By David Mandel, Executive Director, Safe & Together Institute
The domestic violence field is littered with concepts and terms that center everyone’s attention on the survivor, blaming them for the choices of the perpetrator and the failures of our systems and society to hold perpetrators accountable for their behaviors. Some of these concepts are learned helplessness, codependency, Stockholm Syndrome and the one that we have seen used more recently: trauma bonding. What do all these concepts have in common? Using labels that often have very little relevant science behind them, they cloak victim-blaming in the language of diagnosis and treatment – decontextualized from the abusive behaviors and wider social dynamics, like institutional racism. This blog post demonstrates how psychology, both popular and academic, is used not to empower, but to blame, by examining the four ways the concept of “trauma bonding” works against survivors.
What is trauma bonding? The term was developed by Patrick Carnes, addiction author, speaker and proponent of the concept of sex addiction. Michael Samsel, referencing Carnes, describes it as “the misuse of fear, excitement, sexual feelings, and sexual physiology to entangle another person.” While the term describes the behavior of the person who is abusive and their manipulation of another person, the concept is squarely located in the addiction field’s codependency tradition. Even though it names the creation of “fear” as one of the key elements, Carnes’ work emphasizes the survivors’ addiction to untrustworthy and abusive people.
In the clinical practice and messaging around trauma bonding, almost all references to the person perpetrating the abuse and manipulation are background. The discussion of trauma bonding is heavily focused 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.” In a movement toward victim-blaming, the emphasis is now on the problematic emotional state of the survivor, not the manipulation by the perpetrator, nor the systems that enable the entrapment or entanglement. Trauma bonding is often coupled 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 it is something experienced by survivors who have been abused in their past and associates it with survivors’ ‘making excuses for the abuser’. It has been used interchangeably with the term “Stockholm Syndrome,” a concept that has been criticized and is not a diagnosable mental health problem and has little research behind it. Trauma bonding, co-dependency and learned helplessness are all terms that center the problem of continued contact between a perpetrator and a survivor on the survivors’ perceived psychopathology, instead of assessing the perpetrator’s pattern of coercive control and the forces that enable and support their effectiveness.
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 pointed professionals toward the behavior of the person manipulating and abusing the feelings of another. The common current usage points us toward 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. Whether cause or effect, many professionals feel more comfortable putting the feelings and behaviors of survivors under a microscope than examining those 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.
While trauma bonding pays lip service to the context created by the perpetrator’s behaviors, its focus is really on the psychology of the survivor and her continuing unhealthy contact with the perpetrator. Rarely does a conversation about trauma bonding begin with an assessment of how the perpetrator’s behaviors, through threats, intimidation, or financial control, 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 attributing the survivor’s continued contact with the perpetrator to her trauma bonding, is tantamount to victim-blaming and 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. Their behaviors are often seen by or brought to the attention of professionals who may ignore them, support them or engage in limited interventions. These failures may lead the survivor to make an accurate assessment that compliance or subtle forms of resistance while maintaining contact, may be the safest course of action. When we slap a label of trauma bonding on a survivor, we are ignoring the actions of others that might be making it harder for her to leave or not seeing her actions are a logical form of resistance to abuse.
Problem #4: It prevents wider systems change
When we blame victims, fail to acknowledge the role of the perpetrator and individualize or pathologize the problem, we allow systems and professionals to avoid self-reflection on their own role in sustaining abusers or being manipulated by them. This disproportionately impacts poor women, indigenous women, women of color or trans survivors, as the wider systemic discrimination they face is also lost. 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 reconceptualize 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 write 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 writes “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.” Language and conceptual changes ensure that any discussion of trauma is 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) any diagnosis for the survivor is not weaponized against them by the perpetrator or systems b) we consider on-going coercive control as a factor in any work with the survivor including interference with leaving the relationship or getting support and 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. The following are some suggestions: