7 Stages of Trauma Bonding

Trauma bonding is a powerful emotional connection that develops between those who are abused and their abusers, particularly when the abused person experiences kindness or affection between episodes of abuse. Understanding the seven stages of trauma bonding can provide critical insights into the manipulative tactics often found in toxic relationships.

Much like other addictions, a trauma bond can enmesh us, keeping us tied to harmful partners, making it incredibly challenging to break free. The emotional intensity can sometimes rival the pull of substance addictions, and we may often find ourselves returning to the person causing the harm despite our best attempts to leave.

Recognising the stages of trauma bonding is an important step toward healing, giving us a clearer perspective on the unseen chains binding us to destructive and repeated relationship patterns. With this knowledge, we can empower ourselves and others to seek the support needed to rebuild and find happy, fulfilling relationships that allow us to truly thrive.

Understanding Trauma Bonding

Trauma bonding is a psychological response to abuse. It is a theory introduced by Dr. Patrick Carnes in 1997 to describe the unique relationship that develops between the abuser and the abused. This bond often emerges in relationships where a recurring cycle of abuse is interspersed with moments of kindness and affection, creating a confusing emotional atmosphere for the victim.

The concept of trauma bonding isn’t restricted to romantic relationships; it extends to various relational dynamics like parent-child, family members, kidnapper-captive, and cult leaders and their followers, among others. Whether it’s a person tormented by past involvement with a person of influence in society, someone aiding an ex-spouse who caused immense pain or a group following a dangerous cult leader, these scenarios all illustrate the harrowing reality and strong misplaced loyalty that characterises trauma bonding.[1][2][3]

It’s important to note that, in some cases, abusers themselves might be untreated victims, enacting behaviours learned from their own traumatic experiences. By perpetuating the cycle, they might be unwittingly replicating the pain and turmoil they once endured. Recognising this complex interplay can provide a more nuanced understanding of the dynamics at play, emphasising the cyclical nature of trauma and the importance of healing for all parties involved.

Manipulation is at the core, and people employ a cycle of abuse to foster a sense of dependency, making the victim yearn for their validation and care despite the emotional or physical harm inflicted.[4] It’s a malicious bond, often seen in narcissistic relationships, where the abused finds it exceedingly difficult to walk away due to a strong attachment formed through fear, loyalty, and intermittent affection.[5] Despite it being largely thought of as a male-on-female problem, abuse can happen in all relationship dynamics and by perpetrators of any gender.

Breaking down the stages of trauma bonding is essential as it provides a framework that helps us understand the situation we may find ourselves in and supports us on the path to breaking free from the toxic bonds that cause us pain and suffering.


The Stages of Trauma Bonding

The stages of a trauma bond are like stepping stones leading the victim deeper into a harmful situation. It often starts with a show of love, creating trust. Slowly, this shifts into a phase of criticism and control, which can make the victim feel tied to the abuser, hoping for a return to the initial affection. This happens in seven stages:

  1. Love Bombing
  2. Love bombing is a manipulative tactic commonly employed by narcissistic people aiming to gain your trust swiftly. Initially, they shower you with affection, compliments, and seemingly sincere love and affection, creating a whirlwind of positive emotions. This sudden overflow of warmth and attention can feel overwhelming yet exhilarating, making you feel cherished and valued. Under the guise of love, the narcissistic individual aims to create a strong bond quickly. However, this stage of intense affection is merely a facade, a precursor to gaining control over your emotions. The cycle of love and affection transitions into phases of devaluation and manipulation, yet the good memories from the love bombing phase often keep the individual hopeful for a return to those early days, drawing them deeper into the trauma bond.

  3. Trust and Dependency
  4. As the love bombing stage transitions, a sense of trust and attachment begins to form. The abuser cleverly intertwines their life with the victim’s, creating a seemingly vital bond. The victim may start to feel dependent on the abuser for emotional support, validation, or even basic decision-making. This dependency forms a key part of the trauma bond; it’s where the abuser gains significant control over the victim’s life in a way that’s increasingly difficult to untangle. The dependency can be emotional, financial, or social, making the bond complex and challenging to break.

  5. Shift to Criticism and Devaluation
  6. After securing trust, the abuser’s demeanor shifts from affection to abusive behaviour. Compliments turn into criticisms, creating an atmosphere of constant devaluation. The victim, who was once showered with praise, now finds themselves yearning for validation and approval, which comes sparsely or not at all. This shift is disorienting and painful, making the victim work harder to regain the lost affection, not realising that the abuser is continually moving the goalposts. This stage further entrenches the victim in the trauma bond, amplifying the difficulty of breaking free.

  7. Manipulation and Gaslighting
  8. As the trauma bond solidifies, the abuser ups the ante by using manipulation and gaslighting as key tactics to gain further control. Manipulation involves deceit, misdirection, and coercion to alter the victim’s sense of reality or decisions. Gaslighting is a more sinister form of emotional manipulation where the abuser denies or twists the truth, leading the victim to doubt their own perception, memory, or sanity. These tactics are designed to pull the victim deeper into the bond, making them more compliant and less likely to challenge the abuser. Over time, the constant manipulation and gaslighting can severely erode the victim’s self-esteem and sense of self-worth, further tightening the grip of the trauma bond.

