March 24, 2023

The Financial Express

By Shubhangi Shah
While Alia Bhatt and Shefali Shah-starrer Darlings is generating all the right noises around domestic violence, it has also shed light on what a trauma bond looks like. Why did it take a painful miscarriage for Bhatt’s character to finally retaliate against her abusive husband, played phenomenally by actor Vijay Varma? Were repeated bouts of physical violence and emotional abuse not enough? Why did she continue justifying his behaviour and was hopeful that he would change? Why do so many women, and even men, continue to suffer through such relationships? Is financial dependence the sole reason, or the involvement of children and families? Or is there something else at play that lies deeply embedded in the psychology of the abused?
“A trauma bond is an emotional attachment, which a person develops towards her abuser that stops her from walking out of an abusive relationship,” explains Dr Jyoti Kapoor, a senior psychiatrist and founder of Manasthali, an organisation that offers mental health services. It stems from a repeated cycle of abuse and positive reinforcement. “It involves periods of emotional, physical or sexual abuse, interspersed with promises to change, and expressions of remorse,” adds Ann Philipose, an independent psychologist and couples’ therapist. “Physical affection from an abusive partner takes away all the pain,” says Dr Kapoor. “This inconsistency strengthens the attachment to the perpetrator, as the survivor experiences relief and even gratitude,” Philipose explains further. It does not stop here but a power imbalance forms where the survivor perceives herself as inferior, promoting a dependency on the abuser.
Such trauma bonding is not restricted to partners, or spouses, and can spill over to include relationships such as child-parent (or an abusive caregiver), elderly-caregiver, hostage-kidnapper, boss-employee, and leader-members of a cult, says Dr Trideep Choudhary, psychiatrist, Fortis Memorial Research Institute.
“Some theorists say that the seeds of trauma bond are sown in the childhood itself when a child is repeatedly abused by the primary caregiver, parent, or the step-parent,” says Dr Choudhary. “The child might rationalise the abuse as the correct response for her mistakes and gets dependent on it. The child might end up learning this behaviour of gaining gratification from an abusive relationship and seek such a maladaptive pattern in her future relationships too,” he adds.
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However, at the root, it appears that the seeds of trauma bonding lay embedded in our biology. The enforcer here is dopamine, the feel-good hormone associated with pleasure and reward. It is because in a trauma bond, periods of abuse are followed by that of calm often marked by showering with gifts, apologies and gestures of physical affection by the abuser, which “serve as rewards that help reinforce the rush of relief and trigger the release of dopamine”, explains Dr Kapoor. “This can even increase the craving for such behaviour like an addiction, which keeps the abused attached to her abuser,” he adds.
Not just that, it also triggers the release of neuropeptide oxytocin, another feel-good hormone, which calms stress. “Oxytocin is one of the chemicals that pushes for this reuniting to take place. It tends to facilitate keeping the connections,” he adds.
At risk
Although anyone can develop a trauma bond, some are at a greater risk. A history of abuse is one. “Those who have a limited network of support would not get an objective view of what is happening and are prone to get into a trauma bond,” says Dr Choudhary. In a romantic relationship, the one with a narcissistic partner is also at a higher risk, he adds.
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Also, it is assumed that a person, generally a woman, who is financially dependent on her partner is likely to stay in such a relationship. Responding to this, the psychiatrist says, “When it comes to trauma bonding, the abused person is in an unhealthy emotional and manipulated relationship with the abuser that turns into a vicious cycle of abuse and remorse. Most of the time the abused is dependent on the abuser to fulfill some of his needs, be it financial or more importantly emotional needs.”
How to break free
Getting out of such a relationship is not easy and requires much more effort than people realise.
“The first step is to realise that such a relationship is causing more harm than good. Sometimes it is difficult to find out the root cause of the problem. On such occasions, it is better and prudent to approach for professional help,” the psychiatrist recommends. Also, talking to loved ones can help greatly, says Philipose. Seek help, she adds. “Also, once you decide to leave, cut all contacts and refrain from thinking of the past,” says Dr Kapoor. “Not just that, give yourself time to heal and address mental health symptoms related to long-term trauma and abuse,” says Dr Choudhary.
Why professional help?
All the three mental health experts recommend seeking professional help.
“Once you leave, in the absence of chaos, you might feel there is no connection when you meet someone loving, secure and kind. Professional help from a trauma-informed therapist can help break these cycles. The therapist also provides a safe, nonjudgmental and compassionate environment in which the ongoing emotional attachment with their abuser can be explored, without shame,” says Philipose. “The therapist can also help work on the inherent weaknesses of the person so that she is trained to avoid such toxic relationships in the future and to build healthy ones. Therapy can also help address any negative thought patterns,” adds Dr Choudhary.
The signs
What not to do
When you find yourself in such a relationship, do not self-blame. “Do not remain in isolation and feel that you are worthless,” says Dr Jyoti Kapoor, a senior psychiatrist. “Do not feel guilty or that something is wrong with you,” recommends Dr Trideep Choudhary, psychiatrist, Fortis Memorial Research Institute. “However, avoid making unrealistic expectations for the relationship, or reinforce your abuser’s behaviour by being submissive,” he adds.
What to do
When in such a relationship, try to find support. “Take care of yourself through meditation, exercise, healthy eating and adequate sleep. Act and live in the present and whenever decision-making becomes hard, pause, take a step back, and reflect on your relationship from a different perspective. Apart from these, seek professional help,” recommends Dr Trideep Choudhary, psychiatrist, Fortis Memorial Research Institute.
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