There is an abundance of research on cycles of abuse in Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) and why survivors have difficulties leaving abusive relationships. Several reasons exist, including but not limited to gaslighting, manipulation, increased risk of further harm, financial dependence, isolation, familial or cultural expectations, and physiological vulnerabilities.
Additionally, some survivors of abuse may experience Trauma Bonding: a complex experience that makes it difficult for survivors to completely escape their abuser. What exactly is Trauma Bonding? Researchers Casassa, Knight & Mengo (2021) define it as a phenomenon where the survivor forms an emotional attachment to their abuser. It is often observed in victims of human trafficking and other forms of abusive relationships. In many cases, survivors are purposely isolated from their support systems, making them more dependent on the abuser and susceptible to their control.
Multiple theories seek to understand why this bond forms. From an evolutionary or survival standpoint, trauma bonds are seen as a coping mechanism: an instinctual response that is an outcome of isolation and feelings of helplessness (Cantor & Price, 2007). Hence, a survivor of abuse may express affection or sympathy for their abuser whilst being aware of the toxic nature of the relationship.
The abuser cultivates this affection through manipulation disguised as intermittent kindness, such as gift-giving, compliments, or apologies (Casassa et. al., 2021). They prey on their partner’s self-worth and independence, making the trauma bond stronger because the victim now relies on their abuser for love, approval, and validation. Furthermore, prolonged traumatic abuse can lead to cognitive distortions that help sustain this bond, such that problematic behaviour on the part of the abuser is interpreted as love (Reid et al., 2013).
There is evidence that some people are more vulnerable to trauma bonds. Studies have shown that women who have experienced abuse in their childhood are more suspectable to being stuck in cycles of violent relationships as adults and forming trauma bonds (Painter, 1981). The normalization of inappropriate actions from others can be a negative outcome of a child who has experienced abuse. However, the nature of abusive relationships can make anyone susceptible to trauma bonds, irrespective of one’s history.
Why is it important to understand trauma bonding?
It is essential for service providers, the survivor’s family and friends, and the public to understand and recognize the signs that an individual is experiencing trauma bonding. Often outside perspectives come with their own biases and expectations of how survivors of abuse should behave towards their abuser. However, a survivor’s relationship with their abuser is influenced by many factors that need to be approached with sensitivity when offering support.