Monday, February 25, 2013

The Trauma Bond/Abusive Relationships

By Gary Reece, Ph.D.

Over my long career as a therapist, one of the most frequently encountered problems is the perplexing and vexing case of a client who is stuck in an abusive relationship.  Its most common feature is found in their own description of the problem.  “My friends all tell me I am crazy and that I should just dump him.  I know they are right, it makes no sense, he hurts and humiliates me and I keep coming back for more.  I know this is going to end badly.” And it frequently does, either violently and sometimes even death.

Much of human behavior is that way, we find ourselves in the grip of powerful emotional vortexes we don’t understand and feel powerless to change.   We act in ways we know are contrary to our best interests.  It seems on the surface to be a conflict between emotion and reason.  Romantics describe it as driven mad by love.  It has nothing to do with love.  But it is madness.

The key to this repetitive self-destructive behavior does not reside in our conscious minds because we often find ourselves doing things we know are really against our nature.  It is really dumb, but we feel driven to do it anyway.  Some compulsive behavior is harmless and even very functional.  I want my brain surgeon and pilot to be very compulsive.  And being compulsive got me through graduate school.  Not all compulsive behavior is destructive.  My children tease me because I have a drawer full of rubber bands,  a behavior learned from my mother who grew up in an age of scarcity, and I drive them crazy by always showing up 15 minutes early for appointments with them.  I know it makes no sense, but the whole point of this essay is to examine this form of compulsive behavior.  Behavior that makes no sense: the mystery of self destructive behavior.   The first thing I have learned in my career is that in order to understand behavior we musy understand its origins, it is always found in a person’s history.  I have found that once I know their history their behavior makes sense:  psychological sense.

The key to understanding behavior found in abusive relationships is to look at the very early years of childhood.  Relational trauma is at the root.  In order to comprehend the dynamics of abuse we must understand Attachment:  The bond established at birth and the critical first two years of the parent child relationship.  In these important activities of mutual interaction between parent and child the child is very dependent and vulnerable, needing the parent for safety and survival:  dependency on the parent is every child’s predicament.  This is the child’s dilemma,  secure attachment is successful if the parent is loving and attentive and interacts in ways to soothe and meet the child’s needs.  However, if the parent is threatening, instills fear, or is neglectful and abusive the outcome will be quite different, and will affect the child's developmental trajectory for years to come.  In this case the child is trapped, is in effect held hostage by a terrorist.  The dilemma is caused by the child’s needs for safety and security which are found in proximity-closeness with the parent who is dangerous; what is the child to do?  Closeness represents danger, withdrawal represents fear, abandonment--psychological death; the alternative is a problem without solution.  Beverly James calls this problem the Trauma Bond:

“The child trapped in an abusive environment is faced with a formidable task of adaptation.  She must find a way to preserve a sense of trust in people who are untrustworthy, safety in a situation that is unsafe, control in a situation that is terrifyingly unpredictable, and power in a situation of helplessness.  Unable to care for or parent herself, she must compensate for the failure of adult care and protection with the only means at her disposal; an immature system of defenses.  The abused child’s safety strategy is her focus on the wants, and emotional state of the abusive adult.  It is her best shot at maintaining safety for herself.”  (Handbook for Treatment of Attachment Trauma, pg. 35)

I had a client, a brilliant young, talented musician who came to see me because she was “going crazy because she was involved in a relationship with a man who was talented, charming, brilliant, and charismatic.  The only problem was that he enjoyed having relationships with multiple partners all at the same time.  Even more diabolically, he let them all know about each other.  The problem for Jane was that she wanted “to be the one.”  Here is the irrational component.  She knew this about him because he was notorious for his wild life style and “crazy womanizing.”  Yet she continued in spite of the pain, my advise, and the advise of friends.”  “What are you, nuts?”  The would all say.  “Dump him, you don’t deserve to be treated this way.”

She continued in the relationship, seeking various ways of coping with the roller coaster ride from euphoria to despair, depending upon the day.  She felt entirely out of control.  She was reeling from rage to panic attacks, and despair.  Her self-esteem was taking a terrific pounding. One very important  marker of  the Trauma Bond, is who regulates the emotions, and who is in control of the interactions.

In her own words, “It feels really bad, everything hurts, I’m riding these waves, I want to burn everything down.  Still, my instincts just want to take an axe to everything.  I know, of course, I have control over these things, and am not going to destroy anything.  But I am going to try to figure out where these things are coming from inside me  and embrace them, I feel nauseated, I don’t know what to do.  It is quite a roller coaster from high to low.  It feels like the whole world is stale and rancid.  Forgive my poetics here, but it feels as though it is old spilled blood, crusted around a dead body.  I know how dark that sounds.”

This all sounds familiar, doesn’t it.  This kind of drama was portrayed well in the movie, “Fatal Attraction.”  And we have seen it acted out and covered in the 6 o’clock news as the domestic violence of murder-suicide.

