The year I broke my trauma bond: Leaving an abusive relationship
Women are raised with the narrative that the ‘beauty’ can change the ‘beast’. But real life is not a fairy tale.
“He got up and he put his fist to my face and he said: ‘You say that word one more f*****g time.'”
I knew that he was going to start punching me after that.”
Andrea’s voice floats over the phone, incredibly strong in spite of the topic we are discussing.
The next day after the incident she took her two dogs and two cats, and whatever she could fit into a suitcase, and left her husband for good, she said, running and hiding for weeks until she could serve him with a restraining order.
Now, nearly three months later, she has begun to rebuild herself and her life.
The pity card
Andrea met John, whose name has been changed for his privacy, at a house party in rural Florida, in the US, back in 2009.
She had been living and working in New York City until the recession hit in 2008 and she moved to Florida to stay with her father. The area they lived in was “economically depressed”, she said. There were few opportunities, even for those with a degree, and she was lonely, an outsider in the community.
She remembers being “almost hypnotised” when she first saw John.
“He was just staring at me and he had the bluest eyes, and he just could not take his eyes off me,” she said. “And then he started to talk to me like nobody else was in the room, and it was almost like… this is the moment I knew that he was the one for me.”
Their first date was at a “really smokey white-trash pool hall”, she remembers, “but we had a good time… we spent the weekend together… and it was fun because I felt like I was hearing him and healing him.”
This was the most intriguing thing about John, Andrea said, the fact that he appeared to need saving.
“He just made himself out to be such a victim from his previous girlfriend,” she said.
Looking back, she sees this as a serious red flag – if a potential partner calls all their exes “crazy”, she said, you know “there’s one common denominator”.
We are not shown healthy examples of men … Especially in the context of romance movies and books.
Another red flag she missed at the time was how John kept invalidating her own experiences.
“His problems were always worse. He would always interrupt me and not [care] about what I had to say about anything because I’m a woman,” she said. “Anything I’d say didn’t matter.”
Andrea’s friend Kate, also a survivor of a violently abusive relationship, says she “kept feeling weird” about Andrea’s connection with John.
“Initially, [Andrea] had not really been looking for anything and he kind of just quickly swept her off her feet in a way that was alarming to me,” she said.
We are taught that we, the “beauty”, can change the “beast”, she said.
“We are not shown healthy examples of men. Can you think of any? Especially in the context of romance movies and books.”
Kate says that in her own experience the biggest test in a new relationship is how the other person responds to being told “no”.
“If they can’t handle it, if they say one mean thing to you… get out and save yourself,” she said.
But it can be easy to brush off seemingly small red flags like this, she said, perhaps because “we all are willing to justify little things… ‘Maybe they had a bad day.'”
“And also these men unravel slowly – often in secret – and make you second-guess what happened,” she said, “You don’t have backup.”
‘I was not allowed to disagree with him’
As Andrea’s relationship evolved, John’s red flags became blatant abuse.
“He needed to control me so I wouldn’t leave him. And it got more violent and controlling as he realised he was losing me,” said Andrea.
John’s control came in many forms. He tried to change the way Andrea looked – forcing food on her, banning her from working out, and even dictating the clothes she wore, paranoid that if she looked good she would cheat on him.
“He would make jokes like: ‘Well, if I get you too fat where you can’t run, then you’ll never leave me,’” she said.
He would threaten suicide if she left him, and tell her stories designed to intimidate. “One of the stories he’d repeat to me over and over again… was [when] he went down to Central Florida to stick up for his brother and he hit a guy so hard that he collapsed his cheekbone in and changed the way he looks forever,” she said.
Andrea was driven to such a state of anxiety that she would have “a huge panic attack” nearly every day when it came time to head home from work.
He always made me doubt the reality of what was happening to the point where I … would get so confused I would just sit down on a floor, like: ‘What’s going on?’
John would gaslight her “constantly”, she said, even blaming her for his violence, saying she incited it. “He would tell me that I said something when I clearly did not say that, and then he’d be like: ‘Don’t you remember? What’s wrong with you?’” she said.
“I was not allowed to disagree with him. Because if I didn’t agree with him totally, then [he said] I was arguing with him, and I was being combative. And [he’d say] this is why we fight all the time.”
It made her feel “crazy”, she said.
“He always made me doubt the reality of what was happening to the point where I… would get so confused I would just sit down on a floor, like: ‘What’s going on?’”
At the same time, John would deliberately build Andrea up and tear her down. “He would go on… [about] what a very intelligent, smart woman I was, how it was so refreshing to hear my vocabulary and to be with such a beautiful woman,” she said.
But then he would taunt her, call her ugly, interrupt her.
“When I would start to get anxious… he’d start making fun of me and I’d freeze because even putting something on the counter, even that was wrong,” she said. “[He’d say] ‘You’re weak, you’re weak,’ even though he was previously like: ‘You’re so strong and I’m so proud to be your husband.'”
Because she loved him, and because of his manipulation and gaslighting, Andrea would explain away his behaviour and make excuses for him.
There are also good times in abusive relationships, which leave you even more confused, she said.
“I remember… when we were in Ireland… we had a two-storey Airbnb… and you would hear the rain pattering on the windows from the green scenery, it was beautiful,” she said, “and we sat there and wrote a love song for each other and recorded it and played it at different pubs and stuff.”
These are the times you live for, she said.
‘It turned physical in 2018’
But over time, Andrea started to respond to the angry, painful sides of the relationship and stand up for herself. John’s reactions to this were increasingly extreme.
Then, in November 2018, she said, he started to hit her. “I remember the first time he hit me so hard, I slid across the floor,” she said.
From there, John’s physical abuse escalated to life-threatening violence. “There was the incident… where he had started hitting me and throwing water on me,” said Andrea, adding that he had left her unconscious countless times.
