7 Stages Of Trauma Bonding

Understanding the 7 Stages of Trauma Bonding

Trauma bonding is a complex emotional response that can occur in abusive relationships. It creates an unhealthy attachment that makes it very difficult for the victim to leave their abuser. As a concerned family member or friend, it can be extremely distressing and confusing to watch your loved one go through this. However, arming yourself with knowledge of the trauma bonding cycle can help you provide better support.

What is Trauma Bonding?

Trauma bonding most often happens in intimate partner violence situations or child abuse, but it can also occur in other unequal power dynamics like human trafficking, cults, hostage situations, etc. When someone is abused – physically, emotionally, sexually – their body’s natural response to fear triggers the release of opioids and dopamine. These chemicals initially provide relief and pleasure, but the abuser then removes them by being kind one moment and cruel the next. This creates an addictive attachment for the victim as their body learns to associate the abuser with feeling good.
This attachment causes the victim to see their abuser through rose-colored glasses. They become protective and loyal towards someone that is harming them. They also begin to distrust friends and family trying to help them leave.

The 7 Stages of Trauma Bonding

Trauma bonding develops in a cycle consisting of 7 stages:

1. The Honeymoon Phase

In the beginning of the relationship, the abuser is able to charm and manipulate their victim. They often shower them with intense affection, gifts, and compliments. The victim feels loved, seen, understood. But this period of bliss slowly gives ways to tension.

2. The Tension Building Phase

The abuser starts to become controlling, critical, even demeaning at times. They may gaslight the victim, distorting reality to suit their needs. The victim feels confused by the sudden change but tries desperately to get back to the honeymoon phase by pleasing their partner.

3. The Explosion

The tension reaches a boiling point and the abuser lashes out. This can be through emotional abuse, threats to leave or self-harm, destruction of property, physical or sexual violence. The victim is traumatized and likely blames themselves.

4. The Honeymoon Phase Returns

After the violent explosion, the abuser apologizes profusely. They promise it will never happen again through gifts and affection. This gives the victim hope and strengthens their trauma bond. Their body floods with relief.

5. The Calm Phase

A period of relative peace. The abuse may lessen and the victim believes their partner has changed or things have improved. But without addressing the deeper issues, the relationship returns to dysfunction.

6. The Tension Rebuilds

The relationship becomes strained and tense again. The victim walks on eggshells to avoid provoking their partner but the cycle repeats itself. The explosions may escalate in frequency and intensity over the course of the relationship.

7. The Breakup/Makeup Phase

As things worsen, the victim may try to leave the relationship. The abuser often threatens drastic consequences, causing the victim to feel guilty and reconsider. After a temporary separation, the abuser may convince the victim the relationship is worth saving, pulling them back in.
This cycle becomes more compressed over time. The honeymoon and calm periods may completely disappear. The victim is trapped in a state of constant chaos and crisis, making the trauma bonding stronger over time.

Why People Stay in Abusive Relationships

It is very difficult for friends and family to understand why trauma bonded victims stay with their abusers despite the mistreatment. But traumatic bonding creates something akin to an addiction. In addition, many other factors influence their choice to stay, like:

  • Fear the abuser may become violent or act on threats to harm themselves/others if left
  • Belief the abuse is their fault and they can “fix” things by changing themselves
  • Financial dependence or lack of resources/support system
  • Cultural or religious pressures to stay committed to the relationship
  • Worry they will lose custody of any children if they try to leave
  • Love for who they initially thought their partner was or hope that person will return
  • Repeated cycles that make them distrust their own instincts and perceptions

This can leave trauma bonded victims isolated and hopeless. The key as a loved one is providing non-judgmental support until they regain clarity and choose to leave when ready.

Helping Someone in an Abusive Relationship

While you cannot force a trauma bonded victim to leave, you can make it easier for them to do so. Here is some advice:

Educate Yourself

Learn all you can about domestic violence and trauma bonding so you can recognize unhealthy behaviors even if the victim cannot. Be patient and understand why they struggle to leave.

Be There for Them

Keep communication open through phone calls, texts, spending time together. Slowly rebuild trust and reaffirm your support. Avoid criticism of their choices which may isolate them further.

Listen Without Judgement

Let them share details of the relationship without downplaying the abuse or expressing frustration. Validate their emotions and be compassionate.

Empower Them

Trauma bonding strips victims of self-worth and agency. Build up their confidence with positive reminders of their strengths.

Develop a Safety Plan

Have the victim identify safe areas in the home, an emergency contact list, a packed bag ready if they need to leave quickly. This returns a sense of control.

Encourage Counseling

Recommend a domestic violence advocate or trauma specialist to help them process the abuse, grief, and trauma bonding.

Offer Practical Assistance

Help research shelters, lawyers, moving companies. Offer them money, transportation, childcare – anything that can eliminate obstacles to leaving.

Healing from Trauma Bonding

If the victim does manage to leave the relationship, they will still struggle with the emotional aftermath. Support their recovery process with:

  • Therapy to overcome trauma symptoms like flashbacks, anxiety, depression
  • Joining a support group to reduce isolation and relate to others with similar experiences
  • Journaling to get clarity by processing their emotions
  • Self-care through rest, healthy eating, exercise, enjoyable hobbies
  • Learning self-defense strategies to rebuild confidence and reclaim power
  • Reading survivor stories to regain hope in themselves and their future

With time, validation, and the right help, the victim can break their trauma bond, rewire their neural pathways, and recover from abuse. Remind them their value and worth extends far beyond what their abuser convinced them to believe. They have the right to feel safe, respected, and cherished in relationships. There is light waiting at the end of the tunnel.

[*This article has been written for educational purposes only and should not be taken as professional diagnosis or treatment recommendations. Please speak to a mental health professional for advice.*]

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