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"Why don't you just leave?"

As a therapist working with clients who've experienced trauma and abusive relationship dynamics, I often hear my clients saying "I don't know why I didn't just leave" and "If people find out, they will just ask what took me so long?" They speak about the immense shame, self-doubt and disappointment, the anger towards themselves and the disbelief of "I never thought this would happen to me."

Whether it's a romantic partner, a family member, or any other form of relationship, the struggle to break free from the grip of abuse is a complex and multifaceted journey. In this blog post, I aim to delve into this topic, shedding light on the psychological mechanisms at play, including the role of 'fawn' responses, intermittent reinforcement, and the impact of trauma on decision-making processes.

Understanding 'Fawn' Responses and Intermittent Reinforcement

The 'fawn' response is considered a survival reaction because it is a coping mechanism that individuals employ in the face of perceived danger or threat, particularly in interpersonal relationships characterized by abuse or manipulation. Coined by therapist Pete Walker, the 'fawn' response is one of four typical responses to trauma, alongside fight, flight, and freeze. In situations where individuals feel powerless or vulnerable, such as in abusive relationships, the 'fawn' response involves attempting to appease or placate the abuser as a means of self-preservation. This reaction often stems from a deep-seated fear of abandonment, rejection, or further harm, leading individuals to prioritize the needs and desires of the abuser over their own well-being. By adopting a submissive and compliant demeanour, individuals hope to mitigate the risk of escalating violence or punishment.

The 'fawn' response can manifest in various ways, including:

  1. People-Pleasing: Individuals may go to great lengths to please the abuser, accommodating their demands and suppressing their own needs and boundaries in the process. This may involve agreeing with the abuser, seeking their approval, and avoiding conflict at all costs.

  2. Submissiveness: Individuals may adopt a passive and submissive stance in interactions with the abuser, refraining from expressing dissent or asserting their own autonomy. This can manifest as a reluctance to confront abusive behavior or assert boundaries, out of fear of retaliation or abandonment.

  3. Over-Adaptation: Individuals may adapt their behavior and personality to align with the preferences and expectations of the abuser, sacrificing their authenticity and individuality in the process. This may involve suppressing aspects of their identity or conforming to the abuser's standards in order to maintain a sense of safety and belonging.

  4. Self-Blame: Individuals may internalize the belief that they are responsible for the abuse or deserving of mistreatment, attributing the abuser's behavior to their own shortcomings or inadequacies. This self-blame can further perpetuate feelings of shame, guilt, and powerlessness, reinforcing the 'fawn' response as a means of seeking validation and acceptance from the abuser.

While the 'fawn' response may initially serve as a survival strategy in the face of acute danger, it can ultimately contribute to the perpetuation of abusive dynamics and inhibit individuals from seeking help or leaving the abusive relationship. By understanding the 'fawn' response within the broader context of trauma and survival, we can better support survivors in reclaiming their autonomy and healing from the impact of abuse.

Furthermore, intermittent reinforcement plays a crucial role in perpetuating the cycle of abuse. Similar to the principles of operant conditioning, intermittent reinforcement occurs when the abusive behaviour is inconsistently followed by either punishment or reward. This unpredictability creates a powerful psychological trap, as victims become conditioned to anticipate moments of kindness or affection from their abuser amidst the chaos and cruelty. Consequently, they may cling to the hope that things will eventually improve, despite the overwhelming evidence suggesting otherwise. Intermittent reinforcement can take various forms, each contributing to the complexity of the cycle of abuse.

Here are some examples:

  1. Apologies and Promises: The abuser may apologize profusely after an episode of violence or manipulation, promising to change their behavior and seek help. These apologies may be sincere at times, leading the victim to believe that the abuse will not happen again. However, the promises are often short-lived, and the cycle of abuse continues, leaving the victim feeling confused and hopeful for change.

  2. Periods of Affection: Intermittently, the abuser may display acts of affection and kindness towards the victim. This could involve showering them with compliments, gifts, or gestures of love, creating a sense of emotional connection and intimacy. These moments of tenderness can be deeply rewarding for the victim, reinforcing their attachment to the abuser despite the underlying fear and mistrust.

  3. Temporary Changes in Behavior: The abuser may temporarily alter their behavior in response to the victim's resistance or attempts to leave the relationship. They may become more attentive, accommodating, or even remorseful, leading the victim to believe that their efforts to change the dynamics of the relationship are effective. However, these changes are often superficial and fleeting, reverting to abusive patterns once the tension subsides.

