Have you ever noticed a friend being abused — by a romantic partner or a dysfunctional parent — and gently suggested that maybe something is wrong in the person’s life?
I’ve learned from experience that few people are going to defend an abuser as much as his worst victim will. How could a victim defend his or her abuser? What could make someone so blind as to do this? What would make someone willing to deny what others can easily see?
I can understand how this happens, because I once played the role of the victim defending his abuser. It wasn’t that I was lying to anybody. I had just grown up with abuse and that was all I’d known. I was terrified of my father — and I knew he made me angry all the time — but I also believed he was the best father in the world.
How is it possible for me to have known all I knew about him, yet still put him on a pedestal? I don’t want to talk about this, but I need to.
We all change our minds about things over the years, but what I’m talking about is more than that. I’m talking about a strange state of affairs in which part of you knows something, but another part of you unconsciously insists it isn’t true — so much so that you militantly insist it’s not true.
I don’t know how we somehow hold contradictory beliefs in our minds, but since I’ve done it, I know how easy it is. I grew up angry with my father. I grew up knowing — somewhere in my gut — that something was wrong with the way my sisters and I were treated. But I also believed I had a wonderful father.
The best way I know to explain it is to compare it to Stockholm syndrome.
In 1973, a criminal attempted a bank robbery in Stockholm, Sweden. He failed to get the money, but he took four hostages. He negotiated an agreement for another criminal to be released from prison to assist him as they held the hostages in a standoff with police.
The two criminals held the four innocent people hostage in one of the bank’s vaults for six days. When the hostages were finally released, they were unwilling to testify against their captors. In fact, they raised money for their defense. After establishing this “trauma bond” with the criminals, they were actively on their side.
The more trauma people go through with their abusers, the more likely they are to experience this trauma bond. In hostage situations, it’s said that roughly 8 percent of the hostages develop this bond with their captors. My experience is that the percentage is much higher than that with victims of domestic abuse. Children of abusive parents experience it frequently and so do victims of abuse in romantic relationships.
I remember the first time anybody suggested to me that my father had abused us. It was my youngest sister who suggested it — and I got very angry with her. I was about 26 or 27. She had been the first of us to recognize our father for what he was. It would be another couple of years before I could accept it.
There’s a newspaper column which I wrote when I was about 25 that I still have a copy of, but it’s something I can’t bring myself to read. Part of me wants to throw it away, but another part of me wants to hold onto it so I can remember just how deluded I once was about him.
The column was a Father’s Day piece I wrote for the small daily newspaper where I was managing editor that year. It was a sappy article about how my father had been so wonderful for taking care of his children and raising us when our mother left when we were kids.
I meant every word of it at the time, but it makes me sick to realize I believed this at one time. I had a deep trauma bond with the man who had wounded me so deeply — and I would have done anything at the time to hold onto the fantasy that he had been a wonderful father.
I haven’t read the column in years. I can’t bring myself to read it. A few times over the years, I’ve allowed rare people to read it — because I wanted them to understand the depths of the traumatic dysfunction from which I came. I don’t know that I’ll ever read it again, but I can’t quite bring myself to throw it away.
When my eyes slowly started opening about my father, I felt growing resentment that finally turned into a roaring rage as I pulled away from his grip. It felt better to finally understand the rage that was inside me, but there was also a very strange sense of loss at losing the bizarre bond to him which had been there all my life.
A lot of people get angry with abuse victims who refuse to leave their abusers and who allow their abusers to keep tormenting them. I can understand this sort of frustration, but I have a little more empathy for them. I know what it’s like to be in denial. I know what it’s like to defend my abuser. I know what it’s like to think my abuser was the best thing in my life.
I think that a trauma bond develops because of fear. There’s been plenty written about this — by people far more qualified than I am — but I can tell you something that the academic types can’t.
If you’ve been abused or mistreated by someone — and if you’ve stayed with your abuser and defended him — don’t beat up on yourself about it. Accept that what you’ve done is normal, even if you don’t yet understand it. Don’t feel shame about yourself. Don’t feel embarrassed to change your mind and tell people you’ve realized you need to leave.
A trauma bond makes it harder to leave an abuser, but it can be done. If a part of you knows that you’ve been abused — even if you try to deny it to yourself — listen to that voice. Don’t try to silence it. Listen to what’s going on inside you. See a therapist if you can afford it. (Most therapists are terrible, in my experience, but the few good ones are worth finding if you’re ready.)
When you’re ready, you’ll admit the truth to yourself. Then you can admit the truth to others. You can make changes in your life — and you can escape abuse.
This really can change, but it all starts with becoming honest with yourself — and that’s the toughest thing you’ll ever have to do.