How Can I Love Someone Who Hurts Me: Understanding the Trauma Bond

By Jenn Rockefeller

Following the escape from an abusive relationship, many survivors ask themselves how they could ever have loved someone who hurt them so badly. Whether it was physical, emotional, mental, sexual or financial abuse, survivors face the confusing realization that they poured their hearts into a relationship that deeply hurt them.

The term “trauma bond” is the reason behind such a strong pull to someone who hurt you so deeply. What is a trauma bond and why does it have such a profound influence over our lives?

Unhealthy attachment

A trauma bond is a type of unhealthy attachment to an abuser. The abuser will create this bond by luring you in with false promises – promises of love, friendship, a happy home. Your happily-ever-after. But these promises are soon forgotten and give way to periods of anger, bitterness, rage and jealousy. But then, just as quickly, the “good times” return.

Underneath the umbrella of the term trauma bond is the term dosing – giving the victims small doses of those good times to keep them coming back. Another term under this same umbrella is the term intermittent reinforcement – a type of abusive seduction that keeps the victim hooked. Hooked with the hope that maybe, just maybe, the relationship will work out. That you will get your happily-ever-after.

Intermittent reinforcement

This term can be broken down into two parts – intermittent and reinforcement. Intermittent is the sporadic and irregular timing of a particular action. Reinforcement is process of encouraging a desired behavior by handing out a reward.

So when the term intermittent reinforcement is used in the realm of domestic violence, it is suggested that abusers use this form of abuse to extract a certain type of behavior from their victims. It refers to the instances when the abusers mix the good times in to cloud the victim’s mind and make them forget about the abuse. The victims will then struggle to figure out why the abuse happened and what they can do to “be better” or improve their behavior the way the abuser may allude to. That is an illusion because no matter what the victim does or doesn’t do, nothing will be good enough for the abuser.

Think of it this way: The abusers dole out rewards when their victims “fall in line” with their “punishments.” That is, maybe the abuser will reward the victim with a hug, or a smile, or even a night out on the town for “listening” to them or for “doing as they are told.” It is almost like how Ivan Pavlov rang a bell to get his dogs to salivate in his work with classic conditioning. Abusers rely on this type of conditioning, too. They condition us to come to expect (and accept) a certain type of behavior and be “rewarded” for it.

But these seemingly good times do not last.

Why trauma bonds work

In the beginning, abusers are like poker players – they never reveal their full hand. They don’t reveal who they are at first. This is why victims only see the good times. The times that are full of loving gestures (flowers, dinners at expensive restaurants, etc), poetic soliloquies filled with love, and even fun times filled with laughter. It is all of these things that cause the victim to first fall for the abuser. Because that is the side that the abuser chose to show to the victim. They give their victims crumbs of affection, then blindside them with intense abuse, only to return to the loving partner the victim first fell in love with.

During the times when the abuse is at its worst, victims often think that they may have the strength to leave, despite loving the abuser so much. But then the abuser turns on the charm with promises of therapy, love and wanting to work it out.

When those “promises” are made, the victim holds out hope that the good times will return. That the person the victim fell in love with will return. The victims catch glimpses of those good times during the intermittent phase when the abuser brings out the “good side” again to keep the victim “in line” and to reel them back in.

That is why trauma bonds work. That is why so many survivors have found it so difficult to understand what happened and why they struggle to come to terms with the love they felt for the abuser. Once the fog begins to clear from the victims’ minds, they will begin to understand that what they had with the abuser was never real and that it was just a façade.

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