Trauma bonding was identified over 40 years ago, but it’s easy to dismiss if you don’t think you’ve ever had trauma. Are you experiencing trauma bonding but don’t realize it? Do you have repeating unhealthy patterns, miscommunications, or consistent frustration or dissatisfaction with your partner? Today I’ll teach you the seven stages of trauma bonding and how to know if this applies to you so you can create more peace and ease in your relationships.
Note before we start: Trauma bonding is most often used when describing a relationship where one person is clearly the abuser and the other doesn’t leave them due to their unhealed trauma. Common examples are situations where people are in relationships where they’re being physically or severely emotionally abused but won’t leave the relationship.
If you’re in that type of relationship, I need to say that today is not going to be enough for you. You’re going to need to work with a therapist or program to find healing and resolutions. For many people, it’s impossible to understand how someone in such a clearly unhealthy and dangerous relationship could feel love or concern for the person abusing them. But this is trauma bonding in the extreme. It’s there out of a basic human need to attach to others to survive. You learned it in childhood, and you’re repeating it now.
My focus today is going to be on other, more common kinds of relationships, which might not seem so obvious, but where trauma bonding is definitely an issue. In fact, you might have seen this title and thought, “That doesn’t apply to me. I don’t have any trauma,” or “I’m having trouble in my relationship, but it’s not abusive.” As I discussed way back in episode 146, you might not realize you’re suffering from unhealed trauma, and it’s resulted in trauma bonding in your adult relationships without you knowing it, and that’s where we’ll focus today.
Let me start off by reiterating a bit of what I said in that episode. Trauma is caused by either one harmful or distressing event or experience or a series of experiences that impact your ability to cope and function in a healthy way. Trauma can come from neglect just as easily as it comes from overt physical or sexual abuse. It can also come from unhealthy family cultures around communication and love. Many of my clients don’t identify something as traumatic because, objectively, they think, “Well, I grew up in a good home: intact family, money, food on the table, so there was no trauma.” But, when you drill down, there are many things that can be felt as traumatic and show up in unhealthy thinking and behaviors as adults:
- Maybe your parents never had time for you, and you were either left unsupervised during critical years or were shunted off to nannies or other caregivers.
- Maybe you had a parent who was addicted to alcohol or drugs, had an eating disorder, or some other mental health issue such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, or narcissism.
- Maybe you had an older sibling who bullied you, or you were bullied at school.
- Maybe you had an undiagnosed learning disability and didn’t live up to your supposed potential, which was always an issue.
- Maybe you were told you were a drama queen growing up because you showed emotion in a stoic family.
- Maybe you knew you were gay at age 10 but didn’t feel you could share that with your family until well into your adulthood.
There are many ways for us to be left feeling like there’s something wrong with us or that we’re not worthy of love resulting in unresolved trauma that shows up in later relationships.
What is Trauma Bonding?
The term trauma bonding was first coined by Patrick Carnes, Ph.D., back in 1997 in his presentation, “Trauma Bonds, Why People Bond to Those Who Hurt Them.” As an addiction specialist, his initial work focused on how trauma and addictions tended to go hand in hand. Trauma bonding is basically a dysfunctional attachment. Trauma bonding gets hard-wired, so it lives in your nervous system, creating a hijacking of sorts. Because of your particular childhood, your brain has made neural associations between love and unhealthy behavior, and you end up with people who aren’t the best fit for you but feel unable to let them go. Trauma bonding does not mean that you’re bonding with another person over some shared trauma. Instead, it speaks to a bond that a survivor of some kind of abuse feels towards another person.
I’m going to give you a perfect example in my client Michelle (name changed, of course). Michelle grew up in a relatively stable home, but her dad was a highly functional alcoholic. He had a great job, and they had money, the best schools, etc. She remembers how she and her dad would have special fishing trips with just the two of them when she was young. However, she also remembers him screaming at her once when she got a B on a test and another time when he threw his plate across the room because she and her siblings were talking loudly at the dinner table.
