Sinking the Titanic: Drowning Under the Waves of a Trauma Bond
Imagine this: It’s the year 1912, and you’re a passenger on a glorious new ship called the Titanic. Everything is grand and dashing. You have your entire future mapped out, and you finally feel secure in your world. You’ve made enough money to purchase a first-class ticket on a luxury liner, and you’re on your way to America to begin the next phase of your life.
You have hopes. You have plans. You have a future.
But then—amidst all the rush of parties and fun social gatherings—an unexpected tragedy rocks the ship so thoroughly you’re thrown into complete chaos and turmoil. You’re confused. You’re terrified. You’re dazed with shock.
The ship has hit an iceberg. The entire vessel is going down. Your sense of safety is ripped out from under you and shredded to pieces. Your future plans crash around you like a shattered plate. You realize nothing is as it’d seemed. It’d all been a lie. This isn’t the safest, most secure ship ever built. You’d been fooled.
And you’re going down because of the lies you’d so wholeheartedly believed.
You’re plunged into the ice-cold water. It feels like fire to your skin. It burns, it hurts, you’re numb, you’re in too much pain. You plead for the agony to stop, but there’s no one around to hear you. You’re alone in the dark, dark waters. There’s a storm in your soul, matching the roiling waves, yet you’re so numb with pain you think you must surely be dead.
But you’re not.
Because then, you see it. It? What? You’re not certain, but the waves are crashing in over your head, your lungs are filling with vicious liquid, and if you can’t find something to keep your mouth above the water, you’ll surely drown.
There it is, again. You can see it more clearly now. Something sticking up out of the water, just ahead. It’s your only hope. Nothing else is around. No other people. No driftwood to cling to. Nothing but those fiery waves, about to consume you.
There’s no other way to save yourself. You have to reach that one thing sticking up out of the water. It’s something to cling to, something you’re certain will save your life.
With all your mind, all your soul, and all your strength, you force your limbs to move as you paddle toward that life-saving object. Finally reaching it, you cling to the ice-cold peak sticking above the waves. You’ve been saved! Your head is above water and you’re no longer at risk for immediate drowning.
The peak is so cold it feels warm to your numbed skin. Warm and inviting, even though in the back of your mind you know it’s frigid and dangerous. You push that thought to the furthest place of your brain, away from conscious reasoning. You need saving, and this is the only thing that can save you.
As you cling to the peak, hugging it close, you realize it’s the tip of the iceberg poking out of the frigid water. The very thing that had sunk the ship in the first place. The thing that had caused the destruction.
Yet you cling to it anyway, because it’s your only hope.
This, my dear friends and readers, is a visual description of what it feels like to be trauma bonded to an abuser.
A trauma bond is when a victim forms a powerful, fiercely faithful emotional tie with her abuser, even though she’s enduring the suffering of cyclical and toxic mistreatment.
Although it may not feel like it, this is a psychological bond, not an emotional one. It’s the cyclical nature of the abuse—one moment he’s Dr. Jekyll, bringing roses and gushing love, and the next he’s Mr. Hyde, spewing all sorts of verbal, emotional, perhaps even physical venom—that forms the trauma bond in the first place.
My heart is in anguish within me …
For it is not an enemy who taunts me—then I could bear it;
It is not an adversary who deals insolently with me—then I could hide form him.
But it is you, my equal, my companion, my friend.
We used to hold sweet converse together …
When cyclical abuse happens, again and again, it’s natural that a trauma bond forms. With each churn of the abuse cycle, the bond becomes thicker and stronger, like a chain forged link by link, yard by yard. When the abuser is acting nice, the relief is so great that the victim feels a gush of what she thinks is love.
In abusive situations,
“we look for evidence of hope – a small sign that the situation may improve. When an abuser/controller shows the victim some small kindness, even though it is to the abuser’s benefit as well, the victim interprets that small kindness as a positive trait of the captor … Abusers and controllers are often given positive credit for not abusing their partner. The victim expects to be verbally battered and when it doesn’t happen, that ‘small kindness’ is interpreted as a positive sign.”
But most likely it isn’t. Don’t be fooled. It’s just another phase of the abuse cycle.
