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Why Can’t I Just Leave? The 7 Stages of Trauma Bonding

If you’ve ever been in a type of relationship that felt like a never-ending cycle of highs, lows, and abusive behaviors, then you know how incredibly unhelpful the age-old advice of “If it’s that bad – just leave!” can be.

But, do you know why you struggle to just up and leave? No, it’s not because you’re weak or like getting your heart broken.

The truth is, you might be trauma bonded.

Victims of trauma bonding experience a strong emotional bond with their abuser, making it difficult to break free. Trauma bonds can make getting out of even the most stressful and unhealthy romantic relationship feel like a never-ending trap. This cycle of abuse is often perpetuated by intermittent reinforcement, where the abusive person occasionally shows affection, pulling the victim back in, and keeping them hooked.

(Sound familiar?)

Emotional trauma and psychological abuse are at the core of trauma bonds. The good news? Once you learn to identify the signs of trauma bonding and understand the trauma bonding cycle, you’ll never be able to unsee it.

Once you become aware of the manipulation tactics you’re enduring, it sets you on the path to breaking free for good and embarking on a much-needed healing journey.

So with that, we’ll dive into the seven stages of trauma bonding and learn strategies for navigating the different stages, getting help, and getting out. 

What Are Trauma Bonds?

A trauma bond is an emotional attachment you may have with someone that arises from a recurring, cyclical pattern of abuse perpetuated by intermittent reinforcement through rewards and punishments, often leading to emotional dependency.

Put simply, there will be cycles of abuse followed by acts of kindness and affection (which is that intermittent reinforcement I just mentioned). 

In a trauma bond, the abuser uses manipulative tactics to hook the abused person and keep them coming back for more, creating a power imbalance.

The end goal is for an abuser to gain emotional control over the other person, causing psychological abuse and dependence. This dependence makes it incredibly hard and painful for a victim to leave their abuser, even if they’re done much more harm than good, leading to emotional turmoillow self-esteem, and even depression.

Think of a slot machine at a casino.

You play, and play, and play and continue to lose. Then, suddenly you win! The high you get from finally achieving what you wanted keeps you coming right back for more.

The same idea of inconsistent reward applies in trauma-bonded relationships: a victim will suffer greatly day after day, then, out of the blue, their abuser may dote on them with kindness or intimacy, leaving behind a trail of confusion and false hope.

blue-scale image of a man scolding his wife while she cups her face in her hands. The title reads "The 7 Stages of Trauma Bonding"
7 stages of trauma bonding

How Do I Know If I’m In a Trauma Bonded Relationship?

Realizing that you’re experiencing a trauma bond can be earth-shattering. But, how do you know if you’re really in one or not?

There are a few common signs to look out for.

Ask yourself some of these questions:

  • Do I often look past red flags and abusive dynamics?
  • Do I often think about how different our relationship was during our honeymoon phase?
  • Did the relationship feel like it was on a normal progression, and then radically changed?
  • Do I often defend my partner’s abusive behavior to others?
  • Do I feel a sense of dependency on my partner (emotional or otherwise)?
  • Do I often feel emotionally drained?
  • Do I often avoid communication when possible?
  • Do I feel like I have to hide parts of myself?
  • Do I remain loyal, even when I shouldn’t?

Trauma bonds can manifest in various forms, from emotional abuse to physical violence. From financial withholding to isolation from your family and friends to constantly monitoring your every move – circumstances like these can all create a trauma bond.

It’s important to note, trauma bonded relationships don’t start this way. (Otherwise, everyone would be running for the hills)!

So how do they start, then? What does a trauma bond with a narcissist look like? This is where the seven stages of trauma bonds come into play.

Cognitive Dissonance in Trauma Bonded Relationships

Cognitive Dissonance is a psychological concept introduced by Leon Festinger in 1957.

It refers to the mental discomfort or tension that arises when someone holds two or more contradictory beliefs, values, or attitudes simultaneously, or when their behavior conflicts with their beliefs or values. To alleviate this discomfort, people are motivated to change one of the conflicting beliefs or behaviors to bring them into alignment.

And it plays a major role in how trauma bonded relationships operate. In many cases, cognitive dissonance forms the basis for how victims rationalize and cope with the abusive behaviors they experience. Here’s how it manifests:

Contradictory Beliefs:

A victim might believe that their partner loves them (based on the affectionate moments or past memories) while simultaneously experiencing abusive behaviors. These two beliefs (“my partner loves me” and “my partner is hurting me”) are contradictory and create internal tension.

Rationalization:

To resolve this tension, the victim might rationalize the abusive behavior. They might think, “Maybe I did something to provoke it,” “They had a bad day,” or “It’s just a one-time thing.” This rationalization helps them reconcile the conflicting beliefs and reduce the discomfort.

Behavior vs Self-Image:

Another form of cognitive dissonance arises when the victim’s behavior (staying in the abusive relationship) conflicts with their self-image or values (e.g., “I am a strong, independent person”). To reduce this dissonance, they might change their self-perception or justify their decision to stay, thinking they’re doing it for love, for the kids, or hoping the abuser will change.

