There are a few things that come up throughout our online therapy sessions. These can be quite insightful to others, including those working in our field. One of these things is how many people out there think that they are in a relationship when in reality, they are just stuck in a trauma bond. The other thing is how few people actually know about the concept of trauma bonding and what that actually means.
So, in this article, we want to address trauma bonding, exactly what that means, how to identify the signs, how to heal from it, and ultimately move on to happier and healthier relationships in the future.
What is Trauma Bonding?
The first thing we make very clear during our online therapy sessions is that a trauma bond is not a real relationship. It is an emotional attachment that gets formed during a reoccurring pattern of abuse that cycles through punishment and reward, punishment, and reward.
The abuse experienced in these types of situations can range from physical, verbal, financial, and emotional. It’s also interesting to note that Stockholm Syndrome is an example of extreme trauma bonding. This is when a hostage/kidnapped individual becomes emotionally attached to their captors, and will even defend them and their actions.
You’ll even see hostages/kidnapped individuals change political beliefs or convert to another religion because of their captors. As you can see from the Stockholm Syndrome situation, trauma bonding occurs in all sorts of relationships. This includes work relationships, family or friends, but in our online therapy sessions, we generally see it in romantic relationships the most.
Trauma Bonding Happens Over Time
Trauma bonding doesn’t happen overnight. As with any abuse, it’s a gradual process. And that’s why most don’t realise they’re busy sliding down that slippery slope till it’s too late and someone points it out. To put this into a more visual perspective during our online therapy session, we often use physical abuse as an example.
Imagine going out on a first date with someone. The date goes fairly well, but in the middle of it, the person suddenly gives you a massive slap across your face. You’ll probably stagger back, and have a mixture of shock and surprise, but you definitely won’t stay. You’ll probably immediately pack up your things and drive straight to the nearest police station.
But when it happens slowly and progressively over an extended period of time, you become desensitised to your “new normal”. For example, it can be that the person starts out telling you how stupid you are. At first, you think it’s a fluke, but steadily it becomes a daily occurrence.
You’ll also justify the behaviour because it seems so out of character with the loving and charming person they can sometimes be (they had a bad day, it’s stress, they’re just tired, etc.). Gradually, the “stupid” comments, become even more harsh. Then the comments are delivered in seemingly derogatory monologues. Thereafter the monologues get the additional sound effect of things being thrown or smashed.
Soon another element gets added; a poke, or a shove. And so it continues to escalate till you end up having to go to work with long-sleeved shirts, polo necks, or extreme makeup, rarely thinking twice about it since it’s been a looong time since you’ve felt the normalcy of the first time you met this person.
The 7 Stages of Trauma Bonding
7 stages have been identified when it comes to the gradual process of trauma bonding:
Stage 1: Love Bombing
The initial courting or dating phase is out of this world. You are constantly receiving compliments, love and affection, which can often be followed by pretty grand romantic gestures.
Stage 2: Trust & Dependency
They slowly start taking away your dependency. And why wouldn’t you? By now they have proven to be extremely trustworthy. During this phase you will see situations such as a man asking his girlfriend to move into his house “to save on expenses”, and even offer to support her financially “so she can focus on her studies”. This sounds like an incredibly kind and supportive gesture, but there are some darker undertones to it.
Please also note that this is just an example of what this specific phase can look like. It doesn’t mean that every man who makes this type of offer has trauma bonding intentions. It’s also not gender-specific and can be a woman with a man, a man with a man, a woman with a woman, etc.
Stage 3: Criticism
Slowly the critique starts to set in (remember our “stupid” example?) You’ll also get blamed for things. If we use our past example, this will be the time when you’ll start hearing comments like “If I didn’t have to support you and you’re studying I wouldn’t have to work this hard!”
Their demands of you will also start to become more. You’ll hear things like “Since you’re not working, you can clean the house” or “I work all day and just have a little bit of time to spend with you and then you want to go out with friends?!”
Stage 4: Gaslighting
When things go south you can be almost certain that it’s somehow your fault. For example, they’re always stressed because they’re constantly working to support you and that’s why they’re “acting out” sometimes. Or if you cleaned the house properly they wouldn’t need to highlight the mistakes.
During this phase they’ll also start twisting and manipulating things. To such an extent that you will start questioning your own sanity. You’ll hear things like “I don’t know what you’re talking about”, “I never said that”, etc.
Stage 5: Resignation
At this point, you are exhausted. It’s very clear that you only get to see the person you fell in love with when you do exactly what they say (reaffirming the belief that their actions are based on your behaviour). You’ve also stopped trusting yourself because all the gaslighting has left you in complete doubt of your own judgements or perceptions. This is the phase where you essentially give up and give in.
Stage 6: Loss of Self
You are a mere shadow of the person you used to be when you started this relationship. You’ve lost your “voice”, you’ve lost your confidence, and you’ve essentially given away all your power in a desperate attempt to keep the peace.
Stage 7: Addiction
Yes, you read right. In the same way as with any substance abuse, you are swinging between hormonal extremes. You’re constantly going from high cortisol levels because of the stress to dopamine bursts whenever you see or experience the old version of the person you fell in love with (which by this point should become less and less, making the craving and need to please them even more). At this stage, the cycle of punishment and reward is in full effect.
The Red Flags
It can be hard to identify yourself in the midst of any of these phases while you’re in the thick of it. So, the following are some of the red flags to look out for that could suggest that you are in a trauma bonding situation:
- You find yourself having to justify or defend your partner’s behaviour.
- You cover for your partner.
- There’s this sense of wanting to help your partner “fix” themselves.
- You blame yourself for the situation.
- You minimize your partner’s behaviour and what is actually happening to you.
- There’s a strange mix of walking on eggshells and almost overcompensating with attention and affection when it comes to your partner since it’s the only way to experience some peace.
- Forgiveness comes a bit too easily and quickly when it comes to your partner’s behaviour/actions – as long as they show you a little love and affection.
- Even when things feel “off” you have this clear unwillingness to leave your partner.
- You isolate yourself from others. This can be because your partner requested it, or that you are trying to avoid others making comments or confronting you about your situation.
- Your partner seems to have an almost unquenchable need for admiration.
- It doesn’t seem like your partner takes your or others’ feelings into account.
- Criticism of your partner never goes down well – whether constructive or otherwise.
- Your partner has a sense of entitlement around them.
Getting Out & Getting Help
As you can see from the 7 stages, trauma bonding can destroy a person, ranging from physical, to emotional and even mental where those who walk out of situations like this suffer long-lasting effects such as PTSD. And with the strange addiction aspect to it, it can be incredibly difficult to leave a situation like that in the first place.
We’ve also seen in our online therapy sessions that those who do eventually leave can experience extreme guilt and self-blame for entering into the relationship in the first place or not leaving sooner. So, if you find yourself in a situation like this or even find yourself wondering whether you might not be in a situation like this, please reach out for professional help.
It’s almost impossible to deal with a trauma bonding situation on your own – whether it’s leaving or healing. You are more than welcome to contact us for online therapy sessions at firstname.lastname@example.org or via the Personal Online Therapy Contact Us page. Alternatively, you can also complete the form below and we’ll get back to you as soon as possible: