When abusive relationships end: a complex grief

Addiction specialist Patrick Carnes coined the term the ‘Betrayal Bond’ to describe the intense, trauma bond that often develops between an abuser and their victim.

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 an abusive relationship is ending, the grief can be intense and all-consuming. You may feel a strong pull to return, despite being sure that the relationship is bad for you. You may go back and forth, either internally – in your mind – or externally, by returning (and leaving) again and again.

An intense attachment

It is theorised that this intensity is in part due to the co-existence of fear and love in the same relationship; it creates an intense, almost addictive attachment. We are especially vulnerable if we have experienced this type of relationship before, particularly if we were children at the time. The fear that I talk about is not necessarily just a response to physical or sexual abuse, it can also be a response to emotional abuse too.

The pattern of abuse is cyclical; the abuser is very often kind, remorseful and extra loving after an incident. They may say sorry and offer comfort, and when we receive comfort from anyone, we tend to feel close to them. And yet, this is the person who has hurt us in the first place, and will almost certainly hurt us again.

This can make it incredibly confusing to know what to do; we may almost split the abuser into two people in our minds, or discount the abusive part of them as ‘not the real them’ in order to maintain a sense of mental stability.

In reality, they can be both; both kind and cruel, with both being real and present in the same person. In other relationships, the kindness is the ‘not real’ bit; kindness can itself be a useful tool to manipulate.

Complicated grief

Not only do you have the complex and contradictory feelings that often accompany the ‘ordinary’ grief of losing a loved one, but you are also likely recovering the self that you had to bury in order to survive.

Abusive relationships require us to swallow our anger, hide our feelings; they can be mind-bending and crazy-making. We can end up losing access to our feelings, our voice, our likes and dislikes, our values, what make us ‘us’. We are either shamed out of it, or we have to hide it in order to survive (or both).

Your grief may also be complicated by trauma, the blows to your self-esteem from repeated criticisms, 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.

Moreover, your recovery might be complicated by addictions or eating disorders that you might have developed to cope, or post-traumatic stress. Or any distress may exacerbated by the practical difficulties that so often co-occur; you may be financially dependent on the abuser, or unable to work because of the emotional, psychological or physical effects of trauma and abuse.

Grieving the good bits

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, and it’s also very normal to feel loss and sadness when we lose someone that we love – even if there are bits of them that we hate or fear, or that may actually even be dangerous.

This can be the hardest bit for those around you to understand, they may not be able to tolerate hearing what you miss about someone that has hurt you so badly, and they may have their own feelings – often anger, protectiveness and sadness – about what you have been through. This can leave you feeling isolated, and can be where getting professional help can be particularly valuable.

Moving on and moving through

Hopefully understanding a little about the theory of the trauma bond will help; people can often feel as though they are ‘mad’ or ‘weak’ for staying in a relationship like this, or going back over and over again. It’s actually a very normal response to a very difficult and confusing set of relationship dynamics.

Self-knowledge, allowing yourself to grieve the good, dealing with the trauma, building / rebuilding your life and self-esteem, and allowing yourself to take centre stage in your own life will all help in the process of recovery. As will understanding the dynamics and tactics of abuse, your own internal processes, and the triggers and the vulnerabilities that allowed you to become entangled in a relationship like this, or unable to extricate yourself.

If you do find yourself struggling, or just want a little space and time to unpick your experienced, finding a skilled and trained professional to support you may really help. There are plenty of free and low cost services around the country if you are not able to afford private therapy.

If you feel that you are in danger, please do seek specialist help. You can call the National Domestic Violence Helpline on 0808 2000 247 and they will be able to point you to services local to you.

Note: I speak from the perspective of intimate partner abuse, but obviously abuse and trauma bonding can happen in many other types of relationships, including friendships and family relationships.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Lewes, East Sussex, BN7 2LE
Written by Jo Baker, Integrative Counselling BSc
Lewes, East Sussex, BN7 2LE

Experienced UPCA registered psychotherapeutic counsellor, Jo specialises in individual therapy for women. She has worked with survivors of domestic and sexual violence for a number of years.

She works from her private practice in East Sussex, and has just started writing about self-care, self-compassion and healing at www.aspacetoreflect.com/blog/

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