If you’re interested in exploring this topic further, here’s a helpful video:

Now that we’ve addressed some of the psychological underpinnings of trauma bonds, let’s examine the common stages of trauma bonding and how this all connects. 

The Seven Stages of Trauma Bonding:

It’s believed in the psychological world that there are 7 stages of trauma bonding. While it might play out in this particular order, the stages can also bounce around, repeat themselves, or happen all at once.

Everyone’s situation is different however it’s common to find that trauma bonding in relationships follows this similar pattern.

Stage One: Love Bombing

Love bombing occurs right at the beginning of a relationship. It’s what you may think of as a “honeymoon period.”

Love bombing includes sudden intense affection, lavish gifts, and extreme emotional intimacy. While this might sound wonderful, it has a dark side.

Abusers use this period to manipulate their victims and create a strong sense of “we” far too early on. They attempt to influence or “hook” their victim by causing them to let their guard down and trust them before authentic trustworthiness is established.

In addition, manipulators use this period to gain insight into their victim’s emotional and physical desires. What makes them happy, what makes them sad, what makes them tick… all so that they can use it against them later on.

Yet, it’s all wrapped up in a pretty bow of fancy dinners, expensive presents, and an overwhelming sense of unconditional love.

Love bombing can be incredibly dangerous as it’s often this period that many men and women look back on when trying to leave an abusive relationship. Unfortunately, it doesn’t stay this way for long.

Want more information on love bombing? Check out these resources:

Stage Two: Trust (and Dependency)

Now that an abuser has his victim hooked to excessive attention and praise, a relationship will lead into the second stage: creating a (false) sense of trust.

The relationship has developed past the initial honeymoon phase, and a manipulator is going to try whatever they can to really earn their partner’s trust.

This might look like rushing into big commitments, planning vacations far ahead in the future, or elaborate acts of service to establish a caretaker-like role and gain dependency from their victim.

During this phase, a victim may feel attached to their abuser. They aren’t aware that things are about to turn sour and may seem the happiest they’ve ever been.

They’re getting treated like royalty – who wouldn’t be?

Stage Three: Criticism

Now that an abuser has begun to sense the need for love and validation from their victim, they switch up the act.

In the third stage, a manipulator will begin to pick apart their victim’s appearance and draw excessive attention to their flaws. This can include their personality as well, as abusers will criticize their partner’s qualities as a way to make them feel “less than.”

The shift into criticism may seem subtle at first. A few comments here or there so as to not draw too much attention to the sudden lack of adoration. This slow change can make victims believe it’s simply the consequence of two people becoming more comfortable together.

However, soon after these comments start, they turn into belittling remarks, name-calling, and the “blame and shame” game. It’s important to note that dramatic apologies soon follow, sealing the glue of a trauma bond.

This is where cognitive dissonance kicks into gear, especially if the victim remembers the love bombing phase clearly. If you’re in this position, you might start to rationalize your partner’s criticisms or think you deserve it. 

More>> How to Put a Manipulator in Their Place

Stage Four: Gaslighting and Manipulation

As the relationship continues down a troubling path, it’s inevitable for an abuser to begin gaslighting their victim.

This manipulation involves denying their partner’s experiences to make them feel crazy, unstable, or unreliable. After enough gaslighting, a victim may begin to question their own memory and reality.

Gaslighting typically occurs when a victim calls out their abuser for things they’ve done.

An abuser will deny, deny, deny until their partner has nearly flown off the rails. Once the abusive partner can sense they’ve pushed their victim to their breaking point, they suddenly seem cool, calm, and collected as they make their victim out to be the problem.

Not only will an abuser deny their wrongdoings, but they’ll also spare no time twisting words and bending facts to emotionally manipulate their victims even further.

This creates significant cognitive dissonance as the victim struggles to reconcile their understanding of events with the distorted version presented by the abuser.

It’s important to learn the signs of gaslighting to spot this red flag before it worsens.

A hand with strings attached sits in a circle frame beside the title "Trauma-Bonding Stage 4: Gaslighting and Manipulation"

Stage Five: Resignation

A victim can only take so many lies, deceit, and abuse for so long. Eventually, every victim will hit their breaking point. Unfortunately, the story isn’t quite over yet.

While victims will often conclude that they can never make their abuser happy, they may first resort to people-pleasing behaviors to salvage the relationship. They may try bargaining or simply giving in to avoid conflict with their abuser.

At this stage, a victim may realize they’re being manipulated. However, as anyone in an abusive relationship knows, it takes much more than a small tap on the shoulder to walk away.

The cognitive dissonance here arises from the conflict between wanting to leave and feeling unable to. They might justify staying for various reasons, further entrenching the trauma bond.

To avoid future arguments or abuse, a victim may now become even more dependent on their abuser: having children with them or getting married. This is an attempt to stabilize the relationship by hoping more commitment will bring them back to the happiness they felt at the beginning.

Stage Six: Loss of Self

Starting from the very beginning of a trauma-bonded relationship, a victim can begin to experience a loss of their own self-identity.

At first, the relationship may have seemed like a whirlwind romance, taking them away from their family and friends.