Michelle came to me while in her third long-term relationship with someone struggling with either alcohol or an eating disorder. She maintained repeatedly that they didn’t have these problems when they met and that they showed up over time. Her unconscious way out of the two earlier relationships was to cheat to the point where her partner found out and broke up with her. Then she’d do it all over again. This is trauma bonding.
I’m going to give you a personal example of how trauma bonding works “the other way.” As I’ve mentioned many times before, my mother was a narcissist. Growing up as her youngest daughter meant that I’d sometimes receive a ton of love and special time with her but could then make a very small mistake and receive her silence and palpable rage. She would tell me how special I was one minute and then pull the rug out from under my unsuspecting feet the next with passive-aggressive swipes about my looks or chances in life. This created its own hard wiring in my brain, which happens to everyone who experiences some type of trauma.
Is there a narcissist in your life? Here’s how to deal with it.
As an adult, I got into the same relationships repeatedly. I’d meet someone, and we’d fall madly in love very quickly. Often, we’d move in together within weeks or months. We’d get very close, and then I’d get scared (all of this is unconscious, of course) and start pulling away. The partners I chose would chase me, at which point I became less and less interested until I’d eventually break up with them, much to their dismay and confusion. These cycles would last 18 months, and then I’d have a new person waiting in the wings to fall madly in love with and repeat the pattern.
I was trauma bonding and reacting from a childhood where love was a confusing thing. My example is a little different than most. Most people who grew up with a narcissistic parent become codependent and end up with another narcissist. They feel bonded to their abuser as they try to win over or unconsciously heal the unhealthy relationship with the abuser from their childhood. In my example, I’m the unhealthy person being what you might term abusive in those long-ago relationships. I reacted to my upbringing by developing an avoidant attachment style which I brought into my adult relationships until I got enough therapy to help me heal.
Who’s at Risk for Trauma Bonding?
The following makes some people more susceptible to trauma bonding:
- Being insecurely attached
- Low self-esteem
- Codependency/Poor boundaries
- Low emotional intelligence or self-awareness
- Childhood marked with abuse or neglect
- Child of parents/caregivers with mental illness of some kind
The Seven Stages of Trauma Bonding
There are generally seven stages identified in trauma bonding, but you don’t need to have gone through all seven stages to be in a relationship with trauma bonding.
Stage One: Love Bombing
You meet someone and feel an instant connection! The good news? They’re into you too! Right away, you’re having deep, intense conversations and amazing sex! This is that stage where one or both people are completely focused on winning the affection, attention, and love of another. There are often grand displays with extravagant dates or gifts. And it’s not always about spending money. I have a client who likes giraffes, and on their third date, her boyfriend (yes, she was already calling him that) had planned a day at the zoo at a time when they could feed the giraffes. He bought her a giraffe card, a stuffed giraffe, and a picture he’d framed of two giraffes hugging. None of this cost him a lot, but he’d clearly spent quite a bit of time putting it all together and thinking of every last detail.
If you’re dating and this keeps happening to you, you’re likely getting stuck in this stage. Are you just starting to think about your future together when, out of nowhere, they start to pull away? Do they stop saying “all the things” and are now slow to respond to your texts and requests to spend time together? Are you pouring over everything you said or texted, wondering what went wrong when everything was going so right?!?!
Stage Two: Gaining Trust
Some of the love bombing stage is focused on gaining trust, but it’s also a stage of its own. This is when the other person might listen to you talk about your best friend for hours and offer advice on how to best deal with them (but then later in the relationship, they shut you down quickly if you bring up this friend). They’ll likely go out of their way to do things for you or win over your dad at the first meal you all share. They might also become offended if you doubt their honesty or commitment in any way.
Stage Three: Criticizing
Now it starts to feel like things that are important to you don’t matter to them anymore or that they have no patience for your stories. That person who’s been giving you gifts and listening to your complaints about your mom now starts to criticize you. Maybe they point out that your mom loves you and you shouldn’t say bad things about her. Or they say that they agree with the angry thing your mom said to you, and you need to look at changing that. You might start to think that the criticism is justified (“Well, I really shouldn’t complain about my mom. I really am a bad daughter”).
