'Fawning' Doesn't Make You A Wimp — It May Even Be A Sign Of Your Strength

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If you’re dealing with an abuser, you learn to recognize the warning signs that an explosion is imminent — tone of voice, a look in the eye, clenched fists. In response, you may quickly become soothing, reassuring and flattering.

Your goal is to defuse the situation before it gets dangerous. In the psychology literature, this is called fawning.

The fawn response (also called the "friend” response) is one of four reactions people instinctively have to fear. The others are fight, flight and freeze. These are biological and physiological responses of the autonomic nervous system.

You don't control these reactions.

When you perceive danger, your body immediately moves into one of them. Fawn means you try to please or appease whoever is triggering your fear to prevent him or her from hurting you. In other words, the fawn response is a strategy for self-preservation.

Fawning doesn’t mean you’re weak or co-dependent. It also doesn't mean you are consenting to abuse.

RELATED: 3 Psychological Tips For Changing Your Panicked Fight-Flight-Freeze Instinct

Women in danger may 'tend and befriend'

Many people in abusive relationships — especially women — unconsciously take the fawn approach when feeling threatened. You try to keep the abuser as happy as possible and comply with his or her demands to reduce the risk of physical harm.

It is frightening enough to deal with someone who has been or is capable of being violent. But in responding to danger, women often need to be concerned not only about themselves but also about their children.

RELATED: 5 Warning Signs Of Covert Narcissistic Abuse In Your Relationship

Because of this need to consider your own safety, and that of those dependent upon you, Shelley E. Taylor and her colleagues at UCLA suggested that the female response to stress may be “tend and befriend.”

They explain that when a woman faces a threat, such as an abusive partner, she may not be able to fight or flee due to pregnancy or the need to care for her children. So her safest choice may be to appease her partner and “tend” — get children out of the way, calm them down and protect them from further threats.

The other part of this stress response is to “befriend” others — building social networks for support when needed, typically with other women.

Some therapists might identify this hyper-caregiving, self-sacrificing and submissive behavior as codependency. But it may actually be a symptom of traumatic bonding.

RELATED: How I Moved Past Shame By Understanding My Fight-Or-Flight Response

Trauma bonds may create confusing loyalties between abuser & victim

Trauma bonds are strong emotional ties between two people where one intermittently harasses and abuses the other. The concept was developed in the early 1980s by psychology researchers Donald G. Dutton and Susan Lee Painter.

The researchers noted examples of this unlikely attachment:

  • People taken hostage have been known to show positive regard for their captors, as in Stockholm Syndrome or trauma bonding.
  • Prisoners have been known to internalize the views of their guards.
  • Former cult followers are frequently loyal to malevolent cult leaders.
  • Abused children have strong attachments to their abusive parents.
  • Intimate partner abuse victims often escape — and then return to their abusers.

This attachment develops from two features of abusive relationships: power imbalance and intermittent good-bad treatment.

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How a power imbalance enhances a victim's bond with their abuser

A power imbalance in a relationship means that one person in the relationship has far more social power than the other. Dutton and Painter noted that unequal power relationships can become increasingly unbalanced over time, to the point where the power dynamic itself produces pathology in individuals.

As the power imbalance magnifies, subjugated people view themselves more negatively, and come to believe they are incapable of fending for themselves and need the dominator. This cycle of relationship-produced dependency and lowered self-esteem is repeated, eventually creating a strong emotional bond from the low-power person to the high-power person.

RELATED: 6 Signs A Power Imbalance Is Wreaking Havoc In Your Relationship

Intermittent good-bad treatment creates victims who want abusers' approval

The other factor contributing to the establishment of a trauma bond is that the dominant partner abuses the subjugated partner and is later contrite and loving.

Dutton and Painter noted that this pattern of aversive, and then pleasant, treatment matches the learning theory of intermittent reinforcement. This means that sometimes behavior is rewarded, and sometimes it isn’t. Because you never know when you’ll get your reward — your loving and caring partner — you keep trying to win approval. 

Intermittent reinforcement is the most powerful type of psychological conditioning. Every time you go through this cycle of good and bad treatment, the emotional bond you feel with your partner gets stronger. This makes it difficult for you to leave.

RELATED: The Destructive Emotional 'Game' Too Many People Play — Without Even Realizing It

Typically, an abusive relationship is a social trap. By the time you figure out what is going on, the trauma bond is already strong and difficult to break.

Then, when you sense the abuser may fly into a rage or become violent, you quickly try to deescalate the tension with a fawn response.

But this fawn response doesn’t mean you’re a wimp. It means you are protecting yourself and your children. You did the best you could in a scary and possibly dangerous situation, and it was not consent for abuse — nor did it create the abuse you experienced. 

You may have fawned, but it was not your fault. In fact, it may have saved you.

RELATED: 13 Reasons Why People Stay In Abusive Relationships

Donna Andersen is the author of LoveFraud and an expert on sociopaths and narcissists in relationships. For more about trauma reactions, see Maybe You’re Not Codependent — You’re Traumatized.