Why doesn’t She Just Leave? The Confusing World of Trauma Bonds

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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


10 Ways to be a Good Friend to Someone Who has Been Sexually Abused

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When we were nineteen my friend started having memories, flash backs, of her childhood. These memories were not very welcome as they brought with them pain, confusion, and shame. All of which were already there, but didn’t have a name. As she began to piece together these memories with what she already knew of her childhood, she began to realize and remember that she had been repeatedly molested around the time she was six years old. She was brave enough to trust her story to me and together we started figuring out how to help her heal. How to set her free from that shame. And how to integrate this newly remembered reality into her story.

Current statistics say that 1 in 4 women in the US have experienced sexual abuse and 75-95% of women coming out of commercial sexual exploitation have experienced sexual abuse prior to their exploitation. The likelihood that sexual abuse is part of her story for you or for a woman you call friend is sadly very high. So what do you do when a friend confides in you that they have been abused? What do you do if you yourself have been abused?

While each situation is unique and some situations will warrant the need for medical care or police involvement due to their recency, here are some things you can do or say to be a good friend to someone who has experienced sexual abuse.

1. Tell her your believe her: One of the major struggles for survivors of sexual abuse is that they are afraid no one will believe them, they are afraid people will think they are crazy, they are afraid no one will legitimize what they have been through. Saying I believe you helps undo all these fears. Saying I believe you builds a bridge of trust that is vital if you are going to be a good friend.

2. Do not minimize: No matter how small what she went through may seem to you, it was devastating to her. Do not minimize her experience or reflect that at least “insert something worse that could have happened here” didn’t happen. Going along with this, is do not tell her you understand, or that you know how she feels. Even if you have an experience of sexual abuse in your story too, your experience is different than hers. The time will come when telling your story may be helpful, but for now, all she needs to know is that you care. It’s about her story, her experience right now, not yours.

3. Let her decide: Now is not the time to take over and make decisions for her. Now is not the time to tell her what to do. She needs to know she is in control and gets to make the decisions about her. If you think she should file a police report and she disagrees, her decision is what you go with. You should encourage her to do the hard but healthy things like seek medical attention or file a police report, but do not try to force or control her. Be supportive and let her know that no matter what she decides you are there to help in whatever way she asks.

4. Be respectful of her story: Don’t ask for more details. Don’t discuss this without her present and without her approval. This is a case where your husband, boyfriend, mom, best friend, and whoever else you still tell everything does not need to know. Let her tell her story on her terms and to whom she feels safe to tell it. (Which I did with mentioning my friend in this blog)

5. Don’t be afraid of tears: 
or anger, or whatever other emotion she is feeling or not feeling about it all. She needs to feel the freedom to feel. Be honored that she feels safe to show you how she is feeling.

6. Be available: This is especially true of the twenty-four hours following her disclosing her abuse to you. Without being intrusive, text or call to check in on her. If she’s not reaching out still make sure she knows she is not alone and that you are available whenever she does need you.

7. Be a voice of truth: Remind her that it is not her fault, she did not ask for it, she did not deserve it, she is not dirty, she is not tainted, she is not damaged goods. This was not God’s plan for her. His plans for us are good and sexual abuse flies in the face of the beauty and good He intends for us.

8. Encourage her towards help: While I was able to be supportive to my friend and was the first person she disclosed her experience to, I was not her counselor. Ultimately the help of a trained and licensed counselor was the help that really got her the freedom and healing she needed.

9. Be patient: This process of healing is going to take time. Do not rush her. Do not give up on her. Be patient and allow her all the time she needs.

10. Educate yourself: This is a preemptive step so that you are ready when a friend comes to you with a story of abuse. Know the resources available in your area. Read helpful books like “Rid of My Disgrace” by Justin and Lindsey Holcomb that can help you better understand sexual abuse and how to be a good friend. And get the healing you may need from your own story, if you haven’t dealt with your own story of abuse you may feel triggered by someone else’s and suddenly overwhelmed by your own experience.

By Leah Lesesne, Clinical Care Coordinator for Serenity’s Steps


How Psychological Trauma Affects a Victim’s Healing Process

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Imagine you get in a horrible car wreck. Your leg is broken in three places, the bones slightly out of alignment. But the doctors tell you that it is all going to be ok. They are going to make sure you get the best care possible and everything you could possibly need to support your recovery. You get medication for the pain, physical therapy to keep those muscles nice and strong, occupational therapy to make sure you can still work, and even some disability payments to make sure you keep your housing. The only problem is that none of it really helps. Even though it’s the best care out there, a key piece was missing; no one ever went in deep to set those bones back in alignment.

It is easy to see in this situation the need for going deep into where it really hurts rather than just providing support services. However, when working with victims of commercial sexual exploitation (CSE) we somehow overlook how important that need truly is – to go deep to where it really hurts. We can provide job training and services, we can provide housing, we can provide community, but unless the woman gets help with the psychological trauma too the rest of those services never reach their full potential.

Psychological trauma creates a break in the foundation of the person. Anything else placed on top of that foundation is going to falter because the foundation needs repair. These breaks in the foundation often take the form of difficulty trusting, maladaptive behaviors, and distorted views of healthy living. The more breaks in the foundation, the more repairs needed.

Typically women who find themselves in CSE have experienced one or multiple traumas leading up to the trauma of CSE; and the majority of women in CSE were victims of sexual abuse and/or exploitation as a child. By the time a woman has exited CSE and is getting help she has likely experienced multiple traumas, and has many breaks in her foundation that need repair. As with a building’s foundation, the best person to help with those repairs is someone trained to do so – in this case a counselor.

Counselors trained in trauma-informed care know just how to repair that foundation. They know how to provide a supportive environment for that deep healing to take place. And they know it is going to take time. Probably more time than we would like it to.

Maybe you’re not a counselor, but you still have the opportunity to support a woman exiting a life in CSE and aren’t quite sure how to start helping her repair her foundation. Here are 5 ways you can support a woman who is healing from psychological trauma:

1.     Be patient with her. While we all want restoration to take place as quickly as possible, we also want it to stick. When we try to force our own timetables onto someone else’s recovery we are trying to control them. This only adds to the sense of powerlessness they already feel.

2.     Think outside your comfort zone. Her experiences are likely very different than yours. What seems abnormal to you may be familiar to her. Be open to new ways of thinking about things and don’t immediately pass judgment when it doesn’t fit with your worldview.

3.     Give grace. This is extremely important for these women as they have spent most of their lives disgraced and being taught that they deserve abuse, exploitation, and ridicule. Grace says the exact opposite. It says, “I don’t care what you do or don’t deserve or how people view you, I’m going to love you.”

4.     Be in touch with your own story. The more we are in touch with our own stories of trauma, the more gracious and patient we will naturally be. Being in touch with our own stories also gives us something to offer as we can share how we’ve been broken and repaired.

5.     Donate to help provide professional counseling services. Counseling can be expensive, and while many counselors are willing to work pro-bono with populations in need, they simply can’t afford to just work for free. Donating to provide professional counseling services means that the women can have consistent access to counseling services.

By Leah Lesesne, Clinical Care Coordinator for Serenity’s Steps