Trauma bonding: Why do people stay in abusive relationships?
Crazy, crackling chemistry. That’s how others describe you and your partner. But the ones stuck in abusive relationships know better. It feels like asphyxiating in a chemistry lab. On good days, the relationship sizzles, but on bad days, volatile tempers flare up like an imbalanced equation and combust any semblance of sanity. Yet this a chemical bond tough to break free from. Psychologists call this cycle of abuse trauma bonding.
“I wanted to be his Florence Nightingale,” says Aditi Mehta*, about her ex-boyfriend, who came from a broken home and was diagnosed with anxiety disorder. She gave their relationship two years, her mental peace and all of her hair to fulfil his fetish. “For him, chopping my hair was a key part of intimacy. If I retaliated, he would throw violent fits and smash whatever he found around him,” she says.
Exchanging pleasantries with a male classmate translated to threats of consuming Baygon. Mehta realised his possessiveness had nothing to do with his anxiety disorder, yet stayed in the relationship for another year. “I couldn’t leave him although I was losing myself in the process,” she says.
Amrita Sandhu’s* former boyfriend nearly crashed his bike into a tree to kill both of them after she told him that she wanted to end their toxic relationship – built on violent outbursts followed by emotional overcompensation and grand gestures of affection.
Sandhu’s relationship felt like Mumbai’s strange October weather — hot and cold and often stormy, all in one day.
When she finally broke off ties, he stalked her, stationing himself outside her home. Since she was new to the country (Sandhu was here from the USA, working with a band) she had no option but to go back home for a few months to escape him.
While some of you might identify with these suffocating cycles and abusive behaviour patterns, and tell yourself, “Yes, I know that feeling”, the question is inevitable: what makes people stay in such ‘rubber-band’ relationships, where your tolerance levels are stretched and suddenly, you’re pulled back in?
Psychiatrist Natasha Kate, who has dealt with one too many similar cases of abusive relationships, calls it a “cycle of abuse”. An unhealthy emotional diet of intermittent supply of affection, and punishment that people get accustomed to. And of course, we live in society where pop culture normalises abusive behaviour as an acceptable form of affection. Remember Kabir Singh? or Thappad?
“The cycle starts on a positive point. But then there’s a conflict and it’s resolved using abusive methods. It can be as simple as dictating how one dresses up, treating the partner as their property, or threatening to hurt themselves if the partner doesn’t comply to their demands, and what follows is a phase of overcompensation with grand gestures and promises to mend their ways,” she explains.
Kate also points out that if the victim comes from a space of insecurity, low self-esteem and has been deprived of affection in their homes, they tend to hold on to the sparse display of love. They guilt themselves into believing that they are always at fault and their partner is simply correcting them.
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I shared this a few months ago but I wanted to share again in honor of #domesticviolenceawarenessmonth you can also follow the link in bio or swipe up in my stories to read about my own experience with trauma bonding. Trauma Bonding: A cycle of physical or emotional abuse that creates a strong attachment between an abused person and their abuser. Reinforced by periods of love and affection and then periods of devaluation and emotional abuse. #codependency #traumabonding #toxicrelationships
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Red flags that define abusive relationships
Gaslighting: You’re always at fault. Or so you’re made to believe without logical reasoning or facts. The constant manipulation that makes you doubt yourself and your worth is at the heart of gaslighting.
Sandhu remembers always being told that she couldn’t sing and that she shouldn’t perform at gigs — even though she and her boyfriend were in the same band. Ajinkya A* (29) says that his girlfriend undermined his work and filled him with self-doubt through the course of their four-year-long relationship.
Playing the sympathy card often: The calm after the stormy flare-ups is punctuated with remarks such as “You know I have an anger issue”, “It’s all my fault” and so on.
Mood swings like a pendulum: One moment, there are showers of petals, the very next, beer bottles are being smashed. “I had to inform my friends every time I went to his house, because I didn’t know when things would go out of hand,” says Mehta.
Loss of self-identity: You’re reduced to nothing but an extension of their personality and even though you identify the change, you go with the flow.
Alienation: The abusive partner will convince you that you’re too good for your friends and that your friends aren’t good for you. As they want to be with you 24/7, your social circle crumbles and you don’t have people to call at 3am or the freedom to call at that hour, either.
Emotional addiction: The relationship feels like a drug addiction where you are constantly stuck in a cycle of dependency — a period of high cortisol level (stress), a craving for dopamine (pleasure), fulfilment of the same and back to high cortisol. Most find it difficult to break free from this rut.
Ajinkya, Sandhu and Mehta have all faced long-term consequences from their traumatic bonds — ranging from insecurity to fear of relationships. Ajinkya was physically abused by his violent girlfriend.
Mehta found that healthy relationships and friendships were missing because she had shut them all out. “Even now, after almost half a decade since the relationship, if somebody flirts with me, I feel threatened at first. I value self-preservation more now and trust my gut,” she says.
They reckon that they’ve become nicer towards other women going through similar experiences, and refrain from dishing out cliché advice like, “Just walk out.” “It isn’t as easy as that. I have become more empathetic after my experience,” says Mehta.
Does leaving abusive relationships mean you’re deserting them?
Each time Mehta attempted to break up, her boyfriend’s social circle interrogated her. “They would make me question my decision. Nobody seemed to care about my mental health except for my friends, whom I had alienated by then,” she says.
Dr Kate echoes the in-flight advice: “Dusron ki sahayta karne se pehle, khud apna oxygen mask theek se pehne”.
“It’s unfortunate that in India we don’t have legal bodies to protect unmarried individuals, but speak to friends and seek professional help. If you’re married, you can also take legal action in cases of sexual and physical abuse,” she says.
If you’re constantly feeling disrespected in a relationship and you are watching your words and actions so as to not offend the other person, she advises you cut the chord. “Support them and recommend therapy. Even go along for sessions if they are open to the idea, but you cannot be their rehab. You’re not equipped to do that,” she explains.
“Your priority must always be your self-respect. Protect that.”
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