Abuse. What does that word mean to you? After giving a presentation at a conference, in 2014, of parents and families who have lived through years of abuse, I recognized that not many people understood the full definition of abuse. Some families either minimized the term (made the term sound better than it should sound) or magnified the term (made it sound much worse than it is).
Minimizing or magnifying the term only perpetuates incorrect views of the term. Abuse often takes many forms. Did you know that abuse is one of the most traumatizing events that a child could experience? For many children, abuse is unexpected and their ability to cope is often disproportionate to the abuse.
Trauma is often defined as a terrible event that outweighs a child’s ability to cope (National Child Traumatic Stress Network, 2015). This inability to cope often leads to mental health challenges such as anxiety, depression, and even personality disorders such as borderline personality disorder, narcissism, or avoidant personality.
Even more, trauma can interfere with our ability to develop and maintain healthy relationships (work, marriage, friend, family) and appropriate social interactions. Trauma can also affect development throughout the lifespan and lead to a lifetime of emotional lability (“switchable” emotional states or moods). This article will briefly explore “Traumatic Bonding” and signs to look for that indicate traumatic bonding with an abuser.
Abuse is often defined in many ways but the best definition from my perspective is that of Pennsylvania’s definition which is :
“(A) Any recent act or failure to act by a perpetrator which causes non-accidental serious mental injury to or sexual abuse or exploitation of a child.
(B) An act or failure to act by a perpetrator which causes non-accidental serious physical injury to a child.
(C) A recent act or failure to act or series of the acts or failures to act by a perpetrator which creates an imminent risk of serious physical injury to or sexual abuse or exploitation of a child.
(D) Serous physical neglect by a perpetrator constituting prolonged or repeated lack of supervision or the failure to provide the essentials of life, including adequate medical care, which endangers a child’s life or development or impairs the child’s functioning.”
When working with families who have endured long-term abuse, I often encourage them to be aware of the types of relationships that can negatively affect them and create more trauma. It is the quality of a relationship that can make or break the traumatized individual. We must understand that while a part of the traumatized “victim” is resilient and sometimes very strong and determined, there is another part of the individual that requires a level of compassion, understanding, sensitivity, empathy, and comfort within other relationships. This is sometimes the only way a person can heal.
It is also important to understand that there are multiple factors that can positively and negatively contribute to the trauma and abuse the person has already experienced. These factors can either protect us from the trauma or plunge us deeper into it. Some of these factors include risk factors (things that make us more vulnerable to further trauma) and protective factors (things that make us more resilient to trauma):
- low socioeconomic status,
- substance abuse,
- poor mental health or emotional reactivity,
- financial difficulties,
- poor coping style,
- others reaction to the trauma,
- no support system
- lack of employment,
- being bullied or harassed,
- living in situations that increase one’s exposure to trauma,
- low self-esteem,
- lack of identity,
- domestic violence or abuse, and
- poor academic performance
Risk factors that are combined can trigger “complex trauma” such as a child who has witnessed their mother being physically abused by his/her father, is struggling with homelessness, low income, depression, anxiety, and substance abusing parents. These risk factors together can create a complex situation that may require months to years of therapeutic support. But the following protective factors can help build a layer of resilience:
- support system,
- financial stability,
- good emotional and psychological health,
- positive coping skills,
- connectedness with the community such as school, church, or youth/support groups
- social or familial connections,
- education or academic achievement,
- employment, and
- problem-solving skills
Despite all of these factors, the field of clinical psychotherapy continues to struggle with examining why some severely abused individuals, primarily those who were raised in an abusive household, have trouble disconnecting from the abuser, forgetting them, and moving on. Some abused children, teens, and even adults, as difficult as it is to believe, continue to desire the nurturing and accepting love of the abuser (especially if the abuser is a parent), even long after they have been removed from the abusive home environment or become an adult. This is why Amy Baker and Mel Schneiderman deftly explore the issue through the stories of survivors and through their own analyses of those stories. And it is an important subject to analyze.
In my own work, I have made more than 500 child-abuse reports, also called childline reports, to date and I will likely have more. In the United States, we collectively make a whopping 3 million of these reports each year, and our country is said to have the worst record among industrialized nations, according to childhelp.org. It is even more frightening when you consider that such a report is made every 10 seconds. The question now becomes: How can we understand what kinds of mental and emotional problems in adults can lead them to mistreat their children, and what can attachment theory help us parse the unhealthy connection that results from the abuse? In the book written by Baker and Schneiderman, Peter, one of the adults who recounts his story of physical abuse at the hands of his parents, realizes that the unbearable beatings from his father occurred only when his father was drunk. “With each lash of the belt,” Peter recalls, “my body swung and juddered as if I was a rag doll being flung about by a rabid dog.” And although it only happened after his father drank, Peter explains, “Violence of this kind seemed normal to me. It was what parents were for, what they did to you.”
This type of “bonding“, which they refer to as “traumatic bonding,” can happen when a young person experiences periods of positive experience alternating with episodes of abuse. By experiencing both positive and extreme negative from a parent, the authors explain, a child can become almost co-dependent. But, Baker and Schneiderman point out, although they compare this to a hostage situation, a child in these cases is different than an actual hostage, in the sense that the child has a pre-existing caregiving relationship with the abuser. So, although for many of us the idea a child bonding with that person may be impossible to fathom, the way that caregiving combines with violence makes separating oneself from the adult very difficult.
