Image courtesy of koratmember at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
To those who’ve been in psychological and emotional captivity to an abusive partner, spouse or parent, the answer is abundantly clear. It’s complicated but obvious; yet far from obvious to outside observers.
Even those who know us well and have watched us struggle, find our actions inexplicable. We try to explain, we really do. But even to ourselves, the words sound hollow and illogical.
And so we clam up, feeling judged and misunderstood. And lonely…desperately lonely. In the short term, that’s probably all we can do. It takes time – a long time – for us to understand ourselves, and our situations, sufficiently to articulate the truth. In the meantime, until we find the strength to leave the abuser once and for all, friends and family often drop off like lemmings from a cliff, leaving us without much-needed support and encouragement. And that’s all part of our abuser’s grand plan.
I was lucky. I have two epic daughters and a strong mother. They didn’t quite understand but they were accepting and unswervingly supportive.
Image courtesy of saphatthachat at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
But by and large, I was isolated for over three years from every one of my former friends, and from most of my wider family. There were even attempts to alienate me from my eldest daughter and two grandchildren. Not only was my abuser angry, loud and frightening when my grandchildren came to stay with me, as they’d done since they were tiny, but his own children carried out their own sniper attacks while I was sleeping. (Read my post about flying monkeys here.)
My grandchildren would invariably leave, after a weekend spent with me, (once peaceful and serene), so distressed that my daughter no longer allowed them to visit. So I made the 45 minute drive into town to spend time with them whenever time and energy allowed – which wasn’t nearly often enough. I was kept far too busy jumping through hoops to avoid the backlash of my abuser’s anger. As you can see, the ways an abuser isolates his victims from their support network is, by no means, always obvious. More frequently, it’s a covert operation.
And I was sick; so desperately sick with a chronic illness I’d battled for nearly two decades. And let’s not forget that abusers target the ill; the vulnerable. (Note: All of us who are, by nature, compassionate and caring, are hence, vulnerable.)
So that’s reason number 1: We no longer have family and friends to turn to. No one knows what’s going on. No-one believes us when we tell them.
Let me tell you, it’s quite possible to be driven, quite literally, mad. I know, because that’s the state in which I found myself one September. Utterly bereft. Utterly confused. Utterly without any knowledge of or belief in my own reality.
You started out as quite normal. It’s normal to enter relationships with a healthy outlook that assumes shared power; shared responsibility; shared decision-making; shared affection. Everything is mutual and equal. THAT is normal.
THAT’S what you expected, as we all should. But that’s not what happens in abusive relationships.
Instead, you’re manipulated from the outset…subtly at first, and then, when you’re broken in (and broken), the abuse becomes blatant. But by then, you don’t trust yourself. Your reality is skewed. You no longer remember who you truly are. Before long, you can’t answer simple questions about yourself, like, ‘What’s your favourite colour?’
It’s all part of the plan. THEIR plan.
I’ve written in other posts about ‘crazy-making behaviour‘. Let me recap on one of an abuser’s major weapons – Gaslighting.
The movie, ‘Gaslight’ is a golden oldie, starring Ingrid Bergman (as the victim) and Charles Boyer (as the perpetrator). (As a bonus, a young Angela Lansbury makes her debut appearance!) Despite seeming a bit cheesy due to the era, it’s well worth a watch. If you’ve been abused, it will make your hairs stand on end.
To explain briefly, to gaslight someone is to set up certain conditions, and then deny they ever happened. All the while, the ‘gaslighter’ is coupling his or her denials with declarations of love, concern and undying affection, which creates a powerful emotional conditioning. Let me draw a parallel from my own experience.
My neurological condition is known for its cognitive difficulties. During times of stress and illness exacerbation, I rely on written lists; and when I really need to remember something important, I make an extra effort to commit it to long-term memory. I’ve been doing this for around 20 years now and although I still have momentary lapses, by and large, I’ve trained my memory to work fairly well.
Unfortunately, like all abusers, my tormentor seized on this vulnerability and used it against me. Relentlessly. We’d make joint decisions, during which he would seem perfectly agreeable and then I’d wake up the next morning to be told the conversations had never taken place. But also, of course, that he ‘understood’ because ‘poor me’, I have such cognitive difficulties…and he loved me anyway, despite how difficult I was. His performance was worthy of an Oscar and I fell for it over and over, with each episode becoming more and more cruel.
