Forming a bond with our significant other is a regular part of an intimate relationship. This bond is based on love, commitment, and a secure attachment in a healthy relationship.
However, in toxic and abusive relationships, couples may develop what is referred to as a trauma bond, which is formed not based on true love but in response to the emotional turmoil and cycles of abuse within the relationship.
So, what is trauma bonding? Below, learn how it looks by exploring the 7 stages of trauma bonding within intimate relationships.
What is a trauma bond?
Trauma bonding occurs when a victim develops a strong emotional attachment with an abuser. In the context of relationships, a trauma bond can develop when domestic violence or psychological abuse occurs.
For example, a wife or girlfriend subjected to ongoing physical assaults from her partner may develop a strong trauma bond with her partner, despite the partner being abusive.
Trauma bonds occur because, at the start of the relationship, abusive, manipulative partners will shower their new significant other with love.
The manipulators also use strategies, such as isolating the partner from others and making the partner financially dependent upon them so that when the relationship turns sour, the victim cannot leave.
Because of the strong bond that occurred in the initial stages of a relationship, the victim will remain with the abusive partner because they are convinced the abuser will change or that the relationship will go back to the way it was in the beginning before the abuse began.
Trauma bonding test: 5 signs of trauma bonding in a relationship
You can test whether you’re experiencing trauma bonding in your relationship by evaluating the signs below.
Family and friends who love and care for you are concerned about your well-being. If you ignore their warnings about your partner being abusive or dangerous to you, you’re likely involved in a trauma bond.
If you can ignore the warnings of people who care about you the most, the trauma bond prevents you from seeing reality.
2. You make excuses for your partner’s abusive behavior
Under usual circumstances, people recognize when a relationship is bad for them. Still, in the case of trauma bonding, you’ll excuse your partner’s behavior to justify staying in the relationship.
For instance, if your partner comes home and lashes out at you verbally, you’ll excuse it because they had a bad day at work. Even if it happens repeatedly, you’ll find a reason to excuse them.
If the trauma bonding cycle continues long enough, you’ll convince yourself that abuse is your fault. Rather than accepting that your partner is abusive, you’ll come to believe that they act the way they do because of your flaws or shortcomings.
It would help to recognize that abusive behavior is never the victim’s fault. Nothing you did means that you deserve this behavior from your partner. All humans make mistakes, and they are deserving of forgiveness.
If you’re trauma bonded, perhaps you recognize that there are problems in the relationship, but you’re too fearful of leaving. You may worry that your partner will harm you if you attempt to end things, or you might worry that they will harm themselves.
Because of your strong emotional attachment to the abuser, you might also be fearful that you’ll miss them or be lost without the relationship.
5. You think things will change
Finally, if you remain in a relationship where you aren’t safe or respected but are convinced things will improve, you’re probably experiencing a trauma bond. Promises of change are a part of the 7 stages of trauma bonding.
This means that you’ll convince yourself that your partner will change if you love them harder or do a better job of being a good partner.
7 stages of trauma bonding in a relationship
Part of understanding the trauma bonding definition realizes that trauma bonding occurs in stages. The 7 stages of trauma bonding are detailed below.
1. The love bombing stage
The love bombing stage attracts the victim to their significant other and leads them to develop a strong bond. During this stage, the abuser is especially flattering and charismatic.
They will shower their new significant other with compliments and attention and make promises of a blissful future together. They will likely make statements such as, “I’ve never met anyone like you before,” or, “I’ve never been so in love in my entire life!”
During the love bombing stage, you’ll feel you’ve met your life’s love, making it difficult to walk away when things get bad.
2. The stage of trust and dependency
Once you move to stage two, trust and dependency, the abuser will “test” you to see whether they have your trust and commitment. They may place you in a situation where they test your loyalty or become angry with you for questioning it.
During this stage, the abuser must know you’re bonded to them and “all in” within the relationship.
3. The criticism phase
During this phase, the trauma bond grows, and the abuser begins to show their true colors. During disagreements or stressful times, the abuser will begin to throw criticisms your way or blame you for problems within the relationship.
After going through love bombing, this criticism can come as a surprise. You may convince yourself that you must have done something terrible to go from being your partner’s perfect soulmate to now being worthy of contempt.
You’ll end up apologizing to your partner and then feeling that you’re lucky they still accept you, as flawed as you are.
4. Gaslighting and continued manipulation
Gaslighting is common in abusive relationships and is often linked to the narcissist trauma bond. A person who engages in gaslighting attempts to convince their partner that the partner is crazy or misunderstands reality.
For example, a gaslighter may deny abusive behaviors that they engaged in, or they may tell their partner that they are “too sensitive” or that they are “imagining things.”
Over time, the victim in the trauma bond is convinced that they’ve lost their mind and are imagining the abusive behavior. This prevents the victim from breaking a trauma bond with her partner.
5. Giving in
Once the victim in the relationship gives in, they will stop fighting back against the abuser. The victim will “walk on eggshells” or do everything they can to please the abuser and reduce the likelihood of fights and violence.
A victim in the 7 stages of trauma bonding may recognize that they are being abused, but they typically do not have the physical or emotional strength or the resources to leave at this point.
6. Losing your sense of self
People in a trauma bond often lose their sense of self and identity. Most of their time and energy goes into pleasing the abuser. They may have to give up their interests and hobbies because of the abuser’s controlling behavior, and they’ve likely been isolated from friends and family.
Having no sense of self can be another barrier to leaving a trauma bonding relationship because the relationship becomes the victim’s entire identity.
7. Addiction to the cycle
Something important to understand about the 7 stages of trauma bonding is that they tend to occur in a cycle.
