7 Stages of Trauma Bonding: From Victim to Survivor

7 Stages of Trauma Bonding

Trauma bonding is a powerful emotional attachment that forms between a victim and abuser through repeated cycles of abuse and positive reinforcement. This distorted bond keeps the victim loyal to and dependent on their abuser, preventing them from leaving even the most toxic relationships.

The psychology behind trauma bonding was first explored in the 1970s by psychiatrist Lenore E. Walker, who identified that there are 7 significant stages victims go through that lead to trauma bonding with their abusers.

The first stage is idealization, in which the abuser shows affection to the victim during the honeymoon phase of the relationship. This is followed by devaluation, where the abuser begins to criticize and belittle the victim, enhancing the trauma bond through emotional abuse.

Next comes the actual trauma, with incidents of severe physical, sexual, or emotional abuse. The abuser then isolates the victim from outside support systems.

Over time, the victim starts to accept the abuse as usual, blame themselves, and hope their abuser will change – all of which serve to deepen the trauma bond. Understanding the insidious stages that create trauma bonding enables us to identify unhealthy relationships and get victims the help they need to break free.

Overview of Trauma Bonding

The mechanisms underlying trauma bonding have long been recognized, with accounts dating back to the 19th century of hostages bonding with captors.

The specific term “trauma bonding” emerged in the 1970s from the work of psychiatrist Lenore E. Walker on domestic violence victims. She noted how intermittent abuse and reconciliation kept victims bonded to abusers.

Patrick Carnes and Abuse Cycles

In the late 1980s, researcher Patrick Carnes expanded on trauma bonding while studying addiction. He noted how the attachment formed between people with an addiction and abusive; exploitative people paralleled that seen in addiction.

He outlined the “cycle of abuse” or “betrayal bond” that forms via withdrawal and reconciliation. This bond creates obsession and compulsion to return despite adverse consequences.

Terminology and Concepts

There are various terms associated with trauma bonding, including:

  • Stockholm Syndrome – bonding with captors
  • Cognitive dissonance – justifying contradictory beliefs/behaviors
  • Gaslighting – the abuser denying/distorting reality
  • Intermittent reinforcement – rewards/punishments given inconsistently
  • Betrayal trauma – when trusted individuals become abusive

Other relevant concepts are learned helplessness, revealing the abuse after idealization as fraud, and the push-pull dynamic of bringing the victim close and then rejecting them.

Thus, trauma bonding has been recognized for decades, but research by Walker, Carnes, and others led to our modern understanding of the psychological mechanisms and abuse cycle patterns. This allows us to identify better, treat, and ideally prevent these harmful bonds from forming.

7 Stages of Trauma Bonding

These stages serve as a roadmap through the intricate and often distressing journey that individuals experience as they become enmeshed in psychologically complex relationships, highlighting the emotional, cognitive, and behavioral patterns that bind victims to their abusers.

Stage 1:Idealization stage

In the initial stage of trauma bonding, known as the Idealization stage, individuals often find themselves drawn into a deceptive world of adoration and charm, unknowingly setting the foundation for a complex and harmful emotional connection.

Extreme Affection and Praise

The first stage in the trauma bonding cycle is idealization. When the relationship begins, the abusive partner showers the victim with extreme affection, praise, gifts, and positive attention. They make grand romantic gestures and say everything the victim wants to hear, presenting themselves as the perfect loving partner.

Appearing as the Ideal Mate

The abuser is often incredibly charming during this phase, appearing extremely attractive both physically and personality-wise. They seem to be the ideal mate who passionately fulfills the victim’s every romantic fantasy or desire. The abuser may describe the victim as their soulmate and claim they want to spend the rest of their lives together.

Emotional Dependence on Validation

This intense praise and idealization serves to bond the victim emotionally to the abuser. It makes the victim crave more of the validation and affection the abuser is providing. The victims feel satisfied, loved, and intensely connected to their new partner.

Perceiving the Abuser as Flawless

In the throes of this romantic idealization, the victim perceives the abuser as flawless and beyond reproach. They seem to be the perfect romantic partner who can do no wrong.

The abuser has usually targeted someone vulnerable or insecure, and the excessive flattery makes the victim feel fabulous about themselves and the relationship.

Establishing Quick Emotional Bonds

Since the idealization exceeds what would be normal for a healthy relationship, it sweeps the victim off their feet and establishes solid emotional bonds and dependency very quickly. The victim becomes hooked on the intoxicating sensation of being cherished and praised effusively.

Occurring Early in the relationship

This idealization phase usually occurs at the beginning of the abusive relationship, during the honeymoon period when both partners are on their best behavior. However, the abuser may return to idealization periodically throughout the relationship as well.

Suppose they sense the victim pulling away or becoming closer to leaving. In that case, the abuser often cycles back to over-the-top adoration or gifts to manipulate the victim into staying bonded to them.

Reinforcing the Trauma Bond

By sporadically alternating idealization with the later devaluation stage, the abuser keeps the victim off balance but also recommits to the relationship. The victim holds onto hope that the idealization will return again or that they can somehow earn back the abuser’s approval and affection. This uneven reinforcement creates a powerful trauma bond that is difficult to break.

Stage 2: Devaluation

As the Trauma Bonding journey progresses to Stage 2, the Devaluation phase, the illusion of love and security shatters, giving way to a harrowing experience marked by emotional abuse, manipulation, and the erosion of one’s self-worth.

Criticism and Belittling

After the idealization phase, the abusive partner begins to devalue and belittle the victim through criticism. The abuser starts making hurtful comments, insulting the victim, and challenging their self-worth.

The criticism escalates from minor put-downs to severe verbal attacks on the victim’s personality, abilities, looks, and worthiness of love. This leaves the victim confused, devastated, and desperate to make things right again.

Name-calling and Gaslighting

In addition to general criticism, the abuser relies on specific tactics like name-calling and gaslighting to devalue the victim. They may use vulgar names or insults when referring to the victim.

The abuser also makes false accusations, denies promises were made, and distorts the truth to confuse the victim and make them feel like a faulty person who cannot trust their reality. This profoundly damages the victim’s self-esteem and self-concept.

Blaming the Victim

A key aspect of the devaluation is blaming the victim for provoking the abuse. The abuser refuses to take responsibility for their actions, instead claiming the victim deserved or caused the hurtful behavior. Phrases like “It’s your fault I had to hit you” or “I wouldn’t get so angry if you didn’t act so stupid” are common. This places the dynamic of abuse onto the victim.

Seeking the Abuser’s Approval

In response to the devaluation, the victim tries desperately to regain the abuser’s approval and affection. They attempt to be “perfect” so that the abuser will see them as worthy of love again. However, nothing the victim does stops the abuse, damaging their self-worth further. This makes the victim work even harder for validation.

Enhancing the Trauma Bond

This devaluation phase enhances the trauma-bonding process. The unpredictability of occasional affection alternating with degradation keeps the victim on edge and clinging to hope. When the abuser shows momentary kindness, it strengthens the victim’s resolve to try to fix things, even though abuse always resumes. This traumatic bonding becomes very difficult to break.

Stage 3: Trauma

In Stage 3, the Trauma phase, the enduring cycle of trauma bonding deepens as cognitive dissonance and psychological turmoil intertwine, leaving individuals trapped in a turbulent and conflicted emotional landscape.

Physical and Sexual Abuse

In the trauma stage, the abuse turns physical or sexual. The abuser begins physically assaulting the victim through actions like hitting, slapping, punching, restraining, and other forms of battery.

Severe sexual abuse may also occur, including rape, molestation, and forced participation in sexual acts against the victim’s consent. This physical and sexual abuse is highly traumatic for the victim.

Emotional Abuse

Even without physical violence, the abuser may escalate to severe emotional or verbal abuse that is profoundly traumatizing. They may threaten violence against the victim or loved ones.

The abuser might destroy precious possessions, harm pets, throw frightening temper tantrums, or put the victim through extreme mind games. This atmosphere of fear and psychological torture creates trauma.

Unable to Leave

Paradoxically, the acute trauma makes the victim feel unable to leave due to the emotional connection that has been forged. The victim feels damaged, afraid, and helpless but simultaneously feels bonded to their abuser through the abuse cycle. They may protect or defend their abuser, blame themselves, or be terrified at the thought of leaving.

Survival Instinct

The severe trauma of physical, sexual, or emotional abuse triggers powerful survival instincts. The brain enters fight-or-flight mode, releasing stress hormones and chemicals like oxytocin.

This Oxycontin release is thought to be the body’s way of trying to mitigate the abuse by emotionally bonding the victim to the abuser. These automatic responses serve to entrench the traumatic bonding further.

Feeling Damaged and Attachments

In the aftermath of abuse incidents, the victim is left feeling helpless, damaged, emotionally exhausted, and unable to process their trauma healthily.

However, due to the systematic abuse conditioning, they also remain desperately attached to their abuser. The trauma wounds them psychologically but perversely strengthens pathological attachment at the same time, making the abuse cycle increasingly complex to break.

Stage 4: Isolation

Transitioning to Stage 4 is isolation; trauma bond victims find themselves increasingly cut off from external support systems and confined to a world where their abuser’s influence intensifies, perpetuating a dangerous cycle of dependency and control.

Cutting Off Support Systems

In the isolation stage, the abuser seeks to gain complete control over the victim by isolating them from outside support systems. They may forbid the victim from seeing family and friends or deliberately undermine those relationships so the victim becomes estranged from loved ones. The abuser may also prevent the victim from going to work, school, or places that provide the community.

Increased Dependency

This isolation makes the victim utterly dependent on the abuser emotionally and often financially as well. With no other support, the victim becomes reliant on their abuser for all human needs like money, food, transportation, housing, and companionship. This gives the abuser even more power and control.

Physical Isolation

In extreme cases, the abuser may physically isolate the victim by not allowing them to leave the house or interact with anyone. The victim becomes a prisoner in their own home, cut off from regular human contact and freedoms. This enhances the abuser’s total control.

Total Reliance on Abuser

With no positive external connections, the isolated victim becomes desperately bonded and reliant on their abuser. The abuser is their sole source of human interaction, validation, and survival necessities. This unhealthy dynamic strengthens the trauma bond exponentially.

Made to Feel Unlovable

The abuser often convinces the victim that nobody else could ever love or care for them – only the abuser does. The abuser systematically destroys the victim’s self-esteem to make them feel unworthy of love or proper connections. The victim feels like a helpless child dependent on their abuser.

Stage 5: Normalizing Abuse

At this stage, victims of trauma bonding become entrenched in a distressing pattern where they come to accept and rationalize their abuser’s maltreatment as their newfound “normal,” further solidifying the emotional chains that bind them.

Accepting Abuse as Normal

Over time, the victim starts to accept the abuse as usual or even justified. The abuser has systematically conditioned them to tolerate and rationalize abusive behavior through prolonged exposure to the abuse cycle. Things that once seemed shocking or extreme to the victim become their daily norm.

Result of Abuse Cycles

This rewiring happens through repetitive cycles of abuse followed by reconciliation. The victim is trauma bonded to their abuser and willing to forgive abusive incidents in hopes the relationship will get better. The intermittent reinforcement makes them cling to any positivity from the abuser. Gradually, the victim’s perceptions are distorted.

Denial and Rationalization

To cope with the cognitive dissonance between their love for the abuser and the reality of abuse, the victim often slips into denial or rationalization. They convince themselves the abuse wasn’t “that bad” or that their abuser couldn’t control their actions due to external stresses. The victim downplays the abuse because they cannot accept the truth.

Distorted Perception of Reality

Throughout the abusive relationship, the victim’s perception of what is normal or acceptable becomes increasingly distorted. They start to agree with the abuser’s justifications that they provoked the abuse. Things that are objectively shocking or dangerous seem permissible. Their sense of reality is warped.

Taking Responsibility for Abuse

In the later stages of abuse, the victim takes responsibility for “provoking” the mistreatment and believes they can control or change the abuser’s behavior. The abuser has groomed them to feel ownership over the abuse. The victim thinks if they were just better somehow, the abuse would stop. In truth, the abuser maintains total control.

7 Stages of Trauma Bonding 2

Stage 6: Self-Blame

This is the stage where the insidious grip of trauma bonding tightens as individuals grapple with an overwhelming sense of blame, internalizing the abuse they endure and often perpetuating their suffering.

Blaming Themselves

In the self-blame stage, the victim has become thoroughly convinced the abuse is their fault. After prolonged conditioning by the abuser, the victim starts to habitually blame themselves rather than recognize the abuser’s pathological behavior.

Believing They Provoke Abuse

The victim believes they must be provoking the abuse through their flaws, mistakes, or inadequacies. If only they were a better partner, they think, the abuser wouldn’t act that way. The victim perceives the abuse as justified punishment for their failures, not the abuser’s choice.

Guilt, Shame and Obligation

Feelings of guilt, shame, and obligation keep the victim bonded to their abuser during this stage. The victim feels compelled to “make things right” again through their actions. They feel ashamed of somehow causing the abuse and guilty if they consider leaving the relationship.

Abuser Denies Responsibility

The self-blaming victim is an ideal target for the abuser, who adamantly denies any responsibility for the abuse. The abuser will continue to insist the victim provoked it and deserved the treatment they received. This further traps the victim in the cycle.

Low Self-Esteem

Chronic self-blame and refusal to hold the abuser accountable leads to cripplingly low self-esteem. The victim feels worthless, damaged, and undeserving of love or fair treatment. They feel incapable of finding a healthier relationship. This keeps them stuck with their abuser.

Stage 7: Hope and Forgiveness

Here, at this stage, a poignant transformation unfolds, marked by a profound longing for change and the complex journey toward self-forgiveness and healing.

Hoping for Change

After incidents of abuse, the victim enters the hope and forgiveness stage, desperately hoping the abuser will change their behavior. The victim reminisces about the idealization phase and wants to believe their partner can return to being that perfect, loving person. This hope helps them forgive abuse.

Forgiving Abuse

The victim forgives far more abuse than any healthy relationship would tolerate, believing the abuser’s apologies and promises to improve. They may even feel guilty or responsible if they don’t offer forgiveness readily. The victim excuses unacceptable behavior repeatedly.

Manipulation of Forgiveness

Abusers know how to manipulate this cycle of forgiveness skillfully. They may threaten self-harm to coerce the victim’s forgiveness. Or they shower the victim with affection, gifts, and kind words after abuse, which the victim interprets as genuine remorse and change.

Moments of Kindness

Even small moments of kindness or remorse from the abuser nourish hope within the victim and reinforce trauma bonding. The victim clings to these brief positives as evidence their partner is capable of change despite the overwhelming pattern of abuse.

Believing They Can “Fix” Them

The victim desperately wants to fix or rescue their damaged abuser. They believe if they love them enough, are patient enough, or support them adequately, the abuser will change for the better. However, this is unrealistic – only abusers can fix their behavior.

The Endless Cycle

This cycle of hope and forgiveness after incidents of abuse leads to endless repetition of the trauma bonding pattern. The victim’s love and loyalty become weapons the abuser uses against them. Until the victim stops hoping for change, they will remain psychologically trapped, unable to break free of the abuse.

Case studies and real-life examples illustrating the seven stages of trauma bonding

Idealization Stage

Brian and Shannon met online. Immediately, Brian lavished Shannon with compliments, expensive gifts, and constant texts and calls expressing his love. Shannon never felt so adored. Brian insisted Shannon was his soulmate and said he couldn’t bear to lose her. Shannon became emotionally dependent on Brian’s extreme affection.

Devaluation Stage

After 3 months, Brian’s idealization of Shannon shifted to criticism of her clothes, career, and friends. He called her insulting names, gaslit her by denying past conversations, and blamed her when he had angry outbursts. Shannon was confused but tried desperately to earn back Brian’s approval.

Trauma Stage

Brian’s emotional abuse escalated to physical violence. He would shove, hit, and restrain Shannon. One incident landed Shannon in the emergency room. Despite her fear and trauma, Shannon felt bonded to him and believed she provoked the abuse.

Isolation Stage

Brian insisted Shannon quit her job and cut ties with friends and family. He monitored her cellphone social media and refused to let her leave home alone. Shannon became dependent on Brian financially and emotionally.

Normalizing Abuse

Shannon stopped seeing Brian’s behavior as abusive. The violence became her regular. She assumed blame for provoking him and thought she could control his anger by hiding faults from him.

Self-Blame Stage

When Brian lashed out, Shannon automatically blamed herself, thinking she should have known better than to upset him. She felt extreme guilt over making him so angry that he assaulted her.