He started to drop the I love you‘s and began to look at me sidelong, like a snake, as if I were filth beneath his martyred feet. By that time, I doubted my own sanity and he openly told me I was f..ing psycho; the crazy one etc. When I stood my ground and opposed him, he became cold, callous and calculating; interspersed with every aggressive and passive-aggressive tactic he could pull out of his bag of psychopathic tricks.
Coupled with all the other modes of abuse and control, I found myself doubting my own sense of reality. It tipped me over the edge. By that time, I felt crazy. And then, of course, he used that against me. The spiral into the abyss of madness was swift and terrifying.
And that’s reason number 2: We reach a point where we no longer trust ourselves or our own reality. If we believe we’re crazy, we also believe we can’t cope on our own; and so we stay with the person who has driven us out of our minds.
And if you fall into this trap? (How can we not?) If you believe you’re not quite sane? What do you do? You cling desperately to the abuser who has deliberately…callously…manipulated your reality to fit his own ends. He wants you to believe HIM (or HER); and so give up on yourself. Who are you then? What do you know? Who and what do you trust?
Remember, family and friends have already disappeared one by one.
And so the trauma bond becomes complete. You have no choice (because your judgment and sanity have been taken from you) but to put all your trust in the only person left to look after you – your abuser.
You may have heard of Stockholm Syndrome. If not, here’s the lowdown:
It’s a psychological phenomenon that is frequently displayed by:
- Abused Children
- Battered/Abused Women
- Prisoners of War
- Cult Members
- Incest Victims
- Criminal Hostage Situations
- Concentration Camp Prisoners
- Controlling/Intimidating Relationships
It’s characterized by an intense emotional bond that forms between those who hold all the power in a situation and their victims, who hold no power whatsoever. It’s a survival strategy that makes no sense to an outside observer but perfect sense from a psychological perspective. It actually enhances the chances of survival for victims. Unfortunately, it also diminishes the likelihood a victim will leave an abusive situation because:
- Victims have been powerfully conditioned to show feelings of love, cooperation, appeasement and admiration for their abusers. If they don’t, they will be punished severely, either physically, emotionally, psychologically, sexually, financially…or all of the above.
- If victims depend solely on the abuser for sustenance (from food, shelter and clothing to human contact, affection, social interaction and validation), a ‘sick’ loop forms wherein victims are inordinately grateful for the tidbits tossed from the masters table.
- This gratitude and ‘good behaviour’ result from time to time, but not always (just to keep us on our toes), in magnanimous gestures from our captors – maybe a whole day of relaxed conversation, free from verbal and psychological attacks; maybe some tender caresses and dove-eyed smiles instead of the habitual silent treatment and snake-eyed glares; perhaps even a leave-pass to see a friend. And so we walk on eggshells, trained like a terrified dog who, beaten brutally by his master, still wags his tail and follows that master faithfully wherever he goes.
Image courtesy of Patrisyu at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
To learn more about the origins of the term Stockholm Syndrome, visit this link:
Stockholm Syndrome: Counseling Resources
In a nutshell though, the trauma bond – often referred to as Stockholm Syndrome is the third and probably most powerful reason victims of abuse just CAN’T escape their bondage.
There are other reasons victims stay with their abusers for far too long that are a little easier to comprehend.
We’re plain scared! Having been punished beyond all proportion for our imagined misdeeds, we know full well the extent of the backlash we’ll receive if we do leave. Some of us have been threatened physically; others have had children threatened; for others it’s been the threat of a smear campaign that promises to destroy our futures.
So, reason number 4 is that we’re just plain terrified!
And because our abuser has almost certainly held the financial reins and likely either destroyed our careers by covert means or ‘persuaded’ us not to work for any number of selfish reasons … we’re broke! We have no money and nowhere to go. We’re likely sick and debilitated; left without the capacity or skills to regroup, find work and establish ourselves financially..
So, that’s another reason we stay. We’re broke! We have no capacity for work and nowhere safe to go. That’s reason number 5 in a nutshell.
This list is far from definitive but I hope it gives an insider glimpse into that baffling question – Why on earth would you stay with such a monster?
From the perspective of an abuse victim, the decision to stay seems like a logical one.