“Why can’t she simply leave him?”-  Understanding trauma bonding


A friend of mine sent me a frantic text in the middle of the night. It was odd because we weren’t the best of friends, we had drifted apart gradually due to our busy schedules (at least that’s what I had always thought). The text said that her live-in boyfriend physically assaulted her, and she was spending the night at a friend’s. That day, and for weeks after that day, I was by her side.

I supported her emotionally, offered financial help since they had been living together and he might have had control over her money, texted her every other day to see if she was alright.

The guy was abusive, and this wasn’t the first time he had hit her. It was a pattern. I told her, in no kind words, that he was an absolute jerk, and that she needed to stay away from him. I even proposed a police complaint, but I could sense she wasn’t ready for it, and that was okay. I have learnt with time that everyone has a different, unique way to process their trauma, and that’s alright.

Weeks passed. Months passed.

As things cooled down, and she became better, she cut me off completely. I thought she was too embarrassed after the very public episode and needed her own time to heal.

Three months later, I saw her Instagram posts with the same guy.

Now you may wonder, is she out of her mind? Going back to the person who physically and mentally harmed her? An educated woman getting beaten up by a guy in the name of love?!

“Why can’t she simply leave him? Doesn’t she have any self-respect?”

It isn’t uncommon for people who have never been in an abusive relationship to not understand how can someone choose to remain in one for so long. 

The first question that comes to the mind is ‘Why are you still around then?’

You see it is not that easy

People who are in abusive relationships experience trauma bonding. Something similar to the Stockholm syndrome.  Traumatic bonding is a case of intense emotional bonding wherein the victims feel attached to their abuser due to the hormones that are being released amid the abuse.

According to a report, approximate 15% of women and 4% of men experience injury as a result of IPV (Intimate Partner Violence) which includes rape, physical violence, and stalking. And that’s just the reported data for physical abuse. Most emotional abuse goes unreported and unrecognized. 

“But he never even hit me”

The TV and the magazines have a history of making abuse look like a swollen eye or a bruised elbow, which couldn’t be farther from the truth. This makes it all the more difficult for people in emotionally abusive relationships to understand that they are in one. 

Having been there myself, actually realizing that you are being abused, particularly when the abuse is psychological, and not physical, is the most difficult part. 

People don’t understand that someone doesn’t need to hit you to break you. 

Periodic love bombing- cyclical abuse

How many times we have heard people excuse their partners’ behavior by saying, “Oh, but he isn’t like this all the time!” 

One of the most common reasons for staying in an abusive relationship is the victim’s need for cyclical validation and affection that occurs after every abuse.

It is important to understand that anyone who is in an abusive relationship is not abused every single day. It happens in a cycle. Living with an abuser is not always horrible– they make you feel loved and valued too. 

According to survivors, their partners are “perfect” or “wonderful” 90% of the time, and that it’s just 10% of the time that they are abusive. 

Many times, the abuser after an abusive incident treats the victim with kindness and love, which acts as a reward for the victim. 

If you look at it through a more practical lens, during the stressful times, the victims experience elevated cortisol levels which make them extremely vulnerable and weak. The fear of abandonment takes over them, and they become desperate to seek the reward hormone ‘dopamine’, a happiness chemical. Every time the abuser ‘love bombs’ the victim, they’re rewarded with dopamine, which further intensifies the traumatic bond. 

The thrill of a traumatic bonding experienced by the victim is nothing compared to that of a normal, healthy relationship. 

This cycle repeats until the victim slowly learns to obey the “rules” of the game. They learn to tolerate the abuse, and wait desperately for the reward- the next “love bombing” moment. Without realizing that what they are experiencing is not real love.

Toxic co-dependency & isolation

Remember when I said above that my friend and I had drifted apart over the years. Yes, it was precisely around the time, when she had started seeing this particular man who would later go on to assault her. 

A powerful tool to establish psychological control over a victim is his/her isolation from the outside world.

The abusers, the manipulators often like to work in isolation. By the time, you realise that you are caught up in an abusive arrangement, you are already cut off from all your friends and family. They make sure it’s only you and them. 

It usually starts with inserting emotional wedges between the victim and their closed ones and controlling their social activity right from whom they see, whom they talk to, where they go- basically any tactic to limit their interaction with the outside world.

Most women around me who have been in abusive relationships were methodically separated from their close friends and colleagues. It starts with simple statements like “Hey, I don’t think your friend likes me. I am not comfortable around her.” 

The victim, who is always eager to please the abuser, slowly starts isolating herself from anyone who their partner dislikes- which is often most of the people. 

Eventually, it leads to a dangerous level of co-dependency, making the victim reach a stage where they have no one to talk to about the abuse they are experiencing.

“You don’t deserve better” & Dysfunctional family history

Growing up, I experienced a lack of self-esteem and confidence due to childhood trauma and abuse. Something that I also carried with me into my adult relationships. 

I dated a narcissist for almost six months a few years ago. Every other day, I would make a ‘mistake’ and be ‘punished’ for it. I would follow all the rules until I got my reward. 

I would be left wondering what the hell was wrong with me. After a while,  I started believing that probably everything was my fault, and I deserved the treatment. I was constantly made to believe that I was a difficult person to love- controlling, and over-possessive. It took me years to see that I was being gaslighted and manipulated by my ex-partner while he was actually cheating on me. He would lie to my face, and call me ‘crazy’ if I didn’t believe him. 

It is typical for women coming from poorly functional families to take up the responsibility, and the burden of stabilizing the relationship, due to their childhood conditioning. For men, it’s not always the same. Since most men are not conditioned to be care-takers, it is common for them to turn to something outside of their relationships.

It was easy for me to give in due to my childhood traumatic experiences wherein I was constantly made to believe I wasn’t worthy of love and respect. I was used to walking on eggshells around people. 

I was lucky enough to escape in time, and finally, get therapy and stumble upon books that gave me clarity about what happened to me. However, this is rare. Most people live in shitty relationships not knowing that a healthy, positive relationship doesn’t make you cry every single day.

I wish I could end this story with some ’10 effective tips’ to come out of an abusive relationship. I know it is hard. The most challenging part is being able to recognise that the person you love is abusing you. Most abusers are extraordinarily charming and loving in social settings, which makes you only see the ‘goodness’ in them. 

In cases where the abuse is severe and/or ongoing, the victim may eventually lose their entire sense of self, even without a single mark or bruise on their body.

Next time, when you see a person in an abusive relationship, understand that it is not because they ‘want’ to. It is because they may have started to believe the accusations, name-calling, and criticisms. Victims of emotional abuse are highly critical of themselves and believe that they will never be good enough for anyone, and deserve to be abused. Besides these issues, the lack of material resources and lack of support from family is also a strong reason. Women are fundamentally denied education, progress and job opportunities, thus, leading to a lack of financial stability. Having limited income can add to the sense of helplessness caused by the abuse.

Offer help, talk to them, be there for them, show kindness, show empathy; if the abuse is critical, involve other people and authorities. 

Just stop yourself from saying, “Why can’t you simply leave?”

Because it is not as easy as it looks like from the outside. 


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Ananya Singh

A former journalist, Ananya specializes in marketing & communications. She worked with a diverse set of firms across the spectrum for six years before leaving the cobwebs of a metropolitan city for a quiet, slow life in the hills. A depression survivor Ananya primarily writes about mental health, intersectional feminism and society. When she is not working or traveling, she spends her days in a quaint little town of Northeast India with her husband and two cats, sipping red wine and writing poetry.

One thought on ““Why can’t she simply leave him?”-  Understanding trauma bonding

  1. The worst part about a trauma bond is that you get to this point where YOU KNOW it’s abuse. You even know it’s “just” a trauma bond. That this person is never going to change. That if you keep going back you will completely destroy yourself (and they will help). And yet, the urge to make contact, to just get that tiny drop of approval or validation or caring is so powerful-PHYSICALLY PAINFUL EVEN- that you often give in again and again, knowing you are fighting a losing battle and that in the end you are going to end up worse that the last time. And it’s SO HARD to not be ashamed. And it somehow makes your already complete lack self-respect feel more visceral. And even with all this awareness, you still cannot stay away. I have been told it simply takes willpower. That beyond all the reminders of how bad it is, and the self care and doing ALL the things everyone tells you to do (and believe me, I am doing all the right things), ultimately you just have to find the will to endure that pain of withdrawal and stay away. And to my very obvious demise, willpower has never been a trait I possess.

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