Yaqeen Sikander is a Kashmiri psychologist and therapist, based in Germany.He specialises in mental health issues. This article is written by Yaqeen Sikander, and is published in conjuction with International Mental Health Day, which was held on the 10th October, 2019 to promote mental health awareness.
As a Kashmiri Psychologist living in Europe, I am often reached by youth through social media for counseling. Surprisingly, most of these queries are related to failed relationships and in my experience, women are the worst victims. Unfortunately, in our society talking openly about failed relationships is looked down upon. So this repression leads to further mental torment.
In fact, reports also suggest that failed relationships are a leading cause of attempting suicide in Kashmir. A lot of these relationship cases that I have followed are based on ‘trauma bonding’ which I am sure most of us haven’t heard of it, even though we might have lived it. That’s why as a mental health advocate, I thought to write about it so that we know more about this issue and help ourselves and our beloved ones to break any such bond in order to prosper and be happier.
Trauma Bonding – What does it mean?
A trauma bond is generally formed through intense emotional experiences with a toxic person or an abuser. It is a phenomenon wherein a victim, mostly a female, finds it hard to walk-off from the relationship despite of the abuse and exploitation. It occurs generally in relationships with addicts and alcoholics or in domestic violence situations. Other types of relationships involving trauma bonds include cult-like religious organizations, kidnapping and hostage situations, those involving child abuse or incest, and unhealthy work environments.
It is a kind of ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ in which the victim feels tied emotionally like a ‘hostage’ to the manipulator through physical, psychological or emotional abuse. Dr. Patrick Carnes calls these types of destructive attachments as “betrayal bonds” based on a forged relationship and can occur in romantic relationships, friendships, within the family, and the workplace. In his book, Betrayal Bonds, he mentions a number of signs that a person is involved in an unhealthy bond with a partner or other significant person. So, if you’re wondering maybe you have a traumatic bond with your partner; make sure you read the following traumatic bond symptoms:
- Obsessing about people who have hurt you, though they are long gone.
- Continuing to seek contact with people whom you know will cause you further pain.
- Going “overboard” to help people who have been destructive to you.
- Continuing to be a “team member” when obviously things are becoming destructive.
- Continuing attempts to get people to like you, though they are clearly using you.
- Trusting people again and again who have proven to be unreliable.
- Being unable to retreat from unhealthy relationships.
Why do we develop trauma bonds?
To begin with, trauma bonding is not very uncommon. It is quite rampant in abusive relationships. So, you’re not alone. But remember as Helen Keller said, “All the world is full of suffering. It is also full of overcoming.” If you can develop a trauma bond, you can also certainly overcome it. We are stronger and more capable than we sometimes think of ourselves.
One might often question why the victims of abuse willingly remain in such relationships and the basic evolutionary answer would be survival. Our fear of abandonment is high. Traumatic experiences make us shut our emotions. We become numb to take any action and we internalize our condition based on ‘learned helplessness’ or simply, we start believing that it cannot get any better. This, in turn, makes the victim focus on the positive attributes of their abuser to continue surviving. Such bonds are further strengthened by the abusers through making false promises and manipulations like expressions of love, gifts, or kindness that makes it even harder for the victim to break free.
What keeps the abuse perpetuating is the idea of ‘hope’ or ‘promise’ that victims keep holding on to. It is only a manipulation tactic from the abuser’s side to keep things moving. Victims are prey to the manipulation because they are willing to tolerate anything for the payoff, which is that elusive promise and ever-present hope for the fulfilment of some deeply personal need within the victim.
Overcoming A Trauma Bond
Trauma bonds aren’t unbreakable and usually, it is the first step that’s hardest to take. The farther you go, the more you see i.e. the farther you go from a toxic/abusive relationship, the more you’ll see the destruction it has caused. You can ‘detox’ yourself from the trauma bond by breaking them and staying away from such a relationship.
The first step is to recognize and acknowledge being in a trauma bond. Connect with reality and get help to break it. Self-awareness can be helpful in breaking the shackles that keep us chained.
Don’t fantasize the idea that your partner might change someday. Don’t trade truth and reality for a fake promise. Be grounded in reality. Don’t give false hopes to yourself.
Self-care and self-compassion are vital to regaining your inner strength. Try self-care like meditation or prayer, exercise, psychotherapy, talking to a trusted one, indulging in a hobby, etc. Keep yourself busy with productive and fulfilling activities. This will make you spend less time thinking of the relationship. Forgetting can be an effective part of the healing process.
Start journaling. Write down your feelings and try to replace your negative self-talk with a more positive one. For instance, if your thoughts are like “I am so stupid” or “How can I let this happen to myself,” try something like “I am positive and I am taking steps to empower by being” or “I won’t hold myself responsible for someone else’s behaviour.”
Remember that the sole aim of the abuser is to manipulate you to maintain their power and control over you. Once you disarm the abuser by knowing their reality, it will clear up your internal confusion and this clarity will reinforce your choices.
The key is to understand the underlying intentions of the abuser. Once you do, it is the right time to leave. Even if you cannot leave quickly, remember not to forget your self-worth and don’t ever define yourself by the definitions given by someone else for their self-interests. Redefine yourself and your values. Take charge of your life. Your freedom lies in your own hands. You are not weak or incapable. With the right support, care and guidance, you have the ability to break free from the trauma bond and reclaim your life. Change takes time. Don’t give up. It will take a lot of efforts and motivation to stand up on your own but moment by moment, you can introspect, set your goals and then take the necessary steps to achieve them and put everything in perspective.
Ending the cycle of abuse and trauma bonding is never easy but certainly possible. I know it is easier said than done. It might practically be difficult to walk away from a trauma bond and leaving might trigger feelings of loneliness, emptiness and a sense of loss paired with hopelessness and lack of future direction. But in the long run, these symptoms will disappear leaving behind only what’s essential. So don’t look back and don’t give another or ‘last chance’ to the abuser to manipulate you once again. Just keep moving on.
So, if you feel you’re undergoing or experiencing a trauma bonding, don’t hesitate to ask for help. Read more about it. Reach out to a counsellor, either in-person or online. Remember, abusers don’t change. They will keep making empty and fake promises. Don’t give in. We have the power to change our condition and circumstances. It is hard, but not impossible. You don’t have to suffer unnecessarily. Make a choice and stop being a victim. Turn off to abuse, turn on to life!
(Author is a Counselling Psychologist & Therapist)