by Karen Landmann, Licensed Clinical Social Worker, Professional Counselor in New York City
The 5 Painful Elements of an Abusive Traumatic Bond
When Home Becomes Prison
You are imprisoned in a decrepit foreign jail cell without cause. You are tortured unpredictably: sometimes more, sometimes less, sometimes early, sometimes late. Occasionally, the head torturer comes to you and says kind, supportive words. He brings you fresh, delicious food. It’s confusing. Is he your enemy or your friend?
You’re out now but you miss your torturer. Although he hurt you, he was good…sometimes.
Does this feel at all familiar? Are you experiencing similar sentiments in your own relationship? If so, you could be the victim of an Abusive Traumatic Bond (ATB).
The Cycle of the Abusive Traumatic Bond
Most abusive relationships follow a cycle, almost like a screenplay. Domestic violence (DV) affects mostly women. The advent of COVID-19 has drastically increased the number of DV incidents and has also heightened the intensity of all ATBs.
The cycle is enacted as follows:
- Honeymoon Period He is “Mr. Right.” He flatters her, compliments her, and wants a relationship quickly. She becomes profoundly attached. The Abusive Traumatic Bond (ATB) has been set in motion. The ATB is attractive for both parties but particularly inviting for the woman.
- Escalation Subtly and slowly, the violence begins to build. It may start with an argument in which he berates her. She says to herself: “It’s nothing. He didn’t really mean to hurt my feelings”. The violence continues unpredictably.
- Plateau Eventually, the abuse starts to level off. The victim feels more at ease. This situation can go on for quite some time.
- Climactic Event Suddenly, at one point during the plateau period. The built-up tension overflows and there is an eruption, frequently including a violent attack.
- Honeymoon Period Revisited Immediately or very soon after the critical incident, the abuser apologizes profusely, seducing the victim into a belief that he will never do it again. She does not leave, the cycle of violence continues, and the ATB is solidified.
- Abusive Traumatic Bonding is core in domestic violence relationships. It is little understood but very important. Many victims of domestic violence have had extensive trauma in childhood, including witnessing violence between her parents. Conversely, the abuser has often seen DV in his family.
How the Cycle Is Perpetuated
Their personal histories validate the violence between the victim and her abuser. Because they have both been through violence, albeit from different vantage points, they both fall easily into an ATB.
Inevitably, as each round of the cycle of violence, intensifies, the ATB strengthens.
Trapped in the unending cycle, the victim’s constraining ropes cannot be broken. The ATB is irretrievably ironclad. She is dead.
Breaking the Bond
Do you recognize the screams, the violence, and the fear in you or someone you know? IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE THIS WAY. There are several paths to freedom, and the victim can most certainly break free.
Resources such as The National Domestic Violence Support Hotline (1-800-799-SAFE-7233) can provide initial supportive resourcing as well as referrals to counseling and other services in the USA. There are shelters available for victims and their children. Other countries have similar support systems. A great many women have left abusive relationships. It can be done.
The road back to safety is usually a long and difficult one. Once the victim has left her partner, the excruciating process of severing the coveted ATB and mourning the abandoned partnership can begin. Due to these challenges, many women return to their abuser because the agony of their feelings is too much to bear. On average, it takes a woman nine attempts to leave an abusive relationship.
Two identities emerge: the past of the abuse and the survival of the now. Working through the present to gain distance from the past makes the coveted ATB less compelling. The pain begins to lift as she releases the shackles of her former entrancement. Interventions such as psychotherapy, EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), and support groups are usually necessary for recovery.
Neither the abuse nor the ATB are forever. The chains will break and the scars will fade.
If you or someone you care about may be experiencing emotional, physical, sexual, or other kinds of abuse, whether or not you would call it domestic violence, reach out for immediate help and support to the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 (TTY: 1-800-787-3224). They provide free confidential support at any time, day or night. You can also reach an advocate using their private chat services 7 a.m.–2 p.m. (CST) at www.thehotline.org.
For long-term help and healing, reach out to a therapist near you who specializes in working with abuse survivors.
© Copyright 2021 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Karen Landmann, Licensed Clinical Social Worker, Professional Counselor in New York City, New York