“I wonder why she is still living with her abusive husband?” is a question we often hear people asking whenever a woman’s story related to domestic violence is brought up. The same was the case with Sadaf*, a 34-year-old resident of Karachi who not only chose to live with her abusive husband for nine years but also shared three beautiful children with him. In May this year, she finally decided to file for a khula (a woman’s right to divorce).
Unlike the common myth surrounding the survivors of domestic violence, Sadaf wasn’t financially dependent on her husband. She was fairly educated and was working for a renowned company in the metropolis. Because of her background, her friends and family would remain baffled as to why an accomplished, financially independent woman with supportive parents would continue to suffer and refuse to call it quits.
“I was madly in love with him since the beginning and started loving him more when he became the father of my children. He would physically abuse me one day but apologise and be affectionate towards me for the rest of the week. My family knew about it and they begged me to leave him, but I always forgave him,” she said.
Sadaf said that her husband never stopped her from pursuing her profession or fulfilling her dreams, but his impulsive anger outbursts kept increasing with time and for no apparent reason. “I thought becoming a father would change him, but the abuse continued unabated. Nonetheless, I always focused on his positive traits and ignored the beatings until I couldn’t take them anymore and filed for divorce,” she added.
Sadaf, like thousands of women in Pakistan, suffer from a psychological condition called ‘trauma bonding’. She knew about NGOs that helped survivors of domestic abuse. She knew about the country’s laws. She was strong and independent and didn’t necessarily care about society. But she was constantly in denial of her abuse.
Explaining the phenomenon, Dr Asha Bedar, consultant clinical psychologist, trainer, and researcher, told the scribe that trauma bonding refers to the bond that a victim of any kind of abuse sometimes forms with their perpetrator. “Whether it’s an abusive parent-child relationship or an intimate partner relationship, if there is manipulation and abuse, victims develop a bond or an unhealthy kind of attachment with their abuser.”
According to Dr Bedar, abuse in a relationship is indicative of a power imbalance. And in such settings, the perpetrator will very often be manipulative. Sometimes they would be affectionate, loving, and apologetic, and will appear to be very caring, but there would always be some level of control and abuse that will continue to prevail.
Since the perpetrator continually blows hot and cold, the behaviour often confuses the victim. “So, when the victim sees the abuser being caring and loving, they may only focus on those good parts of the relationship. They remain in denial of the abuse and this denial leads to the formation of a bond with the perpetrator,” shared Dr Bedar.
Elaborating on why victims of domestic violence develop this bond, the psychologist explained that the whole emotional dynamic behind denial is the victim’s unwillingness — and sometimes their inability — to accept the truth. But very often, it’s the mind resisting wanting to see the situation, so the person doesn’t see themselves as the victim. “Of course, if you change the story in your mind and say things to yourself like, ‘this is not abuse,’ or ‘this person loves me no matter what’, then you don’t see yourself as a victim,” she stressed.
“And so, when the victim changes this narrative in their head and focuses on the good things, there is a kind of attachment that develops, and they want to hold on to the belief that things are okay. In the process of believing and trying to convince themselves that their perpetrator is not an abuser and that their behaviour isn’t manipulative or abusive, the victim becomes more and more attached to the perpetrator.”
Psychologists and therapists who work with survivors of abuse say that the pattern of tolerating abuse and being in denial is very common. But all of this takes place at a subconscious level because survivors believe that they share ‘real and genuine love’ with the abuser. “They actually believe they are in love because they want to survive in that relationship. In that dynamic, there is such fragile confidence and self-esteem that this very traumatic attachment can increase and further shatter the victim’s sense of self,” highlighted Dr Bedar.
The psychologist also mentioned that a similar kind of pattern is observed in parent-child relationships when the parent is abusive.
Amna, a Pakistani student currently enrolled at a university in the United States, said that her mother used to emotionally abuse her as a child. However, she could never see her mother as an abuser. “My mother was extremely emotionally abusive towards me and would also slap me sometimes over non-issues,” Amna, who asked to be identified by her first name only, recalled. “I had no idea what was going on, so I kept doing things to impress her, in hopes of getting the love and attention I desired from her.”
The 26-year-old further said that instead of helping, her father and other family members used to shush her up by using religious references, saying she would invite the “wrath of God if she raised her voice against her mother.” Amna said that she started acknowledging her abuse after attending group-therapy sessions at her university to manage stress.
“I forgave my mother for what she did but the way I got more and more attached to her despite the maltreatment adversely affected my mental health and overall personality,” she added.
