08 Feb 4 Ways the Concept of Trauma Bonding Works Against Survivors
The domestic violence field is littered with concepts and terms that focus on the survivor. Some of these concepts and terms include: learned helplessness, codependency, Stolkholm Syndrome, and trauma bonding. These terms and concepts blame them for the choices of the perpetrator. It also blames them for the failures of our systems and society to hold perpetrators accountable for their behaviors. What’s more, labels have very little relevant science behind them. They cloak victim-blaming in the language of diagnosis and treatment. This leads. to assessments decontextualized from the abusive behaviors and wider social dynamics, like institutional racism. Professionals often use psychology, both popular and academic, to blame, rather than empower, survivors. This blog will examine the four ways the concept of “trauma bonding” works against survivors.
What is Trauma Bonding?
The term was developed by Patrick Carnes, an addiction author, speaker and proponent of the sex addiction concept. Michael Samsel describes “trauma bonding” as “the misuse of fear, excitement, sexual feelings, and sexual physiology to entangle another person.” While the term describes the abusive person’s behavior, the concept is squarely located in the addiction field’s codependency tradition.
Trauma Bonding’s Emphasis on the Survivor’s Behavior
Carnes’ work names the perpetrator’s creation of “fear” as one of the key elements. However, it also emphasizes the survivors’ addiction to untrustworthy and abusive people. References to the abusive partner are are often left in the background in the clinical practice around trauma bonding. The discussion of trauma bonding focuses heavily on the survivors’ behavior. For example, one definition of trauma bonding is “a strong emotional attachment between an abused person and his or her abuser, formed as a result of the cycle of violence.” The emphasis becomes the problematic emotional state of the survivor rather than the perpetrator’s manipulation or the systems that enable the entrapment or entanglement.
Trauma Bonding and Codependency
Professionals often couple trauma bonding with the language of codependency. An article in Psychology Today on Trauma Bonding highlights the domestic violence survivors’ ‘choice’ to continue to seek love, affection and attention from the abusive partner. An international domestic violence website states survivors of past abuse experience “trauma bonding”. The website also associates it with survivors ‘making excuses for the abuser’. Stockholm Syndrome,” a concept that has been criticized as an undiagnosable mental health problem, has been another term used interchangeably. This concept has little research behind it.
Trauma bonding, co-dependency and learned helplessness are all terms that blames the survivors’ psychopathology on the continued contact with a perpetrator. This becomes the focus instead of assessing the perpetrator’s pattern of coercive control and the external forces that enable and support their effectiveness.
How the Use of a Trauma Bonding Framework Harms Survivors
So let’s break down the four ways the use of this concept harms survivors.
Problem #1: It focuses professionals on the survivor, not the perpetrator. The definition of the problem determines where we put our attention and what interventions we think we make the situation better. Patrick Carnes’ original definition of trauma bonding focused professionals on the abusive person’s behavior. However, the common current usage looks at the survivor as the one who has the pathology.
Even when it’s framed as the result of a “cycle of violence” the discussion isn’t about the person who continues those behaviors, the society that fails to challenge them or the systems that fail to create accountability. The conversation still echoes the worn-out arguments that women remain in abusive relationships because of masochism or loving too much. One result is the large industry of therapies and interventions that spring up around self-help for survivors. Many professionals feel more comfortable putting the behaviors of survivors under a microscope than examining the behaviors of perpetrators.
Problem #2: It lets the perpetrator off the hook by ignoring the threats or actions of the perpetrator or the circumstances that keep the survivor trapped.
Trauma bonding pays lip service to the context created by the perpetrator’s behaviors. However, its focus is really on the psychology of the survivor and her continued “unhealthy” contact with the perpetrator. Conversations about trauma bonding rarely begin with an assessment of how the perpetrator’s behaviors are entrapping the survivor. Sharing children and being part of the same religious or cultural community are just a few of the other reasons why a survivor may continue contact with a perpetrator. Failing to examine these behaviors or circumstances and blaming the survivor’s “trauma bonding” is tantamount to victim-blaming. This kind of practice lets the perpetrator off the hook for their harmful behavior.
