7 Stages of Trauma Bonding: Why Leaving Is Hard and How to Stop It
Imagine the overwhelming sense of fear and manipulation that accompanies being in a relationship where your partner consistently unleashes anger and control upon you. The constant doubt, second-guessing and feeling trapped with no means of escape.
Regrettably, this distressing reality persists for many individuals who find themselves unable to break free from these chains. Perhaps you have experienced this firsthand or know someone who has, as it’s an all-too-common occurrence. Even if you haven’t, it’s crucial to understand the 7 stages of trauma bonding in order to recognise it when confronted with it.
In this article, we’ll be exploring the 7 stages of trauma bonding and equipping you with the knowledge needed to navigate this challenging dynamic.
What is a Trauma Bond?
A trauma bond refers to the profound emotional connection that forms between an individual and an abusive or traumatic situation or person. It’s a complex psychological phenomenon characterised by feelings of loyalty, dependency and even affection towards the abuser, despite enduring harm and suffering.
Trauma bonds can emerge in various types of relationships including romantic partnerships, families and friendships. This phenomenon is not limited to a specific relationship type but can manifest wherever there is a power imbalance or ongoing abuse.
Development of Trauma Bonds
Trauma bonds develop through repeated exposure to either physical or psychological abuse, or a combination of both. Physical abuse involves acts of violence or harm, while psychological abuse encompasses manipulation, gaslighting, humiliation, threats or controlling behaviours.
However, survivors often find it incredibly challenging to leave such relationships due to several factors.
One significant factor is emotional dependency on the abuser. This dependency leads the survivor to constantly seek validation, love and acceptance from the abuser, making it difficult to envision life without them. There is a deep fear of being alone, with the belief that leaving the relationship will result in severe consequences such as physical harm, retaliation or even death.
Abusers also commonly employ manipulation tactics to maintain control over the survivor. This may involve gaslighting to convince the survivor that they’re to blame for the abuse, fostering guilt and self-doubt. The survivor may question their own perceptions and decision-making abilities.
The cycle of abuse and intermittent reinforcement, alternating between moments of abuse and affection creates a pattern where the survivor holds onto hope that the abuser will change. During the periods of remorse or affection, the survivor experiences temporary relief from the abuse, reinforcing the belief that the relationship has the potential to improve.
Signs of Trauma Bonding
Recognising the signs of trauma bonding is crucial in understanding the complex dynamics that develop in abusive relationships.
1. Difficulty leaving the abusive relationship despite recognising the harm it causes
Despite a clear understanding of the harm inflicted by the relationship, victims frequently encounter immense difficulty when attempting to leave. This can be attributed to a deep emotional attachment to the abuser, creating a significant barrier to breaking free from the destructive dynamics of the relationship.
2. Emotionally dependent on the abuser and seeking their approval and validation
Trauma bonding often fosters an emotional dependency on the abuser, as the victim comes to rely on them for love, validation and support. In their perception, the abuser becomes the sole provider of these vital emotional needs, reinforcing the sense of dependency and making it challenging to seek alternatives.
3. Strong emotional attachment to the abuser, despite their abusive behaviour
Despite the abuser’s abusive behaviour, victims often develop a strong emotional attachment and loyalty towards the abuser. This deep connection can lead victims to defend or protect the abuser, even in the face of undeniable evidence of their harmful actions.
4. Excusing the abuser’s harmful actions and making justifications for their behaviour
A sign of trauma bonding is the tendency to excuse or minimise the abuser’s harmful actions. The person may make justifications for the abuser’s behaviour, blaming external factors or believing that the abuser didn’t mean to cause harm.
5. Feeling trapped or powerless to change the dynamics of the relationship
Trauma bonding can lead to a sense of being trapped or powerless to change the dynamics of the relationship. The person may feel like there are no viable alternatives or escape routes, even if they desire to leave.
6. Feelings of fear, anxiety or hypervigilance about the abuser’s reactions
Victims may live in constant fear, anxiety or hypervigilance around the abuser. They may anticipate the abuser’s reactions or mood swings, always trying to avoid triggering their anger or aggression.
Stages of Trauma Bonding
Trauma bonding is a complex and lengthy process that arises from the dynamics of abusive relationships.
Throughout the course of the relationship, the indicators of trauma bonding gradually manifest, progressing through what is commonly known as the “7 stages of trauma bonding”.
Stage 1: Love bombing
Love bombing is a manipulative tactic often employed by abusers in the process of trauma bonding. It involves overwhelming the victim with excessive affection, attention and gifts in the initial stages of a relationship.
The abuser uses love bombing as a means to establish control, gain trust and create a deep emotional attachment. However, it’s important to note that love bombing is not genuine love but rather a calculated strategy to manipulate and control the other party.
