You’ve heard of it, but what exactly is it?
It’s a complex psychological relationship that can seem counterintuitive. Victims form intense attachments to their abusers. It’s a bond forged through cycles of abuse and manipulation, punctuated by brief moments of kindness or remorse.
Like an addictive drug, the highs and lows keep the victim coming back.
It’s a challenging concept to grasp fully, especially when you or a loved one are caught in its grip. This blog post shines a light on the trauma bonding stages so you can spot the signs.
The Concept of Trauma Bonding
It is also sometimes referred to as Stockholm syndrome to convey how emotional bonds can develop even in very difficult situations like hostage-taking or kidnapping.
Initially coined by Patrick Carnes in his book “The Betrayal Bond”, these bonds are fueled not by love but by the severity, unpredictability, and intermittency of abusive tactics. A significant aspect of trauma bonds is the cyclical nature of abusive dynamics: alternating between periods of intense conflict and calm.
Stage 1: The Honeymoon Phase
The beginning of trauma bonding, known as the honeymoon phase, kicks off with the abuser showering their partner with overwhelming affection and love. It can make the person on the receiving end feel cherished, validated, and hopeful for the relationship.
The abuser pulls out all the stops, being on their best behavior and embodying kindness, care, and admiration. It could be in the form of gifts, compliments, romantic outings, or grand gestures of devotion, making the person feel like they’re the star at the center of the abuser’s universe.
They might hear things like, “You’re the one for me” or “I have never felt like this with anyone else.” Such behavior gives the person a profound emotional high, making them believe they have found the perfect partner.
In this stage, the abuser can swiftly earn the trust and love of their partner through these demonstrations of affection. Hope for the future is bright, and possible early warning signs may be overlooked or justified away, as the bond between them feels genuinely stable, joyful, and loving.
But tragically, the cheery exterior doesn’t last. It’s all part of an act, but it feels intoxicatingly real for the person in the throes of the honeymoon phase. Little do they know of the challenging times that lie in wait as this relationship evolves through the subsequent stages of trauma bonding.
Stage 2: Tension Building
In the tension-building phase, the abusive partner begins to show signs of controlling or angry behaviors, while the victim feels an increased need to appease their partner. This phase creates an uneasy tension between the couple.
The abuser may start to:
- Make unreasonable demands or expectations of their partner
- Show intolerance, irritation, and frustration more easily
- Engage in put-downs, name-calling, or emotional abuse
- Isolate their partner from friends and family
- Apply financial control or restrictions
Meanwhile, the victim starts to feel like they need to appease and avoid upsetting their partner. They may:
- Make excuses for their partner’s behavior
- Feel like they are “walking on eggshells”
- Take responsibility for their partner’s feelings and reactions
- Go out of their way to keep their partner happy
- Withdraw from others as isolation increases
Both parties are on edge, knowing another explosion from the abuser could come at any time. The tension mounts until it hits a breaking point, leading to the next violent outburst and continuing the cycle of abuse.
Stage 3: The Explosion
The explosion phase is characterized by overt abuse from the abuser towards the victim. This is when the tension that has been building finally erupts in a traumatic event or series of events.
The abuser may exhibit extreme behaviors during this stage, including physical violence, verbal assaults, threats, intimidation, destruction of property, or other forms of abuse. The victim often experiences feelings of shock, trauma, confusion, and helplessness in response.
Some examples of abusive behaviors during the explosion phase may include:
- Physical assault, such as hitting, punching, kicking, or other forms of physical harm
- Verbal abuse like name-calling, insults, screaming, or threats of violence
- Emotional abuse through manipulation, gaslighting, or exploiting vulnerabilities
- Sexual abuse or assault
- Financial abuse by withholding money, maxing out credit cards, or sabotaging the victim’s ability to work
- Isolation by preventing the victim from contacting friends, family, or other support systems
- Intimidation through threats, brandishing weapons, or destroying property
The victim is often left traumatized by the severity of the abuse during this stage. They may experience physical injuries, emotional wounds, or psychological trauma. Feelings of fear, anxiety, confusion, shame, and powerlessness are common.
The explosion allows the abuser to exert control through traumatic tactics. By keeping the victim in a perpetual state of uncertainty and trauma, the abuser maintains dominance in the relationship. This lays the groundwork for reconciliation and restarting the cycle of idealization and abuse.
Stage 4: Reconciliation
After an abusive incident, the abuser will frequently try to reconcile with the victim as a way to strengthen further the traumatic bond that has developed. The abuser will often apologize profusely, make excuses for their behavior, or try to “love-bomb” the victim with gifts, compliments, and promises.
The victim, craving a positive connection with the abuser, is likely to accept the reconciliation attempt, especially if the abuser is very persuasive, charming, or remorseful. The victim may think, “They do love me and feel bad about what happened.”
This provides relief from the distress of the fight, and the victim feels hopeful the abuse won’t happen again. After the reconciliation, the relationship feels closer, more loving, and more intimate.
However, this reconciliation phase serves to deepen the trauma bonding and make it harder for the victim to leave the relationship in the future. The victim becomes even more emotionally invested in the abuser and believes in their promises for change. The cycle of abuse becomes strengthened and prone to repeat.
Stage 5: Calm
In the calm stage, things appear to return to normal. The abuser acts apologetic, kind, and loving, following the explosion stage. They often promise the abuse will never happen again. The victim feels relief and hopes that the situation has improved.
The abuser may initiate acts of kindness, gift-giving, or grand gestures to win the victim back over. They express remorse and take full responsibility for their abusive behavior. The abuser portrays themselves as capable of change, which gives the victim reason to believe the abuse might be over for good.
During this stage, the abuser is on their best behavior. The positive reinforcement makes it more difficult for the victim to leave the relationship. The hope of change often anchors victims in the abuse cycle.
As a result, the victim is lulled into a false sense of security. They may doubt their perceptions of the abuse or blame themselves for the previous incidents. The abuser takes advantage of the victim’s compassion and willingness to forgive.
Unfortunately, the calm stage is only temporary. Tension starts mounting again, although the length of calm periods often diminishes. Without intervention, the cycle inevitably continues. The honeymoon phase provides just enough positive reinforcement to keep victims bonded to their abusers.
Stage 6: Confusion
This stage occurs after the reconciliation and calm phases. The victim starts to feel confused about the relationship and their partner’s behaviors. The abusive partner may act kind and loving again, which contradicts the previous explosive incident.
The victim begins questioning their perceptions – “Maybe it wasn’t that bad?” “Did I do something to cause this?” This self-blame and doubt creeps back in as the victim tries to rationalize their partner’s contradictory behaviors. They may make excuses for their partner’s abuse.
The cycle of abuse then starts again with the honeymoon phase. The abusive partner showers the victim with affection again to further confuse them. This reinforces the trauma bond and makes it harder for the victim to break free from the relationship.
Even if the victim recognizes the pattern, they become caught up in it again through this cycle. The confusion binds them more strongly to their partner as they desperately try to make sense of the loving and abusive behaviors. This stops them from addressing the core issues or leaving the relationship.
Breaking Trauma Bonds
Freeing yourself from a trauma bond can seem impossible. But with the right strategies and support, you can break free.
First and foremost, you must cut all ties and communication with your abuser. Block their number, unfollow them on social media, and avoid anywhere they might turn up. Ask friends and family not to pass along any messages. This no-contact rule is essential.
Next, seek counseling from someone well-versed in helping survivors exit trauma bonds safely. Work with them to process the hurt without sugarcoating the relationship. A good counselor provides coping tools to stop idealizing your abuser and keeps you accountable. You don’t have to overcome this alone.
It’s also vital to surround yourself with a circle of trust – people who care about your well-being. Spend time nurturing relationships that empower you. Share your experiences with loved ones who offer understanding, not judgment. Connect with support groups of fellow survivors who know this battle firsthand.
Breaking free will happen slowly, not overnight. With determination, counseling, time, and support, you can get past the fog of abuse. The road won’t be easy, but you deserve to walk it – one step at a time – into healthier and happier relationships.