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Sympathy for the Devil - Trauma Bonding Explained

Updated: Feb 16

Trauma bonds are emotional bonds that arise from a cyclical pattern of abuse. A trauma bond occurs in an abusive relationship wherein the victim forms an emotional bond with the perpetrator. - Wikipedia

Who could forget the1968 Rolling Stones classic rock song Sympathy for the Devil with its jaunty, slow-building samba beat? It's easily one of the most recognizable songs in music history, and perhaps one of the best in rock 'n roll.

In the song, lead singer Mick Jagger introduces us to a socialite version of the Devil, with a focus on his responsibility for world atrocities including the trial and death of Jesus Christ, wars of religion, the Russian Revolution, World Wars and the death of the Kennedys.

At its climax Jagger, speaking for the Devil says to humanity; "Hey, I couldn't have done it without you."

I watched with glee

While your kings and queens

Fought for ten decades

For the gods they made

I shouted out

Who killed the Kennedys?

When after all

It was you and me

Songwriters: Mick Jagger / Keith Richard

The song title, Sympathy for the Devil is an apt description of Trauma Bonding. In the Rolling Stones' lyrical version, humankind is challenged to have mercy for an agent of evil and abuse, and the culpability of mankind for participating in the evil is a plot twist.

In life, Trauma Bonding occurs when a person experiencing abuse develops sympathy for the abuser. Gaslighting, a form of psychological manipulation occurs causing the victim to question their perception of reality, often accepting the blame that is shifted onto them.

Origins of Trauma Bonding - The Developing Brain

Have you heard stories of abused children who cling to their parents when faced with the threat of separation? This demonstrates the powerful attachment bond between children and their caregivers. So much so, that even when social workers, doctors or the police intervene to rescue a child from abuse, they will often lie to protect the parent.

But how does this help us to understand the heart-wrenching experience of so many victims of abuse who stand by their tormentors?

Photo by M. on Unsplash

It's important to understand that in the animal kingdom, once a newborn knows its mother, it will do its best to stay with her. In fact, within moments after birth babies remain in a state of quiet alertness that lasts for hours, orienting themselves to their mothers to continue forming the deep attachment bond that began in utero, which their very survival will depend upon.

As babies develop, caregivers act as as a sort of "extended nervous system", helping to regulate emotional distress through comforting touch, voice and smell. In fact, a mother's presence is a chemical switch-off for fear.

But what happens when nearness to the caregiver is the source of fear?

In cases of physical and emotional abuse or neglect, children are faced with an existential dilemma: to avoid the caregiver who is the source of danger, or to turn towards them as a source of comfort.

Keep in mind, nearness to our mothers is hardwired into our brains from infancy as a haven in times of danger, and the maternal ability to switch-off our distress serves to strengthen and deepen a powerful bond.

This is why children and adults who have formed an attachment to an abuser have trouble getting away;

They will protect the attachment before protecting themselves.

It is also why people who were abused as children are vulnerable to traumatic bonding. Their vulnerability to abuse is the result of a distorted perception of what love is, based on their experience of love and protection being mingled with abuse and fear.

Victims of Trauma Bonding sympathize with the Devil they know, over the Devil they don't;

the terrifying loss of an attachment they are dependent upon and sadly confuse with love.

Resources for Help

If you need help recognizing abuse, leaving an abusive partner or healing from an abusive relationship these resources are a place to start:

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