Some ways of protecting ourselves can put us at greater risk.
It’s inevitable that in an ongoing relationship with an abusive partner, you’re at high risk for developing trauma responses that ultimately interfere with protecting yourself. Often the responses of fight or flight do not arise because of the fear of inciting or escalating conflict and danger. Not surprising that in this context, the trauma responses of freeze and fawning prevail with the result of the targeted person no longer being able to fully detect hurt or danger that’s necessary for taking steps for self-protection.
Freeze and Fawning
Too often I hear in my recovery groups from the participants, “How did I get here and why did I stay so long?” Or, “I’m not the person I use to be. I’ve lost myself.”
An intimate partner whose purpose is to gain power and control in the relationship utilizes abusive tactics that entail emotional, psychological, or physical abuse. Often due to ongoing intimidation and hurtful attacks, the recipient is likely to develop fear reactions that are traumatic in nature.
Depending on the individual’s unique stress response, freeze or fawning can occur and, in some cases, like intimate partner abuse, both. Freeze is when the central nervous system moves into parasympathetic mode and shuts down. The painful feelings are disconnected and not felt. In this state, the targeted person can experience numbness, dissociation, fatigue, and brain fog. In the extreme, an immobilization can also occur that limits physical movement.
The other trauma response by survivors of intimate partner abuse is the fawn response. Pete Walker, a psychotherapist and author of Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving, identified and coined fawning as “a response to a threat by becoming more appealing to the threat.” In other words, Walker explains that this response is that of a person seeking safety by accommodating the abuser’s needs and demands and forfeiting their own needs, preferences, and boundaries.
The fawn type of stress response can develop from ongoing trauma such as during childhood abuse. At the core is the effort to be safe by attending to the needs of the adults to gain approval and avoid abuse. These individuals can be vulnerable later in life to an abusive partner who might feel familiar. Yet, without this history, a person with an abusive partner can often develop a style of “fawning” in order to minimize harm by anticipating the perpetrator’s needs with complacency.
Dangers of Freeze and Fawn Response
When partnered with an abusive other, you may know you need to address the abuse or leave but very likely emotionally not be ready. It’s often the impact of the trauma that you experience that gets in the way.