Power, abuse, and breaking free

Here’s the latest in our series of posts on topics you’ve asked for. This one is from an Instagram follower, and it’s about trauma bonding and how to break those ties. We’re the ones to talk about this, because it’s all about the places power dynamics can take us, and we’ve literally written the book on that: Why Couples Fight.


What IS trauma bonding? It’s actually something all too common. Here’s a textbook example. A nice woman marries a nice guy who’s very nice to her. She’s so happy. Suddenly he’s really not nice to her. Abusive in fact. And this blows her mind, destroys her world. It makes no sense!


Then he’s wildly apologetic and super nice. He had no idea what came over him, but it will never, never, never, ever happen again. She’s still in shock, but she so, so wants it to be true, and she hangs in there. And she’s re-enforced for hanging in there, because he continues to be nice.


Until one day he does something terrible again. Lots of women just walk out at this point. But, hey, the guy’s so sorry and buys her such nice gifts and makes such wonderful promises...many women stay.


Why? This is where trauma bonding comes in. There are a number of surprisingly powerful psychological forces that can come into play. Most apply in most situations, some more than others. Here are just three of the most common of these forces.


There are power imbalances, for one thing. Of all kinds. Verbal power to convince and sweet talk. Financial power to build a gilded cage. Brutal power to threaten and control. These kinds of power certainly create hard-to-break-out-of bonds.


Then there’s the little talked about principle of intermittent re-enforcement. It’s what keeps losers playing at the slots machines. They lose and lose and lose, but every once in a while they win, and an occasional win is psychologically addictive. “Things are bad but sometimes they’re good, and I keep feeling I’m so close to figuring out how to make the good things happen more often and to stop the bad things from happening.” That’s what keeps gamblers and trauma victims bonded to their abusers.


Finally, there’s the often-misunderstood cognitive dissonance. This is not having two conflicting ideas in your head at the same time. No. Instead, it’s when you believe one thing—“My guy is a good guy”—and experience a very different reality—“He treats me like shit.” When reality contradicts people’s beliefs, they find ways to shore up those beliefs, as a way of making the reality seem less contradictory. “He’s a good guy, and if he treats me like shit it’s because he was abused as a child and I do things to hurt him now sometimes, which makes me a kind of abuser, so it’s only the child in him that’s lashing out at me. The real guy I married would never want to hurt me.”


So, in the face of these power forces keeping an abused person in a relationship with his or her abuser—that’s the trauma bond—how does that person break free?


Well, how have actual people broken free in the past? Because every day people DO break free.


First of all, here of all places we must never blame the victim. Unless you yourself have been there, you can have no idea of how hard it can be to break the trauma bond. That’s what the people who have broken free will tell you themselves.


But here are the ingredients that add up to what’s needed to break free from the trauma bond. The more of these ingredients you have, the sooner you’ll be able to break free.


  • You need to believe that what you’re living with is not right.

  • You need to accept that there’s nothing you can do to turn your abuser around

  • You need to understand that you don’t deserve to be on the receiving end of this crap, no matter what the other person has told you.

  • You need to see that you will be alright once you’re outside of this relationship. Maybe worse off in some ways, but better off in most of the ways that count.

  • You need just one person to support you. More is better, but one is enough. Just one person to help you plan and gather resources. One person to help you plan your escape and find shelter. One person to keep telling you you’re doing the right thing.

  • You need a plan. It may be simple or elaborate. It may take just hours or many months to work out. But until your plan is in place, you act as if everything is normal. You do not owe your abuser anything, certainly not a warning of your escape or an explanation of why you’re doing it.

  • You need money. Yeah, I know. Easier said than done! Well, do the best you can. If you can bide your time and that’ll give you more money for your escape, then it may be worth it.

  • If you have young children, you need a lawyer. You’re probably not going to want to leave your kids behind. The good news is that there are all kinds free or low-cost legal resources for women and men in your situation, as well as social agencies to guide you.

  • You need commitment. That means a kind of pact with your support person. “I promise you I’m going to do this.” “And I promise you I’ll be there for you.”


I know: it’s overwhelming. It may seem impossible. But the trauma bond, and the misery it causes, just gets worse over time. The best time to make your commitment to breaking free and start making your plan is now.


Talk to someone today about getting the wheels in motion.

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