What comes to mind when you hear the words “boyfriend” or “Daddy”? Do fond memories come to mind about good time? Maybe some bad memories too from a relationship gone sour or a dad that wasn’t around? Regardless of the emotion felt, there is something about those words that brings certain feelings and memories to mind.
Now imagine that your boyfriend or your Daddy asks you to do something for him, he’s hit hard times and needs you to help him pay the bills. You want to help, and you trust him, so even if something feels off you are willing to go along with what he asks you to do. But then something feels really off, he’s asking you to do things you really aren’t comfortable with, things that hurt. But he tells you that he’s proud of you. That he loves you. That he’s so thankful for your help and he’s going to make it up to you. You won’t have to do this forever.
But in between this praise and expression of “love” he beats you. He continues to ask you to do things you aren’t comfortable with. You kind of feel like he’s forcing you, but you went along with it, so you feel like it’s your choice. Eventually you do start saying, “No,” but he’s not taking no for an answer. He beats you some more until you “change your mind” and say, “Yes”. He’s not to blame, you changed your mind, how could he be at fault? You think about leaving, but he’s told you no one else would “love” you. He’s all you’ve got. You can’t make it on your own, or so he’s gotten you to believe. And so you stay.
Then eventually law enforcement gets involved and wants you to testify about all the things he’s forced you to do. They want you to say how horrible he is. But it’s not that easy. You still question if he forced your or if it was your choice. You remember the beatings and the abuse, but you also remember how he “loved” you and told you he was proud of you. Things may have been hard, but you feel like he was always there for you. He was the one that gave you a place to stay when no one else would. He’s the only one you feel like is looking out for you.
All of this is just a glimpse into what a trauma bond looks like. Trauma bonds are emotional attachments made during traumatic experiences between the abused and their abuser. Exploiters often cultivate these bonds purposely by breaking a girl’s will, abusing her, but then offering praise and reward. They do this to maintain power and control over her, while letting her think it was all her decision. This sick cycle of abuse and reward is what makes it so hard for CSE and CSEC victims to self-identify as having been exploited, and what makes it so difficult for them to heal from their wounds. You may have noticed another layer of confusion already in the titles “boyfriend” and “Daddy”. Titles that should convey warmth, safety, and happiness are now mixed with abuse, manipulation, and uncertainty.
One of the most important things you can do when walking with a woman who is on her healing journey is to be a consistently safe person, to have understanding for the confusing nature of trauma bonds, and allow her to express her feelings about her exploiters both good and bad. Healing from trauma bonds takes time and a lot of healthy relational bonds to overcome.
Written by Leah Lesesne, Clinical Care Coordinator with Serenity’s Steps