The 7 Stages of Trauma Bonding
When we build connections with other people, the term “bonding” brings positive connotations with it and it is an essential component of healthy human behavior.
In contrast, trauma bonding describes the unhealthy attachment with a person that causes trauma. Indeed, trauma bonding relationships are perpetuated by cycles of abuse, followed by love and kindness.
Here we shall look at what is trauma bonding in adult relationships, why it occurs, signs that you may be in a trauma bonding relationship, how to look for help, and the 7 stages of trauma bonding.
What is trauma bonding?
Trauma bonding is a psychological response to abuse. It occurs when the abused person forms a connection or relationship with the person who abuses them. Additionally, a trauma bond with a narcissist also involves abuse and a number of factors as described later on.
What’s more, the person experiencing abuse may develop sympathy or affection for the abusive person, which becomes reinforced by cycles of abuse, followed by remorse.
Stockholm syndrome is a specific type of trauma bond. While this term typically refers to someone who is captive developing positive feelings for their captors, this dynamic can occur in other situations and relationships, when a person experiencing abuse begins to rationalize the actions of the perpetrator.
This bond can develop over days, weeks, or months. Yet not everyone who experiences abuse develops a trauma bond.
When someone’s main source of support is also their abuser, a trauma bond can develop. An abused person may turn to the abusive person for comfort when they are hurt, even if the other person was the one who caused it.
As a result, an individual may develop a trauma bond because they rely on the abusive person to fulfill emotional needs.
What are the 7 stages of trauma bonding?
If you feel that you have tried to leave a toxic relationship several times, but keep ending back with your ex despite the abuse, it might be an indication of trauma bonding. This manipulative technique can cause long-term negative effects and a lot of suffering.
Understanding the 7 stages of trauma bonding sheds light on how and why trauma bonding happens.
First, love bombing
Second, get you hooked and gain your trust
Third, shift to criticism and devaluation
Fifth, resignation & submission
Sixth, loss of sense of self
Final stage, emotional Addiction
7 Stages of Trauma Bonding
Stage 1: Love bombing
In the beginning of the relationship your connection feels deep, intense, and you experience euphoric moments. In a trauma bond with a narcissist, that person will shower you with love and affection which can sometimes feel overwhelming. You feel appreciated and loved, and they present themselves as your ideal partner.
Stage 2: Get you hooked and gain your trust
As the relationship develops, your partner does everything they can to win over your trust. They might rush you into commitments and suggest that you move in together or get married. These are usually false promises as when they feel that they have gained your trust, they will back out from commitment.
You start feeling attached to them, and your emotions begin to feel dependent on them. Then as they sense that you are becoming addicted to them, they slowly start distancing themselves.
Craving their love and validation is an indication that you are developing trauma bonding signs. In a healthy loving relationship, love and acceptance are always present, as your partner won’t leave you craving for their affection and validation.
Stage 3: Shift to criticism and devaluation
You might not notice how they gradually shift to the criticism stage. It generally starts slowly, and you might mistake it as a normal progression of two people getting more comfortable together in a relationship.
Suddenly, they start belittling you, and you find yourself being blamed for everything that goes wrong, including their feelings and perceptions. As they enter into the devaluation stage, they become more demanding and it seems like they are never pleased. No matter what you do is never good enough for them.
This is part of the narcissistic cycle, an abusive pattern that leads to trauma bonding. You can learn more about what is a narcissistic abuse cycle to help you get more insights on their behavior.
Stage 4: Gaslighting
During this stage, your abusive partner denies your feelings and experiences. They twist facts and make you feel that your concerns are invalid. Narcissist gaslighting causes a lot of confusion, and can lead to questioning your own sanity.
Most often, victims of gaslighting develop cognitive dissonance as their abusive partners deny abusive behaviors, and accuse them that all problems in the relationship are solely their fault. This is an emotional manipulation technique and can make you seriously doubt your own thoughts, memories and experiences.
Stage 5: Resignation & submission
You realize that no matter how hard you try to reason things out, you cannot get anywhere. Having an open and logical discussion in a relationship with a narcissist is impossible. Every time you try to reason things out, your partner continues to blame and criticize you, while shifting the point of the argument to something irrelevant.
You find yourself mentally and emotionally exhausted, so you decide to try and do things their way in order to resolve conflict. This empowers them to continue disrespecting your boundaries, while you’re hoping that you get back to Stage 1 to get their love and affection.
Stage 6: Loss of sense of self
Any attempt to take control into your hands and set some boundaries in your relationship, results in extreme emotional manipulation and abusive behavior. Your family and friends are probably worried about you, and they cannot understand why you’re still in this toxic relationship.
You find yourself feeling powerless and exhausted. Your self-esteem has been broken and you completely neglect yourself and your needs to attend to theirs. A common symptom of trauma bonding is losing touch with your true self, your principles and personality. At this stage, you will do anything just to avoid another conflict and more suffering.
