The Surprising Role of Empathy in Traumatic Bonding

Research examines the relationship between traumatic abuse and bonding.

A recent study by Effiong et al. suggests empathy intensifies traumatic bonding—the formation of a strong bond between the victim and his/her abuser. Published in Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, the study is discussed below.
But first, a few definitions.
What is empathy?
Empathy is defined in a number of ways. Depending on the definition chosen, its meaning may overlap with similar concepts, such as empathic concern, emotional empathy, cognitive empathy, sympathy, care, and compassion.
According to a commonly used definition, empathy is composed of affective and cognitive empathy:
Affective/emotional empathy refers to the ability to generate an appropriate emotional response to another person’s emotions. Affective empathy overlaps with sympathy and compassion.
Cognitive/intellectual empathy refers to the ability to understand another person’s psychological state and point of view (to put oneself in another’s shoes). Cognitive empathy is related to theory of mind.
In the study by Effiong and colleagues, empathy was assessed using the Basic Empathy Scale, which measures both affective and cognitive empathy.
What is traumatic bonding?
Traumatic bonding refers to the formation of a powerful emotional attachment, due to repeated cycles of violence, between the victim and the abuser (whether a boyfriend/girlfriend, spouse, or complete stranger).
The fact that the abuse often comes in cycles—meaning that the violence is interspersed with positive reinforcement—also explains, in part, why victims find it difficult to leave their abusers.
For instance, after harming the victim, the abuser may (in an apparent reversal of power) apologize profusely, beg for forgiveness, or behave with great love and surprising tenderness.
Nevertheless, sooner or later, the next cycle of violence occurs, confusing the victim.
Another reason victims of abuse don’t leave has to do with their low self-worth. As the maltreatment continues, the victims—with their self-esteem eroded—find themselves in an increasingly powerless and dependent position.
In fact, they may no longer even believe that they deserve to be treated with kindness, dignity, and respect. This makes it much harder to stand up to the abuser and risk more rejection and humiliation.
The three dimensions of traumatic bonding
Traumatic bonding has three dimensions:
1. Core Stockholm syndrome: Associated with interpersonal trauma, cognitive distortions (e.g., rationalization, self-blame, seeing the abuser as a victim), unrealistic hope for things getting better on their own, believing love will prevent the abuser’s aggression, etc. Many of these behaviors are essentially (dysfunctional) coping mechanisms.
2. Psychological damage: Associated with depression, interpersonal difficulties, low self-esteem, the loss of sense of self, and many symptoms commonly seen in borderline personality disorder, like fear of abandonment or never finding a loving partner after leaving the abusive relationship.
3. Love dependency: Associated with assuming that one’s survival is dependent on the abusive partner’s love and protection, thinking the abuser’s love would be worth any pain, experiencing a loss of identity when alone, and believing that one would have nothing to live for without the partner.
Let us now turn to the new research on the link between empathy and traumatic bonding.
Investigating traumatic bonding in victims of intimate partner violence
Sample: 345 women from the Sexual Assault Referral Centre (n = 145) and the Lagos State Domestic and Sexual Violence Response Team (n = 200) in Nigeria; average age of 36 years old (18-61 range); married an average of 10 years.

1. Intimate partner violence: Measured with the short version of the Composite Abuse Scale (30 items). Participants were asked about the frequency of emotionally or physically abusive behavior by an intimate partner. Sample items: “Slapped me”; “Told me that I wasn’t good enough”; “Harassed me at work”; or “Tried to rape me.”
2. Empathy: Measured with the Basic Empathy Scale (20 items). For example: “After being with a friend who is sad about something, I usually feel sad,” and “I can often understand how people are feeling even before they tell me.”
3. Traumatic bonding: Assessed with the Stockholm Syndrome Scale (49 items). For instance: “Without my partner, I have nothing to live for”; “I cannot make decisions”; “When others ask me how I feel about something, I do not know”; “I both love and fear my partner”; and “If I give my partner enough love, he will stop getting so angry at me.”
Analysis of the data showed empathy was a mediator of the relationship between intimate partner violence and traumatic bonding, including core Stockholm syndrome, psychological damage, and love dependency.
So, for all three aspects of traumatic bonding, empathy appears to be a path through which intimate partner violence is “translated and intensified” into traumatic bonding.
Empathy, particularly cognitive empathy—meaning the ability to understand another person’s psychological state—appears to be a pathway through which intimate partner violence intensifies traumatic bonding.
One way of explaining this finding is that victims use their empathic ability to rationalize the mistreatment they endure.
For instance, they may view the perpetrator as a victim, a victim who needs their help or one who cannot be held responsible for the aggression or abuse.
Such rationalizations are not surprising. After all, with their self-esteem and sense of self eroded by abuse, these women find it difficult to generate self-compassion and are instead prone to guilt, self-blame, and self-sacrifice.
Not only do victims of intimate partner violence tend to feel unworthy of respect, kindness, and love, but many also feel they will never find someone who treats them well.
Since victims additionally believe they cannot survive on their own (due to impaired autonomy), they find it extremely difficult to leave the toxic relationship, and as a result continue to suffer terribly. Unless, of course, they seek therapy and try to break this vicious cycle.

