he abuses me, I say I will leave and then he comes back as the nice guy and I get confused. He is a real Jekyll and Hyde character.
Trauma bonding can be explained in terms of being addicted to the emotional roller-coaster that is always present in psychologically abusive relationships. The abuser has the victim backed into a corner of self-hate and loathing and they control them with cycles of abuse and intermittent reinforcement. The victim focuses on the few ‘nice’ times that come along but in effect these are few and far between and they will often not accept that they are being abused, even if it is obvious. This brings the attitude that the abuser is also their saviour as the abuser is usually the one to offer comfort after the abuse. The victim is trapped but will be very much resistant to leaving or changing the situation. Many victims will have physical complaints such as chronic pain and stress related issues such as PTSD as a result of the abuse but are ‘gaslighted’ into believing it is all their own fault. Many will leave but return and most will only escape when they are discarded. Sometimes, victims are so broken that they are of no longer of any use to their abuser so they are discarded and often left in a state of financial, physical and emotional ruin. The positive side of this is that healing can only begin once the abuser is gone and all doors to return have been firmly closed. This may need full support from family, friends and professional services. Please refer to the following list provided by Psych Central for the main elements of trauma bonding:
A constant pattern of nonperformance — your partner promises you things, but keeps behaving to the contrary.
Others are disturbed by something that is said or done to you in your relationship, but you brush it off.
You feel stuck in the relationship because you see no way out.
You keep having the same fights with your partner that go round in circles with no real winner.
You’re punished or given the silent treatment by your partner when you say or do something “wrong.”
You feel unable to detach from your relationship even though you don’t truly trust or even like the person you’re in it with.
When you try and leave, you are plagued by such longing to get back with your partner you feel it might destroy you.
You recognise or are made aware of the cycle of abuse and reinforcement.