Traumatic Bonding: When You Love Your Abuser

Last Memorial Day weekend, as I was picking out flowers for my mom and dad’s graves, my dad kept coming to my mind:  What flowers would he like?……..Red was always his favorite color, I’ll get some red flowers……I should put a little American flag with his flowers, he would like that…….

There were a lot of scary, unsettling times in my life with my parents, but one thing that stayed pretty consistent was the soft spot I had for my dad.  It sounds odd, because I was terrified of him.

Letting your guard down was never an option.  The smallest thing would trigger a violent rampage.  Yet, I’ve always had an inexplicable fondness for my dad.  There were many times during my childhood when I defended him.

Reality is:  he was not only a conscienceless sociopath, he was also a child molester.  I know this.  I should say my brain knows this, because it never quite reached my heart.

How can two totally incompatible feelings exist about the same person?  This confused me a lot until I learned about traumatic bonding (also referred to in some cases as Stockholm Syndrome).

Human children are biologically designed to attach to parental figures.  Since both my parents were sociopaths and I didn’t have any other adults in my life, I subconsciously picked my dad as the lesser of two evils.

There were rare moments when I’d tell a joke and my dad would laugh, or I’d say something that would make him smile.  Or, he occasionally fixed air conditioners for extra money and he’d let me tag along.  I lived and breathed for those moments. I still remember how good it made me feel to see signs of acceptance from him!

That was the reason I never spoke a word to anyone about our abuse growing up.  Not only was I terrified of my dad, but if I “ratted” on him, I would lose his “acceptance” forever.   In my eyes, that was the equivalent of being left completely and utterly alone in the world.

According to many psychiatrists, abuse interspersed with kindness deepens the attachment to an abuser.  This is not only the case with parents/children, but in romantic relationships as well.  And sociopaths have a keen sense of how much positive reinforcement to dispense to stay in control of their targets.

It is also why sociopaths want to isolate their targets from other people:  the more time you are alone with the abuser, the stronger the attachment.  Not only does it deter outside influence, but if the sociopath’s target feels resistance is futile,  they will begin to succumb to the abuser’s authority.

This was something else my dad was keenly aware of, which is why my interaction with the outside world was kept severely limited.

My dad passed away many years ago, yet there is still that feeling of “attachment” lurking on the surface.  People sometimes wonder what they would say/do if they saw their departed loved ones again.  I’ve thought of this, too.  If I saw my mom, I would probably run away out of fear of her hurting me again.  But, if I saw my dad, I would hug him and say “dad, I’m so glad to see you.”

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56 Comments on "Traumatic Bonding: When You Love Your Abuser"

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I wish you peace and healing, Bally, whatever route you take. Though you probably won’t be able to talk about your past with your mom, I hope there is someone you can talk to. I’m glad even talking about it here is helpful.

I am still grieving a relationship with a dance partner that I got very close to a few years ago. Though I’ve told the story a dozen times, I still find myself crying whenever I tell it. I am just amazed at how deep pain can go when we have bonded with someone and they hurt us. And I only knew him for a few years! We all need to be so gentle with ourselves.

Thank you Stargazer, you have a heart of pure gold. I’m sorry that you have been hurt by the dance partner. Some we don’t care about after a while and others leave a lasting memory. His loss from how I see you as a person but that doesn’t comfort you. But if they hurt us maybe they are just not right for us.

It was really so helpful having you the last few days to chat to. Honestly it was great. Mum wants to speak to me and I will send her an email instead just now to talk about boundaries in the conversation. Things that trigger me. I’m starting to wonder if I have some sort of PTSD because certain words trigger memories – but I only get angry with mum. I cannot control it and I’m upset for weeks after and start dreaming at night of the past. I guess that is because I hold her responsible. Also she never will never listen or say she is sorry so that made it worse. So no point going there. I have to work out how not to get triggered and right now I need a break from speaking to her. I’m not fit to chat just yet.

I do believe mum has some disorder. Some traits of narcissism and also dependent personality disorder if that is possible. I could be wrong but there can be no other reason why she did what she did. But it isn’t right that I suddenly flare up with anger, honesty it just happens and I cannot stop it once I’ve been triggered, so setting boundaries with her will hopefully help.

Bally, You are making great observations. If your mother wasn’t disordered, why are you getting triggered into anger whenever you talk to her? Your feelings are giving you information. Keep listening. Your mom is probably not a safe person to express your feelings to, and this is part of why you are angry, because you can’t express your feelings to her. And you may have a backlog of feelings that you have stuffed down over the years. Your feelings have great wisdom. She cannot listen. But you can! (listen to yourself)

I know I talk a lot about forgiveness. But before you can get to the forgiveness, you have to know what you are dealing with, and to really feel your feelings completely. When you’ve worked through anger, forgiveness is a much more natural process.

Thanks Stargazer, I did write to mum saying in think I may have PTS and a few of the events that caused it and hence certain things triggered a reaction in me. I asked her not to talk about certain things as it may trigger a reaction and it must be terrible for her when I get triggered. I said I really appreciate she checks on my house while I’m not there and as she is my mum I needed to set boundaries in the conversation so we can communicate without me being triggered. This is what she wrote back:

“I have received your email. If you do not wish to speak to me then I do not want to add to your unhappiness. You have left me in no doubt what you think of me.

