It has been suggested that there are seven stages of trauma bonding, with each stage perpetuating the cycle of trauma and pain commonly seen in abusive relationships. While it can become increasingly difficult for the victim to walk away from this vicious cycle, it is still possible to break a trauma bond, especially once you are familiar with its stages and how they impact you and your relationship.
What Is Trauma Bonding?
Trauma bonding happens when an abuser uses manipulation tactics and cycles of abuse to make the victim feel dependent on them for care and validation, causing a strong attachment or bond. This often occurs in romantic narcissistic relationships, but can also occur in families, friendships, or work relationships.
Trauma bonding in a relationship can coincide with any physical or sexual abuse that may be present. But whether the abuse is purely psychological or a combination of the two, it may feel impossible to simply “walk away” even when you are being harmed. It can take survivors a long time to find the tools to detach themselves from their trauma bond, and often they stay longer than they should out of fear for their safety or livelihood, which can lead to even worse instances of abuse before they can break free.
Who Is More Susceptible to Trauma Bonding?
People with relational and emotional trauma are typically targeted by perpetrators in a trauma bond, intentionally or otherwise. It can be common for abusers to seek out strong, driven, educated, and independent thinkers so that they can make themselves feel superior when they finally break them down.
Other risk factors for trauma bonding include:
- People with dependent personalities
- Anyone who puts a lot of value on “the good times” and is quick to forgive
- Anyone with a history of being abused in childhood or past relationships
- People with disorganized, anxious, or avoidant attachments
- People with the tendency to question themselves, even despite strong evidence that suggests they aren’t to blame
- Existing mental health concerns, such as depression, BPD, and anxiety
- People with separation anxiety
- People who are sensitive to rejection
On an intellectual level, trauma bond survivors likely know what is happening to them is wrong and can identify how painful and soul-crushing their relationship is. Still they often struggle to accept it as abuse.
7 Stages of Trauma Bonding
In the seven proposed stages of trauma bonding, often they begin as seemingly excellent relationships before gradually progressing turning into an abusive dynamic. This progression is part of the reason this bond can profoundly impact a victim’s worldview, perception of reality, and their relationship with themselves.
The seven stages of trauma bonding are:
1. Love Bombing
Love bombing involves the sudden, intense attempt to create a “we” in a relationship through high praise and excessive flattery. While this dynamic typically occurs between a perpetrator and victim of abuse, it can sometimes involve other people surrounding the couple. Sometimes, in some abusive circumstances, the abuser may seem oblivious to their manipulation; however, that is typically not the case in a trauma bond.
In a trauma bond, love bombing can subtly set the stage for an abusive dynamic by:
- Allowing the abuser to prey on the victim’s emotions, deep hopes, desires and dreams. It is similar to someone saying “look what I can offer you, and no one else has or will love you like this”
- Causing the victim to let their guard down and trust the abuser’s intentions
- Fostering positive feelings and validation between the possible perpetrator and victim
- “Proving” that an abuser has good intentions
- Providing a sense of stability and security
2. Trust & Dependency
In this stage, an abuser may purposefully test the victim’s trust and dependency on them usually leading to the target feeling guilty for questioning their partner. Doubts are expected in a healthy relationship and it takes time to get to know someone–not only for what they say but also for what they do.
When confronting the abuser at this stage, you may get a lot of flack for discounting all they have done for you, which is why the love bombing stage provides an vital setup for dependency. In trauma bonds, the idea that you can trust an abuser in the relationship is an illusion.
Once they’ve got your trust, emotional abusers may start to pick apart some of your qualities, identifying them as insignificant or problematic. This criticism can feel sudden, especially after experiencing the love bombing stage, but it is common for abusers to wait until a victim’s trust has been tested before they begin criticizing them.
The criticism phase is most noticeable during intense arguments or disagreements, where the abuser will likely blame their partner and the target may end up over-apologizing for things that are not their fault.
They may start to think along the lines of:
- “Wow, he still loves me and forgives me, even when I mess up.”
- “You’re right, I’m so sorry for questioning you.”
- “You want what’s best for me, so you’re right.”
This back-and-forth dance of harsh criticism and over-apologizing is the glue forming the trauma bond.
4. Manipulation & Gaslighting
Gaslighting and manipulation are two forms of psychological abuse often seen in trauma bonds that ultimately make victims question their reality and perception. Gaslighters will never fully or honestly take responsibility for their behaviors, and tend to shift blame onto the other person. It is very common for gaslighters to suddenly seem calm, cool, and collected once they have pushed their target to their breaking point. Gaslighting is a textbook behavior among common types of abusers like narcissists, sociopaths, and psychopaths.