The excessive attention and affection can lead the victim to believe that the abuser is their ideal partner and that the relationship is based on genuine love and care. The victim may develop a deep sense of security and trust in the abuser due to the consistent displays of affection.
By using love bombing as a manipulative tool to gain control over the victim, the abuser creates a dependency and emotional attachment. As a result, a power dynamic is established in the relationship. This control sets the stage for the subsequent abusive behaviours to be more easily accepted or rationalised by the victim.
This gives rise to a cycle of idealisation and devaluation. Once the abuser gains control, their behaviour can shift dramatically. The survivor may experience sudden shifts from extreme affection to mistreatment, confusion and emotional turmoil.
Stage 2: Trust and dependency
Trust and dependency play significant roles in trauma bonding. The survivor initially places trust in the abuser, believing that the relationship is built on love and care. However, as the abusive behaviours escalate, this trust is often eroded or manipulated by the abuser.
Trauma bonding creates a strong sense of dependency in the survivor. They become emotionally reliant on the abuser for validation, support and a sense of self-worth. The abuser intentionally fosters this dependency to maintain control and power over the survivor. The victim may start to believe that they can’t live without the abuser, thus perpetuating the trauma bond.
By contrast, trust in healthy relationships is built gradually through consistent, honest and respectful actions. Both partners work together to establish a foundation of trust based on open communication, shared values and mutual respect.
Dependency, on the other hand, is balanced in healthy relationships. There is interdependence, where both partners support and rely on each other, but maintain their individual identities and autonomy.
Stage 3: Criticism and devaluation
Criticism and devaluation are common elements in trauma bonding, where the abuser constantly belittles, undermines or devalues the victim. Abusers in trauma bonding frequently criticise and nitpick the survivor’s actions, appearance or choices.
They may employ derogatory language, constant fault-finding or comparisons to undermine the survivor’s self-esteem and create a sense of inadequacy. This devaluation serves to maintain control over them and reinforce the power imbalance in the relationship.
Constant criticism and devaluation will gradually erode the victim’s self-esteem. They may begin to internalise the negative messages, believing that they are inherently flawed or unworthy. They may lose confidence in their abilities, doubting their own worth and capabilities.
Naturally, the abuser’s criticism and devaluation contribute to the victim’s increased dependence on them for validation and approval. Over time, the victim may come to accept the mistreatment as normal or deserved. They may internalise the belief that they are at fault for the abuse, justifying or excusing the abuser’s behaviour. This acceptance reinforces the trauma bond and perpetuates the cycle of abuse.
Stage 4: Manipulation and gaslighting
Manipulation and gaslighting are tactics often used by abusers in trauma bonding. Manipulation involves exerting control over another person through deceptive or indirect means. Abusers manipulate their victims to gain power, control and compliance.
They may use tactics such as lying, guilt-tripping, intimidation or exploiting vulnerabilities to influence the thoughts, emotions and behaviours of the victim. Gaslighting is a specific form of manipulation in which the abuser distorts the victim’s perception of reality to make them doubt their own experiences, memories and sanity.
The contradictory experiences and messages created by manipulation and gaslighting often result in cognitive dissonance for the victim. They may struggle to reconcile the loving and caring moments with the abusive behaviours of the abuser. This internal conflict can lead to confusion, emotional turmoil and difficulty making decisions or taking action.
Stage 5: Resignation and submission
Resignation and submission are common aspects of trauma bonding, where the victim feels a sense of helplessness and compliance in the abusive relationship. Resignation refers to the victim’s acceptance or surrender to the abusive dynamics of the relationship. They may feel powerless and believe that they have no control over their situation.
Resignation often stems from a combination of fear, learned helplessness and the belief that leaving is not possible or would bring about even more harm.
In addition, submission involves the victim complying with the abuser’s demands, expectations or abuse. The victim may suppress their own needs to avoid conflict or further mistreatment. They may also give in to the abuser’s control or prioritise the abuser’s needs over their own.
Stage 6: Loss of self
Loss of self in trauma bonding refers to the gradual erosion of the victim’s sense of identity, autonomy and self-worth. It occurs as a result of the abuser’s tactics such as manipulation and gaslighting which undermines the victim’s self-esteem and suppresses their individuality.
In trauma bonding, the abuser systematically diminishes the victim’s self-perception, independence and personal boundaries. Over time, the victim may lose touch with their own desires, values and needs, subsuming their identity to appease the abuser or maintain a semblance of peace.
Stage 7: Addiction to the cycle
Understanding the addictive nature of the trauma bonding cycle becomes clearer when we examine its various phases.
