I’ve recently encountered cyber-bullying targeting domestic violence survivors among people I considered friends. I read the sentence, “I have no sympathy for a grown adult who won’t walk away,” that an actual human person wrote, and worse things.
First I would like to acknowledge that there are male victims as well as female victims, although according to national statistics, female victims outnumber male victims. Our culture still sees men as less likely to be victimized and has less sympathy for male victims. As a result, many men may choose to hold their pain inside instead of reporting or seeking help. Anecdotally, according to LCSW Shannon Thomas, who wrote Healing from Hidden Abuse, just as many men seek treatment as survivors of psychological abuse as women. Because of the stigmas in our culture, it’s rare for men to report physical abuse. Anyone can become a victim.
Even after movements that have brought light to the struggle victims face (#WhyIStayed), there is still a shameful ignorance. Fully empathizing may not be possible without personal experience, but the unexperienced can still strive for understanding and compassion. I would like to discuss some of the key psychological reasons that people stay when it seems it should be so easy to walk away.
Love Bombing and Idealization
At the beginning of an intimate relationship, many abusers begin with love bombing and idealization. This is the time in the relationship when the abuser will seemingly do anything for the target. They make grand gestures of love and affection. They declare their love quickly, push for physical intimacy and commitment, and seemingly divulge their deep, dark secrets so their target will do the same. They’ll use those secrets against the victim so that they feel closer to them, like their bond is unique. They’ll spend all their free time with the victim, say things like, “you’re my world,” and “I’ve never felt this way before,” and “I’ve never met someone like you.” They’ll tell the victim they’re sexy, talented, smart, amazing, perfect.
It feels like a fairytale, but it doesn’t last. It is not uncommon for survivors to report a change in the abuser after a milestone. As soon as some form of commitment is achieved, such as moving in together, getting married, or having a baby, the mask comes off to reveal the abuser beneath. The abuser more than likely tested boundaries before, but once they feel they’ve “locked down” their victim, they feel little motivation to hide who they really are. This leaves the victim chasing the person they fell in love with—that person who was so kind and generous and loving in the beginning.
Abusers will frequently use love bombing throughout the relationship, particularly after episodes of violence, outbursts of anger, or severe fights. The victim will threaten to leave, or may even be in the process of leaving, when the abuser again dons their love-bombing mask, apologizes, gives gifts, makes grand gestures, professes their undying love, says they can’t live without the victim, and promises to change.
Cognitive dissonance is when a person holds two conflicting beliefs to be true. Everyone is susceptible, but abuse victims almost always fall prey to cognitive dissonance. They remember the love-bombing abuser and desperately want to get back to that time when they were idealized and they felt loved. “We have a good relationship,” and “this person mistreats me,” is an example of cognitive dissonance. The victim holds two conflicting versions of the abuser in their mind, the benevolent and the abusive. The victim may see their abuser as benevolent most of the time, and only see beyond the mask during times of trauma.
Abusers are unpredictable and inconsistent. Intermittent reinforcement is a type of operant conditioning, which is when a subject learns to associate either reward or punishment with a particular behavior. A rat presses a lever and it gets a food pellet reward. Intermittent reinforcement is inconsistent. Sometimes the rat gets a pellet for pressing the lever, and sometimes it doesn’t. There is no more powerful means of altering a subject’s thoughts and behavior. When tested, intermittent reinforcement has been found consistently to be significantly more powerful than continuous reinforcement. It inspires obsessive, self-destructive behavior in favor of seeking the reward. The rat will forego other healthy behaviors, such as grooming or socializing, in favor of pressing the lever until it becomes physically ill.
There are hints that love-bombing sprinkled throughout the abusive relationship gives the victim a false sense of hope. Some abusers are acutely aware of how effective intermittent reinforcement is and use this to their advantage, trapping the victim in a state of constantly seeking love and approval that once seemed to come easily. Victims become a diminished shadow of their former selves, walking on eggshells and bending over backwards in seeking love instead of anger.
Experiments in the 1960s demonstrated that when dogs are consistently subjected to electric shocks over a period of time that they are unable to avoid, even once given the opportunity to escape, they will not. They have learned that any attempt they make to avoid the aversive stimuli is ineffectual and they give up. The only remedy was for researchers to physically move the dogs’ legs to show them how to escape the electric shocks. Learned helplessness in victims of abuse is the perception of lack of control. There may be very real obstacles such as finances, illness, isolation, and threats of physical violence that keep a victim from leaving, but the abuser has also chiseled away at the victim’s self-esteem. Some victims are repeat victims because they are drawn to what they know, which is the cycle of abuse. It is common for abusers to be controlling and isolating. Feeling worthless and depressed, having nowhere to turn, and lacking the means, many victims choose to stay.
People handle trauma differently, but there’s no doubt that outbursts of threats and violence are traumatizing. Victims of physical and sexual abuse are particularly susceptible to the addictive nature of trauma bonding. Someone who is physically threatened or harmed experiences a state of fight or flight when stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol surge. In an abusive relationship, trauma is followed by a state of calm, or even more love bombing, which elicits the release of feel-good hormones like dopamine and oxytocin. This drastic swing between trauma and love is addictive. The trauma makes the calmer, happier times feel like a paradise by comparison, when in fact it resembles just another relationship lacking a true emotional connection.
Breaking the trauma bond is heart-wrenchingly painful. Any breakup is painful and feels like withdrawal when you lose those happy love hormones. Breaking a trauma bond magnifies this. It feels like acute withdrawal and heartbreak rolled into one.
Some survivors make multiple attempts to leave before they’re finally able to stay away for good. Love bombing, intermittent reinforcement, cognitive dissonance, and trauma bonding work together against the victim, so that they’re always chasing the love-bombing mask the abuser sometimes wears. After leaving, the survivor finds themselves missing their abuser while repressed memories come crashing in, and denial comes crashing down. It’s difficult to let go of the cognitive dissonance. It’s difficult to face the truth. Knowing all this, it’s not surprising so many go back to their abuser.
Victims are not weak or stupid. In many cases, abusers choose targets based on their strengths and set out to conquer and destroy. Many victims and survivors have admirable qualities that make them vurnerable, such as a large capacity for empathy and unconditional love, a trusting nature, tenacity, loyalty, and fortitude.
Truly breaking free entails breaking the trauma bond, recognizing that the intermittent reinforcement is part of the cycle of abuse, and dispelling the cognitive dissonance. Even when a survivor has done all of these things, it can take years to heal the psychological wounds that trauma and mistreatment have left. Unless you’ve experienced abuse in any of its forms, it’s important to understand that you don’t understand. Foremost, survivors need to be safe. Once they are safe, they need patience, understanding, and support, because they haven’t been getting those things. They need to be built back up after being torn down.