PTSD Recovery: “The Trauma Bond,” & Forgiveness

Q: Dear Frank,

This question, addressed to you, recently arrived:

Why do I still feel like I am drawn to the person who victimized me exploited me and then convinced his buddies to victimize me?
I hated him for so long the pain and anguish wouldn’t go away.
Every now and then I feel the need to write to him to tell him he is forgiven.
My last few weeks have contained flooding of memories of abuses in my past and therapy medication and group therapy still haven’t sunk in yet. I keep getting the same vibe that I want to contact him.
This doesn’t go away (the trauma) does it?
I am trying my best to make all help available to me take effect but I sense I am getting sicker not healthier.
I couldn’t go to a local hospital because of resident legalities so I am searching elsewhere for an inpatient program that deals with DBT and healing.
I know I can benefit from that.
There has to be a way to make all the memories disappear.
What is the way to do this?
I hope you are well. Thank you for reading this.

A: Dear reader, This is an unusually candid and important question. Here is my answer:

Being drawn to a victimizer isn’t uncommon. Some people call it “The Trauma Bond.” Many recipients of cruelty feel attached to the tyrants and bullies who have persecuted them. In some cases this is due to training from an abusive childhood. The little girl or boy endured harsh parents and sibs and learned to equate beatings and ridicule with survival. Or the capture and hostage situation known as Stockholm syndrome may apply. A person is reduced to an infantile state, unable to talk, move or eat without permission and then is given the elements of life by the captor. The relief is experienced as a sensation of love. Years later, harsh treatment is falsely equated with romantic attachment. There are other theories as well, accounting for paradoxical positive feelings toward a heartless abuser.

I do not recommend sending a message of forgiveness to most of these abusive men (or women). Unless he or she has a conscience and has the capacity to accept responsibility, to atone for being abusive, to earn forgiveness, he or she will not benefit from your charity. In fact, that type of person will hold you in scorn and contempt and puff up his grandiose pride. You do him and yourself no favor by forgiving him if he is an unrepentant victimizer.

There is no way to make all the memories of degradation disappear. But memories can be accepted and tolerated. You are not alone; many others are survivors of cruelty. Perhaps you can learn to identify with the brotherhood and sisterhood of those who have endured trauma and are now free from tormentors. PTSD is, by definition, a condition of repetitive exposure to personal traumatic experience. The trauma of the past often feels as though it is here in the present. But if you are free of attachment to a perpetrator, you can say that the past is the past. You may not be able to do that just yet. But you can try to realize that many others with PTSD have made good progress and you can, too.

So do what you can to overcome the urge to forgive a person who has not earned forgiveness. Do what you can to see yourself as a member of a large group of survivors. Keep up the search for DBT (inpatient or outpatient) – it is a good idea for you! Dialectical Behavioral Treatment emphasizes mindfulness and modulating negative feelings. Mindfulness, when mastered, keeps you in the present rather than reliving the past and dreading the future. Modulating negative feelings allows you to value your sense of danger or regret, but not to let those types of feelings overwhelm you.

Thank you for raising these issues. They affect so many survivors. PTSD affects close to 10% of women. You are in very good company!