At some time or other, most of us have seen the signs of abuse. Bruises on the arm. The black eye hidden behind sunglasses. The hyper-startle response to a raised voice. The quiet tears quickly wiped away. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), 1 in 4 women and 1 in 7 men will suffer violence from an intimate partner in their lifetime. But there is also mental, verbal, emotional and even spiritual abuse, with and without physical or sexual violence, to consider as well. Yet there are so many who stay in these toxic relationships. Why, and how is this tied to an eating disorder?
Let’s tackle the first part of the question. There are certainly a number of reasons why people stay including: fear, believing the abuse is normal, embarrassment, low self-esteem, and even love of that abuser. There may be pressure from family for cultural or religious reasons, financial concerns, or a desire to protect another person in the home.
But there are a significant number of individuals who stay in these abusive relationships without realizing they are being abused. The attacks may start out with subtle jabs and insults, made playfully but inflicting hurt, and escalate to rage fits and abandonment or worse. These are usually followed up with overt acts of love to make up for it, leaving the victim to believe this kinder, gentler person is the “true” version of the partner who deserves another chance. When the abuser reverts to their old self, the victim comes to believe they must have done something to cause this.
The pattern typically starts in childhood. When we are young, we have a biological need to seek support from a parent or we will likely die. As such, we crave attention and affection and look to bond with a parent who loves us back. But what if that parent is neglectful or abusive? As children with little resources or defenses, we continue to bear the brunt of the abuse and return to the parent looking for that needed love and support. If we never get it, we can learn to move on and seek it elsewhere. But when it is given even in small doses, the child continues to stomach the abuse in hopes of receiving the sliver of affection they need. This becomes the norm. They bond to the parent through the trauma, learning how to behave perfectly to temper the abuse and seek the moments of warmth.
What happens biologically is fascinating. Not only are we emotionally riding a rollercoaster, but so are our hormones through this process. During the times of abuse, the body is excreting high levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, all the while waiting for the release that comes from the dopamine high we get from the moment of affection. The body is quite literally becoming addicted to the cycle of abuse and tenderness, giving us what we now call a “trauma bond.”
For many with an eating disorder, this type of abuse, neglect and intermittent affection becomes overwhelming. In a desire to be more perfect, to get the love and appreciation needed, they will manipulate their bodies through restriction, purging, exercise and the like to be more worthy of attention. For others, binge eating may be a way to get the dopamine high missing from loving contact. And eating disorder behaviors may be an act of asserting control and have nothing to do with a thin or muscular ideal. It may simply be a way to numb out from the emotional rollercoaster inflicted in the trauma bond.
Indeed, many turn to an eating disorder when they are so broken they are no longer a source of interest to the abuser and are discarded completely. At this point, the victim is no longer under the influence of their abuser and may have a chance to seek their recovery.
What are some signs that you (or a loved one) may be suffering with a trauma bond?
- Your partner keeps promising to make changes, but those changes are not lasting if ever demonstrated.
- Others are concerned or offended by something your partner said or did to you, but you brush it off.
- You are punished by your partner or “given the silent treatment” when you say or something “wrong.”
- You feel unable to leave your partner even though you don’t trust them or even like them.
- When you have left in the past, you are wracked with guilt and longing to get back together and feel like you may die if you don’t return to them.
- You check your cell phone obsessively for messages from your partner
- Feel a relentless need to give your abusive partner the benefit of the doubt.
- You don’t want to say “no” or stand up for yourself because you don’t want your partner to think you’re mean or inflexible, even though they are repeatedly mean and unwilling to be flexible with you.
The vast majority of those who leave traumatic relationships, and learn how to become strong and independent through therapy and other supports, become successful and thriving adults according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. There is hope.
By Andrew Walen, LCSW-C, LICSW, CEDS, Founder, CEO at The Body Image Therapy Center. If you would like to get in touch with Andrew please call 877-674-2843 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.