In a recent podcast, following the publication by the US State Department 2020 Trafficking in Persons Report, we discussed “trauma bonding” in the context of human trafficking.
It is recognised that victims can become physical and psychological dependence on their captors hence out of the trauma of being enslaved a relationship develops. It may seem perverse but on analysis, we can understand why this happens if the victim is dependent on the trafficker or slave master for food, shelter, or physical safety if not survival.
In this podcast, Alan and Michael explore “trauma bonding” in other contexts such as the abusive relationship.
“Trauma bonding” is thought to occur in relationships when there are periods of intense love and excitement with a person followed by periods of abuse, neglect, and mistreatment if not sexual and physical violence. The cycle of being devalued and then rewarded over and over works over time to create a strong chemical and hormonal bond between a victim and his or her abuser. This is why victims of abuse often describe feeling more deeply bonded to their abuser than they do to people who actually consistently treat them well.
We use the term relationship in its broadest sense because the reality may be that it is a misnomer. You could have for example a situation where criminal offences are being committed, say, in the case of a so-called relationship between a teacher and pupil. The pupil may well see what is taken place with the teacher as a “relationship” be blind to the grooming (and exploitation) that is occurring.
Is the acceptance of exploitation in a relationship a symptom or aspect of “trauma bonding”?
Michael makes the point that “trauma bonding” can be misunderstood as a kind of “Stockholm Syndrome” and explains why this is so
In attempting to answer the question Alan and Michael discuss research that suggests a significant minority of gay men experience violence in their relationships.
A study, published in the July 2018 issue of The American Journal of Men’s Health, indicates that gay male couples experience domestic violence at rates comparable to heterosexual couples.
Researchers gathered data about Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) from both members of male couples, rather than from just one member. 46 percent of couples surveyed said they had experienced IPV over the preceding year, whether as emotional, sexual or physical abuse or in some other form. The study also found that internalized homophobia is a common factor in abusive behaviour, both among perpetrators and victims.
A 2016 study in the US identified a cause of violence in a relationship as a homophobic stigma. This is in line with research elsewhere. It is of course extraordinary that in the western world in the 21st century that there are people embarrassed by their sexuality.
Research suggests abusive partners within an LGBTIQ relationship may use homo/bi/transphobia or heterosexism to exercise power and control over a partner. For example, the practice of "outing" or disclosing HIV status, or threats to do so may occur. An LGBTIQ partner may use their partner's sexuality or identity as a form of control by limiting their access to friends and social networks, or by threatening to tell their partner's employer, parent, children, landlord or friends about their same-sex relationship or trans identity.
Internalised homophobia can manifest within an abuser as "contempt for an intimate partner" An abusive partner may also use homophobia or transphobia to control and isolate a partner by suggesting that they will not be believed or that they shouldn't report the violence as they will be discriminated against by services and the law. Further to this, fear of isolation and homophobia in the wider community may contribute to victims staying with an abusive partner.
Other research suggests that there is an appreciation or expectation of emotional intimate partner violence to be commonplace.
Research has also shown that violence can be normalised and this begs the question if this is so, does this mean that there is an absence of “trauma bonding”?
If the normalisation blunts the distinction between aggressor and victim we can see how it might be difficult to answer the question affirmatively. Yet what appears to be a contradiction suggests that normalisation is, in fact, a symptom. The victim has “accepted” the violence to sustain what they see as the relationship. It’s arguably no different to the trafficking victim taking food and shelter from their captor day in day out in order to survive. A relationship of dependency exists through unacceptable behaviour.
To conclude and by answering the question “trauma bonding” generally is now understood in terms of attachment theory, and the ways in which abuse triggers intense fear and attachment that, perhaps, ironically can prompt the victim to seek the perpetrator’s protection.
A final thought is that labels and, maybe, “trauma bonding” is one, can conjure –up a meaningful diagnosis or an answer to a complex problem, but our discussion shows that they need to be used with care.