Individuals who have bonded to their abuser often exhibit certain emotional and behavioral signs that are important for us to recognize. Some of these behavioral and emotional signs include but are not limited to:
- Overidentifying with the abuser: Some individuals who have endured long-term abuse often find themselves harboring conflicting emotions. There are times when the abused individual may hate the abuser one minute and the next minute make statements or do things that makes the relationship appear better than it actually is. For example, a child who is being emotionally abused might make statements such as “I hate my uncle for what he has done to me,” and later make a different statement such as “Uncle Tim and I always joke around and go to the movies on Saturdays.” These two statements and the different wording often perplexes outsiders. Other abused individuals might make statements such as “Uncle Tim and I always dress alike because we enjoy it,” “Uncle Tim and I are very much alike because we like the same foods,” or “Uncle Tim and I cried when we watched Titanic together for the first time.”
- Feeling indebted to the abuser: Some abused individuals may develop a sense of gratitude for something that the abusive individual may have done for them. For example, if an adolescent female was once homeless and placed in multiple foster care homes but the abusive individual took them in and treated them well before the abuse, the abused individual may feel he or she owes the abuser something. I have been told by severely abused adolescents that the abuser “loved me or he would not have helped me.”
- Feeling that “he or she needs me”: Some abused individuals develop an emotional bond to the abuser that makes them feel they sometimes owe the abuser something. For example, individuals who have been sexually, emotionally, or physically abused may find themselves feeling sorry for the emotional or psychological challenges of the abuser and develop a sense of empathy or compassion for the abuser. This can lead to the abused individual feeling indebted to the person and dedicated to “helping them get better.” This kind of behavior can typically be found in romantic relationships in which the abused individuals becomes so emotionally protective over the abuser that they will endure the abuse in order to please the abuser.
- Explaining almost everything away: A very typical behavior of some abused individuals is to make excuses for the abuse. The abuser doesn’t hurt them because they are bad but because “I deserved it. I wasn’t nice that day” or because “he was jealous, I would be too.” This is often a telltale sign that the abused individual is bonding or bonded to the abuser.
- Protecting the abuser: Most of us would run away from someone who is abusing us. We don’t want to experience pain and we don’t want to feel the shame of being abused. But sometimes because the abuser is often mentally or emotionally disturbed and is the product of a dysfunctional environment, the abused individual can develop such a bond that they feel the need to protect the abuser. Sometimes the abused individual might stand up for the abuser and go against people who truly care. A teenage girl who has been dating her abusive boyfriend will most likely go against her mother when her mother attempts to highlight negative traits and behaviors in the boyfriend.
- Allowing the abuse to continue to “please” the abuser: Some individuals, primarily those who are being sexually abused and manipulated, will permit the abuse to continue to “keep problems down” or “please him/her.” The victim becomes so overwhelmed by a failure to protect or stand up for themselves that they give in. Or the individual is fearful of walking away and remains in the situation for however long they can. During my training as a clinician 8yrs ago, a child said to me “he wanted something good from me and I gave it to him because he deserved it. Dad always goes to work for us and is a hard worker.”
- Wearing multiple “hats”: Depending on how emotionally or psychologically unstable the abuser is, some abused individuals will play multiple roles in the life of the abuser. For example, a child who has been physically and verbally abused by a substance abusing parent with 5 other young children might begin to play the role of: “caregiver” to the younger children, “teacher” to the kids who struggle with homework, “surrogate parent,” “babysitter,” “therapist” to the abuser, etc. Playing multiple roles often results in lack of identity and feeling overwhelmed. Many children lose their childhood prematurely and end up developing into depressed, anxious, and suicidal adults.
- Covering negative emotions in the presence of the abuser: If you are sad and the abuser is happy, you cover your sadness. If you are happy and the abuser is depressed, you cover your elation. If you are feeling hopeless and suicidal but the abuser is walking around the house singing and playing music, you will most likely cover your emotions and go along to get along. Many of the abused and neglected children and adolescents that I have seen often fall into this category. One 17-year-old female, who was fearful to return to her emotionally abusive environment, reported to me during our final session “I was in the middle of crying about the loss of my friend but as soon as I heard Gram coming up the stairs singing, I wiped my tears and put on a smile. When do I ever get to feel what I want to feel?”
- Desiring love and affection despite being hurt: Most individuals who are the victims of abuse desire love and affection, sometimes only the love and affection of the abuser. It’s almost as if the person desires the love and affection of the abuser so much that they will do anything to achieve it. One previous client reported that she would kill herself if her boyfriend of 4yrs told her to do it. Think of suicide bombers. What is the motivation behind their suicide? The motivation is often religious dedication or to possibly be accepted by those who support the behaviors of suicide bombers.
What has been your experience with this topic? Have you experienced “traumatic bonding?” I think many of us do and are unaware of the emotional and psychological bonds that form with another person, even if they are uncaring and self-centered.
If you’d like to continue reading on this topic, check out my most recent peer book review for Amy Baker and Mel Schneiderman on Bonded to the abuser: How victims make sense of childhood abuse.
As always, I wish you well
Cafe Mo,. (2016). The stir. 10 signs you’re in a ‘traumatic bond’ with an abusive spouse. Retrieved online 3/2/2016, from http://thestir.cafemom.com/love_sex/162086/10_signs_youre_in_a.
Schneiderman, M, & Baker, A. (2015 ). Bonded to the abuser: How victims make sense of childhood abuse. Retrieved online on 3/1/2016 from, http://psychcentral.com/lib/bonded-to-the-abuser-how-victims-make-sense-of-childhood-abuse/.