psychology today

, ,

A New Hope for Building Your Emotional Intelligence

New research shows the skill that can make you more emotionally intelligent.

Do you ever wonder whether it’s better to show your emotions or to keep them hidden? Perhaps your hairstylist cuts your hair much shorter than you asked for. Do you decide it’s better just to wait till it grows back in (and find a different stylist), or should you let the manager know how infuriated you are? Either strategy has pros and cons, so which is the lesser of the two evils?
According to a recent study by the University of Catania’s Maria Quattropani and colleagues (2022), most situations present two starkly different alternatives for managing your emotions, and it is indeed often hard to know which way to react. The key to healthy adjustment, they argued, isn’t always being right about your choice but being able to see that there is indeed a choice.
They noted that “flexibility in emotion regulation represents a central tenet for overall psychological adjustment” (p. 698). In other words, some situations call for expression, and some for suppression. Even if you take the wrong turn in this dilemma, at least you’re able to see that life often presents more gray than black-and-white areas when it comes to handling your emotions.
Emotional Flexibility and Its Measurement
You might think that all of these choices would depend on the quality of your emotional intelligence. But what if your emotional intelligence isn’t all that high? Are you stuck in an endless loop of constantly saying and doing the wrong thing?
The idea of emotional flexibility can become your saving grace. Even if you don’t top out at the positive end of the emotional intelligence curve, Quattropani et al.’s research suggested using emotional flexibility as your go-to alternative skill.
You can get an idea of what this quality looks like by seeing where you rate on the measure the Italian research team used, the “Flexible Regulation of Emotional Expression” scale, abbreviated as “FREE” (Burton & Bonanno, 2016). To complete this scale, you put yourself into 16 situations that fall into four categories based on the emotion involved in the situation (positive or negative) and your reaction to that emotion (express or conceal). For each, you are to rate yourself from “unable” to “very able” to be even more expressive of how you were feeling.

See how you would do on these four sample items:
Positive-Expressive: You receive a gift from a family member, but it’s a shirt you dislike.
Negative-Expressive: Your friend is telling you about what a terrible day they had.
Positive-Conceal: You are in a training session and see an accidentally funny typo in the presenter’s slideshow.
Negative-Conceal: You are at a social event, and the person you’re talking to frequently spits while they speak.
How did you do? Were you perhaps confused by the positive-negative distinction? The thinking behind this scale is that you are able to use cues from context to decide whether to show or hide your feelings. Thus, someone giving you a shirt you don’t like for a present would be a situation in which you would be expected to show positive emotions even though you don’t feel them.
In the scenario involving the typo, there is a positive emotion that you feel that you need to conceal or else face condemnation from others in the room (even though they may have the same reactions as you do).
Tying Emotional Flexibility to Mental Health
The U. Catania researchers translated FREE items into Italian (and double-checked them for meaning) and administered them to an online sample of 503 adults ages 21 to 72 (average 29 years old), most of whom (85 percent) were female. In addition to the FREE scale, participants completed measures that, combined, assess the trait of emotional intelligence: well-being, self-control, typical emotionality, and sociability. The research team included 12-item standard symptom checklists to assess mental and physical health.
Using a statistical model that allowed them to evaluate each possible predictor of health separately, Quattropani and her associates demonstrated that, consistent with previous emotional intelligence research, those four trait-like qualities predicted positive health outcomes. However, even after taking these scores into account, FREE scores added their predictive value, with enhancement negatively and suppression positively relating to psychological well-being. Thus, less enhancement and more suppression seemed to provide the magic formula for emotional flexibility’s relation to positive outcomes.
Training Your Emotional Flexibility
If you take as your starting point your assessment of your emotional intelligence (honestly appraised) and find that you don’t think you’re all that adept, the Italian findings provide hope that change may be possible. Putting yourself back into those scenarios now, imagine whether it’s good to put on a show of tremendous happiness at a gift you don’t like. Based on these findings, it’s not. This may be because other people can sense that you’re going overboard in your reaction and therefore become offended or because you’re making yourself feel something you don’t.
Conversely, in suppression scenarios, covering up an emotion inappropriate to the situation for different reasons may benefit you in other ways. Your job is to use your emotions to foster good relationships and attend to your psychological health. A small degree of covering up may allow you to accomplish both goals.
Looking at the larger picture, you can now see why the quality of emotional flexibility can be so important. You don’t want to go through life always showing the same emotion or over- or under-expressing your feelings. Gauging how you react to the dual demands of situations and your inner state can help you make up for whatever you lack in your basic emotional intelligence.

