how abusive relationships capture us—& refuse to let go.
As a therapist, I spend my days listening to women and men talk about all facets of their lives—from the seemingly mundane to the monumental and magical moments.
My ears are always full, and I never experience a dull day. This is specifically accurate during the days when I am privileged to hear about my client’s romantic relationships.
Romantic relationships are defined as spaces where you can truly be yourself with someone who you respect and who respects you. A place carved out by two people where passion, pleasure, and intimacy coexist with safety.
For many of my clients, their romantic relationships exist on this foundation regardless of conflicting turbulence or disagreements. However, this is not the case for all of my clients, and this has not been the case in a romantic relationship of my very own past. I have had a romantic relationship void of safety that instead coexisted on the toxicity of trauma bonding similar to some of my clients.
None of these relationships start with the absence of safety. They began with safety, passion, intimacy, and pleasure. At first, the partner appears to be a stable, reliable, and caring human to play with both romantic intimacy and deep companionship.
Speaking from my experience, they were someone that I deeply loved who professed to love me in the same way. Much like my client, I fell in love with my then partner for a reason; however, I fell in love with someone who wasn’t real.
I didn’t know this for months, until one day they no longer showed behavior that indicated love or fell in the confinements of what would be expected from a romantic relationship. Much like my clients, I was shocked, dumbfounded, and in disbelief. I was not able to reconcile how one could switch from kindness to coldness and violate a person they declared to love.
As a therapist, I can conclude many reasons that lead someone to become toxic or hostile. I can suspect that the partners my clients speak of may, for example, be living with an addiction, a neurological condition impacting behaviour, childhood trauma being reenacted, attachment disorders, or a disorder of characters such as antisocial personality, borderline personality disorder, psychopathology, or narcissistic personality disorder.
These conclusions, plus many more, are the same ones I tossed around when trying to understand why my partner experienced no guilt or remorse when they lied, cheated, and verbally degraded me days after we miscarried our son. An experience that laid a foundation for trauma bonding. An experience that led me to understand firsthand the qualities of emotional abuse my clients had shared with me in the past.
The reasons why someone becomes emotionally abusive are varied and probably forever unknown, but the reality is the same—relationships with toxicity are filled with pain. The partner who is experiencing the coldness, where there was once kindness, suffers deeply. It is a type of pain that I don’t wish upon anyone, as it is one that lives on long after the abuser is gone. This is because the neurochemistry of love and attachment, particularly in the presence of abuse, can seal someone to their relationship in a deeper way than any amount of time or safety can create.
When myself and my ex-partner miscarried, there became a deep trauma bond between us. It was in the place of where our child once was. However, the toxicity in the relationship began before the pregnancy. The toxicity eroded the place of safety, beginning with subtle, verbally degrading comments regarding my body, ignoring my requests for him to stop sexually, using demeaning words to state that I was too sensitive, and isolation done by demanding constant communication and connection.
I didn’t know I was in an emotionally abusive relationship until I was so far in that I didn’t know how to get out. I didn’t know how to leave because I did not know who I was anymore. I only knew who he wanted me to be: submissive and subservient. This is similar to how my clients have presented during their emotionally abusive relationships.
You would think that as a clinically trained therapist, someone who hears about the intimate details of other people’s lives for a living and as the founder of a nonprofit that supports survivors of sexual exploitation, I would be able to pick up the signs of an abusive relationship. That all of my years of training and listening to stories of abuse would have equipped me with the skills to walk away.