I am going out this morning also. I only wanted to speak about the cutting of your garden & hedge. I cannot make these decisions without your input. It is you who will be paying for it. I will tell the gardener that I will have to delay it unless you wish to contact him??”

Then gave me numbers for the gardener.

Stargazer, what I read is that she has turned this around to make me feel guilty at writing it. No acknowledgement of my post traumatic stress, then carried on to say she wanted to speak about my garden. Perhaps mothers would normally have said “we can work on this together” or “you need to get it treated”.

Bally, even in your comment about PTSD, you are still trying to get her to acknowledge you. She apparently is not willing to acknowledge you and feels attacked whenever you bring up any kind of grievance about the past, even in the form that you did. She is in denial and probably will not change. You have a choice of whether you want to be in a relationship with her on her terms. This is exactly what happened with my mother. I chose no relationship because I could not handle her denial – it was too upsetting and I kept getting triggered. No matter what I did, said, or tried, she never would or could hear me. And yours won’t either. But you keep trying. If you want to go NC with your mom, then you will have to accept that she will be angry and will not understand. If you try to limit the conversation, she may retaliate by going NC with you. This is who she is. So you need to decide if this is someone you want to have in your life – because it will always be on her terms. My mother was just like yours. I chose to sever ties once I figured out that our relationship would have to be on her terms, which meant she wouldn’t acknowledge my pain. You cannot get blood out of a stone.

I wasn’t until many years after I went NC with my mom that I finally let go of the past grievances. When this happened, I still didn’t trust her or want a relationship with her, but I just stopped being angry and felt only love. When she died, I was at peace. I no longer had the need for her to acknowledge my pain because I had let go of the pain.

Here is something else that may really be of help to you.

When I wrote the final letter (in email form) to my mother, I think I told you that I listed her behaviors from the past and how I had suffered as a result long into adulthood. I wanted her to acknowledge my suffering, and I wanted her to make amens – on MY TERMS, not on hers. For her, amends meant sending me gifts and trying to mother me as an adult, though I didn’t need her mothering then. MY TERMS meant that she paid me back for the dental work from the tooth she broke (which she didn’t even remember doing) and help me with the cost of therapy.

This letter was different from the others in that I began to see cause and effect – that when a certain event happened, this is how I interpreted it, and how I responded to it. I realized that this might be different for different people. For instance, my sister reacted to other forms of abuse that didn’t bother me at all. I had felt a certain way, interpreted the events a certain way, and lived my life a certain way because of these events. A lightbulb went on in my head when I realize that the way I responded to these events – and was STILL responding to the past events – was MY CHOICE. If I could choose to be hurt about something, couldn’t I just as easily unchoose it? So that is what I did. I decided not to let these things define and control my life any more. In reality, my mother had no more effect on what I feel in the present moment then anyone else did – except for me. The things she did were in the past. But this is not the past – this is the present. And I could choose to just start over in the present and not continue to feel victimized by the past. It was a mental shift I made after I wrote her that last letter. The letter was clear, non-attacking, and really not even angry. It was just simply my way of holding her accountable. But she refused to take responsibility. So then what?

Here’s what. There are MANY many injustices in the world. There are people who are going to step on your toes. There are people who will put you down, steal from you, criticize you, and belittle you. So what? Are you going to let these people define your level of happiness? Life is unfair in many ways. As an adult, you can CHOOSE to rise about it and not let your life be defined by these things. You can choose to let them go. It would have been nice if my mother had acknowledged my pain, but she could not. She had never processed the pain from her own childhood. She tried, but she could not fathom the extent of my suffering. Neither can a lot of people. So what? Is this going to determine whether I’m happy or not? When I realized I was in control of my own destiny – and I didn’t have to wait for my mother to acknowledge me – it was more freeing than I could ever describe to you. I learned that my happiness is NOT dependent on what others do.

More later – have to go to Zumba class. Peace and love….Star

Thanks Stargazer for taking the time to write all the advice. I agree we have choice of how to respond. However, what I don’t feel I’m able to control is my reaction to the triggers set off by mum. It is like someone else is possessing me when it happens. And this is not like me. And it only happens with mum.

I feel better for not speaking to her – must be nearly a month now. It has helped me wind down.

When I’m ready I will see if I can control my response to triggers and remind myself I choose my response. But at the moment I want some distance.

Your last posting in particular was very helpful. Thank you.

You may want to work with a trauma specialist who can help you with the PTSD. My take on it is that you need to let the anger come out and process it (away from your mum). But maybe there is some other kind of help that will be more beneficial to you – a way to release it without triggering it. I used to get triggered into rage pretty easily by my mom and a few select others who reminded me of my mom, particularly if they were manipulative. I didn’t stop having these reactions until I actually let the rage come out later on.

I will write later about choosing how you think about your life and your past, because it’s extremely important. I’m running around today and likely busy for the next several days. Please take care. 🙂

Thanks Stargazer, much appreciated.


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