Whenever someone opens up about their experience with an abusive relationship, whether it’s a celebrity divorce in the news or your loved one confiding to you that their marriage has severe issues, you might wonder why they didn’t leave sooner…or why they’re staying.
The answer from the outside seems so obvious: get out! But if you’ve never experienced the complexities of these kinds of relationships, it can be hard to realize that they’ve been on a rollercoaster of fear and confusion, with hope constantly reborn only to have it dashed repeatedly.
I know what it’s like to be the woman who’s keeping her mouth shut, trying to convince others that all’s going well – when it’s most decidedly not. I also know that after I was hit and I continued the relationship, I blamed myself, and was too easily convinced that I’d made it happen.
It became my fault. My fault for provoking him, my fault for not understanding him better, my fault for keeping the secret, my fault for staying.
I absorbed that guilt like a sponge. I struggled for years to find my worth while being in a relationship that was highly chaotic, dramatic, and critical. I kept trying to gain his trust and respect, which was an unattainable goal, but I kept trying, nonetheless. I kept trying and failing, which only fed my insecurity.
That very failure further proved (irrationally) that I was to blame. The attempt was to grind into me just how imperfect – how less than – I was. It simply seemed as if there was no way out.
My life was not in physical danger like so many women; I don’t want to portray that it was. The far greater part of the damage was emotional. It took deciding I was never going to make it right. Ever. And that it was okay to be imperfect. Even to divorce a second time – which held its own sense of shame.
While this was all over quite a long time ago, you never forget what it feels like to be her. If you’ve never been that person, please understand that it’s not as simple as just walking away.
What are trauma bonds?
Years later, I came to understand this dynamic is called a trauma bond.
This is when the cycle of abuse is repeated so many times that the patterns of shame, confusion, hope, uncertainty, and guilt feed on and reinforce one another. Usually there’s a power imbalance in a trauma bond, with the abuser wielding rewards and punishments that keep the abused feeling that the situation is unpredictable and out of their control yet, paradoxically, their fault. Any self-worth becomes increasingly difficult as the cycle continues which, in turn, makes leaving the relationship seem about as possible as deciding to spontaneously levitate.
It’s also a frequent part of trying to be in a relationship with someone with narcissistic traits.
But it’s not impossible; it takes some work and isn’t easy to do on your own, but you can walk away. Reach out to others, seek professional help if needed and possible, and know that nobody deserves ridicule, contempt, or disdain. Physical or sexual violence should never be used to control or subdue.
And that no matter what… it is not your fault.
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Originally published on September 14, 2014; updated and republished on October 2, 2022.