Some signs that you may be trauma bonded to your partner include:
You obsess over your relationship and fear he’ll leave you, alternating with fears that you’ll be stuck with him forever, alternating with … well, constant thoughts about your relationship.
You try to cut off contact with your partner, but the anxiety and fear, loneliness or dread are so overwhelming that you feel you must contact him again and make things right.
You tend to go overboard trying to help or “fix” those who have a history of being toxic to you.
He doesn’t understand you—how you think, what you feel, or anything of a truly intimate nature—and you feel the compulsion to get him to understand—even though the more you explain, the worse things become.
Betrayal of trust is a huge issue—yet you keep trusting him, again and again. And yet again. Much to your detriment, shame, personal wounding, and inner destruction.
You feel loyal to him and would never let others know who he truly is—despite how destructive he is to you, your children, your family, your entire life.
Despite lack of accountability, or signs of true change, you continue with the relationship in hopes that maybe, someday, things will be different.
“The exaggerated arousal and subsequent feelings make the battered woman extremely vulnerable and dependent for some time after the battering incident. The emotional aftermath of a battering incident for the batterer, usually guilt and contrition, leads him to attempt to ‘make amends’ via exceptionally loving treatment toward his partner. Thus he becomes, temporarily, the fulfillment of her hoped-for fantasy husband and at the same time his improved behavior serves to reduce the aversive arousal he himself has created, while also providing reinforcement for his partner to stay in the relationship.”
Whether you stay in your relationship or leave, cutting the ties of the trauma bond is crucial. Although it may feel like love, it isn’t. It’s a chemical and psychological response to extreme anguish, loss of safety, anxiety, and PTSD.
A trauma bond is just that—trauma. Not love.
The first step toward healing is to move out of self-isolation and create a trusted, worthy social circle around you. This can be in the form of friends and family already in your secure circle, or by joining a trusted group of supportive survivors.
I also highly encourage using the following tools to help you recover your solid sense of self as you break toxic bonds:
Keep a journal: Pour your heart out onto the page, say whatever you want. Your journal is a sacred safe space. Treat it as you would a dear friend.
Don’t blame yourself – and don’t give in to his blaming and accusations of how “wrong” and “deficient” you are.
If possible, go “no-contact.” The best way to break a trauma bond is not to communicate with your abuser, even though you may have panic attacks and severe anxiety as you begin this journey. Stick with it! The fear and panic are manifestations of the trauma bond, not of any authentic emotion. If you can’t go “no-contact” with your abuser, engage in the “gray rock” method. Don’t engage in his crazy-making or circular talk. Answer questions with a bland “yes” or “no,” but don’t justify yourself or try to explain your perspective. That won’t ever work. Just leave the scene as soon as you can, go off by yourself, and pray.
Which leads me to … Prayer. This is something I can’t recommend enough, because it’s impossible to talk about all the graces gained through authentic prayer. This is a hefty topic, and many people don’t even know how to begin an active prayer life. I get that! If that’s the case with you, please contact me. Ask me anything. Above all, pray before the Blessed Sacrament. If Adoration isn’t available in your area, I understand. Sadly, I don’t have easy access to Adoration in my diocese. Instead, I attend online Adoration. It may seem odd at first but please, give it a try! It’s worth it. Trust me on this.
Just remember: The actual words we use in prayer are secondary; it’s the will of the heart that truly matters, for the heart is where true prayer originates and resides. That’s why we need not fear “saying the wrong thing,” or being overly focused on getting the words “just right.” God knows what we, in the depths of our hearts, intend.
Healing is possible. Christ not only promises us this, but He shows us this throughout His entire life, especially through His death and resurrection. If we can just touch the hem of His robe, we can be healed.
However, when immersed in trauma, even making our way through the crowd in order to touch Him can seem impossible. I get it! But I reassure you, I’m not handing out bland platitudes. Again, contact me with your questions, thoughts, doubts, fears … whatever. I’m here. I’m not just a faceless blogger-person. I’m a real gal, and I do want to hear from you. I’ll help in whatever way I can. If I can’t help, I can at least give you a few resources to get you started on your Christ-centered journey toward healing and renewal.
And I can offer you my prayers.
Thanks for reading Create Soul Space: Domestic Abuse Support and Healing! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.