Why do Victims Relapse?
Whether you’ve first hand experience or not, you are most likely familiar with the cycle of addiction. Whatever poison the addict chooses, they keep chasing that feeling of the first high. Many have to hit rock bottom before they are able to reach out for help. And even once they are clean and sober there is always the risk of relapse. What you probably didn’t realise is that being in an abusive relationship is also addictive.
Victims of abuse become bonded to their abuser, a phenomenon defined as a trauma bonding, or better known as Stockholm Syndrome. You keep chasing that first honeymoon phase, where everything seemed perfect before the ugliness of the relationship set in. The abuse escalates until you hit rock bottom and decide to leave. For some, it’s too late and you pay for this addiction with your life. One Australian woman is killed by an abuser each week.
Abusers ensure dependency. They will have psychologically abused their victims long before the first slap in the face. They randomly alternate their abuse with love and affection. According to behavioural scientists, this ‘random interval’ behavioural technique is most impactful in creating obedience and reward-seeking behaviour. The victim ends up constantly second-guessing themselves, never sure whether they are being abused or not. Always seeking to be validated. Isolated from their support networks their abuser becomes the ultimate figure in their lives.
“At first it felt really flattering that he wanted us to spend all our time together. I loved how close we were. But then he started getting jealous, and calling incessantly when I was with my friends or family. I was embarrassed and just stopped seeing them as it was easier than dealing with him. By the time he started hitting me I hadn’t seen them for a year. I didn’t feel like I could reach out.”
Charlotte’s story is a common one. Red flags are ignored in the name of romance. Once their abuser has set the perfect environment, that is when they escalate to violence.
The slow erosion of confidence through constant control and verbal abuse becomes the norm. Imagine having every element of your day controlled. You’re told how to dress, whether you’re allowed to wear make-up or not, barred from using the kettle, driven to and from work, forbidden from fraternising with co-workers. Slowly but systematically your personal liberties are abraded.
Diane M, a brave survivor of extreme violence, sheds light on her experience: “I met Nick when I was in a dark place mentally, and he helped me feel better. He was looking to become a personal trainer and we spent time working out together. It was so lovely and the happiest time of my life, being with someone I could truly be myself with. We moved in together and then things changed. He was angry all the time and started becoming really critical of me. I just wanted things to go back as they once were.”
Diane’s abuser ensured that she was appropriately bonded to him before starting to abuse her. He then combined control with constant attacks on her character.
“He spent months criticising everything I did, and would discipline me for hours when I did something he perceived as wrong. He deprived me of sleep, controlled my finances, told me whether I was allowed to shave my legs or not, and spent all his energy commenting on every element of my life. By the time he punched me in the face I was exhausted. I had been worn down so much, and was anxious all the time. I kept hoping we could go back to where we once were.”
Even if you manage to get to safety from your abuser, much like an addict, you are initially in the danger zone. This is the most likely time for you to relapse and go back. To those who haven’t any direct experience of a trauma bond or addiction this may seem absurd.
So why do victims of abuse return to their abusers?
It is because the victim is wired differently than someone who hasn’t been abused. If you aren’t an alcoholic you can have a drink without having the entire bottle. Equally, if you aren’t trauma bonded with a person you can have a relationship without needing a person’s validation even if they are abusing you. It is this bond that makes the interaction between the abuser and the victim so dangerous.
Imagine you’ve left your partner, the one you wish loved you. You are devastated by the disparity between your reality and the reality of the situation. This is called cognitive dissonance and something that is psychologically painful to us. Our brains hate it when our perceived reality and actual reality don’t match up, which is why our brains start rationalising things. And your abuser understands this.
This is when victims get worn down by their abusers. Victims are in a state of exhaustion, traumatised and in mental anguish, experiencing extreme cognitive dissonance as their world comes crumbling down. Abusers use this and start to work their magic toolbox. The minute you leave they start promising you all the things you desired. They start bombarding you with messages of affection and admiration, giving you all you had wished for.
They start explaining that they behaved this way due to stresses at work, an alcohol problem, abuse they suffered as a child, their recent job loss and so on. They promise to change and that they’ll try better. They say they cannot do it without you. They admit they are weak and lost without your help. Within hours you receive hundreds of messages.
Diane remembers: “Whenever I left to go back to my parents he’d shower me with all the love I had been seeking. Promises of kindness and care, of unity and acceptance. He’d blame his temper and the violence on being abused as a child. I’d go back to him and the promises would last a few weeks until he’d start hurting me again. I never understood why. Why promise these things?”
This type of ‘love bombing’ is instrumental to the cycle of abuse. The abuser now focuses all their attention on normalising what happened and creating an alternate reality. The victim is exhausted. It took all their strength to leave them, and the abuser looks to exhaust them further. They overload them with false promises and fake admissions until they agree on something. Before they have time to process things properly, they go back.
If the victim was conditioned this way by a parent or previous partner, then the trauma bond is even easier to establish. This is why abusive perpetrators often profile victims and seek partners who will have a higher threshold of acceptance. They will tolerate behaviours which someone who has only experienced healthy relationships wouldn’t. They do so because their perception of what love is, is inherently different. Survivor Monica R thought she grew up in a normal home.
“My mother always made me work for love. I just assumed that’s what you did. It never occurred to me that it could be given freely without conditions. When I met Erik he was so wonderful, and I was feeling particularly vulnerable after a bad break-up. I wanted to do everything in my power to make this relationship work. It had never occurred to me that my childhood experiences led me directly to the clutches of an abuser.”
It took Monica years to recognise where the abuse originated, and how to undo this learnt behaviour.
The psychology of trauma bonding is complex. The scientific community agrees that it has negative and long-lasting costs to survivors including: physical ill health, increased levels of anxiety, depression, fear, feelings of incompetence, eating and sleeping disorders, increased misuse of drugs and alcohol, loss of self esteem, elevated feelings of insecurity, general loss of quality of life and damaged life opportunities (Laing & Bobic, 2002: 27- 31; Johnson et al., 2008). The impact of is so wide-ranging that there is no clear treatment.
Well-known programs like Alcoholics Anonymous recognise that sobriety is something you have to work at every day. They have intricate support systems, including peer mentors called Sponsors, daily meetings you can attend, and steps you can follow to aid your recovery. They recognise the importance of reconnecting with ones environment and that it takes a community to stay sober.
So why do we expect survivors of domestic violence to do it alone? Why do we question their motives, and blame them for staying?
What we need is better systems to support and empower survivors through communities which extend empathy and understanding. It’s not a survivor’s job to educate you on their suffering or to defend themselves to you. Next time you feel compelled to ask ‘why didn’t you leave’, perhaps consider asking ‘what could I have done to help?’ instead. Because if you have had the privilege of living abuse free, the least you can do is not traumatise someone who hasn’t been so lucky.