Once the cycle has gone through, and the victim is at their wit’s end, having lost their sense of self and their complete sense of safety, the abuser will likely return to love bombing.
Over time, the victim becomes addicted to this cycle.
The victim knows that once things cool down after a fight, the abuser will return to loving and attentive again. This becomes addictive because the victim longs for the “high” of the love bombing stage and will repeat the trauma bonding cycle to return to the good times.
How to break the 7 stages of trauma bonding
While a trauma bonding relationship may feel like real love, the truth is that you are not bonded to your partner because of a healthy attachment or mutual connection. Instead, you’re addicted to the cycle.
It would help if you broke the cycle to have a healthy relationship and overcome the effects of trauma bonding. Learn how to get over a trauma bond with the tips below.
1. Acknowledge that the trauma bond exists
The first step in breaking the trauma bond cycle is acknowledging that you have been involved in an abusive relationship that has led to developing a trauma bond rather than real, healthy love.
Perhaps you’ve had moments of feeling that you were being abused, but to end the cycle truly; you need to acknowledge that your entire relationship has been abusive and you’ve been a victim.
You must stop blaming yourself for the abuse or trying to convince yourself that something you did caused the trauma bond.
2. Stop fantasizing
A trauma bond will continue as long as you convince yourself that the situation will change. Perhaps you’re holding onto the hope that your partner will stop their abusive behavior and become the person they pretended to be during the love bombing stage.
It’s time to let go of this fantasy. The abuser will not change, and the 7 stages of trauma bonding will continue for as long as you allow them to.
3. Make an exit plan
If you’re set on leaving the relationship, it will require some planning. For example, you might need to ask supportive friends or family members to help you plan or to provide a place to stay once you leave the relationship if you’re living with your significant other.
You may need to change your phone number or set aside money to help you exit the relationship.
Whatever the case, making a plan is important, with your safety as a top priority. This could include filing for a protection order, staying in a secret location, or developing a “code word” with friends or loved ones you can call in case of an emergency.
4. Go no contact
Once you leave the relationship, it’s important to go no contact. Remember, part of the trauma bonding relationship is an addiction to the cycle.
If you maintain any contact with the abuser, they will likely try to use love bombing and other manipulative tactics to lure you back into the relationship.
Going no contact allows you to heal and move on while breaking the addictive trauma bond cycle.
It’s essential to recognize that being involved in a trauma bonded relationship can significantly affect your physical and mental health. You may experience anxiety, depression, low-self esteem, and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Many people benefit from seeking therapy to help them overcome the side effects of trauma bonding. In therapy sessions, you have a safe space to process your emotions and learn healthy coping skills.
Therapy is also ideal for exploring underlying issues, such as unresolved childhood wounds that have led you to accept abusive behavior within your relationships.
Watch this video to learn more about why you should try therapy:
Trauma bonding FAQ
The answers to the following questions are also helpful for those trying to overcome a trauma bond.
What is a trauma bond cycle?
The trauma bond cycle describes the stages that tend to occur in abusive relationships. The cycle begins with the love bombing phase, in which the abusive partner is highly affectionate and convinces their significant other that they are loving and trustworthy. This stage causes a strong attachment to occur.
As the cycle progresses, the abuser in the trauma bonding relationship will begin to show abusive behavior, such as gaslighting and manipulation, and the victim will lose their sense of self and question their reality. Because the victim becomes addicted to this cycle, breaking a trauma bond can be difficult.
How long does it take to break the trauma bond?
There is no set time for how long it takes to heal from a trauma bond, as each person is different.
Some people may find that it takes months, or even years, to overcome the effects of being in a trauma bonded relationship. You can begin the healing process by cutting off contact and seeking therapy.
Can a trauma bond ever turn into a healthy relationship?
Trauma bonding relationships occur because one person in the relationship demonstrates abusive behavior. If the abuser is willing to take accountability for their actions and work with a relationship therapist to learn healthier ways of behaving within a relationship, the relationship might change for the better.
However, changing patterns of abusive behavior do not happen overnight. The abuser will need to commit to ongoing work, which will not be easy. A couple may need to separate for some time while the abuser works on changing unhealthy behavior patterns.
That being said, it is unlikely that an abusive person will change their deeply ingrained behaviors. Losing an important relationship may be motivation for change, but you must be careful not to fall for continued promises of change.
If your partner is committed to change, they will be willing to take actionable steps, such as engaging in therapy.
In a nutshell
Trauma bonding relationships can make you feel as if you’ve met the love of your life, especially in the early stages. However, as time goes on, the relationship becomes abusive and can take a toll on every aspect of your well-being.
Once you recognize signs that you’re in the 7 stages of trauma bonding, there are things you can do to break the bond. Remember that this abuse is not your fault; support is available to help you heal.
If at any time you are in danger within your relationship, you can reach out to the National Domestic Violence Hotline for support and referral to resources. This service offers Internet chat, phone support, and text messaging 24 hours per day, 7 days per week.
If you feel disconnected or frustrated about the state of your marriage but want to avoid separation and/or divorce, the marriage.com course meant for married couples is an excellent resource to help you overcome the most challenging aspects of being married.
Jenni Jacobsen is a licensed social worker with a master's degree in social work from The Ohio State University, and she is in the process of completing her dissertation for a Doctorate of Philosophy in Psychology. She has worked in the social work field for 8 years and is currently a professor at Mount Vernon Nazarene University. She writes website content about mental health, addiction, and fitness.
Licensed as both a social worker through Ohio Board of Counselors, Social Workers, and Marriage/Family Therapists and school social worker through Ohio Department of Education as well as a personal trainer through American Council on Exercise.