“I just can’t imagine my life without them.”
I know you can’t. I know that they are the most important person in the world to you. That, in some ways, they feel like your whole world. They are the kindest, most generous, most interesting person you know. You feel so powerfully connected; it’s as if you are meant to be.
I know that it feels like this person is the absolute love of your life at times. They seem to “get” you in ways no one else ever has. They anticipate your wants and needs, surprising you with large outpourings of affection. They treat you like you are the only other person in the world—they want to spend time with you and tell you that they don’t deserve you. That they don’t even know why or how you could love them.
It feels intense, all-consuming, even a little intoxicating. You feel so lucky, and you feel seen.
You can’t imagine anyone else ever loving you like this, and you feel willing to do anything and everything to hold onto this feeling forever.
Yet then, they suddenly withhold their affection. They lash out at you for things you’ve said or didn’t say. Sometimes they get mad at you for something you did days, even weeks, ago. They tear you down and tell you that you’re toxic, that you’re worthless, and that you’re a terrible partner. They’ll manipulate your emotions, telling you they aren’t valid or that they don’t matter. They make the situation solely about their feelings and wants, despite that they are the ones repeatedly hurting you. It’s devastating, and you aren’t sure what happened, or why, or what you can do to fix things.
Then suddenly, everything feels normal again. They act as nothing happened at all. They start being kind and warm towards you again. They may even apologize, telling you they were having a bad night or that it was all a misunderstanding. That they will do better and will never be that way towards you again.
And they don’t. Until they do.
The Nature of Abusive Relationships
It’s challenging to understand the nature of abusive relationships, especially if you’ve never been in one. While most tend to picture physical assault when hearing the word “abuse,” there are many forms it can take. Emotional, verbal, physical, and psychological can all show up in an abusive relationship—and often, they show up together.
Relationships like this rarely start with abusive behavior outright. Initially, the dynamic is presented as love, compassion, and genuine care for each other. A baseline of trust, security, and affection is established between people and can be maintained for an extended period of time. Eventually, the abuser will test the waters—they will engage in certain behaviors to gauge the other person’s reaction. While an abuser’s response to how they treat someone may vary, it’s not uncommon for them to change gears and apologize immensely for their behavior. Whether they blame it on a bad day, on past trauma they’ve experienced, or as a one-time offense, they will assure the abused person that they won’t treat them that way again. They will compliment, show affection, and lovebomb the person until they feel reassured that things are back to normal. Then the cycle will start again, with abuse continuing to escalate in severity.
All the while, the abused person will struggle to figure out what is happening in the relationship. They hold onto the good moments and good memories. They try to desperately hold tight to the picture of the person they fell in love with and ignore or justify the terrible sides of them. They feel too connected to them and too in love to imagine leaving. Yet how does a person become so attached to someone who is cruel to them?
It’s Not True Love, It’s a Trauma Bond
According to Healthline, emotional attachment, as a result of a repeated cycle of abuse, devaluation, and positive reinforcement, is called a trauma bond.
An abuser will alternate between abusive tendencies and affection. They will follow up destructive, brutal behavior with kindness and apologies. The goal is to make the abused person believe that things will go back to “normal,” that the abuse was just a temporary situation that won’t happen again. The constant back and forth keeps the abused victim in a state of confusion, never truly certain of what to expect.
The hallmark of a trauma bond is that the abused person often believes that the abuser genuinely loves and cares for them and that they, as their partner, are the only ones who can help them. They hold onto the good moments, or moments that happened in the past where they saw compassion and love from their abuser. It’s this hope and belief that keeps them from wanting to leave the relationship altogether, even if they know they shouldn’t be treated that way.
The truth is, trauma bonds take advantage of our ideas of what love looks like. We make justifications such as “well, no one is perfect” or “you don’t just abandon the people you love.” While those are true statements, they don’t hold the same weight when placed in the context of abuse.
