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Decoding Trauma Bonding: A Deep Dive into its Stages, Signs, and Healing Paths

Table of Contents

  1. What Is Trauma Bonding?

  2. Who Is More Susceptible to Trauma Bonding?

  3. 7 Stages of Trauma Bonding

  4. What Do These Stages Do to the Brain?

  5. Signs of a Traumatic Bond

  6. Traits of an Abusive Partner

  7. How to Break a Trauma Bond

  8. Seeking Professional Help and Moving Forward

  9. Frequently Asked Questions

  10. The Bottom Line

  11. Additional Resources & Further Reading

What Is Trauma Bonding?

Trauma bonding, often referred to within psychological circles, is a complex and intense emotional attachment between an abused individual and their abuser. This bond is formed due to repeated cycles of abuse, wherein moments of positive reinforcement (like affection or kindness) follow periods of maltreatment. This intermittent positive reinforcement strengthens the bond, making it challenging for the abused individual to break free.

Interestingly, trauma bonding can be likened to Stockholm Syndrome, a psychological phenomenon where hostages develop sympathy and loyalty to their captors. Both hinge on the idea of gratitude for small kindnesses shown in otherwise hostile environments.

Quote: "In trauma bonding, the bond is strengthened by the need to survive in a threatening environment." – Dr. Patrick Carnes, a leading expert on addiction and recovery.
  • Key Characteristics of Trauma Bonding:

    1. Confusion between love and pain: Victims often struggle to distinguish between genuine affection and abusive behavior.

    2. Justification of harmful actions: The abused might downplay the severity of the abuse or find reasons to excuse their abuser's behavior.

    3. Inability to detach from the abuser: Despite recognizing the harm they're enduring, victims find it extremely difficult to leave the situation.

Who Is More Susceptible to Trauma Bonding? Anyone can fall prey to trauma bonding; however, certain individuals might be more vulnerable due to various factors. Understanding these predispositions can be crucial in prevention and early intervention.

  • Personal Histories and Vulnerabilities:

    • Childhood Trauma: Those who experienced trauma, neglect, or abuse in their formative years might unknowingly seek out similar dynamics in their adult relationships.

    • Low Self-Esteem: Individuals with a diminished sense of self-worth may tolerate abusive behavior, believing they deserve it or that they can't find better.

  • Societal and Media Influences:

    • Romanticization of "Passionate" Relationships: Media often blurs the line between passion and toxicity, leading people to misinterpret abusive behaviors as signs of deep love or passion.

    • Cultural Norms: In some cultures, aggressive or domineering behaviors might be normalized or even expected, making it challenging for individuals to recognize and stand up against abuse.

Table: Vulnerabilities and Their Potential Impacts


Potential Impact

Childhood Trauma

Tendency to replicate childhood dynamics in adult relationships

Low Self-Esteem

Increased likelihood to accept and justify abuse

Media Influence

Misunderstanding of what constitutes a healthy relationship

Cultural Norms

Difficulty in recognizing and resisting abuse

7 Stages of Trauma Bonding

Trauma bonding doesn't manifest overnight. It follows a sinister progression, each stage pulling the victim deeper into the web of manipulation and control. Let's explore these stages in detail:

1. Love Bombing This is the honeymoon phase where the abuser showers their victim with affection, gifts, compliments, and attention. It's an overwhelming period where the victim feels incredibly valued and cherished.

  • Facts to Consider:

    • "Love bombing" is a term that originated from the actions of cults as they recruited new members.

    • It's a tactic used to make the victim dependent on the abuser's affection.

2. Trust & Dependency Having experienced

the highs of love bombing, the victim begins to trust the abuser, gradually becoming more emotionally and sometimes financially dependent on them.

3. Criticism Subtle criticisms start seeping into the relationship. These jabs are often disguised as "jokes" or "constructive feedback", making the victim question their worth and reality.

4. Manipulation & Gaslighting This stage sees the abuser distort the victim's reality, making them question their memory, perception, or sanity. They might say things like, "You're overreacting," or "That never happened."

  • Quick Fact: The term "gaslighting" is derived from the 1944 film "Gaslight," where a man manipulates his wife into believing she's going insane.

5. Resignation & Giving Up The continuous cycle of affection and abuse leaves the victim emotionally exhausted. They may feel trapped, resigning themselves to the situation as they see no way out.

6. Loss of Self Victims begin to lose their sense of identity, prioritizing the abuser's needs and desires over their own. They might isolate themselves from friends and family, further entrenching their dependency on the abuser.

7. Addiction to the Cycle The rollercoaster of emotions – from extreme highs during moments of affection to devastating lows during abuse – becomes addictive. The victim craves the moments of affection, making them endure the lows, hoping for a return to the highs.

What Do These Stages Do to the Brain? Trauma bonding isn't just an emotional experience; it has profound neurological implications. The brain releases a cocktail of hormones during the highs and lows of the relationship, strengthening the bond.

  • Dopamine: Released during the "highs," it's the feel-good hormone associated with pleasure and reward.

  • Oxytocin: Known as the "love hormone," it intensifies feelings of trust and bonding.

  • Cortisol: Produced in response to stress, its continuous release during "lows" can lead to health issues and increased dependency on the abuser for emotional stability.

Table: Hormonal Impact on Trauma Bonding



Effect on Victim


Reward and Pleasure

Creates an addictive cycle, linking pleasure to the abuser's affection


Bonding and Trust

Strengthens attachment to the abuser


Stress Response

Increases dependency and feelings of entrapment

Signs of a Traumatic Bond

Recognizing the symptoms of trauma bonding is the first step towards seeking help. Here are the key indicators:

  • A Cyclical Nature: The relationship oscillates between highs and lows, yet the victim finds it challenging to leave.

