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

If you’ve ever been in a toxic relationship, then you know just 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. It’s a bit more complicated than that. 

You might be trauma bonded.

Trauma bonds can make getting out of even the most stressful and unhealthy relationships feel like a never-ending trap. You may try time after time to break free, only to find yourself slowly getting sucked back in. 

Trauma bonds are like quicksand. The good news? Once you learn to identify the 7 stages of trauma bonding, you’ll never be able to unsee it. 

Awareness of the manipulation you’re enduring sets you on the right path to breaking free for good. 

What Are Trauma Bonds?

Let’s start with something simple: a trauma bond is an attachment you may have with someone causing trauma.

Easy enough, right?

Well, this seemingly “simple” bond can create a whirlwind of pain and suffer from beginning to end. In a trauma bond, the abuser uses manipulative tactics to hook the victim and keep them coming back for more. 

The end goal is for an abuser to gain emotional control over the other person, causing psychological 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. 

This pattern of abuse and manipulation is perpetuated by occasional love and affection.

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 signs to look out for. 

Ask yourself some of these questions:

  • Do I often look past red flags?
  • Do I often think about how different our relationship was during our honeymoon phase?
  • Do I often defend my partner’s behavior to others?
  • 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 be any form of emotional, mental, spiritual, sexual, or physical abuse. 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.

The Seven Stages of Trauma Bonding:

It’s believed in the psychological world that there are 7 stages of trauma bonding. While it may play out in this particular order, the stages may 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.

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. 

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"
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. 

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 Narcissus

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. 

Access should not be a barrier to help.

Soberish is proudly sponsored by BetterHelp. If you have tried (and failed) to find a therapist with the knowledge and background to help you navigate your specific issues, try BetterHelp. Learn more about my counseling journey with BetterHelp or visit their website below.

Final Thoughts on the 7 Stages of Trauma Bonding:

You’re not alone if you’re struggling to leave an abusive or manipulative partner. Breakups are difficult, but trauma-bonded breakups are even worse. 

To put it simply, a trauma bond is an addiction.

If you find yourself craving the highs from your relationship, especially after an extreme low, you’re not weak. You’re addicted. 

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 tactics 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 may just be the best thing you’ve ever done for yourself. 

Resources:

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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