  4. Manipulative Gaslighting: Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation in which the abuser seeks to distort the victim's perception of reality, causing them to doubt their own thoughts, feelings, and memories. Intermittently, the abuser may deny or minimize their abusive behavior, blaming the victim for provoking or exaggerating the situation. This manipulation can leave the victim feeling confused, invalidated, and dependent on the abuser for validation and reassurance.

  5. Isolation and Control: Intermittently, the abuser may exert control over the victim's social interactions and autonomy, alternating between periods of extreme possessiveness and apparent generosity. For example, they may isolate the victim from friends and family members, only to later encourage or facilitate social outings as a means of maintaining control over their social network. This oscillation between isolation and inclusion can leave the victim feeling trapped and dependent on the abuser for social validation and support.

These examples illustrate how intermittent reinforcement operates within abusive relationships, perpetuating a cycle of hope and despair that makes it exceedingly difficult for victims to break free. By understanding these dynamics, we can better support survivors and empower them to seek help and reclaim their autonomy.

Impact of Trauma on the Brain and Decision-Making

Trauma doesn't just affect our emotions; it rewires our brains in profound ways, influencing how we perceive and respond to the world around us. Imagine you're in an abusive relationship where your partner alternates between moments of tenderness and explosive anger. Over time, your brain adapts to this unpredictable environment. The amygdala, responsible for processing emotions, becomes hyperactive, keeping you on constant alert for signs of danger. Meanwhile, the hippocampus, crucial for memory and context, struggles to differentiate between safe and threatening situations, making it hard to trust your own judgment.

Altered Stress Response and Emotional Regulation

The stress response system, including the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, goes into overdrive, leaving you in a perpetual state of hypervigilance and hyperarousal. Even the slightest trigger can send your heart racing and your palms sweating. Emotionally, you're on a rollercoaster. One moment, you're filled with love and hope as your partner apologizes and promises to change. The next, you're overwhelmed with fear and shame as they unleash their anger once again.

Impaired Decision-Making in High-Stress Situations

In this heightened state of arousal, decision-making becomes a Herculean task. Your brain struggles to weigh the pros and cons, and impulse control goes out the window. You might find yourself making rash decisions to placate your abuser or avoid confrontation, even when it puts your safety at risk. Cognitive flexibility is compromised, making it hard to see beyond the immediate threats and envision a way out of the cycle of abuse.

Trapped in the Cycle of Abuse: Learned Helplessness and Trauma Bonds

As the abuse continues, the effects of learned helplessness take root. You begin to internalize the belief that you are powerless to change your situation, and that no matter what you do, the abuse will persist. This belief becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, further eroding your sense of agency and reinforcing your dependence on the abuser for validation and security.

Moreover, trauma bonds deepen the psychological entanglement between you and your abuser. Despite the pain and suffering inflicted upon you, you may find yourself emotionally bonded to your tormentor, clinging to the fleeting moments of affection and intimacy as proof of their love and devotion. This paradoxical attachment, often referred to as Stockholm syndrome, is a survival mechanism rooted in the human need for connection and belonging.

The abuser exploits this vulnerability, leveraging your attachment to maintain control and manipulate your behaviour. They may alternate between periods of abuse and remorse, gaslighting you into believing that the abuse is justified or that you somehow deserve it. Over time, these tactics wear down your sense of self-worth and distort your perception of reality, making it even harder to break free from the cycle of abuse.

In this state of learned helplessness and trauma bonds, the prospect of leaving the abusive relationship can feel overwhelming and terrifying. The thought of facing the unknown, of severing ties with the person who has become your entire world, fills you with dread and uncertainty. Yet, deep down, there is a flicker of hope—a glimmer of strength and resilience that refuses to be extinguished. With the right support and resources, survivors can harness this inner strength to reclaim their autonomy and rebuild their lives free from the shackles of abuse.

It's crucial to remember that leaving an abusive situation is a deeply personal and challenging process, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution. As a therapist, my role is to provide a safe and supportive space for individuals to explore their experiences, heal from trauma, and ultimately reclaim their autonomy and agency. By raising awareness and fostering empathy, we can work towards creating a society where survivors feel empowered to seek help and break free from the cycle of abuse.

Resources for Support

If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence or family violence in Canada, there are resources available to provide support and assistance:

1. Domestic Violence Hotline (Canada): 1-800-799-SAFE (7233)

4. Talk for Healing: Talk4Healing is a helpline available to all Aboriginal women living in urban, rural and remote communities, both on and off reserve, throughout Northern Ontario.

Telephone: 1-855-554-4325

5. Fem’aide: Provincial helpline for francophone women in Ontario dealing with violence

Telephone: 1-877-336-2433 TTY: 1-866-860-7082

Stay Safe,


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