To illustrate this cycle, let’s consider a scenario involving a romantic relationship:
Tension-Building Phase: The abuser becomes increasingly irritable, controlling and critical towards the victim, resulting in a tense and uneasy atmosphere. The victim, in an effort to avoid conflict, constantly seeks to appease the abuser, resulting in a constant state of unease and hypervigilance.
Incident or Abuse Phase: Tension escalates to its peak, leading to an abusive incident where the abuser may engage in physical violence, emotional abuse or gaslighting. The victim experiences mistreatment and becomes hurt, frightened and helpless.
Reconciliation Phase: After the abuse, the abuser shows remorse and promises change. Love bombing may occur, with the abuser showering the victim with affection, gifts and promises of improvement. The victim holds onto the hope that the loving partner they experienced during this phase will last.
Calm Phase: The relationship enters a period of relative calm and stability. The abuser temporarily suppresses their abusive behaviours, and the couple may enjoy moments of normalcy and harmony. The victim clings to these peaceful interludes, hoping that the abuse was an exception.
Trigger Phase: A trigger event, such as a disagreement or perceived mistake by the victim, reignites the cycle. Tension starts to build again, and the cycle repeats itself.
In trauma bonding, victims can develop an addiction to the cycle of abuse due to the intermittent reinforcement and the hope that the relationship will improve. The periodic release of tension and temporary moments of love and affection create a powerful psychological bond. The victim becomes addicted to the idea that if they could just do or say the right things, the relationship would return to the honeymoon phase permanently.
This addiction to the cycle and fear of abandonment can keep the victim trapped in the relationship. They may believe that leaving the relationship would mean losing the occasional loving moments they desperately crave. The fear of being alone or not finding another partner can be powerful motivators to stay despite the abuse.
Over time, the cyclical nature of trauma bonding erodes the victim’s self-esteem and self-worth. The abusive incidents chip away at their confidence, leaving them feeling unworthy, powerless and trapped. Ultimately, the victim may internalise the abuser’s demeaning messages and believe they are deserving of mistreatment.
Effects of Trauma Bonding
Trauma bonding has several profound effects on individuals trapped in abusive relationships such as:
Confusion and cognitive dissonance: Victims struggle to reconcile the abuser’s alternating loving and abusive behaviours, leading to confusion and cognitive dissonance.
Emotional trauma and roller coaster: Trauma bonding creates an emotional roller coaster for victims, resulting in emotional trauma and instability.
Low self-esteem and self-worth: Constant criticism and belittlement from the abuser contribute to a decline in self-esteem and self-worth.
Dependency and fear of abandonment: Victims become dependent on the abuser for validation and develop a fear of abandonment if they were to leave the relationship.
Isolation and alienation: Abusers often isolate victims from their support systems, leading to isolation and alienation from friends and family.
Loss of autonomy and independence: Trauma bonding strips victims of their autonomy and independence, as the abuser controls various aspects of their lives.
Difficulty trusting and forming healthy relationships: The distorted dynamics of trauma bonding make it challenging for victims to trust others and establish healthy relationships.
Increased risk of future victimhood: Trauma bonding increases the likelihood of victims finding themselves in similar abusive relationships in the future.
How to Stop and Break Free from Trauma Bonding
Leaving a relationship characterised by trauma bonding can be an incredibly challenging and complex process. While it can feel overwhelming and evoke a range of emotions, it’s important to remember that there is hope and support available.
Here are some ways to stop trauma bonding and begin the journey towards healing and freedom.
Acknowledge your situation
Acknowledging that one is in a trauma bond is a crucial first step in stopping the cycle of abuse and preventing similar situations in the future. Here are a few reasons as to why acknowledgement is vital:
Validation and empowerment: Recognising that you’re in a trauma bond validates your experiences and feelings. It helps you understand that what you’re going through is not your fault and that your emotions and struggles are valid. This validation can provide a sense of empowerment and clarity, giving you the strength to take action.
Breaking denial and normalisation: Trauma bonds often thrive in an environment of denial and normalisation. By acknowledging the presence of a trauma bond, you confront the tendency to minimise or dismiss the abusive behaviours and their impact on your well-being. This acknowledgment helps break the illusion that the abuse is acceptable or normal.
Identifying patterns and red flags: Once you acknowledge the existence of a trauma bond, you can start examining the patterns and dynamics of the abusive relationship. This awareness enables you to identify the red flags and manipulative tactics used by the abuser, helping you avoid falling into similar patterns in the future.
Empowering decision-making: Recognising the presence of a trauma bond puts you back in control of your life. It helps you regain agency and make informed decisions about your well-being. This newfound awareness allows you to evaluate the relationship objectively and consider options for your safety and healing.
Breaking the cycle: Breaking the trauma bond and preventing future occurrences require an acknowledgment of the underlying dynamics and patterns. By recognising and addressing the trauma bond, you break the cycle of abuse not only for yourself but also for future relationships. It allows you to establish a foundation of self-respect, self-care and healthy boundaries.