Stage 7: Emotional Addiction
Being in a relationship with a narcissist feels like an emotional roller-coaster. You feel anxious and stressed all the time, increasing the levels of cortisol in your body. At this stage, you struggle to find pleasure in anything, and you crave relief from the pain as a result of being rejected by your partner. This creates a cycle of dependency that can feel very similar to drug addiction.
Narcissists go through toxic behavioral cycles which leave their victims at their mercy. Learn more about the behavioral cycle of a narcissist to help you understand better the psychology behind it. This kind of behavior also leads to trauma bonding which keeps their victims trapped in the relationship craving for the next love bombing stage.
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Breaking Free of a Trauma Bond
Even though you can sense that the relationship is toxic for you, you struggle to leave your partner. You find yourself making excuses and justifying their behavior. However, deciding to stay in a toxic relationship is a symptom of trauma bonding.
This kind of emotional and mental torture will never stop if you decide to stay with a narcissist. To break free from a trauma bond, you need to cut all the contact with the narcissist and physically distance yourself. Healing from a narcissistic relationship is not easy, but once you take the necessary steps to get over a trauma bond, it will become easier.
Signs of trauma bonding
The main sign that a person has bonded with an abuser is that they try to justify or defend the abuse. They may also:
- Agree with the abusive person’s reasons for treating them badly.
- Try to cover for the abusive person
- Argue with or distance themselves from people trying to help, such as friends, family members, or neighbours
- Become defensive or hostile if someone intervenes and attempts to stop the abuse, such as bystander or police officer
- Be reluctant or unwilling to take steps to leave the abusive situation or break the bond
A person bonded with their abuser might say, for example:
- “He is only like that because he loves me so much — you would not understand.”
- “She is under a lot of pressure at work, she cannot help it. She will make it up to me later.”
- “I will not leave him, he is the love of my life. You are just jealous.”
- “It is my fault — I make them angry.”
Conversely, it is worth noting that these feelings of attachment do not necessarily end when the person leaves the harmful situation. In addition, a person may still feel loyal or loving toward the person who abused them or feel tempted to return.
Breaking a trauma bond
Breaking the cycle of a trauma bond can be challenging and may take time, but it is possible. It is suggested that people:
- Focus on the present: Hope that an abusive person will change or nostalgia for good times in the past can keep people in their trauma bonds. Try to acknowledge what is currently happening and the impact that it has by pausing to reflect on it. If it is safe to do so, keep a diary.
- Focus on the evidence: If a person continues to abuse or takes no steps to get help, stay focused on this, rather than on their promises about the future.
- Practice positive self-talk: Abuse can lower a person’s self-esteem and make them feel that they cannot be without the abusive person. Noticing negative self-talk and challenging with positive alternatives can start to change this.
- Practice self-care: Taking care of oneself may help relieve some stress and reduce the desire to turn to an abusive person for comfort. Journaling, meditation, exercise, hobbies, prayer, or talking to trusted friends can help.
If possible, a person can also:
- Learn about abusive and toxic relationships in order to spot the signs early and reinforce that they are not healthy.
- Discover what healthy relationships look like and seek them out.
- Create a plan to improve safety and make it possible to leave.
Safety planning and getting help
Safety plans include personalized steps that an individual can take to protect themselves physically and emotionally. The plan may include:
- Safe places where someone can go to protect themselves, children, or pets from violence
- Names and contact information for people who provide support
- Information about local organizations and services
- A way to gather evidence of the abuse, such as a journal with events and dates that a person keeps in a safe place
- A plan to leave, considering factors such as money, a safe place to live, and work
- A plan for staying safe after leaving, which may include changing locks and phone numbers, altering working hours, and pursuing legal action
The following approaches may help people understand their experiences of trauma bonding and address related issues, such as anxiety and depression.
Individual’s may experience pain, a sense of loss, and grief after escaping an abusive situation.
Professional support can be extremely helpful in your healing journey. It can help you gain an objective perspective on what is happening in your relationship, and rebuild your self-esteem. By working on yourself with someone who can understand and validate your experience, you can get closure and reconnect with your sense of self to reclaim yourself back!
Therapy for Trauma Bonds
An understanding therapist, counselor, or support worker can help someone work through this. It may help to find a therapist who has experience with trauma and abuse survivors.
A therapist can provide a safe space to talk about all thoughts, feelings, and experiences. They can also identify and treat conditions that may develop as a result of abuse, such as post-traumatic stress disorder.
Support groups can offer abuse survivors places to share their stories with others who understand. This can help a person feel less alone and remind them that there are others who care.
People in support groups may also share tips on coping and staying safe, and provide other practical advice about moving on from an abusive situation.