Abusive relationships: A complicated kind of bond
Written by listed counsellor/psychotherapist: Jo Baker
16th November, 20170 Comments
American addiction specialist Patrick Carnes coined the term traumatic bonding to describe the strong attachment that develops between an abuser and a victim of abuse.
The terms victim and abuser are very imperfect, and I acknowledge that. I use them for readability, but please feel free to use your own terms: your experiences are your own to define.
When a healthy relationship ends, grieving is usually relatively straightforward (if not necessarily any less sad and painful).
However, when an abusive relationship ends, the grieving is often confusing and complicated - not only by trauma, but also by the blows to your self-esteem that you received throughout the relationship, the blame that you have usually internalised for any problems in the relationship and the social isolation that often develops as the result of the abuser’s controlling and possessive behaviour.
More than this, other people in your life might not understand why you are grieving, and may expect you to recover much faster than you are able to.
For example, a woman who sought counselling a number of years ago had experienced years of really horrendous physical and emotional abuse. After her relationship ended, she spent countless hours going over and over what was happening in his life, his new relationship, what he was thinking and what he said to her when they saw each other.
To those around her, this probably made no sense at all, as she continued to navigate every day around her ex-partner’s wants, desires, needs and wishes. But when she was in the relationship, she had needed to do this in order to survive, so she developed an intense focus on him that could not simply cease to be simply because the relationship had ended.
For recovery to happen, she needed to place herself back in the centre of her life and rediscover all the things that made her uniquely ‘her’, the things that she liked to do, the music that she liked to listen to. It had all been lost because he had (totally understandably) become the centre of her world.
Abusive relationships are also not generally‘all bad’ (although some absolutely are); there are often good bits, and these bits can be really lovely. It’s very normal to have positive and loving feelings for someone in these circumstances. It’s just that these good bits never occur without the dark underbelly of abuse.
It can be further complicated by the cyclical nature of abuse; the abuser is very often kind, remorseful and extra loving after an incident. He may say sorry and offer comfort, and when we receive comfort from anyone, we tend to feel kindly towards them and it tends to build a sort of closeness.
This cannot help but manifest in a conflicted and complicated attachment to that person, one where we both fear (or hate) and love the same person. We may love them in one moment, and hate them the next.
This can make it incredibly difficult not only to leave but also to grieve once we have left.
The highs and lows of abusive relationships can feel almost addictive in their intensity, and if you are struggling either in or out of this kind of relationship, it may be that you need a skilled and trained professional to support you. There are plenty of free and low cost services around the country that can provide support if you are not able to afford private therapy.
Note: I speak from the perspective of intimate partner abuse and have used the example of a heterosexual relationship, but obviously abuse can happen between all gender combinations and in many other types of relationships, including friendships and family relationships.
About the author
An experienced UPCA registered psychotherapeutic counsellor, Jo specialises in individual therapy for women. She works partly from her private practice in Lewes, East Sussex and partly with survivors of domestic and sexual violence for a charity in London.
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