Over time, this loss of identity may look like isolation, neglecting their personal needs, and sacrificing their values and morals to make the other person happy.

At this point, many family and friends become worried about the victim.

They may have a very difficult time understanding why they choose to stay. However, there are many reasons a victim may be unable to leave. When an abuser feels like they’re losing control, they become aggressive, violent, or mentally unstable.

In addition, after losing much of themselves, victims may not feel confident enough to leave. Their abusers may have broken down their self-esteem months or even years ago, leaving them unsure of their own strength.

More>> What Happens When A Codependent Leaves A Narcissist

Stage Seven: Emotional Addiction

While this is the last stage, it’s not often the last of the relationship. This feeling of emotional addiction is so powerful it can leave people trapped in endless cycles of trauma and abuse for years.

This feeling of emotional addiction has been noted as nearly identical to the strength of drug addiction.

These stages are cyclical, meaning there’s typically a cool down or honeymoon period after a large, explosive conflict. An abuser may begin to apologize and make false promises of change. This short-lived happiness is enough to keep victims addicted.

Abusers go through roller coasters of emotional manipulation, leaving their victims at their mercy. During a trauma-bonded relationship, a victim feels constantly stressed or anxious, resulting in higher cortisol levels.

They crave relief from the pain of abuse that only the abuser can soothe (more on this in a minute).

Even when victims recognize the cycle of abuse, the intermittent positive reinforcements (periods of affection or kindness from the abuser) can cause cognitive dissonance. They might think, “If they can be this kind, maybe things can change,” despite evidence to the contrary.

If we know better, however, why don’t we do better? Our brains can play a role. 

A woman looks sad while her partner puts his arm around her grinning. They have a trauma bonded relationship
Signs of Trauma Bonding in Relationships

A Quick Explainer on Trauma Bonds and Our Brains

I’ve been in a trauma bonded relationship. I knew it was bad for me, and yet, the smallest gesture of kindness could send me sailing. Why? I’m an intelligent person. Why were my emotions sabotaging me like this? (At least, that’s how it felt at the time). 

There’s a science to it. Your brain is playing a role, and it’s more involved than you might think.

When you’re in the throes of a trauma bond, your brain releases a cocktail of chemicals. The two big players? Oxytocin and dopamine. Oxytocin, often dubbed the “love hormone,” deepens feelings of attachment and trust. It’s what floods your system during those rare, sweet moments with your partner, making you feel close and connected.

Then there’s dopamine, the “feel-good” neurotransmitter.

When your partner showers you with affection after a bout of negativity, dopamine surges, giving you a “high” akin to that of a gambler winning a bet (think back to our slot machine analogy). It’s exhilarating, addictive, and it keeps you coming back for more, hoping for another hit of that euphoria.

But here’s the catch: these chemicals also make the lows – the hurtful comments, the cold shoulders, the abusive behaviors – more bearable. You’re essentially riding a neurochemical roller coaster, with highs that make you forget the lows, even if just for a moment.

Understanding this brain chemistry isn’t about placing blame on yourself.

It’s about recognizing the powerful forces at play, pulling you deeper into the trauma bond. I hope it also gives you a way to process the lack of alignment between your head and heart. 

These are all things that a good counselor or therapist can help you work through and process. 

Final Thoughts on the 7 Stages of Trauma Bonding:

You’re not alone if you’re struggling to leave an abusive or manipulative partner. Breaking free require a strong leap of faith in yourself and the ability to set healthy boundaries and protect your peace.

Breakups are difficult, but trauma-bonded breakups, especially in narcissist trauma bond, are even worse due to the cognitive dissonance born out of the experience.

To put it simply, a trauma bond is an addiction, and it’s essential to consult a mental health professional if youare struggling to recovery and move on

If you find yourself craving the highs from your relationship, especially after an extreme low, you’re not weak. You’re addicted. Remember, healthy relationships don’t involve such a strong attachment based on fear or pain.

The first step in leaving a trauma bond is education; if you’ve stuck around this far, you’re already halfway there. Learning as much as you can about trauma bonds allows you to identify these abusive dynamics as they arise.

It’s difficult, but it’s not impossible. Nobody deserves to live stuck in a trauma bond. Giving yourself the gift of freedom and establishing personal boundaries may just be the best thing you’ve ever done for yourself.

Two trees in the outline of faces, opposite contrasts, facing one another, the title reads 7 Stages of Trauma Bonding
7 Stages of Trauma Bonding PIN

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2 Comments

  1. I’m in a trauma bonded narcissist relationship and physical too
    And I cannot get out I read the 7 stages and what to do but I’ve been with her for 10 years with the same roller coaster first year was great after that 🤐🤐I can’t leave I hurt🙁😔

    1. I am a SURVIVOR of domestic violence and narcissistic partner abuse and maternal narcissistic abuse! So there is VERY little that I don’t know from experience, dealing with narcissists. This article is spot on and the best way revenge on them is to HEAL FROM THEM!
      Work on yourself, get rid of your toxicities (((all victims become SURVIVORS by detoxing and learning to love themselves bc that’s is what will begin their healing journey)))

      Thank you for being there for the victims, so they can become SURVIVORS!!!