In a trauma bond, the abuser will create a sense of connection that makes the abused person feel adored and loved. They will give gifts and lavish them with kind words. They will appeal to the person’s empathy and understanding, justifying their terrible behavior with a range of excuses. They may blame it on a bad day or even traumatic experiences they’ve endured in the past, hoping to gain sympathy. They will praise the abused person and reaffirm their love with declarations such as “You’re the only person who truly understands me” or “No one loves me the way you do.” They build them up until they decide to tear them down again—and the longer the cycle continues, the more difficult it can be for a person to leave, because they can’t fully distinguish between the abuse and the love they receive after. It all starts to feel the same. It all starts to feel normal.
What Are The Signs/Stages of a Trauma Bond?
Here are a few signs that you may be experiencing a trauma bond:
1. Your relationship moved very quickly from the beginning. Your partner shared or encouraged you to share profoundly personal or vulnerable information as an act of trust, making you feel deeply connected to them.
2. They consistently affirm(ed) you with the idea that you were the only person who understood them and that they couldn’t be themselves with anyone else but you. They may even try to isolate you from family or friends to be the most important person in your life.
3. They may have pressured you into a more significant commitment than you expected but presented it as an act of love rather than a way to keep you close.
4. They love-bombed you; they lavished you with kind words, physical affections, and even gifts as tokens of their appreciation. They may have even come on too strong at times.
5. They suddenly began to act aggressively or lashed out at you unexpectedly. Their behavior seemed entirely out of character.
6. They apologized profusely for their terrible behavior, promising it wouldn’t happen again. They began being overly affectionate to you once again, as if to return to normal.
7. Once things return to a state of calm, they will repeat the process once again. They will continue to alternate between being abusive and being kind to you.
8. They will convince you that either you are the abusive person, that you’re bringing the abuse on yourself, or that the abuse isn’t happening at all. They will try to confuse you about what’s going on.
9. The cycle repeats over and over, with abuse growing worse over time.
Abuse Is Not a Normal Part of Loving Relationships
The reality is, true love doesn’t harm you, no matter what the excuse. While people aren’t perfect and make mistakes, a person who not only loves you, but has your best interests at heart, will not tear down your self-worth, manipulate you, or intentionally cause you pain. If they make a mistake, they will apologize and then actually do the work involved to change. They will actively work not to cause you suffering, not leverage it in an attempt to control you. True love doesn’t make excuses for why it’s okay that they hurt you.
Of course, it’s hard to see that when we love someone. We confuse the intense, unpredictable feelings as signs of a passionate affair. We tell ourselves that they just need someone to love them, and then they will be kinder. We assure others that the relationship isn’t perfect, but that they are a good person and things will get better. We tell ourselves that love isn’t all romance and candlelight—sometimes it’s being there through the “rough stuff.”
We convince ourselves that the love we have is unlike any other, and because of that, it’s worth holding onto. We don’t allow ourselves to admit that the person is abusing us because then we would have to come to terms with why we are in love with them. We feel shame and humiliation because we wonder who would stay with someone who treats them so poorly?
Here is the truth: you do not deserve the abuse that has happened or that is happening to you. It is not your fault that you fell in love with them. You did not bring this on yourself. No matter what they, or anyone else, tells you, you did not do anything to warrant this from them.
You also need to know that any excuse your abuser has for abusing you is not okay, even if it sounds reasonable. Abusive people can always find an angle to justify what they are doing—and most of them genuinely believe those justifications. Some might blame it on mental health issues. Some might blame it on past traumatic experiences. Some will insist that your behavior is what triggered the abuse. Some will try to tell you that it wasn’t a big deal or even that it didn’t happen at all.
Their excuses do not ever give them a pass for what they’ve done to you. Because for every person who claims their abusive nature is due to a mental illness, so many others with that same illness don’t abuse people. For every person who claims that due to their trauma, they are allowed to react the way they do, countless others have also endured trauma who do not abuse people.
An abusive person is abusive because they want power and control over a situation, and this is how they are willing to get it.
While I know it’s hard to imagine your life without them, you need to know that your life will be much better off. They aren’t going to change because they don’t have to—and they don’t want to.
You need to know that as much as you think this person loves you, love doesn’t look like that.
If you believe you are in danger or in an abusive relationship, contact the National Domestic Abuse hotline.