traumatic bonding: shattering the fantasy, grieving
[TRIGGER WARNING FOR ABUSE]
One of the most difficult things you have to grapple with when trying to break free from a trauma bond is the realization that you may have attributed a “cosmic” quality to something that had very little substance other than raw attachment. This is a perfectly reasonable response since we need to believe that we suffered the abuse for a reason—in my case, “love” is what gave my endurance meaning. After coming to terms with the abuse I would sometimes ask myself, How was she able to convince me to adopt her worldview? But in traumatic bonding, the victim doesn’t have to be convinced. They’re eager to believe the fantasy because the fantasy is a way of coping with the abuse. After a while, I needed to believe the promises, even though she would never follow through on them, because I was so deep in it that shattering the fantasy would put my psyche at risk of unraveling. Identifying with her became an immediate form of survival.
Grieving is a very complicated process when you are trying to overcome a trauma bond—you have to grieve the loss of that person, you have to grieve the loss of yourself with that person, and you have to grieve the loss of that person without you (part of my continued loyalty was motivated by a feeling that all of the “progress” she made in our relationship would be lost if I didn’t maintain my loyalty). But perhaps the most difficult part of the process is grieving the stories, fantasies, promises, and social narratives that you clung to in order to make sense of situation…the utterly desperate hopes and dreams that you cultivated in the face of your suffering.
When you start to shatter the fantasies, the pain will be absolutely overwhelming. You will want to go back to the fantasies because it seems less painful than breaking free of them. In that moment, returning to the fantasy will alleviate the pain but it will just create more pain in the long run. As you deconstruct the stories and fantasies you will feel like a total idiot. You will doubt your intelligence. Your world will seem profoundly unstable because everything you thought to be true will no longer be true. You will feel like you cannot trust yourself or anyone around you. You will feel paranoid about being used by people. You will compulsively scan your memories trying to locate a “true” moment. You will use moments that seem like they could be examples of real “love” or ANYTHING real to confuse yourself and go back to the fantasy.
As you try to dismantle the trauma bond, LITERALLY EVERYTHING IN YOUR BODY will push against letting go. Your nervous system and psyche have been pushed passed their limits and have been reorganized in order to adjust to the abuse. You have been re-wired down to the biological—some even say cellular—level (physiologically, it is an actual chemical addiction because your body releases certain chemicals during moments of crisis). Over time, the coping strategies that you developed while experiencing trauma solidify.
In all vertebrate animals, fear and intensity increase attachment. You can imagine situations where this response would have a survival function—even before reading about trauma bonds I would always say that I felt “bound” to my family because of certain traumatic things that have happened to us, which ended up making us closer. This was necessary for our survival during tragic situations, such as when my older brother was going to prison. But when you are in an abusive relationship you become psychologically and physiologically addicted to the abuse—which is not to say that as survivors of abuse we are bringing the abuse upon ourselves, but that our systems are overloaded when we experience abuse and fear pushes us into a reactive state. Our bodies have to adjust to living in this state of fear in order to survive. As our reactions and coping mechanisms are codified over time, they have the paradoxical function of deepening the trauma bond. Abuse becomes normalized—we may even become so desensitized that the abusive behavior stops registering as abuse.
The most intense bonds are ones that involve intermittent abuse mixed with promises, hopes, kindness, and tenderness. The abuse creates the intensity; the tenderness allows the fantasy to flourish. Attachment is also intensified by the false feeling of intimacy that occurs when you are abused by someone you love—there is the “high” of the crisis, the euphoria of reconciliation, and the amnesia that follows. If the fantasy starts to unravel or wane, another crisis situation will occur to reinvigorate the fantasy, stories, and promises. After each cycle the trauma bond deepens.
Friends of survivors: understanding traumatic bonding
If you have not been traumatically bonded to someone, you cannot understand how desperately the abused person longs to be loved by the person abusing them. You may not be able to understand why a person who has been abused acts the way they act, why they would go to great lengths to protect their abuser and maintain their relationship with them. You may feel like the person who has been abused is “unreasonable” and you may offer your “rational” assessment of the relationship. But of course, many people who are stuck in abusive relationships have a perfectly “rational” view of what is taking place. The problem is that they cannot “reason” their way out of the relationship, even if they are perfectly clear about what is going on. People who are stuck in abusive relationships are often internally split, and these two sides of themselves do not communicate with each other. They can hold contradictory views in their body at the same time—they may know they are being abused while also maintaining a belief in the fantasy that keeps them attached to their abuser. But like I said earlier—the abused person’s attachment to their abuser is not unreasonable—it has its own internal logic, and this logic is incomprehensible to people who have not been traumatically bonded to someone. What looks to outsiders like an irrational attachment actually emerged from coping mechanisms that the abused person developed to survive the abuse.