To Sum Up
Your route down the pathway to fulfillment is greatly eased by being high in your ability to read people, situations, and your inner state. Practicing the skill of emotional flexibility can help you find the ideal balance as you adapt to life’s many emotional quandaries.

psychology today

, , , ,

Does Having a Baby Actually Make Parents Happy?

The first year tends to be great. The fifth, not so much.

For many couples, having a baby is one of their greatest wishes in life. But does having a baby really make parents happier? And if yes, how long does this baby bliss last? A new study published in the journal Emotion focused on answering these questions (Asselmann & Specht, 2023).
A New Study on How Parents Feel After Having a Baby
In the study, German scientists Eva Asselmann and Jule Specht analyzed data from more than 5,000 first-time parents from the German Socio-Economic Panel, a large-scale cohort study that started in 1984. All parents included in the study had experienced the birth of their first child between 2007 and 2019. The parents were interviewed yearly and asked about a number of different things. These included life satisfaction (“How satisfied are you currently with your life as a whole?”), as well as happiness, sadness, anxiety, and anger in the four weeks before the interview. These data were analyzed from five years before the couple became parents to five years after they became parents.
A Surprising Result
The scientists found out that having a baby changes psychological well-being in several ways.
The most pronounced effect was a strong increase in life satisfaction and happiness in the first year of parenthood – so baby bliss is indeed real! However, life satisfaction and happiness gradually bounced back in the years following the baby’s birth. Altogether, couples showed similar levels of life satisfaction and happiness five years after becoming parents compared to five years before becoming parents.
Regarding negative emotions, the strongest effect was found for anger. Anger decreases in the five years before a couple becomes parents and reaches its lowest point during the first year of parenthood. After that, it increases, and five years after the baby was born, anger was even larger than five years before the baby was born.
The authors of the study suggested that these higher anger levels reflect a reaction due to the stressful aspects of being a parent, such as sleep deprivation or time conflicts between family and work. For sadness and anxiety, the effects were only small. Sadness showed similar effects to anger but did not reach higher levels five years after the baby was born compared to five years before the baby was born, and anxiety gradually increased the five years before the baby was born, which may reflect anticipation effects.
An analysis of gender effects revealed that mothers experienced a more substantial increase in happiness and life satisfaction than fathers but also experienced stronger anger effects. The study's authors suggested that biological factors or gender role expectations may explain this effec.
Take-Away: Baby Bliss Lasts for a Short Time
Taken together, the results of the study clearly show that baby bliss exists. In the first year of a baby’s life, the parents are happier and more satisfied with their life than before. However, this effect only lasts shortly and when the child is five years old, both happiness and life satisfaction of his or her parents had bounced back to the level they were at five years before the child was born.
Moreover, anger levels rise, reflecting the stressful aspects of parenthood. This shows that having a baby has a lot of positive short-term effects on psychological well-being, but for high long-term life satisfaction, it is essential to find strategies to cope with the stressful aspects of having a child.

psychology today