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