  • A Power Imbalance: The abuser holds significant control, making decisions for the victim or influencing their choices.

  • Denial: The victim might downplay the abuse or find reasons to justify their abuser's behavior.

  • Isolation: The victim often distances themselves from loved ones, either from their own volition or due to the abuser's manipulation.

Traits of an Abusive Partner

It's essential to identify patterns of behavior that indicate an abusive partner:

  1. Manipulative Behavior: They twist situations to their advantage.

  2. Blame Shifting: They never take responsibility for their actions, often blaming the victim.

  3. Intense Jealousy: They are excessively possessive or suspicious.

  4. Control Over Finances: They might limit the victim's access to money or make all financial decisions.

  5. Threats and Intimidation: They use threats, either of harm or self-harm, to control the victim.

Trauma Bonding and Intimate Partner Violence

Trauma bonding is a frequent occurrence in relationships marred by intimate partner violence (IPV). IPV isn't just physical abuse; it encompasses emotional, psychological, and financial abuse, all of which strengthen the trauma bond.

Quote: "The traumatic bond is stronger than a love bond." – Dr. Donald Dutton, a psychologist specializing in domestic violence

How to Break a Trauma Bond

Breaking free from a trauma bond can be one of the most challenging journeys an individual undertakes. However, with the right tools and support, it is entirely possible. Here are some essential steps:

Keep a Written Record

Maintaining a diary or journal can be incredibly therapeutic. Documenting incidents and feelings can:

  • Provide a tangible record of abuse, reminding the victim of the realities they face.

  • Serve as a tool for reflection, allowing victims to identify patterns and triggers.

Seek Outside Advice

Speaking to trusted friends, family, or professionals can offer fresh perspectives. This external view can help in:

  • Validating the victim's experiences.

  • Offering advice or resources for further help.

Nurture Yourself

Self-care is pivotal. Engaging in activities that promote well-being can help rebuild self-worth and resilience. Some self-care methods include:

  • Meditation and mindfulness exercises.

  • Physical activity or joining fitness groups.

  • Pursuing hobbies or learning new skills.

Cut off Contact Completely

While challenging, this is often necessary for healing. By eliminating contact:

  • The victim breaks the cycle of highs and lows.

  • Creates a space to heal and rebuild without interference.

Seeking Professional Help and Moving Forward

No one should navigate the aftermath of trauma bonding alone. Professional assistance can be invaluable.

  • Therapy: Engaging with a therapist experienced in trauma and abuse can provide coping mechanisms, healing strategies, and a safe space for expression.

  • Support Groups: Meeting others with similar experiences can provide a sense of community and mutual understanding. It can also be a source of advice from those further along in their healing journey.

  • Helplines: Various organizations offer helplines for immediate assistance, guidance, or simply a listening ear.

Domestic Violence Hotline

If you or someone you know is in immediate danger or needs urgent support, reaching out to a domestic violence hotline can be a lifesaver. They provide:

  • Immediate assistance.

  • Resources for shelters or safe houses.

  • Legal advice and support.


1. Can trauma bonding occur in different types of relationships?

Yes, trauma bonding can occur in various types of relationships, including romantic relationships, family relationships, and even friendships. It is not limited to any specific type of interpersonal connection.

2. Is trauma bonding the same as Stockholm Syndrome?

While trauma bonding and Stockholm Syndrome share some similarities, they are not identical. Trauma bonding is a broader term that encompasses the emotional attachment formed in abusive relationships, whereas Stockholm Syndrome specifically refers to the psychological phenomenon where hostages develop an emotional bond with their captors.

3. Can trauma bonding be broken?

Yes, trauma bonding can be broken. It is a challenging process that requires self-awareness, support, and commitment to healing. Breaking free from a trauma bond often involves establishing boundaries, seeking professional help, and engaging in therapeutic practices to rebuild self-esteem and regain personal agency.

4. Are there resources available for survivors of trauma bonding?

Yes, there are resources available for survivors of trauma bonding. Support groups, counseling services, and organizations specializing in domestic violence can provide guidance, validation, and assistance in navigating the healing journey. Books, websites, and online forums dedicated to trauma recovery can also offer valuable insights and tools for survivors.

5. What is a trauma-bonded relationship?

A trauma-bonded relationship is one where an individual remains attached to another despite enduring repeated cycles of abuse, primarily due to intermittent positive reinforcement.

6. What are the signs of trauma bonding?

Signs include confusion between love and pain, denial of the abuse, isolation from loved ones, and a cyclic nature of highs and lows in the relationship.

7. What are the 7 stages of trauma bonding?

The stages are Love Bombing, Trust & Dependency, Criticism, Manipulation & Gaslighting, Resignation & Giving Up, Loss of Self, and Addiction to the Cycle.

The Bottom Line

Trauma bonding is a harrowing experience, but recognition is the first step towards healing. With the right resources, support, and determination, victims can break free and rebuild a life defined by their terms, not their traumas.

Additional Resources & Further Reading For those seeking a deeper understanding or more support on trauma bonding, consider the following resources:

  • Books:

    • "The Betrayal Bond: Breaking Free of Exploitive Relationships" by Dr. Patrick Carnes.

    • "Psychopath Free: Recovering from Emotionally Abusive Relationships" by Jackson MacKenzie.

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