The Joker Revisited
February is the month of love (in my mind at least) so in honour of that, let’s talk about love. Not just love per se, but how we might mistake something for love when it is, in fact, quite the opposite. To aid the discussion, I want to use The Joker as an illustrative example. Since watching the latest film, I have become a little obsessed with The Joker and I am secretly amused by the irony that my favourite ‘superhero’ is a super villain. However, it is something more than what made The Joker the way that he is that captured my interest. If I am honest, the hopeless romantic in me was lured in by what I would have once considered the love story of the century; the messy and boundaryless situation with Harley Quinn. Move over Superman and Lois Lane; let’s explore the explosive dynamics of The Joker and Harley.
Once upon a time I would have been obsessed with this destructive, fictional relationship because it would have been a mirror to the dysfunctional relationships and friendships that my own brokenness kept attracting. I’ve mentioned before how one day, I reached my limit. Like a switch had been flicked, I decided it was time to face my demons because it was the only way if I wanted to have anything remotely healthy and real. Just like Harley, I came to the slow and painful realisation that I was never in love. What I felt were actually the effects of codependency and trauma bonding aka Stockholm Syndrome. Sure, abusive or toxic relationships seem obvious to spot as an outsider. Just listen out for fighting, slammed doors, tears and hurled insults. What if the toxicity consists of silent treatment, infatuation, followed by adoration and a flood of compliments? We might justify it by thinking the erratic behaviour is “because he loves me” or “It’s not all that bad.” When we are trauma bonded to a partner, there is a sense of desperation that we must serve their needs in order to meet our own. Why do so many people remain in these relationships in the name of ‘love’? I believe that the answer is simpler than we’d like.
A trauma bond forms through intermittent displays of positive and negative attention. It is contingency conditioning in it’s base form. It is confusing and it results in cognitive dissonance for the person on the receiving end of the dynamic. The victim of the behaviour stays around in an attempt to get back to that elusive positive point of the cycle, which is the very place that they started out in. That reconciliatory fix can be affection, validation or a temporary sense of security. What exactly is it that keeps us there? Irregularity in neurochemistry. The extreme fluctuations in oxytocin and dopamine can cloud judgment. A trauma bond accompanies a gradually distorted perception of reality, which results in the slow destruction of self-esteem and boundaries.
So, what is the link to The Joker? Dr. Harley Quinn was a therapist whose clinical objective was to treat The Joker at the asylum and to write a book about his treatment without falling under his spell. Instead, he seduced her, escaped from the asylum and for his biggest coup de théâtre, managed to turn her into a madly in love and reckless villain, just like him. A fictional toxic relationship might be harmless (and entertaining), but a real relationship with trauma bonds is as scary as hell. Recovery and healing from these dynamics can be a long and painful road.
Can we tell if our object of affection is in actual fact, an emotional ‘kidnapper’? Can we tell whether the love that we feel is in fact trauma bonding and symptomatic of Stockholm Syndrome? Look out for the following signs:
- You feel anxious, insecure and like you’re walking on eggshells.
Conflict is present in all social interactions. However, if you feel constantly anxious about upsetting your partner, it could signify a trauma bond. Persistent and pervasive anxiety goes hand-in-hand with taking responsibility or even blaming yourself for your partner’s abuse. It demonstrates a deep-rooted fear of conflict with your partner that should not exist in a healthy relationship.
- You are dying to please them.
I’ve seen the most independent men and women practically turn themselves into a pretzel to please someone they thought was a “soulmate.” Fawning is an attempt to please, keep the peace, make excuses, walk on eggshells to avoid conflict out of fear of escalating the situation. The person in the submissive position, often the one with less control, develops a strong (often impermeable) trauma bond to the dominant figure in order to survive the situation. In a healthier relationship, your partner loves you unconditionally, for who you are, not for what or who they want you to be. If and when they are truly unhappy with something, they love you enough to communicate gently, clearly, and patiently.
- Being emotionally and mentally abused.
Whether by being ghosted or emotionally and mentally tortured by mind games, the end result is the same. You end up feeling drained. None of us need someone whose feelings run hot and cold, loving one minute and scathing the next. Abuse takes on many forms and can also encompass silent treatment, manipulative behaviour and volatile mood swings.
- The whole thing looks one-sided.
To everyone who do not know the inner workings or the relationship’s finer details, it will appear as if it is one-sided. Your partner makes sure to show the world how detached they are. The story will sound a little like YOU fell madly in love with their irresistible charm, and THEY had absolutely nothing to do with it. They do not feel the same, but out of pity and perhaps having a slight God Complex, they keep letting you love them. How did things get to this? In any kind of relationship, two people usually meet halfway, except when the interaction is with a narcissist or emotional manipulator. So, it is you who does all the work, goes that extra mile and gives your all whilst being gaslighted into believing that it was you chose to have things run like this.
Trauma bonds are strong and run deep. They can be broken if you are able to step outside the situation; literally and/or mentally. Once we can be objective, we are able see how toxic it is. The detached perspective changes everything. It allows us to see things with reason and rational thinking, instead of from a place of primal fear and survival instinct. Maybe you too have a trauma bond to someone and you think it’s your love that is holding it together? Whoever coined the phrase “love hurts” has made a lot of money on a lie.
If we think about it, poetry and prose are often based on this analogy. Many genres of music, from country sell because of lyrics based on the notion that love hurts. Self-help books become best sellers based on promises of teaching us how to capture someone’s heart and make them love you. Even ice cream and chocolate are marketed as remedies for a broken heart. Let me say now, unequivocally, that love should not hurt. And if it does, and if that hurt is painful and consistent, then that, my dear, is not love.
Yes, there are painful moments. People make mistakes. They may get angry and say things that they later come to regret, but are they willing to own and change their behaviour? To gaslight, emotionally stunt, psychologically coerce someone, to take away their power, silence their voice, threaten violence or use violence to cause harm or submission is never an act of love.
These restraints and mind games are not about being romantic. They are a trauma bond, and that bond is insidiously destroying your identity. This is not love and if anyone has ever tried to convince you otherwise, you have been lied. Once upon a time I believed the lie too.
I am no longer a Harley Quinn “ride-or-die” girl. I am a woman whose partner is not some charming yet haunted and broken villain but rather a kind, grounded and whole man. A true superhero who cherishes my needs as much as his own. I know now that a healthy, loving and kind relationship is the only valid romance of the century.