Traumatic bonding is an old term. Sadly, it is “new” for a lot of people because it isn’t spoken about as often as it should be.
That’s a problem.
Yesterday I began the discussion of traumatic bonding. I discussed what it is and some of the things that influence and perpetuate it.
In today’s discussion, I will look at the common signs of being emotionally and psychologically bonded to the abuser.
As discussed in yesterday’s article, there are factors in life that can impact or influence the totality of the trauma experienced on the child or individual. These influences are known as risk and protective factors. Risk factors are those things that make us more vulnerable to negative influences such as substance abusing parents, poor grades and attendance in school, difficulty learning, and lack of interest in building a social relationship. Protective factors make us less susceptible to the negative influence of trauma such as higher income, access to better schools, family cohesiveness, etc. Without these things, recovery and resilience will be difficult.
Sadly, the field of clinical psychology 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 from a parent). 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.
The question now becomes: How do we understand what kinds of parents (or adults) and mental and emotional problems lead to the mistreating a child?
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.
Signs of traumatic bonding
Individuals who have bonded to their abuser often exhibit certain emotional and behavioural signs that are important for us to recognize. Some of these behavioural and emotional signs include but are not limited to:
- Overidentifying with the abuser: Some individuals who have endured long-term abuse often find themselves harbouring 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 make 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 behaviour can typically be found in romantic relationships in which the abused individuals become 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 behaviour 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 behaviours 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 behaviours of suicide bombers.