  9. Resignation & Giving Up
  10. As the trauma bond deepens, a feeling of resignation often surrounds the victim. The repeated cycle of manipulation and gaslighting exhausts their emotional reserves, pushing them into a state of acceptance of the toxic relationship. They may feel unable to leave despite the visible harm and deteriorating self-esteem. This stage is marked by a weary acceptance of the abuser’s control, as the victim sees no viable exit. The entanglement in the trauma bond has morphed into a seemingly inescapable reality, further cementing the victim’s place in the abusive dynamics.

  11. Loss of Sense of Self
  12. Under the relentless pressure of narcissistic abuse, the victim often experiences a profound loss of their sense of self. The abuser’s continuous criticisms and manipulations make them feel worthless, incompetent, or crazy. Over time, this erosion of self-esteem and self-confidence can make the victim lose touch with their own desires, opinions, and personal boundaries. The abuser’s perspective dominates their thought process to the point where they may struggle to make simple decisions without seeking approval or validation.

  13. Emotional Addiction
  14. The emotional addiction to the abuser is the pinnacle of the trauma bond. Due to the intermittent reinforcement of affection and validation, the victim develops an emotional attachment akin to an addiction. They crave the sporadic moments of kindness and validation amidst the constant turmoil, much like a gambler awaiting the next win. The cycle of abuse has conditioned them to endure negativity for the sake of fleeting positive interactions. This emotional addiction fuels the trauma bond, making it immensely challenging to break free and rebuild one’s life.

      Varieties of Trauma Bonds

      While the concept of trauma bonding is commonly associated with abusive romantic relationships, it can manifest in a variety of other scenarios, each with its unique set of challenges and dynamics.

      • Co-dependency: Co-dependent relationships often see couples reliant on each other for emotional validation and support to such an extent that it harms their wellbeing. Here, trauma bonds can form when one or both parties experience mistreatment but remain in the relationship due to the intertwined emotional dependencies.
      • Manmade Disasters: Experiencing traumatic events, such as natural disasters or accidents, can lead to trauma bonds between survivors. The intense shared experience and the emotional aftermath can create strong attachments, even if the relationship becomes unhealthy or toxic.
      • Sibling Relationships: Siblings share a deep bond, often rooted in shared experiences and upbringing. However, in some cases, one sibling might exert dominance, control, or even abuse, leading to a trauma bond. The victimised sibling might stay connected due to familial loyalty, shared memories, or the intermittent kindness shown by the abusive sibling.

      Trauma Bonding and Substance Addiction

      Trauma bonds – which are often rooted in abusive relationships – can intertwine with substance use disorder (SUD). The emotional entanglement can drive us to use drugs or alcohol as a coping mechanism, as we seek momentary relief from the emotional turmoil. Such bonds can create a vicious cycle where the substance use offers an escape from the trauma, and the abusive relationship exacerbates the need for that escape.

      Additionally, people might find themselves in codependent relationships where both parties are using substances, making it doubly challenging to leave. Recovery involves not only addressing the substance dependency but also the underlying trauma bond that may have contributed to the initiation or continuation of drug use.

      Co-dependency and the Cycle of Trauma Bonds

      Co-dependency is a behavioural pattern where individuals become overly reliant on their partners to fulfil their emotional and self-esteem needs. For those who have endured family of origin abuse or identify as ACA (Adult Children of Alcoholics or Dysfunctional Families), the predisposition to enter co-dependent relationships can be heightened.

      The early experiences of dysfunction and abuse lay a foundation, often driving people to seek out relationships that mirror the instability and emotional turmoil they faced during their formative years. As a result, they can find themselves in repetitive cycles of co-dependent relationships, where trauma bonds solidify.

      Breaking Free from Trauma Bonding

      Escaping a trauma bond begins with a journey of self-discovery and education. Recognising the dynamics and taking the necessary steps to leave the relationship can pave the way towards a healthier, happier life. Here are some tips that can help you navigate through this challenging yet transformative journey:

