We’d had the conversation one thousand times before, and I’d told my best friend I would really leave my abuser this time. The words rang hollow though, as she gave me the sad look I knew only too well. Even as I tried and tried to leave him, each time saying it was really over this time, we both knew the bonds were too tight.
For people experiencing abusive relationships, often a big part of why leaving feels impossible is because of something psychologists call ‘trauma bonding’. Although as a society we see bonding as something warm, fuzzy and positive, this type of bond is anything but. Unlike other types of bonding, trauma bonding can occur when there is physical, psychological, emotional or sexual abuse between abuser and victim.
Leaving - and breaking the trauma bond - is a confusing process, not a simple act you perform once.
Human beings are hardwired to survive and as such, trauma bonds - something often compared to and used interchangeably with Stockholm syndrome - start to take shape when someone receives intermittent reinforcement. A good example of intermittent reinforcement in a romantic relationship is when you reach out for support and sometimes your partner offers you support, other times not. Often when you ask why you’re not receiving the support you need, you’re lied to or told in some way that you’re not deserving of that support or that the support is conditional or has strings attached.
These trauma bonds can’t form in a healthy relationship with its absence of abuse. The abuse itself is actually the thing that forms those trauma bonds in the first place making it feel impossible to leave. Because of the nature of the cycle of abuse—the tension-building stage, the incident, reconciliation and honeymoon phase—there are profound impacts on our bodies and brains. During the incident of abuse, stress hormone cortisol can be activated in the body. Although cortisol is an important hormone for humans, having large amounts of cortisol in your system has long-term negative health impacts. Long-term impacts are higher risk of insulin resistance, type-two diabetes and cardiac arrest, among others.
Even as I knew I was doing the right thing, I had painful and empty feelings as I broke the trauma bond.
While cortisol and its consequences are dire, it’s important to note that it’s not the only hormone working against abuse victims. During the reconciliation and honeymoon phases, dopamine has a role in making the abuse victim seek comfort at the hands of their abuser. This hormonal roller coaster is addictive to the abuse victim.
The trauma bond means often the abuse victim does not see themselves as a victim or anything particularly wrong with their relationship. Even when they do try to leave, find that when they get away from their abuser, they will miss their abuser due to the trauma bond. This was my problem. I left, but I couldn’t stay away. Abusers seem to be able to sense vulnerability and often reel their victim back in with empty promises that they will change or that things will be better, only for the abuse to continue.
Victims need distance from abusers to realise the impacts of the abuse and to have the space to work through their feelings and reach out to a support network. Forming healthy connections will break the trauma bond.
When he would harass me on social media my heart would sing when I would see his name (dopamine), then the feelings of dread would sink in.
It took a trip to the emergency room for me to come face-to-face with just how bad my abuser was, and that he would never change. But, even with that incident, trauma bonding made my leaving him for good feel impossible.
Leaving - and breaking the trauma bond - is a process, not a simple act you perform once. Even as I knew I was doing the right thing after the emergency room visit, I also had painful and empty feelings as I broke the trauma bond. When he would harass me on social media and via the phone my heart would sing when I would see his name (dopamine), then the feelings of dread at being stalked by this predator would sink in. A deeply confusing time I would never wish on anyone, but something I had to go through in order to leave.
I am one of the lucky ones. Because of the support of my family, friends and community, I could leave. That isn’t to say that it was easy, it was still one of the hardest things I have ever done. But I could do it, and so can others. It’s within our power to leave, to save ourselves from these awful dynamics, even when we feel hopeless and empty. Knowing we’re not alone, and that support is out there is the most important first step to getting out.
If you or someone you know is experiencing family violence or sexual assault phone 1800RESPECT or visit 1800respect.org.au. For counselling, advice and support for men who have anger, relationship or parenting issues, call the Men’s Referral Service on 1300 766 491 or visit ntv.org.au.
See What You Made Me Do premieres 8:30pm Wednesday 5 May on SBS and SBS On Demand. The three-part series continues weekly, and every episode will be simulcast on NITV. (Episodes will be repeated at 9.30pm Sundays on SBS VICELAND from 9 May).