Fighting back or challenging the abuser can often feel like it will never result in anything good, which sometimes leads to reactive abuse by the target. This term refers to the seemingly abusive behaviors committed by the target towards the oppressor out of blinding rage, survival or psychological preservation.1 It is normal for victims who engage in reactive abuse to feel extremely guilty and concerned when their behavior turns physical, leading the target of abuse to further question their identity, primarily because the gaslighting type of abuser seeks to isolate the target from anything and anyone that gives them a sense of reassurance, normalcy or independence.2
5. Resignation & Giving Up
When dealing with a trauma bond, it is very common for targets of abuse to start giving in at some point to avoid more conflict. The “fawn” trauma response, or bargaining and people-pleasing behaviors, may ensure the relationship can remain somewhat stable.3 Targets may have some awareness they are being manipulated, but that small awareness may not be enough to exit the relationship yet, because the target may still be questioning whether or not they are to blame for the abuser’s behavior.
Depending on the length of the relationship and the nature of the psychological abuse, a target often becomes more dependent on the abuser to avoid further conflict by getting married, having children, or becoming more emotionally and financially reliant on their partner. There are many reasons why an abused person cannot easily leave, including safety concerns. It is natural to fear that an abuser’s behavior may escalate when they sense they are losing control when a target is threatening to leave or actually walking out of the door. Things can escalate and become physical or deadly for many domestic disputes.
6. Loss of Self
Throughout the stages of a trauma bond, there is a progressive loss of self, which brings tremendous pain and a disconnection from the world we once knew. People who leave abusive relationships may not seem like their usual selves due to a loss of their own identity and personal boundaries.4 Trauma bonds can be incredibly isolating, as you can lose many of your social connections due to the changes of self-identity that no longer match what people close to you are used to. This level of psychological destruction may lead to a complete loss of confidence and even suicidal ideation. For many, this emotional torture, shame, and guilt is built up for years, which can make it very difficult to face and move forward from.
7. Addiction to the Cycle
Often in trauma bonds, the stages can be cyclical; after a significant conflict, there may be a cool down or honeymoon period. At this moment of peace, the abuser might apologize and start the love-bombing process all over again, which makes the target feel relieved and desired, thus positively reinforcing a dependency on this abusive cycle.
Conversely, the abuser may completely shut down, become avoidant, and withhold all love, affection, and attention as a way to pressure or force the victim to apologize. When the responsibility and blame become pinned on the target, they may go to extremes to gain back favor from their abuser. By doing so, the target is falsely given the sense that they have control, and they may draw conclusions that the abuser must really love them when they succeed at winning them back, reinforcing the idea that the victim is to blame.
What Do These Stages Do to the Brain?
Research suggests that exposure to trauma confuses or shocks the brain and may lead to several biological changes and stress responses, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), other mental illnesses, substance use disorders, changes in the limbic system, changes in hormones, altered brain chemistry, as well as decreases in brain functioning. Some of these changes may be internal and, therefore, more difficult to notice.
Additional impacts of trauma on the brain may include:5
- Developing chronic illnesses
- Overt displays of emotional distress, such as panicking
- Internal reactions, like dissociation
- Brain fog
- Sleep issues (i.e., nightmares, insomnia, etc)
- Fear of recurrence
How to Break Free From Trauma Bonding
When trying to break free from a trauma bond or abusive situation, it is ideal to have immediate access to a support system or direct phone support via a reputable hotline to help manage difficult and confusing moments. Making a plan with your support system to leave quietly or conflict-free while your abuser is away may help you get out of the door and stay as safe as possible, as the act of leaving is statistically the most dangerous point in abusive relationships.1,5
When to Seek Therapy
Therapy can be a great addition to your support system, and there are specific trauma-based therapy practice, such as Trauma-Focused CBT, that specialize in working with survivors of abuse. You can find a therapist using a therapist directory.
Many survivors report that they either contemplated or tried to leave their relationship several times before it finally ended. It is essential to set realistic expectations about how difficult leaving the relationship will be and how strong the urge to go back can be. Keep in mind that there is not a lot of research to suggest what amount of time or therapy will change the dynamics of the relationship; however, post-traumatic growth, recovery, and healing are possible.
The seven stages of trauma bonding show a repeated cycle of extreme highs and lows in abusive relationships, which often lead to the victim feeling isolated, lacking identity, and staying in the relationship for too long. However, breaking a trauma bond is possible, and support is readily available. In addition to forming a social support system and creating a safety plan, it is important to partner with a mental health professional who is highly trained and skilled in psychological abuse recovery. Otherwise, you may find a provider unfamiliar with the nature of abuse, which can create further confusion and be understandably triggering and retraumatizing. If you or a loved one is ready to get professional support, you can consult with a clinician to ensure they have the desired training to support your needs.