Seek professional guidance and help
Seeking professional guidance and support can be highly beneficial as you prepare to leave your abuser. Trauma therapy specialists have a deep understanding of the complex dynamics of trauma bonding and the lasting impact of abuse. They can assist you in creating a personalised safety plan, navigating potential risks and ensuring a smoother transition out of the abusive relationship.
These professionals provide valuable psychoeducation on trauma bonding, helping you make sense of your experiences and address the psychological and emotional wounds caused by the abusive relationship. They offer a safe and supportive environment where you can express your emotions, fears, and concerns without fear of judgement.
By accessing professional guidance and support, you not only equip yourself to leave the abusive relationship but also embark on a journey of healing and recovery.
Develop your sense of self
To break free from the grip of an abusive relationship, it’s important to focus on reclaiming your independence and nurturing your individuality. Take deliberate steps to engage in activities and pursue interests that align with your values and aspirations.
By reconnecting with your own desires and goals, you can rebuild a sense of self and regain control over your life. Explore hobbies, join support groups or seek therapy to help you discover your strengths and establish a strong sense of personal identity.
Embracing your independence will empower you to make choices that are in your best interest and promote your overall well-being.
Document and gather evidence
If you’re in an abusive relationship, it’s crucial to document instances of abuse and gather evidence to support your claims. If it’s safe and feasible to do so, keep a record of incidents, dates and any relevant details that can substantiate your experiences.
This documentation can be valuable if you need to seek legal intervention or protection in the future. Additionally, if you can gather tangible evidence such as saving text messages, emails or photographs of injuries, it can provide compelling proof of the abuse you’ve endured.
Remember to prioritise your safety throughout this process and consider seeking professional advice or support from organisations specialising in domestic violence to ensure you’re taking appropriate steps to protect yourself.
Leave your abusive partner
Staying in an abusive relationship puts your physical and emotional safety at risk, necessitating the decision to leave in order to protect yourself from further harm. Prolonged exposure to abuse can have severe psychological and emotional consequences.
To leave safely, it’s crucial to prioritise your personal safety by creating a personalised safety plan with the help of professionals experienced in domestic violence. Informing trusted friends, family, or support networks about your situation and intention to leave is important.
Additionally, seeking legal advice from professionals specialising in domestic violence and family law can provide guidance on your rights and legal protections.
FAQs About Trauma Bonding
What is the difference between trauma bonding and love?
The difference between trauma bonding and a healthy, loving relationship can be seen in factors such as consistency and respect, trust and open communication, mutual empowerment, safety and emotional well-being. Additionally, independence and personal boundaries play a significant role in distinguishing between the two dynamics.
In a healthy relationship, there is consistent respect, trust, open communication and support for personal growth. In contrast, trauma bonding involves inconsistent affection, eroded trust, manipulation, a sense of powerlessness and violations of personal boundaries.
What is the difference between trauma bonding and Stockholm Syndrome?
Similarities between trauma bonding and Stockholm Syndrome include the development of emotional attachment to an abusive or captor figure and the presence of a survival mechanism. Both involve forming a bond as a means of self-preservation.
However, there are differences as well. Trauma bonding occurs in the context of ongoing abuse or mistreatment in a specific relationship, while Stockholm Syndrome is often associated with shorter-term hostage situations or situations involving a power imbalance. Additionally, the power imbalance in trauma bonding is typically one-sided, whereas in Stockholm Syndrome, it’s more externally imposed due to physical captivity.
Can trauma bonding occur in friendships?
Trauma bonding can occur in friendships, creating an unhealthy and toxic dynamic based on shared traumatic experiences, emotional dependency and unhealthy coping mechanisms.
Friends who have gone through significant or distressing events together may develop a strong bond, relying on each other for support and validation. This bond can lead to a dependency on friendship for emotional needs, perpetuating destructive behaviours as coping mechanisms. These friendships may also prioritise validation over healthy boundaries and accountability.
Can trauma bonding occur without abuse?
Trauma bonding typically involves psychological abuse, which can occur without physical abuse. Psychological abuse aims to manipulate, control and undermine a person’s well-being and sense of self-worth.
Tactics like gaslighting, manipulation and degradation are used to create dependency on the abuser. While physical abuse involves intentional force causing harm, psychological abuse can be just as damaging, impacting the victim’s mental and emotional state.
Who is more susceptible to trauma bonding?
The following groups of people may be more susceptible to trauma bonding:
- Those with a history of trauma or abusive relationships
- Empathetic and compassionate individuals
- People with low self-esteem
- Individuals exhibiting codependent traits
- Those seeking security and stability