“But you could walk out the door right now,” a visiting friend says. We’re all in Mistress’ office, late at night. “I’ll help,” he jokes, looking at her.
“But you could leave,” another friend says, during dinner, gathered around our dining table at a play party. Others agree.
“But you could get out,” says a close friend. We’re at the park at sundown. They look around. “Couldn’t you?”
I hear this all the time when I mention being in a no way out/irrevocable consent dynamic as a slave.
And admittedly, my answer is usually subpar. Put on the spot, to explain it concisely, in a way comfortable for the audience, I fail to give my full, real answer. I point to difficult—but not impossible—logistics, to just not wanting to leave, anyway.
But here’s a better answer.
I read a really good book, which, since I’m about to give a spoiler for the sake of metaphor, I’ll not specify and be vague about.
But, the main character is in your standard fictional culty institution. She gets sent to The Rehabilitation Center (you know the trope). It turns out to just be a little suite.
There she waits, for months, processing the events that brought her here. Eventually, another member that is finally allowed to visit her secretly convinces her to escape the institution, and sneaks her a set of lockpicks.
Later, the main character goes to pick the lock on the door. Panicked, she realizes that something is wrong; what is it?
The door is already unlocked.
It was never locked.
She just never found the mental clarity to open it.
The reason I take issue with the but you could sneak out right now argument is that it’s simplistic, and, ultimately, victim blaming.
In many cases of domestic abuse—the thing these people are compare-and-contrasting me to—it’s not logistics that truly keep people trapped. Being a literal prisoner is not so common in these cases, and the logistics may be difficult—but frequently, they’re not impossible. I see it as unusual for someone to spend a long period of time in a relationship while wholeheartedly wanting out, but being stuck on logistics. The vast majority of the relationship is usually spent not truly trying the lock on the door.
It’s spent in that emotional fog. It’s a lack of mental clarity that keeps you there, or—in a lot of cases—keeps you coming back. It’s the invisible bonds between you and your partner.
Where there’s a will to leave, there’s usually a way. But the will isn’t a guarantee, either.
In academic literature on the subject, the stages of change model is frequently used. The stages include precontemplation (not intending to make a change any time soon), contemplation (the problem is acknowledged; change is considered), preparation (planning for change), action (implementation of the plan), and maintenance (reinforcing and sustaining the change).
However, one 2009 study (“Exploring Boundary Ambiguity Using the Stages of Change Model” by Lyndal Bee Lian Khaw and Jennifer L. Hardesty) on leaving abusers posits that preparation is not a necessary stage in terms of change itself, citing that almost half of participants did not engage with this stage at all (and this was consistent with other findings), and this did not seem to affect the action or maintenance stages.
In other words, the important part, pre action, was contemplation (acknowledging the problem and considering change), escaping that mental fog, breaking the invisible bonds—not figuring out the logistics of escaping and breaking out the door.
Now, the bond shared between you and your partner is what keeps people in most relationships, for better or worse.
But what kind of bond is it? How was it created? And does it run both ways?
Feelings of things like mutual safety and happiness, created by consistent caring, keep people in healthy relationships.
But in abuse cases, trauma bonds come into play.
Trauma bonds typically run in one direction—they are part of the victim’s relationship with the abuser (rather than the abuser’s relationship with the victim).
They are created via recurring, cyclical patterns of intermittent reinforcement (like positive attention, gifts, physical affection) and intermittent punishment (like physical, verbal, or sexual abuse).
And intermittent reinforcement is more powerful than consistent reinforcement in terms of habit forming.
In other words, the abuser becomes the victim’s addiction that they just can’t quit.
But that’s generally speaking, about what keeps people in relationships.
What about me? What truly keeps me here?
If emotional bonds are what keep people in any relationship, and that bond can be, say, a healthy one or a trauma bond, which is it around here?
To an extent, we have the healthy bonds. Love, respect, trust, safety, happiness, consistency.
But that’s far from all of it.
There are two defining factors to a trauma bond: a power imbalance and that intermittent reinforcement and punishment cycle. And we purposefully cultivate both.