“When he would grab my neck… the strangling – because that happened many times… There are actually holes in the wall from his fist,” she said.
Andrea’s cats and dogs were “s****ing blood” at that point, she said, and hiding under the bed because they were so frightened.
The relationship also turned sexually abusive. “If I declined sex with him, he would blow up, and so for the last few years or so I… was having sex with him all night long, sometimes four or five times a night, every single day, just to avoid him getting mad at me,” she said.
“That is rape by coercion. He didn’t care if I was sick. He didn’t care if he had done it so hard that I was cramping. He didn’t care if he had done it so rough and so much that I was sore.”
As the marriage went on, Kate became increasingly frantic about her friend.
“[Andrea] changed significantly,” she said, “and I just, it was like watching someone take a beautiful, like, three-dimensional coloured picture and stripping it of everything.”
There were points where she started to get really scared for Andrea, she said. “I’d message her, and then I’d ask her things that I knew only she would know, just to be sure it was her – and there were times when she didn’t answer me.”
Once, when Kate knew that John had been hitting Andrea, she messaged her to ask if she was OK. It was clear that John had her phone.
“She responded with one word, or something like: ‘I’m fine,’ or ‘I’m OK,’ and brushed me off. And I asked a question, I said: ‘Do you remember what colour the nail polish was that I spilled all over your mom’s thing?’”
Kate’s voice cracks.
“And she didn’t answer me… I thought she was dead.”
‘I don’t want to wind up like that’
Then, in mid-2021, Andrea heard about Gabby Petito, a young woman whose murder by her partner made headlines worldwide.
She was struck by how similar Petito’s behaviour was to how she was with her ex.
“People have called the cops on us before and… I would protect him and blame myself or whatever. And she did that. And she’s crying, he’s calling her crazy,” she said.
Andrea followed the story for weeks. “I would share some of my thoughts with [John] on it and it was crazy because he was like: ‘No, she was the abuser, I’m tired of women being the abuser,’” she said.
But she knew Petito was dead, and when the death was confirmed, more than a month after Petito was reported missing, Andrea knew she didn’t want to “wind up like that”.
(You) feel like you’re going through withdrawal and that you can’t live without them. That you can fix them … if only you were better. You think they’ll change, when it’s clear they won’t.
It was then that she told her husband to divorce her. “I had actually been asking for a divorce for at least six months before I left and he would just shut it down… and then I would try to change my mind because I didn’t have any place to go yet, I wasn’t ready to tell anybody yet,” she said.
On that last day, John had been shouting at her for hours and Andrea broke. “I was just like… ‘why don’t you just give me a f***ing divorce if you’re so unhappy?’,” she said.
John put his fist to her face and something clicked in Andrea’s mind. “I didn’t want to go home again,” she said.
Andrea went to work the following morning and John kept video calling her at her desk. For the first time in years, she ignored it.
She left her phone at the office, knowing that John would be tracking her location, borrowed a co-worker’s and drove to her place. “Oh, the anxiety,” she said, “… he wouldn’t allow me to be there by myself. So it felt like I was doing something wrong.”
“I kept thinking he’d walk through the door and stop me at any second… I’m going to wind up dead.”
She packed whatever she could fit into a suitcase, grabbed her dogs and cats, and fled.
‘Love doesn’t break you down’
Andrea ran for the following weeks, hiding until she was able to serve John with a restraining order. She now lives with her pets in a new location, unknown to her abuser.
Nearly three months have passed and Andrea is still feeling intensely anxious. She has lost 14kg (30 pounds) since leaving John, partly because he is no longer controlling what she eats and partly from stress.
“I’m very wary of anybody or strange cars following me. I don’t really go out of the house too much…. I am afraid he will find me,” she said.
Initially, after leaving John, she was in a “pink-cloud phase” where she felt free and elated. Now, she said, she is in the “depression phase”.
“You grieve the person and marriage you wished you had but didn’t,” she said. “Questioning: Did they love me? Have I been replaced? Wanting them to read your pain and knowing the answer will never be what you want.”
She describes her new life as a rollercoaster – sometimes she has “no cares in the world”, and then something triggers her and it all comes crashing down.
“Part of breaking the trauma bond is the ebb and flow of it,” she said. “For a while, you’re doing great. Then suddenly you’re choking and you miss them. Then you don’t any more.”
A trauma bond, she explained, happens when you are constantly being put in a position to “crave the good times”.
When you finally leave, you “feel like you’re going through withdrawal and that you can’t live without them. That you can fix them… if only you were better,” she said. “You think they’ll change, when it’s clear they won’t.”
Picking up hobbies and activities “to keep your mind from going crazy” is key to working through this, she said.
Andrea has been revisiting her old interests, from a passion for style to a yearning for fine art, and is enjoying the simple freedoms she has now.
“I can leave a sink full of dishes if I choose, I can also clean my house and feel free to move around as I want,” she said. “I can go to bed at 7:30 at night if I want to, without anybody yelling at me.”
Kate has noticed the Andrea she knew slowly resurfacing.
“I feel like she was back when she put red lipstick back on,” she said, laughing. “Just the first times she could go outside and just be like ‘I’m not being watched.’”
But still, Andrea said, she is struggling. And she knows that the only way out “is through”.
“Cry, let it out. That’s where I’m at. I’m making TikToks that chronicle my thoughts and process, often crying and mad. But it is what it is,” she said.
For anyone reading her story, she wants you to know that words mean something.
“My message is that love doesn’t hurt,” she said.
“It doesn’t break you down. It doesn’t constantly disrespect you… That you are worth more than being hit and abused, that it’s not your fault.
“That you don’t deserve to live like that.”