Stage Four: Manipulation
This is often where gaslighting comes in. Maybe you push back at the criticism, some other unfair treatment, or a double standard, and you’re told that you’re blowing things out of proportion, or they say they’re just trying to help or that you’re exaggerating.
Stage Five: Resignation
At some point in the relationship, you give up fighting back, and extreme codependency takes over. I spoke previously about how people pleasing or fawning is a trauma response.
Stage Six: Psychological Distress
Over time, this kind of psychological abuse can often result in severe depression, anxiety, substance abuse, withdrawing from life, numbness, feeling lost, or even feeling suicidal.
Stage Seven: The Repeating Cycle
Sadly, this cycle often gets repeated over and over again. Maybe there was a particular abusive incident, such as someone throwing something, physical abuse, or you actually leaving. Then the love bomb will happen again, promises that this behavior will never be repeated or that they’re really going to change this time. The relationship moves through the rest of the stages in some form, and you end up back where you started. If anything, it often gets worse because now the other person knows that you really won’t leave for good, and they can always win you back, so they feel even less need to try with you.
How Do I Know for Sure if We’re Trauma Bonded?
While I’m hoping that identifying (or not) with all I’ve just covered will answer this question for you, there’s something else I often see that tips me off that this is a trauma bonding situation. If you’re not sure, ask yourself this one question: “Why am I attracted to this person and relationship?” I want you to take a moment, without thinking too hard, and write down your answers.
When someone is in a trauma bonding situation, I find that they answer with something like:
- There’s just something about them.
- We’ve always had this strong connection, or right from the start, we had this amazing connection.
- I love their confidence.
- I just feel good around them.
- When it’s good, we can talk about anything for hours.
- It’s just special.
- I know I’ll never find someone like this again, or I’ve never felt this way around anyone else (or any other scarcity statement).
These answers always terrify me! Because none of them are examples of what it takes to make a healthy relationship. I want your answers to be:
- They’re the most empathetic person I know.
- They always have my back in every situation.
- Our communication is always strong, even when we disagree.
- They’re kind, thoughtful, compassionate, honest, consistent, trustworthy, reliable.
- I always know they’re thinking of what I need as they’re managing their own needs and wants.
- We always work as a team.
- They ask me about my day/life and care about my answers.
- They ask great questions to help me think about my day/life.
- They’re always trying to make my life better.
- They prioritize me and our relationship.
Should You Fight for This Relationship?
If you’re asking this question, it’s time to learn whether this relationship is worth saving. But beyond that, I would say the following:
- Acknowledging and identifying that you have trauma bonded is the first step. From there, it’s important to get in touch with a therapist or program to really work on these earlier childhood issues and subsequent patterns.
- Focus on yourself, not the other person, right now. The one in the most pain needs to change first, and that’s you!
- Work on building your confidence and self-esteem. Once you’re clear that you have value, it’s easier to see if others are valuing you in the ways you want.
- Work on building self-compassion. This is tough stuff, and being hard on yourself isn’t going to help.
Resources for Are you Trauma Bonding in Your Relationships and Don’t Realize it?
You Might Not Realize You’re Suffering from Unhealed Trauma
How Your Attachment Style Affects Your Personal Relationships
How to be Honest and Build Trust in a Relationship
Five Things to Do When You Feel Like You’re Being Criticized
Signs that Someone is Gaslighting You and What to Do About It
Are You Being Manipulated? Learn the Signs and How to Stop It
Your People Pleasing Might Be a Trauma Response
Be Happily Married: Even if Your Partner Won’t Do a Thing
Is your Relationship Worth Saving?
How to Practice Self-Acceptance: My Top 5 Tips
Eight Ways to Build Your Confidence and Self-Esteem
Is Self-Compassion the Secret to a Happy Relationship?