The power imbalance—shown through 24/7 high protocol and the service/housewife dynamic. I sleep leashed on the floor, I have no privacy, I wear only my uniform, I speak when I’m spoken to, and I serve on a full time level schedule.
The intermittent punishment/reward cycle…
We have no official reward system for behavior, and I have no rights—things like aftercare aren’t guaranteed—so all rewards (psychologically speaking) are intermittent. Sometimes I get them, sometimes I don’t.
We do have an official punishment system for behavior, but it’s not frequently needed, and I have no limits, no safeword—so she can also give any form of punishment (psychologically speaking) at any time, for any reason, intermittently.
And we make exactly that a goal—the random, unpredictable violence—not as sex, scene, event, or formal discipline—being frequent, especially when, in the moment, I really don’t want it.
So there’s that.
Additionally, there’s what I call the honor lien—and I don’t take that lightly. I frequently use this quote from my erotic fiction (the I’ll Give You series) to describe it:
“[Our contract is] honor bound, and it says you own me, and I can’t change that. If I go back on it, I lose that integrity. It’s like a lien. I either honor the agreement or lose something momentous. Telling someone they own me really meaning something, ever again. […] I said that—anything you wanted to do—I’d let you. And if you don’t abide by the law or religion or social pressure, that doesn’t change what I said. So if I break the contract and leave and say it was because you were doing something illegal—I’m still breaking the honor ties. So I forfeit my right to leave with that integrity, to you—because the only way to leave with that is if you release me. You have a lien on my integrity with my debt being lifelong obedience. To include forfeiting all other rights. Unless you release me. If, when, I die, you die, or you release me—the debt is paid; my integrity is something you can’t take at that point.”
But some brush that off after a certain point.
And there are tricky logistics involved in leaving. But they’re not impossible.
And, of course, at the end of the day, I’m very happy here.
But what really keeps me in? Especially if that stopped being true? If the honor lien became no longer enough?
The trauma bonds we try to replicate, really. Yes, we have a certain type of trust at the core of it. I am safe in that trust in certain ways. But am I safe from being beaten when I don’t want to be beaten? From sex when I don’t want to have sex? From fear or humiliation when I don’t want those emotions? No.
And if it looks and feels like abuse in the moment, well—my mind reacts like it’s the real thing. I flinch when she moves the right way and have other behaviors that indicate constantly expecting to be hurt. I have the occasional nightmare about it. I do the freeze and fawn response.
I’ve written about this before (“Lifestyle Masochism: When You Start Acting Abused”):
“Irrevocable consent is messy at times. Did I consent? Yes. Once. Years ago. Did I want to be beaten with no warning or warmup today until I screamed? Casually dragged across the floor by the hair yesterday? How about the sex when I was so sick I cried last week? In the moment? Probably not. That’s where the defense reactions come from. But I really want those things to keep happening overall, and I want to not want it in the moment, to gain that sense of ultimate submission from it, because in the end I submit anyway.”
And I have the mental wiring of internal enslavement, and I describe my decision making like this (in “Decision Making and Internal Enslavement: A Metaphor”):
“So I’m standing at a fork in the road. One clear, sunny path leads to the obedient action. The other path—to disobedience—is shrouded in fog. The clear path is the obvious best choice, the one I normally happily continue down. But, even just mentally pondering the foggy path, it’s like wandering into that thick fog and constantly getting turned around. I always end up back where I started like ultimately bouncing off a force field. If I could see the path clearly, I’d notice that it dead ends in a few feet. But sometimes I don’t see or remember that it’s a dead end. But I start to dissociate, and thoughts swirl in that fog, too much to continue down that path. Because of that guarantee, that the fog is too thick, there isn’t really a path there at all, no matter the apparent intersection. And so I go wander down the clear path again.”
I sometimes call it, lightly, abuse without the hassle.
Ultimately, we create these bonds with purpose, we communicate outside of the moment, there is a core of love and trust in ourselves and in each other. I consented once, forever.
And that bond works for us.