Why it’s difficult to leave a toxic relationship? Learn about trauma bonding (I)

What is trauma bonding?

Trauma bonding describes a form of attachment that develops between a person who is abused and their abuser.

Stockholm Syndrome is an example of a trauma bonding. It refers to a set of attitudinal and behavioral responses that occur when a person is held captive, such as in cases of kidnapping or hostage-taking, and begins to develop positive feelings towards their aggressor, believing that escape is impossible and living isolated from the rest of the world.

Trauma bonding can also happen between a child and an abusive parent or caregiver, between members of a cult and their leader, in situations like human trafficking, incest, as well as between romantic partners where there is emotional, sexual, or physical abuse. In this case, the abused person ends up justifying the mistreatment they endure and defending the partner who, after a series of abusive acts, reassures them with statements like "I promise I won't do it again," "I'll change," "I did this because I love you," etc., and showers them with grand gestures, affection, and attention, only to abuse them again later.

It's a relationship characterized by unhealthy patterns of relating and traumatic cycles: emotional/physical/sexual abuse followed by intermittent reinforcement. The victim remains attached, through these rewards, to the very source of their pain, as the hand that strikes is the same hand that caresses or, in other words, "you hurt me, and only you can soothe my pain."

What does intermittent reinforcement mean in a relationship?

Initially, the partner gives you what you want – affection, validation, tenderness, attention, intimacy, etc. After a while, you start receiving these things sporadically and unpredictably. You don't know exactly when, but you know you will receive them. Later on, they hardly give you anything, but you still wait for the "reward." You've become accustomed to being emotionally deprived for long periods, but you hope that, like before, you'll receive those "acts of kindness" from them. You cling to the memory of some beautiful times and hope they will happen again.

How is a trauma bond formed?

In general terms, the aggressor creates a positive relationship with the victim. After the abuse begins, the aggressor exhibits positive behaviors towards the victim. The victim becomes confused and believes that the true face of the aggressor is the "good" one – that version that was friendly, kind, or gentle with them. This cycle continues – after periods of abuse, there are periods of peace and "kindness." The victim feels overwhelmed by various emotions, becomes increasingly confused, and feels more and more captive in that relationship.

This sense of captivity arises from the person feeling powerless and believing they have no solution, from the fear of losing the relationship – the loss of the relationship seems much harder to endure than the suffering caused by being in that abusive relationship, which is irrational and false, and from emotional dependence on the abusive partner.

The way we interact in a relationship can affect our brain chemistry and contribute to the development of emotional dependence. Cortisol and dopamine are two neurotransmitters involved in regulating stress and pleasure in the brain.

Cortisol is often associated with the body’s stress response. In an abusive relationship, cortisol levels can increase, contributing to feelings of stress and anxiety. On the other hand, dopamine is associated with reward and pleasure. In a relationship where there is alternation between abuse and what is claimed to be "love" or between devaluation and idealization, this oscillation can create emotional dependence.

The constant cycle of waiting for and obtaining rewards (moments of pleasure or peace) can lead to an increase in emotional dependence. This dynamic can captivate you, even if you understand, rationally, that the relationship is unhealthy or toxic.

Another aspect that can help us better understand trauma bonding refers to the notion of cognitive dissonance. If you started a relationship with someone in a beautiful manner, formed a positive opinion about them, received what you needed, and experienced wonderful feelings with them, it is very difficult for you to comprehend or accept that the same person is capable of treating you increasingly poorly, abusing you, being cruel, or indifferent.

A cognitive dissonance is forming in your mind, causing discomfort. That is, two beliefs or ideas conflict (he/she loves me, but abuses me?!). Love and abuse clash, so to reduce the tension caused by this intrapsychic conflict, it is necessary to modify one of the ideas – "he/she doesn't abuse me, it was just a slip," "this is not abuse, he/she is just tired/nervous/I provoked him/her/ I need to understand them because he/she had a difficult childhood/ all couples face conflicting situations." Thus, by finding excuses and justifications, by denying reality or minimizing the problem, you manage to free yourself from your mental discomfort and continue the relationship.

Initially, there is an idealization stage and a honeymoon stage – your partner showers you with affection, attention, care, compliments, he/she is willing to do everything for you, and satisfies any need you have to make you dependent on them. They rush things and start future faking, telling you exactly what you want to hear and making promises they won't keep. They are understanding, loving, and you can even perceive them as a savior. The daily message you receive is something like: "look at all I can offer you, and only I can, and how much I love you, and only I do, like no one else ever will."

The positive relationship is established. You begin to trust them and their intentions, you feel safe, and you are very excited and delighted with what is happening – your partner continues to prove they have good intentions and presents themselves positively, convincing you that they would never be capable of harming you. If certain doubts arise, as is natural when you don't know someone well, your partner feels offended and makes you feel guilty for daring to doubt them.

Gradually, abuse, devaluation, and disrespect begin. You are criticized, even for not showing enough gratitude for everything you've been given so far (hence the initial stage of the relationship when you are showered with affection, gifts, and attention, with everything you've missed the most, is the ideal ground for you to start becoming dependent on your partner and everything they have to offer).

You are constantly blamed while your partner plays the victim. They already know your vulnerabilities and know how to push your buttons to get what they want. If you disagree with them or refuse to do what they want, they manipulate and emotionally blackmail you so that you feel guilty and give in. They also lie to your face and try to mislead you, aiming to make you lose trust in your ability to perceive reality as it is. In fact, they try to turn things in their favor so that you seem the irrational or "crazy" one.

If you lose your confidence and believe that you are always the one at fault, you won't have the courage to resist the abuse, and you won't even perceive it as abuse. If you doubt yourself and your way of thinking, you will turn to your partner for validation and confirmation. In fact, you become much easier to control this way, especially if you have isolated yourself from the rest of the world, and your partner has become your only support.

Even if you try to solve the problems, you feel that every time you face the same thing: reproaches, blame, anger, as if no matter how much you try, a true understanding can never be reached. In fact, there are repetitive arguments on the same subjects because the issues are never truly solved. You end up resigning yourself, feeling that you no longer have the strength to fight some battles from which you come out more insecure and wounded each time. You become confused and eventually give in. It seems easier to conform and submit to your partner, even if that's not what you want, than to endure another conflict.

After a series of abuses, your partner "changes" again and becomes the affectionate, understanding, kind, tender, and generous person they were at the beginning. In reality, there is no genuine change; they simply offer you those crumbs of kindness to keep the illusion that it's worth staying in that relationship. When you receive the "emotional sustenance" you so desperately need, especially since you don't know when you will receive it, the pleasure felt in those moments further strengthens your dependence. You cling to those small gestures of kindness and delude yourself that your partner will never behave badly towards you again, even if the evidence suggests otherwise.

This dynamic is often met in relationships with narcissistic individuals, but not only in those cases. Many times, people confuse love with a trauma bond. But what are the differences, and what can help you free yourself from a toxic relationship based on a trauma bond rather than love? We will discuss all of these in the second part of this article, so stay tuned!

Dr. Ursula Sandner


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