By Lauren Poole
*Trigger warning: discussion of emotional abuse and mention of suicide*
From a young age, girls are taught that those who hurt them are the ones who love them most. We are taught that love means putting up with pain, means standing by someone who keeps hurting you until eventually, you change them.
Think Beauty and the Beast, Chuck and Blair, Ross and Rachel. Toxic, unstable ride-or-die relationships aren’t just romanticised - they’re actually portrayed as a goal, as the realest and truest form of love. It doesn’t matter how many times someone hurts or disrespects you if eventually they start to show you love again. It doesn’t matter if that love never stays - we are taught to stay and wait for it to come around again.
That endless cycle of love and affection followed by periods of emotional abuse and devaluation isn’t love. It’s called trauma bonding, and it’s terrifying.
There are 7 stages of trauma bonding:
Love bombing: they drown you in love and affection.
Trust and dependency: they work to win your trust, and do their best to ensure you depend on them for validation and love.
Criticism; they gradually start criticising, ostracising, and blaming you for everything.
Gaslighting: when things go wrong, you always seem to be the one at fault. Try to argue, and you are met with, that didn’t happen. You’re making it up. You find yourself questioning yourself at every turn.
Resignation: you don’t know for sure what’s real and what isn’t anymore, but you know that the only way to get back to Stage 1 is to appease them and go along with whatever they say - even if it means denying your reality.
Loss of self: when you try to fight back, it only makes everything worse. You find yourself settling just for some peace; your confidence chips away.
Addiction: your body is on a constant cortisol high (stress) and craves dopamine (pleasure). This creates a cycle of dependency that feels a lot like a drug addiction.
When I was 17, the guy I was seeing texted me literally every minute. Told me over and over how sexy and funny and talented I was, how in love with me he was. It was more attention than I’d ever been used to, and I was so swept off my feet I didn’t see the ground coming.
I will admit that my self-esteem issues at the time didn’t help the situation. But that was exactly what made me a prime target (though this isn’t always the case). Because he had almost single-handedly built my self-esteem from the ground up, he knew exactly how to knock it down. Every time he did, he’d make sure to be the nice guy, to swoop in and pick up the pieces. It was like a sick game of Jenga; building me up just for the pleasure of watching me fall apart again.
The transformation started small. If he said something hurtful, I’d try to call him out, and he’d deny ever saying it. If he did something hurtful, he’d say it didn’t happen like that, say I was exaggerating or making it up. If I tried to argue back, he’d accuse me of being toxic, and somehow twist my words so that somehow, I always ended up apologising. It got to a point where it felt like I was apologising just for existing, always keeping an I’m sorry ready at the back of my throat like a reflex, because I never knew when I’d need it.
I hated myself for the person I’d become, so quick to apologise when I’d done nothing wrong just to avoid the conflict, just to get my nice guy back. I felt like I was giving myself up, bit by bit, day by day.
My friends were concerned. They kept telling me to leave and I wouldn’t listen. I was consumed by the idea that this exhausting back-and-forth, this leaving and returning, meant that he was 'The One'. I kept tolerating the pain he put me through because I so badly wanted to believe it would be worth it in the end. When he hurt me, I’d remind myself of the good times, of the connection we shared, brush off my friends’ worries with excuses.
It’s only sometimes. Most of the time he’s great. It’s worth it for the good times, I told them, trying to ignore the fact that the ‘good times’ were becoming less and less frequent.
It felt like an addiction. The thought of leaving made me feel shaky and indescribably scared, like I’d die if I had to live without him. Every time he left, I’d fall apart; I was on the brink of suicide more than once. I never cry in front of anyone, but I completely broke down at Newport train station, to the point where the station guards were keeping a worried eye on me. It was that day that it hit me: I didn’t recognise myself anymore.
I honestly think that if we stopped romanticising toxic relationships in media, and more than that, if we taught young people (especially girls) the difference between healthy and unhealthy relationships, then I wouldn’t have ended up stuck in that situation for as long as I did.
Girls are sold the idea that there is one person for all of us, that we have to put up with their toxicity until we are eventually able to change them for the better. So we end up staying with people who hurt us, because we think it is our duty to make them better, because we think there is no one else out there for us, that there is no better option. We end up in trauma bonds, in abusive or unhealthy relationships, and we are blamed for all of it.
For the longest time, I felt ashamed of what I went through. I distanced myself from friends who saw me in that state because I was so humiliated. But no matter how long it took, no matter how bad it got, I got myself out, and I can see now the strength that that took.
If you are reading this and have ever been in a trauma bond, or in any otherwise toxic relationship, I want you to know it isn’t your fault, you have nothing to be ashamed of, and you are not alone. Even when it feels impossible, we can leave these situations, and I am living proof of that. There is better out there, for all of us. We just have to believe in it. We just have to believe in ourselves.