Problem #3: It blames victims for the failures of others-individuals and systems- to intervene with the perpetrator. Perpetrators do not act in a vacuum. Professionals often see the perpetrator’s behaviors, but ignore them, support them or engage in limited interventions. Survivors may assess that the safest course of action for them is compliance or subtle forms of resistance while maintaining contact. When we slap a label of trauma bonding on a survivor, we are ignoring that the actions of others might be making it harder for her to leave. We are not seeing her actions as a logical form of resistance to the abuse.
Problem #4: It prevents wider systems change
When we blame victims, fail to acknowledge the role that perpetrators play or pathologize the problem, we allow systems and professionals to avoid self-reflection on their own role. Professionals unfortunately can sustain abusers or become manipulated by them. The impact of this disproportionately affects poor, indigenous, BIPOC, and trans survivors. Trauma bonding, and other similar victim-blaming pathologies, are a convenient way for practitioners and systems to avoid fixing themselves.
What can we do differently?
First, we can re-conceptualize the problem. It is important to have a language to name the impact that the perpetrator’s behaviors have on adult and child survivors. But this language needs to empower, not blame.
Sex traffic researchers, Dr. Chitra Raghavan and Kendra Doychak wrote that the first step is to reframe survivors’ behaviors “as a traumatic response to a terrifying chronic stressor rather than as a dysfunctional attachment that reflects masochism, weakness, or social vulnerability in the victim.” Zoë Krupka explains “Such an overhaul requires therapists to engage in the painful process of facing our profession’s complicity in violence against women. Anything less is not only dangerous and ineffective but a significant and widely debilitating contribution to the problem.”
One thing we can do is change our language in discussions of trauma. We can ensure survivors’ behaviors are contextualized to the perpetrator’s pattern. But a language change is not enough.
We need to look beyond the four walls of the clinical setting in order to ensure that:
a) the perpetrator or systems do not use a diagnosis for the survivor as a weapon against them
b) we consider on-going coercive control as a factor in any work with the survivor. This includes interference with leaving the relationship or getting support.
c) mental health professionals actively advocate for their clients in the systems that are impacting them, like family court. To do this, we need to actively integrate a perpetrator pattern-based approach into any work with the survivor.
Suggestions for A Better Way
The following are some suggestions for a better way to handle survivor trauma:
- Professionals need to consider the survivors’ behaviors, choices and mental health in the context of perpetrators’ pattern of behavior. This needs to include patterns of manipulation of systems, and professionals by perpetrators so that they do not inadvertently reinforce or condone the abuse. If you are trained in our Safe & Together Model CORE Training (4 Days) the mapping tool is perfect for this.
- Actively seek to understand the survivors’ behaviors of resistance and protection for self and others. Explore the question ‘What was safer about doing that?’ when considering the actions and choices of survivors
- Work to improve your response to survivor’s disclosures so that they are positive experiences – consider how you validate and partner with the survivor and hold the perpetrator accountable.
- Respect survivors’ unique needs; do not predetermine what they need, what their safety plan should be or automatically refer them to services based on your own assumptions.
- In your documentation and reports make clear the perpetrators’ pattern and how it has impacted the survivor. Diagnosis should be contextualized.
- Use tools like the Friends and Family Ally guide and watch the associated webinar Helping the Helpers: A Guide for Friends & Family on How to Be an Ally for a Loved One Experiencing Domestic Violence. The Ally guide can help you better partner with the survivor.
- Wherever you can be an advocate for the survivor, helping others understand the perpetrators’ pattern and the different ways the survivor has tried to resist the abuse, and when children are involved, protect them from the perpetrators’ behaviors.
- Be courageous in your organization or system by leading efforts to examine how it performs and develop plans to become more domestic violence-informed. Our self-assessment tool and evaluation framework can help and you can contact us for a free systems change consultation.
David Mandel, MA, LPC
Learn more about the Safe & Together Institute HERE.