May 23, 2024

Seven Key Stages of Trauma Bonding

Abuse & Trauma
Mental Health & Wellbeing

In the world of mental health, trauma bonding is a complex and often misunderstood experience. It’s a term that describes a unique type of emotional attachment and behavior cycle that forms between an abuser and their victim. Trauma bonding is characterized by a cycle of abuse, apologies, and reconnection. An understanding of trauma bonding sheds light on why some people remain in abusive or dysfunctional relationships while those outside the relationship can see the concerning patterns.

In this article, we’ll explore seven important stages of trauma bonding. From the initial stage of ‘Love Bombing’ to the final stage of ‘Addiction and Compulsion,’ we’ll dive into this psychological process to help you recognize and address these unhealthy relationship patterns. Whether you’re a mental health professional, a survivor of trauma bonding, or someone seeking to support others, this article is for you.

couple sitting on bench with the girl leaning into the guy with his arm over her shoulderUnderstanding Trauma Bonding

Trauma bonding is actually a way of connecting and finding meaning in a relationship. While abusive, it creates and fulfills roles in a relationship, and becomes a strong bond between an abuser and victim. This bond is not based on love or respect, but on a cycle of abuse and reconciliation.

The ups and downs of the relationship and the cyclical interplay between the abuser and the victim are key characteristics of trauma bonding. The cycle of abuse includes the victim becoming attached to the abuser in emotionally entrenching ways. This unhealthy attachment grows through manipulation and control from the abuser. The victim often feels trapped, unable to leave the relationship.

The Psychological Underpinnings of Trauma Bonding

Trauma bonding is rooted in our basic human need for connection, also known as our attachment to others. This need for connection is a survival mechanism and is essential for humanity to thrive. However, in abusive relationships, this need for connection is hijacked and utilized by the abuser. The victim then forms a bond with their abuser as a way to cope with the abuse.

This bond is not a sign of weakness; rather, it’s a response to a complex and challenging situation that is fundamentally confusing. Bonding to an abuser is a way for the victim to make sense of their experience and try to redeem their otherwise painful relationship. Understanding this need for connection and the confusion in the relational dynamic increases empathy with ourselves and victims.

The Role of Intermittent Reinforcement

Intermittent reinforcement is a primary trait of trauma bonding. It’s a psychological tactic used by the abuser where he or she alternates between reward behavior and punishment behavior in an unpredictable pattern. This pattern keeps the victim on their toes, always wondering which side of their abuser they’ll encounter next.

The reward behavior is often expressed through kindness and affection. The hope of receiving reward behavior from the abuser strengthens the bond between the abuser and the victim. The punishment behavior can manifest in various ways including verbal shaming, “icing out” (i.e. emotional stonewalling), and other forms of emotional volatility.

Having a clear picture of this reinforcement pattern is a must for identifying trauma bonding. This is especially true during the “good times,” when the victim is receiving reward behavior from an abuser.

7 Stages of Trauma Bonding

Trauma bonding follows a predictable pattern and often evolves through seven key stages. During the 7 stages of trauma bonding, each phase deepens the bond between the abuser and the victim.

couple sitting on bench with red head girls head on partners shoulder

Stage 1: Love Bombing

Love bombing is the first stage of trauma bonding. The abuser showers the victim with affection and attention, and makes the victim feel special and loved. This stage is founded in emotional manipulation. The abuser uses love bombing to gain the victim’s trust over time. Through the excessive attention and compliments, the abuser creates an illusion of an idealized relationship.

As time passes, the victim starts to believe in this illusion. They become emotionally invested in the relationship as trust increases, and they start to depend on the abuser for their emotional well-being. Love bombing is an early sign of an abusive relationship and its identification can assist a potential victim in avoiding further abuse.

Stage 2: Trust and Dependency

The second stage of trauma bonding is trust and dependency. As the trust and connection grows, the victim can become emotionally attached to the abuser. They start to rely on the abuser to meet their emotional needs. This reliance can be especially harmful because the emotional reliance causes the victim to gradually lose their independence. Therefore, they become vulnerable to further manipulation and control in the relationship.

When the victim experiences a loss of power and an increase in vulnerability, dependence on the abuser increases. As the dependence on the abuser increases, the bond deepens with the victim. Often, the victims are made to feel that they cannot survive outside of the relationship.

Stage 3: Criticism and Demeaning Behavior

Verbal criticism and demeaning behavior towards the victim is the third stage. The abuser starts to belittle and criticize their partner and point out their “flaws,” making them feel worthless and inadequate. If this pattern continues, the abuser’s criticisms will start to be believed and internalized. The victim will start to doubt their worth and abilities.

