Anthony J. Iantosca, BCFE
Part Two (2)
Why do people stay in abusive relationships? The answers are complex. One
of the reasons is what is called (Traumatic Bonding). What is trauma bonding.
This behavior pattern is when the abuser becomes the rescuer and the rescuer
becomes the abuser. Called (intermittent reinforcement).
This behavior pattern is very insidious and has the abused longing for the
highs and fearing the lows. Both of these strong emotions release dopamine in
the brain. This neurotransmitter is very addictive to the cells it docks onto.
It is responsible for learning, memory, and wanting you to crave things more,
the addiction. This addiction can be a chemical addiction (to a drug) or
behavioral addiction (to a behavior).
You must remember the cells in the brain do not look at a peptide as being
a positive peptide or a negative peptide. The cells get hooked on the intensity
of the peptide.
Example: If a person is addicted to gambling and it is causing them to
lose vast amounts of money which is bad for the person, this is not a positive
behavior pattern. It has far reaching consequences for the gambler and his
family. For the gambler just thinking about the slot machine can release
dopamine in the brain and cause the gambler to crave the very behavior that is
causing him/her the serious issues this behavior has on their life.
Bonding is a biological and emotional process that makes people more
important to each other over time. Unlike love, trust, or attraction, bonding is
not something that can be lost. It is cumulative and only gets greater, never
smaller. Bonding grows with spending time together, living together, eating
together, making love together, having children together, and being together
during stress or difficulty. Bad times bond people as strongly as good times,
perhaps more so.
Bonding is in part why it is harder to leave an abusive relationship the
longer it continues. Bonding makes it hard to enforce boundaries, because it is
much harder to keep away from people to whom we have bonded. In leaving a long
relationship, it is not always useful to judge the correctness of the decision
by how hard it is, because it will always be hard.
Traumatic bonding is "strong emotional ties that develop between two
persons where one person intermittently harasses, beats, threatens, abuses, or
intimidates the other." (Dutton & Painter, 1981). Several conditions have
been identified that must be present for a traumatic bond to occur.
There must be an imbalance of power, with one person more in control of key
aspects of the relationship, such as setting themselves up as the "authority"
through such things as controlling the finances, or making most of the
relationship decisions, or using threats and intimidations, so the relationship
has become lopsided.
(2). The abusive behavior is sporadic in nature. It
is characterized by (intermittent reinforcement), which means there is the
alternating of highly intense positives (such as intense kindness or affection)
and the negatives of the abusive behavior.
(3). The victim engages in
denial of the abuse for emotional self- protection. In severe abuse (this can be
psychological or physical), one form of psychological protection strategy is
dissociation, where the victim experiences the abuse as if it is not happening
to them, but as if they are outside their body watching the scene unfold (like
watching a movie). Dissociative states allow the victim to compartmentalize the
abusive aspects of the relationship in order to focus on the positive
The use of denial and distancing oneself from the abuse are
forms of what is called (cognitive dissonance). In abusive relationships this
means that what is happening to the victim is so horrible, so far removed from
their thoughts and expectations of the world, that it is (dissonant) or "out of
tune" or "at odds" with their pre-existing expectations and reality. Since the
victim feels powerless to change the situation, they rely on emotional
strategies to try to make it less dissonant, to try to somehow make it fit. To
cope with the contradicting behaviors of the abuser, and to survive the abuse,
the person literally has to change how they perceive reality. Studies also show
a person is more loyal and committed to a person or situation that is difficult,
uncomfortable, or even humiliating, and the more the victim has invested in the
relationship, the more they need to justify their position. Cognitive dissonance
is a powerful (self-preservation) mechanism which can completely distort and
override the truth, with the victim developing a tolerance for the abuse and
(normalizing) the abusers behavior, despite evidence to the
(4). The victim masks that the abuse is happening, may not have
admitted it to anyone, not even themselves.
Trauma bonding makes it
easier for a victim to survive within the relationship, but it severely
undermines the victims self-structures, undermining their ability to accurately
evaluate danger, and impairs their ability to perceive of alternatives to the
Once a trauma bond is established it becomes extremely
difficult for the victim to break free of the relationship. The way humans
respond to trauma is thought to have a biological basis and reactions to trauma
was first described a century ago, with the term (railroad spine) being used.
Another term used has been (shell shocked).
Victims overwhelmed with
terror suffer from an overload of their system, and to be able to function they
must distort reality. They often shut down emotionally, and sometimes later
describe themselves as having felt (robotic) intellectually knowing what
happened, but feeling frozen or numb and unable to take action. A victim must
feel safe and out of (survival mode) before they will be able to make cognitive
Many victims feel the compulsion to tell and retell the events
of the trauma in an attempt to come to terms with what happened to them and to
try to integrate it, reaching out to others for contact, safety, and stability.
Other victims react in an opposite manner, withdrawing into a shell of
self-imposed isolation. The trauma bond can persist even after the victim leaves
the relationship, with it sometimes taking months, or even years, for them to
completely break the bond.