According to Dr Bedar, the inability to acknowledge the abuse is a ‘self-protective mechanism’ that victims employ to cope with the situation. “This pattern is followed in order to avoid seeing your own vulnerability or facing how traumatic the situation is. In the short term, it’s adaptive so you need to build a sort of wall to cope with the trauma. But eventually, you form the bond. It’s a dangerous dynamic,” she maintained.
In situations of domestic violence or sexual abuse by a member of the family, a traumatic bond is fairly common because options for survival are already fairly limited so it’s part of their coping ability to become attached, become dependent, justify the abuse, play it down, trivialise it, give it another colour, or portray it in another light, because it’s a survival strategy.
“But eventually, it creates a lot of emotional cracks within a person, leading to a range of psychological issues. It usually happens when options for survival are limited and there is societal attitudes are not supportive. A lot of survivors are actually forced into situations where they continue to live with their abusers or continue to be exposed to them. So, the strategy that the brain develops to cope with that is called trauma bonding,” reflected Dr Bedar.
Impact of abuse
Nayab Azhar, a psychologist who is currently pursuing an MPhil degree at the University of Karachi, explained that trauma bonding is not confined to romantic or parent-child relationships, but is also found among colleagues and friends. “Once the bond is formed, it fuels a need for validation, care, and attention in the person being abused,” she said.
Speaking about domestic violence cases in the country, Azhar said that the phenomenon has existed in Pakistan for many decades but was constantly brushed under the rug in the past. “While social media has spread awareness about women’s rights in society now, there are still many women who go through abuse in their everyday lives,” she lamented.
“Abuse has many forms: women may be going through physical abuse, psychological abuse, sexual abuse, or verbal abuse, and each form of abuse leaves its own kind of impact on the victim,” she elucidated. Azhar added that research has shown physical abuse to be the most harmful in terms of physical as well as psychological health. “Though some survivors escape the abusive relationship as well as the abuser, many of them are still forced to live with their abusers for the sake of children, out of societal pressure, or to protect the family’s ‘honour’.”
She said that such circumstances may push the victims of abuse to suffer psychologically on many levels. “Many women become victims of depression and develop suicidal tendencies. Forcing them to live in an abusive relationship where their own needs are repressed continuously while the oppressor’s needs are fully met, completely affects their overall mental and physical health,” she elaborated.
“In addition to this, living in such a relationship not only affects women’s psychological health but can also have a negative impact on children bearing witness to the abuse.”Azhar also added that children exposed to these circumstances may become withdrawn, develop the same narcissistic traits they have been observing in the abuser, develop gender role conflicts, or even face difficulty managing and maintaining their own relationships, causing the never-ending cycle of abuse to continue.
Why do abusers continue their abuse?
Shedding light on why abusers continue maltreating their victims despite developing a bond with them, Dr Afsheen Masood, Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Punjab, said that cases related to trauma bonding, especially in terms of domestic violence situations, are increasingly being identified in Pakistan these days.
“In such settings, the abuser — who is often a narcissist person and only cares about the fulfilment of their ego — inflicts mental and physical torture on the victim but expects a nice treatment in return,” she stated. Dr Masood further explained that the abusers do not have the capability to realise how they are emotionally scarring other people, especially a loved one, through their abusive behaviour.
As a result of trauma bonding, a vicious cycle of domestic violence continues. First, there is the honeymoon phase in which partners are very loving and expressive towards each other and shower each other with rewards and gifts. But with the passage of time, there is frequent aggravation over small things. And if the conflicts exacerbate, it leads to torture and abuse. The narcissist has no guilt, no remorse, and no self-insight when this happens.
The academic went on to say that resolving or managing trauma bonding is not easy because abusers, especially in the context of Pakistan, usually refuse to go for counselling.
“This bond cannot be easily undone as it requires elaborate, rigorous therapeutic measures and counselling sessions. Otherwise, such cases seldom get resolved,” she observed.
In developed countries, acknowledging the abuse and seeking help is much more common as compared to Pakistan. And because of the situation in our country, we continue to see women often living with their abusers albeit unhappy.
This was, however, not the case with Sadaf, who not only acknowledged the abuse she was being subjected to but also took the courageous step to part ways with her abusive ex-husband. “People told me to stay for the sake of my children. But I finally realised that my children were better off living in a non-toxic environment than seeing their mother being physically abused by a person who was supposed to be their protector. I wasted nine precious years of my life with him, but I am proud of my decision and suggest to everyone that it is better late than never,” concluded Sadaf.
*Name of one of the victims was changed to protect her privacy.
Sarah B Haider is a journalist working for Geo.tv. She tweets @bohotsaara.