Updated: Nov 22, 2018
Have you ever wondered why victims stay in abusive relationships?’
The answer is complex and the phenomenon which causes victims to become trapped not widely understood. It’s called ‘traumatic bonding’. In toxic and abusive relationships, the victim becomes weakened and loses perspective; instead of taking protective measures and walking away, they look to the abuser for the solution to their suffering. They may try endlessly to persuade the abuser to become once again the loving person they thought they had met, against clear evidence to the contrary, they persist in the irrational belief that things will turn out OK and the most tragic consequence is the loss of self regard and protection, sacrificed first to the desires, then to the dominance of another.
This is no temporary blip or aberration; often originating in past trauma, it is a deep seated and entrenched psychological process which can defy logic and cloud reasoning. The slightest indication that things may change can cause hope and expectation to re-surface and dangers which are all too clear to outsiders are rationalised away.
I know first-hand of the terrible imprisonment of traumatic bonding because it happened to me. I spent my days as a senior manager in the criminal justice field, where I was dealing daily with the impact of violence and abuse, and I knew well that most victims had suffered at the hands of a perpetrator who was in a relationship with them. Despite this knowledge and experience I lived in a relationship characterised by coercive control, threatening behaviour and incidents of violence. I was isolated and depressed, trying desperately to maintain an outward veneer of respectability whilst returning daily to a situation which many would have abandoned long before.
It’s hard to leave your home and everything you’ve worked for, and even harder to admit to the world that yet another of your relationships has failed; these things, combined with the habitual behaviour I had acquired from many years of trying to mend relationships which were beyond repair, ensured that I stayed for far too long, when all I really needed to do was walk through the door and ask for support. Even when I found the courage to break away I nearly didn’t make it due to distorted thinking which re-surfaced and caused me to think that I could return to my toxic relationship and it could all be put right.
When other people began to notice what was happening to me, I began to recognise that the person I used to be, the vibrant, passionate and principled person who knew what she believed in and wanted in life had disappeared. I started to grieve for this person, to realise that I had lost myself and sacrificed all that was important to me on the altar of a relationship that could never work. All my energy had been spent trying to regain what was only an illusion of happiness and security. Through the kindness of others, I was reminded of what healthy relationships felt like; at times the poignancy was too much to bear.
None of this came easily or rapidly; there is no quick fix or panacea. Enlightenment comes gradually, through self realisation and self love and there is no still point at which everything falls into place, there will always be challenges.
Thankfully, I’m now free and many years away from these experiences. I’m also in a happy and balanced relationship, though the road to recovery has been long and hard and at one point almost cost me my life. Writing my story proved a powerful therapeutic process; I‘m now a social work lecturer and could have written an academic book on trauma bonds, but I found that writing more freely allowed me to work through my thoughts, feelings and experiences. As I wrote, the pattern of my life emerged on the paper, and the miraculous events which set me free organised themselves into a story which seems to touch those who read it in a way that academic analysis never could. I found myself describing and processing deep emotions at the same time, subconsciously healing the patterns which had so blighted my life and reinforcing the things I had achieved.
Through sharing my story I have come to realise that there is much hidden abuse amongst people such as myself, who often feel a sense of failure and isolation, that they should be able to cope, and therefore ashamed to disclose their suffering and ask for help. By understanding the origin of their life patterns, remembering the self that was lost along the way and knowing what kind of relationships they deserve, survivors can make safer choices and find a happier life.
Kath Twigg is a social work lecturer, trainer, mentor and writer. She has written a book entitled ‘The Hall of Mirrors, How to Change Life Patterns and Avoid Toxic Relationships’, which is available in Kindle and paperback versions on Amazon. For more information visit Kath’s website: kathtwigg.co.uk
As featured on: