- In an abusive relationship, trauma reactions of fleeing or fighting are usually not options.
- Suppressing painful feelings (freeze) or attending to the perpetrator's needs to minimize attacks (fawning) are the likely trauma responses.
- Both freeze and fawning can cause a lack of agency and can undermine helping oneself.
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.
Both freeze and fawn responses are defenses against feelings—you lose touch with yourself. As we go through life, access to our feelings is critical to our quality of life and safety. When in danger or scared, our feelings alert us to what is wrong, hurtful, or dangerous. When we don’t have access to our feelings, such as in freeze where they are detached or in fawn where they are disregarded, we have no way of knowing that it’s time to act to protect ourselves.
Moving Toward Self-Care
To leave an abusive partner is complicated and challenging. Most people in this position feel highly ambivalent or just stuck. I always recommend if possible that the person who wishes to leave an abusive partner find some trauma recovery therapy. Addressing the trauma responses that perhaps might have seemed necessary to survive at one time becomes critical in order to gain emotional strength and develop self-care. In this way, you are more likely to make an informed decision regarding the relationship or a thoughtful plan to depart.
While continuing to reside with an abusive partner, trauma recovery can be challenging and for some impossible. The latter you might need to arrange to depart without greater clarity from being emotionally stronger—only further testimony to your need to leave to protect yourself.
The trauma responses of freeze and fawn are conditions that can be addressed with a trauma-informed therapist. The person with a fawn response from childhood trauma would benefit from addressing self-care in the service of recognizing their needs and beliefs and developing the ability to set boundaries with others. Both will be helped by developing the capacity to know their feelings, recognize their own needs as important, and set boundaries as necessary. In the end, self-compassion goes a long way.