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How Trauma Bonding and Intermittent Abuse Complicate Recovery

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Editor's Note

If you’ve experienced sexual abuse or assault, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact The National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.

One of the things I remember the most was when my abuse actually ended. It stopped suddenly after my abuser was caught touching another student. You would think I would be relieved, and I was, but I was also sad, upset and lost. I felt untethered without him; it was as if without the chaos and fear, I didn’t know what to do. It felt somehow empty and hollow. I felt different from everyone else, the kids in my class and my family. By this time, I didn’t have many friends and I had to pretend to fit in. I felt isolated and lonely. I had no idea why I felt this way until I read “The Body Keeps the Score” by Bessel van der Kolk, M.D.

• What is PTSD?

It was one of the first times I read about trauma bonding. All humans strive to bond to other people and usually do it with positive experiences, or being able to rely on the other person if there is a bad experience. Patrick Carnes, author of the book “The Betrayal Bond: Breaking Free of Exploitive Relationships,” developed the term trauma bond to describe “chains that link a victim to someone who is dangerous to them.” By alternating abusive behavior with loving behavior, the abuser creates a strong emotional attachment to the person they’re abusing. This alternating good and bad creates a relationship of fear and chaos and psychologically a stronger bond.

People often wonder why someone would stay with an abusive person. I think especially when it comes to children, it comes down to survival. Children are vulnerable and rely on adults to provide food, clothes and shelter. When an adult in power creates this trauma bond, kids shut down, become numb and think only of survival. To survive, we don’t do anything to make the abuser angry so they won’t leave us, and we’ll be (what we consider) safe. When we experience trauma, we emotionally shut ourselves off, become numb and don’t allow ourselves to do anything. To make sure we stay in the relationship and aren’t abandoned, we focus on how our abuser is good and not the bad things they’ve done to us.

I didn’t need my abuser to provide food or shelter, but I felt like he was a parental figure. I felt cut off from my family and the other adults in my life. They couldn’t understand what I was going through, so I was more alone and isolated. I never thought he did anything wrong. I always thought when he got angry that I did something wrong and deserved to be punished. When we were together I did anything I could to make him happy; I wanted him to be happy. When he was happy, it made me happy. It was a weird positive reinforcement and a terrible cycle I couldn’t get out of. I didn’t understand why I felt the way I did. I still don’t.

When my husband gets angry with my abuser, I get very angry with my husband and defend my abuser. I know he wasn’t a totally good guy, I know he did some stuff wrong, but I don’t think he was as bad as everyone else thinks. I also know the despair I felt when he was gone and the guilt I felt because I was relieved he was gone. I hated being brought to that room and the things I had to do. I hated him for bringing me, but I hated myself for those thoughts. But I still can’t think he’s a bad guy. He was kind to me in the beginning, and he always came to get me from the room. I felt like he saved me.

That bond, those feelings are still strong. Some believe that psychologically, the intermittent good and bad psychological abuse is the worst. If a person is consistently abusive, the abused person will be able to anticipate the abuse, and it doesn’t cause the same damage. When the abuse is inconsistent, we can’t anticipate when bad things will happen, and the damage is often more severe.

I don’t know how to weed through the trauma bond I have with abuser. I feel like the right answer is to say he was bad and abusive, but I can’t say that. Not yet. It’s a work in progress.

If you can relate, let Sarah know in the comments below:

Getty image by MangoStar_Studio

Originally published: October 24, 2019
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