      • Self-Education: The first step is empowering ourselves with knowledge about trauma bonding, abusive relationships, and the manipulative tactics used. This newfound awareness can be a catalyst for change.
      • Prepare to Exit the Relationship: Formulating a plan to leave the relationship safely, perhaps while the abuser is absent, can ensure a safer transition. Utilising support systems or hotlines during challenging moments can provide additional assistance.
      • Stay Grounded in the Now: It’s essential to remain present, acknowledge emotions, and identify the abusive actions affecting our well-being.
      • Create Some Space: When possible, creating some distance from the abusive person can provide clearer insights and lessen their emotional grip.
      • Join Support Groups: Connecting with others who have experienced similar situations can offer invaluable insights and a sense of community.
      • Self-Care: Prioritising personal well-being and engaging in activities that promote self-respect, self-love, and self-care is fundamental.
      • Envision Your Desired Future: Reflecting on what we want moving forward and considering the steps needed to achieve a healthier, happier life can provide a roadmap.
      • Constructive Dialogue: Engaging in positive conversations with trusted friends or family members about our situation and feelings can be therapeutic.
      • Allow Ourselves to Heal: Permitting ourselves to heal and considering professional help to work through emotions and challenges is crucial.
      • Consult with Professionals: Engaging in therapy like Trauma-Focused CBT can help explore and address underlying issues and support our recovery journey.
      • Exercise Self-Compassion: Understanding that healing is a process and practising self-compassion is vital.
      • Don’t Forget To Have Fun: Whether it’s regular yoga practice, focusing on a new project, or journaling, finding activities that help channel energy positively and promote healing can be beneficial.
      • Adopt Clinical Strategies: Utilising strategies like no-contact contracts and detachment techniques can further assist in breaking free from the trauma bond.[6]

      By following these steps and seeking professional support, we can work towards breaking the trauma bond, recovering, and laying down the foundations for healthier relationships and a self-empowered life.


      What Are the Signs of Trauma Bonding?

      Spotting the signs of a trauma bond is the initial step to breaking free from one. Here, we highlight some indicators, drawing parallels with Stockholm Syndrome—a condition where hostages develop affection towards their captors—and underlining the recurring cycle of abuse typical in such bonds:

      • Unhealthy Attachment: Despite continuous mistreatment, there’s an intense emotional tie to the abuser, often fearing separation even when the abuser isn’t present.
      • Dismissal of Abuse: We might downplay or entirely dismiss abusive behaviours or make excuses for the abuser’s actions.
      • Isolation from Support: The abuser might isolate us from friends and family, deepening the bond as they become our sole support system.
      • Confused Emotions: Like victims of Stockholm Syndrome, we might experience a baffling mix of affection, fear, and loyalty towards the abuser.
      • Cyclical Abuse and Kindness: A recurring cycle where abusive behavior is interspersed with moments of kindness, keeping us hopeful for a change that never comes.
      • Longing for Approval: Constantly seeking validation or approval from the abuser despite continuous devaluation.
      • Low Self-esteem: Over time, our self-esteem erodes, and we may start blaming ourselves for the abuse or feel like we have earned it.

      Why do People Stay in a Trauma Bond?

      The dynamics of a trauma bond can make it incredibly difficult for someone to break free despite the abusive nature of the relationship. Some factors explaining why individuals often find themselves unable to leave and may even end up making excuses for their abuser include:

      • Fear of Retaliation: There might be a genuine fear of retaliation from the abuser if attempts to leave are made, keeping victims tethered in toxic situations.
      • Financial Dependence: Economic factors can play a significant role, especially if the victim is financially dependent on the abuser. This economic entanglement can make it seem impossible to leave.
      • Shared Responsibilities: Shared responsibilities such as children or joint assets can complicate the decision to leave, especially when the abuser uses these as leverage.
      • Deteriorated Self-confidence: The victim’s self-confidence may be so eroded that they doubt their ability to manage life independently.
      • Hope for Change: Sometimes, the hope that the abuser will change or revert to the kind person they initially appeared to be can keep victims stuck.
      • Lack of Awareness: Lack of awareness regarding the dynamics of abuse and trauma bonds may leave victims unable to name what they’re experiencing, making it hard to seek help.
      • Access to Support: Limited access to external support or lack of understanding from friends and family can also deter individuals from leaving the abusive situation.

      Resources for People in an Abusive Relationship

      Always ensure that you’re accessing these resources safely, especially if you’re in a situation where your abuser monitors your internet usage or communications.

      • National Domestic Violence Helpline (UK): You can contact them for support if you’re in an abusive relationship. Call 0808 2000 247.
      • The National Domestic Violence Hotline (USA): They offer support and resources for individuals in abusive relationships. Call 1.800.799.SAFE (7233) or text START to 88788.
      • 1800RESPECT (Australia): This is a helpline for individuals facing domestic violence in Australia.
      • UK Local Domestic Violence Shelters: They often have helplines and provide resources and support. Click here for women’s shelters – unfortunately the same resource does not exist for men in the UK.
      • USA and Canada Domestic Violence Shelters: Click here
      • Therapist Directories: Websites like Psychology Today have directories to find therapists who specialise in trauma and abusive relationships.
      • Support Groups: Look for local or online support groups for survivors of domestic violence or abusive relationships.

      Contact Us Today

      At Crossroads Antigua, we specialise in supporting people struggling with addiction, including those who turn to substances as a way to cope with the complexities of trauma bonds. Navigating the challenges of substance dependence intertwined with the emotional pain of trauma bonds can be overwhelming. Our dedicated team understands this unique intersection and is committed to guiding you towards a path of healing and self-renewal.

      If you or someone you know is facing the dual challenges of addiction and trauma bonding, don’t hesitate to reach out. Contact us today at 1 (888) 452-0091.

      Leave a Reply

      Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *