As someone who experiences complex trauma from child abuse, it’s frustrating when a friend, family member, or say, an entire political party, continues to stay with an abuser even when they know he’s toxic. But I understand it.
Trauma bonding, also known as Stockholm Syndrome, happens when the negative experience of abuse becomes so great, the brain switches tactics, attempting to “go along” with the abuser at any cost. Voilà, it doesn’t hurt as much any more. Trauma bonding often happens in long-term situations where there is no perceived escape, such as childhood abuse or when someone is held captive. Some victims of abuse are cowed into submission over repeated attacks, simply worn down to a point where they no longer can muster any resistance. It then seems easier to disappear into one’s self, or dissociate, rather than take any action to get away. Others become agreeable, cooperative, and can even fall in love with their abuser as a form of self-protection. When others try to help them, they may attack the helpers and protect the abusers.
As a child, I had no choice but to go along with the program. My father would rage, my mother would excuse, my father would ignore, my mother would ignore, my father would rage, my mother would excuse, and so on. All I knew at the time was that my needs weren’t being met, so I did what I could to meet them, either by myself, or by behaving as best as I could so that maybe they would see me. (They didn’t.) As a child, I didn’t understand that their lack of attention and/or negative attention was their fault, not mine. As a child, I felt guilty and responsible that I didn’t have warm feelings toward my parents like the kids in TV shows, so I pretended I did. I was loyal to my parents, in spite of the abuse, because I thought the problem was my character flaw, not theirs. After all, that’s what I was told. Add to the mix that I literally depended on them to survive, and I was stuck. In elementary school, I fantasized about running away. In middle school, I formed a more practical exit strategy: get good grades and go away to college as soon as possible. My childhood was centered on the theme of hanging in until I could find a way to escape.
Even today, although I understand what happened and the psychology behind it, it’s difficult for me to be “disloyal” by speaking up about the abuse. Any perception that they loved me or cared for me is false. That’s a hard truth to wrap my head around about my own parents. It’s no wonder my brain tricked me into believing they loved me, and therefore their actions were somehow justified. It’s a hard truth for others to grasp as well. I am offered platitudes such as, “They must have meant well,” which feels like a punch in the gut, because they didn’t. Others say things like this as a form of self-protection, as well. People don’t want to admit to themselves that other human beings could be so horrible.
Aside from the logistical challenges, the battered wife, the weary co-worker, the terrorized child, all have huge psychological challenges to overcome in order to leave. Some may be so far down the rabbit hole of trauma bonding that they can’t remember what it was like to be free. Some, like me, have to operate on instinct alone. There are a million reasons why it can be complicated to say no to abuse and walk away. It can mean cutting off everyone and everything you once knew, including your own thoughts, and forming an entirely different identity. It can come with great cost, and when someone is bonded to an abuser, it guarantees grief over the loss of a loved one, even if it is a one-sided love.
And yet, even one tiny step away from abuse and toward healing is absolutely worth it. Reclaiming one’s life, even at the risk of losing it, is the very thing that gives life meaning and purpose. If you are in a dangerous situation, be wise. Seek counsel, get support, do what you need to do to be safe when it is time to make the leap. And then do it.