The abuser uses this self-doubt to control the victim and push them further into the cycle of trauma bonding. They make the victim believe that they deserve the abuse and convince them that they are the sole problem in the relationship. This process slowly moves the victim into a state of scarcity, lack, and self-doubt.

Stage 4: Gaslighting

The next stage features gaslighting, which the abuser uses to manipulate the victim’s reality through denial of fault and victim-blaming. They make the victim question their memory and perception of previous conversations, behaviors, etc. Confusion is a primary trait of this stage. The victim starts to doubt their sanity and becomes unsure of reality.

The abuser uses this confusion to control and increasingly define reality for the victim. The victim is regularly convinced that the abuser is the only one who knows “the truth.”

Stage 5: Resignation and Acceptance

The fifth stage of trauma bonding is resignation and acceptance; the victim accepts the abuse as a normal part of the relationship. There is a resignation to the situation – a type of giving up. This stage is intense because the victim often loses hope of a better future, or healthier relationship.

The abuser uses this resignation to deepen the bond. They make the victim believe that they cannot escape the relationship and that it’s a primary part of their life. Having a hope for a different future or reality begins to feel out-of-reach.

Stage 6: Loss of Self

Stage six focuses on the loss of self, as the victim’s identity becomes enmeshed with the abuser. The sense of self becomes blurry and undefined. A beautiful part of a healthy relationship is a clear sense of self and distinction between partners. This grounded feeling becomes less accessible to the victim as they become uncertain of their identity and adopt more characteristics of the abuser.

This loss of self necessarily leads to further control over the victim. With a less distinct sense of self, the victim starts to feel nothing apart from their partner. When we encounter individuals who feel a worthlessness in their relationship, it’s a possible indication that trauma bonding is happening.

Stage 7: Addiction and Compulsion

The final stage of trauma bonding is addiction and compulsion in the relationship. The victim becomes addicted to the waiting and desiring of reconciliation with the abuser. This addictive nature of the relationship compels the victim to stay in the relationship. This stage is challenging because the victim cannot always be convinced to break of the relational cycle, even if they recognize its harm.

Additionally, there’s a physiological component to the unpredictable and tumultuous nature of the relationship; the hormones associated with the highs and lows of the relationship increase the addictive and compulsive behavior. There’s a physiological incentive for the victim to stay engaged in the relationship.

Recognizing and Addressing Trauma Bonds

Recognizing the key characteristics of trauma bonds is the first step towards exiting the cycle and finding healing. Healing also requires acknowledging the presence of an abusive relationship. Addressing trauma bonds is a complex process that requires courage, determination, and support from loved ones and often, mental health professionals.

Strategies for Breaking Trauma Bonds

Breaking trauma bonds involves several strategies including setting boundaries with self and your partner, and practicing self-care. It also involves seeking professional help.

Therapy can be a powerful tool in breaking trauma bonds. It can help victims understand and process their experiences and see the characteristics of trauma bonding more clearly. It can also provide them with strategies to cope with the emotional fallout of the abuse and restore the victim’s sense of self. If you suspect that you or someone you know is in this kind of relationship, please consider reaching out to one of our therapists. Our therapists can help you determine whether the relationship in question is unhealthy and help you determine how to address it.

Another helpful strategy is to attend support groups. They can provide a safe space for victims to share their experiences and find solace in knowing they aren’t alone in their experience. Peer support and shared understanding is a clinically supported and crucial part of moving forward.

The Importance of Support Systems

Support systems play a meaningful role in one’s healing from trauma bonding. They provide emotional support, practical assistance, and resources that might not otherwise be accessed. Support systems can include friends, family, religious or spiritual connections, and mental health professionals. They can also include support groups and online communities. Ideally, they provide a designated space for victims to openly share their experiences and seek advice from others.

Having a strong support system can make the process of breaking trauma bonds less daunting. It can provide victims with the strength and courage they need. It can also provide them with the resources and information they need to navigate their healing journey.

Looking forward: The Path to Healing

The journey forward to healing from trauma bonding is often incredibly challenging, and yet an empowering process. And the process continues; the life-long pursuit of growth and healing are part of being human and desiring to be healthy. Despite the challenges, healing from trauma bonding is possible. It opens the door to healthier relationships and a stronger sense of self. These open doors can provide an opportunity for personal growth and transformation of one reality of abuse to another of freedom. And together we remember: the path to healing isn’t linear, but what counts are the steps forward.

Ready to set up your first appointment?

If you haven’t been in touch with us yet, you can get started by filling out our intake form.