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Letting Go of the Term “Trauma Bonded”

Correcting the Victim Blaming Terminology

Moving away from terminology fostered in the addiction recovery community is the only way we will be able to establish truth and find peace in our lives as abused women. 

Correct terminology is critical for professionals in this field. Wives of abusive men deserve the truth. Abusers need to hear it and come to respect these correct terms if there is any hope for the victim of their abuse to choose to remain in the marriage. 

At Center for Peace, we work to remove the insulting and painful language our clients have heard in other therapy sessions, or that their husbands repeat from their groups/treatment programs. The damaging effects of the scripts that have developed into abuse narratives, for which there appears to be no relief, is the way we achieve the peace of mind and body to ease the physical outcomes of targeted partner abuse©.

As we teach clients to see through the language of the addiction field, women feel seen, heard, and validated.

Taking a Look at Trauma Bonds

First coined by Patrick J. Carnes, Ph.D., the founder of the International Institute for Trauma and Addiction Professionals (IITAP). The same institute trains the CSATs who often cause clinical abuse to victims by blaming them and mutualizing the behaviors committed by their husbands. The term “Trauma Bonds” has an insidious hold on so many people — not just those in the abuse/addiction communities.

Carnes describes trauma bonds as a bond that forms between an abuser and a non-abuser which creates a dysfunctional attachment style. The insinuation here is that a victim of targeted partner abuse© will establish an attachment with the abusive partner. This attachment is the cause of why the victim remains in this dangerous, and painful relationship.

Carnes goes on to say, “Exploitive relationships create trauma bonds. These occur when a victim bonds with someone who is destructive to them.” Again, the implication is that in some very twisted way – victims are addicted to, dependent upon, or worse enjoy being with an abusive spouse/partner.  

Abuse is not a relationship problem. It is an individual behavior, unilaterally committed against the will and well-being of another person. Carne’s reference to “exploitive relationships” is mutualizing an act that one person commits.

Victims do NOT bond to their abuser in any way, shape or form! Whatever story was created around this for you, let’s get you scheduled with one of the team to unpack the lies and blame and set you free to move forward with healthy thoughts and descriptions of your experiences with the abusive partner.

Bond – Defined

The term bond refers to “a relationship between people or groups based on shared feelings, interests, or experiences” (Dictionary.com).

Let’s unpack this from an abuse construct.

There isn’t a single clarifying term in that basic online definition that speaks to an abused victim’s experience with an abuser, aside from being in a relationship. Feelings are not shared feelings if an abuser believes he has a right to treat another human being in egregious ways. While there may have been activities and practices the couple once enjoyed doing, all of that will be tainted by the revelation of his secret sexual betrayal. 

Experiences! There is no way an abuser is experiencing what is happening in the marriage in the way his wife experiences it. She is in ongoing pain and trauma from his abuse.  He often complains to her when she attempts to get him to understand how she feels. Or he is angry because she expects him to treat her better. It is a no-win situation for her.

Busting the Myths of Trauma Bonds

Myth #1 – Trauma bonding makes you psychologically addicted to abuse

This has to be one of the most insulting statements I have encountered. To define addiction is to state it as, a compulsive need for and use of a habit-forming substance despite adverse use. The abusive behaviors of a husband are not habit-forming by the one experiencing the harm of the abuse. They are extremely damaging to the wife’s well-being, but in no way would you be addicted or seeking abuse from a husband. 

Myth #2 – Victims are trauma-bonded because they are codependent with the abuser

These two terms, “trauma-bonded” and “codependent” are two of the most misused terms in the recovery community. 

The prefix “co” attached to a word implies, with, joint, or together. A victim is not in a jointly abusive relationship. The relationship is a descriptive term referring to a state of connection. As a reference term, it cannot act upon either party. It is the individual/s in the relationship that are the actors. 

A victim does not jointly choose to be abusive with her spouse. A victim is not “co” anything with the perpetrator — she is a targeted victim of a partner’s acts against her will and well-being — this is “targeted relational abuse”©

Myth #3 – Victims repeat behaviors and/or seek situations or persons to recreate the trauma experience

Of all of the classifiers used to describe bonding with an abuser, this is one of the most blatantly cruel. No victim of abuse will seek out an interaction with another abusive human being. Abuse is soul-destroying; it destroys psychological and emotional well-being and is the cause of some of the worst physical conditions women experience.

The Truth on Bonding

Women do not stay in marriages with abusive husbands because they are addicted to abuse, are codependent, or seek out abusive behavior due to their (meaning the victim’s) instability. These kinds of myths promote the harm many women experience from therapists and legal representatives – and men know this! 

Men know women are not addicted or attracted to abusive men. Men are more sly and deceptive in the beginning. It is more often after the honeymoon, or years into the marriage when the abuser’s mask finally slips or he is caught – that the abuse becomes less covert or passive aggressive and more visible or even overt.

Bonding can occur when a shared experience brings people together who understand the experience with the same language. They have experienced a car accident, a natural disaster, or as in our case, are women who have experienced an abusive husband. As wives of abusive partners — we can bond together as we support and strengthen one another in our shared experience — even though we have different partners and possible different expressions of the abuse experience.

Stop Seeing “Signs” of Trauma-bonding – Start Honoring Your Responses to the Abuse

If you experience any of the following, you are responding to the abuse as any person in a violent situation would. Victims of violence and abuse inherently know what they are experiencing and instinctively know how to respond. They may not have the words, but they know in their gut something is very, very wrong.

  • Confusing the intensity of the relationship for intimacy: Since you are not an abuser you may initially believe he loves you when he says he does. You respond to his words even when you feel like something is off. Being confused about the marriage does not mean you are trauma-bonded!
  • Justifying the abuse: This happens when abuse is normalized, or it has escalated in small, sometimes imperceptible ways. Like the proverbial frog in a pot, it may take a while to build up the noticeable intensity for you to finally listen to your gut and get help understanding his abuse. Staying never meant you were trauma-bonded!
  • Difficulty leaving: Often abusive men make it difficult for wives to leave. They may provide very little money, you may have several children, or you spent your early marriage years putting him through school and haven’t worked for a long time. Regardless of what happened, leaving is about the constraints upon you rather than an addiction to your abuser. Staying never means you are trauma-bonded!
  • Feeling Stuck: In an abusive relationship, the back and forth between his manipulated kindness and the abuse keeps you destabilized or living off the hope that he can “get better.” If he is nice or good sometimes, can’t he be good all the time?  If he turns off and on the abuse — doesn’t this mean he knows what he is doing? Staying with him does not mean you are trauma-bonded!

Abusive men know abuse is wrong. They misrepresent what they do. They control the flow of information and the stories shared internally (in the home between the victim and abuser and possibly the children) and externally (with family and friends who collude with the abuser).

Victims are aware of this — and they have to manage who they tell and what they tell or the abuse may escalate. 

As a social system – victims have been held in contempt for so long. They have been blamed for so long – it is no wonder they self-blame. This does not mean they are trauma-bonded.

Victims do not stay in relationships because of dysfunctional attachments, or any of the other insulting victim-blaming statements. 

If you are working with victims – believe her!

If you are a friend or family member of a victim – believe her!

If you are a victim – we have support groups to help you unpack all of the misinformation, and victim-blaming narratives to learn how to get to safety.

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