Therapist Kahaema Byer says victims of abuse should never be labelled as weak or stupid, as is often the description attributed to them when they return to an abuser.
Byer, who specialises in domestic and gender-based violence counselling, says this is because victims often experience what is clinically diagnosed as a ‘trauma bond’ and usually return to their abuser because there is an attachment to them.
“Even though this is not necessarily the best relationship for me and it causes me pain, it causes me a form of trauma and this person is at the behest of this person, there is an attachment that builds up from that repeated cycle of abuse,” Byer told Guardian Media yesterday as the country reeled from the killing of yet another woman in a domestic-related matter.
Byer, who works with the Coalition Against Domestic Violence (CADV), said the trauma bond was a very deeply rooted psychological complex that most could not comprehend. She said in T&T, there is an overwhelming ignorance of trauma bond in domestic and intimate partner violence cases.
“We absolutely do not have an understanding locally. A large majority of people locally, and I am going to go out on a limb without having any data to say, do not understand this. This is not common knowledge,” Byer said.
Painting a scenario, she noted that trauma bond is often the reason why, in many instances, when police respond to a domestic abuse call, when they arrive the victim often changes their mind and pleads for the abuser.
Illustrating the build-up to trauma bond for victims of domestic or intimate partner violence, Byer said it begins with what is known as the cycle of violence, which takes on several phases.
“The cycle of violence starts with the honeymoon stage. It can be at the beginning of the relationship but it’s throughout the relationship and we’re talking specifically GBV-IPV-type relationships. So you have the honeymoon phase, everything is good…roses…you’re showered with love. Everything is great,” she said.
But Byer said the honeymoon phase graduates to the tension-building phase, followed by the explosion phase and finally the reconciliation phase, in which the abuser reverts to a degree of the honeymoon phase, most times without an apology, to start the cycle all over again.
This, Byer said, does not only lead to a destructive confusion in the victim’s mind, as it gives them a sense of false hope that the abuser will change, but it also leaves them feeling psychologically trapped.
“That is very difficult because it’s almost like the victim feels…get kind of trapped or stuck in that cycle.”
She said even if the victim leaves at the explosion phase, because of the already established trauma bond they often return.
“At that point, the victim may come out and tell people about it. But remember, she might go back again and this is what we call the trauma bond,” Byer explained.
With such victims, Byer said to achieve a definite breakthrough, support was paramount and needed to be consistent, regardless of how many times the victim returned to the abuser.
“Having the support of, friends, family, co-workers … people believing them is important. What you don’t want to say is, ‘if yuh go back to him again, ah done helping you.’ That’s not what you want to say. ‘I am finished listening to your complaint, don’t ask me for help again.’ That is not what you want to say because you’re dealing with a trauma bond and it is going to take some time, so ultimatums don’t work,” she warned.
Byer said in the case of survivors, it was also important to help them gain financial independence. Additionally, she advised, loved ones to offer survivors safe spaces to stay when needed.
“Most abuse takes place in the context of isolation and silence. Survivors thus have a better chance of remaining safe when they are surrounded by community,” Byer said.
According to statistics from the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) released in 2018, in T&T, one-third of the country’s female population has experienced intimate partner violence in their lifetime. If you or anyone who knows someone in need of help, call the CADV at 624-0402.
Behaviours of trauma bond victims
• Refusing to leave the relationship
• Believing that the other person is powerful or knows everything
• When things are calm, idealising the person who carried out the abuse
• Believing that they deserve the abuse
Lingering impact of an abusive relationship on a survivor
• Experience sleep problems, including nightmares and insomnia
• Have sudden intrusive feelings about the abuse
• Avoid talking about the abuse
• Avoid situations that remind them of the abuse
• Experience feelings of anger, sadness, hopelessness, or worthlessness
• Have intense feelings of fear
• Have panic attacks or flashbacks to the abuse