Hope and Forgiveness

After violent incidents, Brian would cry, self-harm, and promise to get help. Shannon desperately hoped each time that he would change. She forgave his abuse over and over.

Types of Relationships

Trauma bonding can occur in any close relationship – domestic abuse between partners or spouses, child abuse, cult brainwashing, human trafficking, kidnapping situations, and more.

It is frequently seen in some personality disorders like narcissistic personality disorder or borderline personality disorder. Vulnerable people, like those with low self-esteem, past abuse, or insecure attachment, are at the most significant risk.

The Psychological Mechanisms Behind Trauma Bonding

It uncovers the intricate interplay of human attachment, neurobiology, and coping strategies that underpin the profound and often perplexing bond that forms between victims and their abusers.

Attachment Theory

Attachment theory explains how abuse can override our regular bonds of trust and love. As infants, we form attachments to caregivers as a survival mechanism.

These become our security base. When a trusted caregiver becomes an abuser, it creates deep psychological confusion and conflict. The victim feels love and trust toward someone also hurting them, making it very difficult psychologically to withdraw attachment and leave.

Neurobiological Factors

Trauma bonding has neurobiological aspects as well. When abused, the brain releases oxytocin to try to mitigate the trauma by forging social bonds. This oxytocin releases involuntary bonds from the victim to the abuser.

Brain scans of trauma-bonded people also show changes like those seen in drug or gambling addictions. The intermittent “reward” of affection amid abuse triggers the dopamine reward system.

Stockholm Syndrome

Trauma bonding is frequently compared to Stockholm Syndrome, where hostages attach to captors. Like hostages, abuse victims depend on their captor/abuser for survival. Gaslighting and isolation make the abuser their only reality.

Fighting back seems futile while bonding with their captor/abuser gives them a sense of control. Forming a positive attachment can also represent the will to survive in the face of danger.

In short, trauma bonding combines powerful psychological and neurobiological forces: distorted attachment pathways, the neurochemistry of addiction, survival instincts, and cognitive dissonance. Together, these trap victims in a cycle that is extremely difficult to break without intensive treatment and support.

The Impact of Trauma Bonding

The effect of trauma bonding unravels the profound and enduring consequences that this psychological phenomenon inflicts upon its victims, encompassing both their physical and emotional well-being, as well as their decision-making processes and long-term mental health.

Physical and Emotional Consequences

Trauma bonding can have devastating physical and emotional consequences. Victims suffer physical injuries from violence as well as psychosomatic complaints like headaches, back pain, sleep disturbances, and fatigue.

Emotionally, victims report shattered self-esteem, severe anxiety or depression, PTSD symptoms, suicidal ideation, and complex trauma from repeated abuse.

Effects on Decision-Making

Trauma-bonded victims also display impaired decision-making, unable to assess risks or protect their well-being accurately. The traumatic attachment clouds their judgment.

They ignore red flags, make excuses for abuse, and repeatedly return to the abuser despite knowledge of danger. Unable to rationally weigh choices, they become entrapped in a harmful situation.

Long-Term Mental Health Effects

The long-term mental health effects of trauma bonding can be extensive if victims do not receive help to disengage. Ongoing abuse throughout formative years can impair development and personality.

Victims may have complex PTSD, severe depression, dissociative disorders, somatic disorders, addiction as a coping mechanism, or personality disorders like Borderline PD as a result of the chronic trauma. There is also an increased risk of self-harm due to the profound damage to self-concept.

7 Stages of Trauma Bonding & Signs

Recognizing and Breaking the Trauma Bond

In the quest for healing and liberation, recognizing and breaking the trauma bond is an essential journey that involves identifying warning signs, implementing strategies for escape, and seeking professional support to dismantle the emotional shackles that tether victims to their abusers.