There are several features these kinds of relationships have in common.   The first is, they are deeply ambivalent, reflective of the Trauma Bond:  fear, dependency, need, fear of abandonment, despair, the realization of helplessness, and rage.  This is an amalgam of very powerful emotions which drive and make the relationship so unstable.  The ambivalence vacillates in the polarity between intimacy and separation. The emotional cost of being stuck in this dance of ambivalence is shame and humiliation. One eventually ends up hating both oneself and the partner.

The second feature of this kind of relationship is that it is a compulsive reenactment.  Most individuals have a long history of failed, abusive relationships that have the same painful outcome.  It is a kind of “Ground Hog’s Day“, a continuous loop of repeating the act over and over again.

Allan Schore, an attachment expert put it this way.  “A further complication of unresolved trauma is narrative reenactment of the trauma wherein the victim unconsciously recreates the original traumatic event over and over.”  The original trauma in Jane’s case occurred when she was two years old.  She vividly recalls hiding from her father in a closet  while he raged about tearing up the house and terrorizing the entire family; her mother and older brother.  Another memory, just as vivid was of her hiding under the piano behind the Christmas tree, alone and cowering in fear.

These memories are an accurate depiction of the formation of the Trauma Bond and in actuality is what makes these kinds of relationships so hard to terminate.  In fact I told Jane that she would never heal as long as she was in that relationship.  She terminated therapy rather than lose him.  That’s how powerful the Trauma Bond can be.  She chose the admittedly destructive relationship rather than the path of liberation and health.  Because she feared she could not survive being alone.  Again Beverly James accurately describes the power of the bond and what sustains it.

“There are two powerful sources of reinforcement of an abusive relationship:  The arousal jag or excitement before the violence and the peace of surrender afterwards.  Both of these responses placed at appropriate intervals, reinforce the Traumatic bond between victim and abuser.  In effect attachment is intensified in the face of danger.”

In this way, abusive relationships are as addictive as Cocaine.  And it has the same dynamics, if the user stops, she immediately begins to go into withdrawal, which leads to craving or longing and then fixing again---euphoria, then the rebound crash.  Abusive relationships are cyclical and very predictable.  Discovery, euphoria, build up of intimacy, then tension and ambivalence, angry break up, reunion and honeymoon.

Interestingly enough, the ambivalence fueling this destructive cycle is fear.  Fear of intimacy, and fear of aabandonment,  How odd and paradoxical.

The solution is just like recovery from any addiction.  The person must stop using.  In this case drop the relationship and then  withstand the fear, loneliness, and sense of abandonment and then do the work of therapy.  Which is to uncover the original trauma, feel the pain, recover the memories consciously,  integrate the conscious and unconscious aspects and grieve both the current loss and the loss of what never was: a loving relationship with her father.

As one is doing this kind of very deep work in therapy there is the reward of self-discovery, regained self-esteem, and control, and the empowerment of being self-determining.  The antidote to helplessness is empowerment and the growing reward of growing trust in our emerging strength.  And finally, one must learn what our parents did not teach us; how to lovingly heal ourselves, set boundaries, and be self-reliant.  This leads to respect for ourselves and the capability of having relationships based on love, respect and trust, not fear.  It takes courage to choose ourselves when it may mean losing a relationship we think we cannot live without.  In a very liberating and powerful act we are participating in our own psychological rebirth:  the creation of a new self.


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  2. Wow,your article as made me see myself and my live through a different perspective. Thank you for this wonderfully written article

  3. I keep coming back to this article, especially this line... "Discovery, euphoria, build up of intimacy, then tension and ambivalence, angry break up..."

    At first you feel like you have met your soul mate and feel deeply secure and grounded. Like you're "home", except home is the very last place you want to be!

  4. It didn't happend to me, it happend to my imaginary picture. :)

  5. My wife was so smooth at hiding her infidelity and I had no proof for months, I saw a recommendation about a Private investigator  and decided to give him a try.. the result was incredible because all my cheating wife’s text messages, whatsapp, facebook and even phone calls conversations was linked directly to my cellphone. ( Mr James helped me put a round-the-clock monitoring on her and I got concrete evidence and gave it to my lawyer..if your wife is an expert at hiding her cheating adventures contact him. thank you

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  7. I have known it was related to my childhood abuse, however, I've refused to get into therapy for years. I'm sober today over 39 years in AA, and began therapy about 5 years ago. It took me 3 years after learning I was with a Narcissist to even become willing to leave and another two years of serious emotional abuse to finally leave him. I never wanted to leave my mother and finally I did, as he was just like her. My brother and I have written our book about her, as our mother was a child serial killer. Even with this background of childhood abuse trauma, you can recover. I have and my brother has over 43 yrs of sobriety. There is a light at the end of the tunnel, as I have seen it. I have a saying "Get Angry, Get Even and Get Well"