Warning Signs and Red Flags

Many warning signs may indicate trauma bonding is occurring:

  • A partner insisting on constant contact, moving too quickly into commitments
  • Extreme jealousy, isolation from friends/family
  • Manipulation, gaslighting, blaming their behavior on you
  • Refusal to accept responsibility for their actions
  • Pressure to make excuses for, forgive, or hide their behavior
  • Normalization of controlling behavior or violence as proof of love
  • Walking on eggshells to avoid their anger
  • Feeling unable to leave despite unhappiness

Strategies to Break Free

If you recognize those red flags, here are some strategies to break trauma bonds:

  • Seek support from friends, family, domestic violence groups
  • Create a safety plan if you live with your abuser
  • Disrupt the cycle by refusing to forgive/forget abuse
  • Eliminate contact and remove reminders of the abuser
  • Write down abusive incidents to counter gaslighting
  • Challenge thoughts that blame yourself or hope they’ll change
  • Establish firm boundaries if unable to leave yet
  • Consider getting a restraining order
  • Change your phone number, block them on social media
  • Engage in self-care practices to heal trauma

Seeking Professional Help

Because trauma bonding is so psychologically ingrained, professional help via counseling and support groups is crucial. A skilled trauma therapist can provide the following:

  • Treatment for PTSD/complex trauma
  • Strategies to overcome conditioned bonding
  • Relationship counseling
  • Assistance leaving safely
  • Building self-worth and resilience
  • Medication, if needed, for anxiety/depression

With dedication and professional support, the traumatic attachment can be broken, enabling you to recover, regain autonomy, and rebuild your life.

Prevention and Education

Education is vital to preventing trauma bonding before it starts. We need greater public awareness of signs of emotional abuse and manipulative tactics used by abusers. Young people should learn about healthy relationship qualities in school to establish appropriate expectations. Society also needs to address victim-blaming attitudes.

For those currently in relationships, education on trauma bonding can help them recognize it before it becomes more entrenched. Essential topics include learning the psychology of trauma bonds, identifying warning signs, and proactively seeking counseling. Friends and family of victims need information on how to intervene compassionately.

More broadly, promoting healthy self-esteem and relationships from childhood onward gives people resilience against trauma bonding. Children who feel valued and develop secure attachments are less vulnerable to unhealthy relationships later.

As adults, having firm personal boundaries, social support, and self-compassion makes us less susceptible to abuse and manipulation.

Education gives people the tools to avoid trauma bonding dynamics, recognize unhealthy relationships early, and intervene to help victims safely escape.

By better understanding trauma bonding psychology, we can promote healthy relationships and prevent prolonged abuse. The cycle of trauma bonding thrives in secrecy and denial – increased awareness brings it into the light where it can be stopped.

Concluding Remarks 

The 7 stages of trauma bonding work insidiously together to foster powerful, unhealthy attachment between victims and abusers. During idealization, the abuser showers affection to the victim, establishing emotional dependence.

The devaluation phase then damages self-esteem, while the actual abuse creates trauma. As the abuser isolates the victim, they accept the abuse as usual and blame themselves, with nowhere else to turn. The victim repeatedly hopes their abuser will change after incidents of abuse, forgiving and staying bonded.

These manipulative cycles of idealization, devaluation, and abuse result in a toxic trauma bond that prevents the victim from leaving. The intermittent reinforcement and abuse conditioning distort the victim’s thinking and trap them psychologically. They become entrenched in the relationship, unable to break free.

By understanding the psychology behind how trauma bonds develop, we can recognize the warning signs of unhealthy relationships early on. Abuse thrives in secrecy and denial – education and awareness can intervene and empower victims.

Counselling can help rewire trauma bonding, rebuild self-worth, and avoid these dynamics in the future. Knowledge of the 7 stages lets us compassionately assist victims in regaining safety and autonomy.

Trauma bonding refers to the emotional attachment a victim feels towards their abuser. It is caused by cycles of abusive behavior followed by affection or apologies from the abuser. This intermittent reinforcement creates powerful emotional dependence and attachment.

The psychological effects of trauma bonding are complicated to overcome. The distorted attachment and lost self-esteem make the victim feel helpless, damaged, and unable to leave. They become emotionally dependent on their abuser.

Yes, trauma bonds can be broken with help from counseling, support groups, education, rebuilding self-esteem, and cutting off contact with the abuser. It takes time to rewire the conditioned responses, but people can recover.

In a sense, yes. Through manipulative cycles of reward and punishment, the abuser essentially brainwashes the victim into becoming emotionally bonded. Their sense of reality becomes profoundly distorted by the abuse.

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