The thought of trauma bonding is one of devastation and horror, especially when we or someone we love is going through it and we feel there is so little that can be done to help. The thought of someone being overly emotionally attached to their abuser is hard to digest. But…maybe there is something that can help!
One thing we know is that there are 7 stages of trauma bonding. And recognizing those as well as the signs of trauma bonding could significantly help a victim to understand their situation and get the help they need.
So what are the 7 stages of trauma bonding? Here is the quick list:
- Love Bombing
- Trust and Dependency
- Loss of Self
Once a person understands the process of an abuser drawing in his victims with these 7 steps, they can begin the process of healing. Let’s take a deeper look at each of these steps. But first, I want to give a bird’s eye view of trauma bonding so we all start on the same page.
Table of Contents
A Brief Introduction of Trauma Bonding
Patrick Carnes is the man who coined the term trauma bonding. He defines it as dysfunctional attachments that occur in the presence of danger, shame, or exploitation. Generally speaking, abusers will give their victims just enough positive reinforcement to keep them deeply involved in spite of the abuse.
Victims of previous abuse tend to be most susceptible to trauma bonding, as they have not had healthy relationships modeled for them previously. There are many signs of trauma bonding (click here for an excellent article explaining the signs of trauma bonding). Recognizing the signs of trauma bonding will greatly help evaluate if one is actually in a trauma bonding relationship with someone else. Additionally, knowing the stages of trauma bonding can help victims to not only identify that they are being abused, but figure out where in the process they are and how to move through the process of healing.
Now, let’s go ahead and take an in-depth look at the stages of trauma bonding and what they look like in real life.
Trauma Stage #1: Love Bombing
The first stage of trauma bonding is also the first stage of narcissistic abuse. Love bombing is the act of being perfectly loving all the time toward the person the abuser is trying to gain control of. Narcissists don’t bond personally with others because they can’t let anybody close enough to them to know what is in their heart. So, to gain trust in them, they will act as though they are listening intently and getting to know that person intimately. What they are doing is listening intently to get whatever information they can to use against their target later on.
My Experience With Love Bombing
In my case, I was amazed at how much he would ask me what my favorite things were and his were exactly the same. What I like to do–he loved all of those things as well. I didn’t realize that he was just literally parroting back to me everything that I had told him.
By the time we were getting married, I was sure that God had provided for me the perfect soul mate. Many of my friends were getting married at the same time. They would tell me they were afraid they may be making the wrong decision because it was such a huge decision. I never had a second thought because all I ever saw was how on the same page we were, at least from what I had been told. I had been so completely honest with him and thought he had done the same with me. I had no clue what had really happened. Until right after we got married. Even then, it took me about 25 more years to see what had really been going on the whole time.
It is this stage of love bombing that sets the victim up to completely trust in their abuser. And once that trust is formed, it takes a very long time and much abuse before the abused starts to realize what is really happening.
Trauma Stage #2: Trust and Dependency
The trust and dependency stage of trauma bonding is the natural outcome of months, or even years, of love bombing. When things don’t line up quite right, the abused person will likely blame themselves for misunderstanding the situation. That is when all of the signs of trauma bonding start to show, such as excusing their behavior, the victim blaming themselves for misunderstanding, hiding the signs from family and friends so nobody will look poorly on them, and more. For a more complete list, click here.
My Experience With Trust and Dependency
I always thought everything was my fault. There were almost daily signs that it wasn’t, but that didn’t matter. Soon after we were married, he told me that he could love and be successfully married to anyone. It didn’t need to be me. And as things didn’t seem to be quite right and I would approach him, he would instantly be irate and tell me he was fine and I had no right to talk about it. I learned very quickly to just be quiet. Even when I knew I was right.
Over time, I started speaking out again. Because after 25 years, I wasn’t pretending anything was fine anymore. I didn’t think I could get divorced because I am a devout Christian that doesn’t believe in divorce for anything other than adultery, abandonment, or abuse. And I didn’t understand the abuse I was experiencing because it wasn’t physical. I had no idea.
Trauma Stage #3: Criticism
The next stage of trauma bonding flows perfectly from the last trust and dependency. As you start to question your reality because nothing is ever quite right, your abuser will start to criticize that you have caused more chaos. But he knows very well that the chaos isn’t coming from you. What he also knows is that he can generally shut you down in one sentence when he shifts all of his lying, denying, blame shifting, and craziness onto you. You don’t respond immediately because you are confused as to what just happened in the exchange with him. And he walks away, sufficiently pleased that he shut you down.
My Experience With Criticism
It was the weirdest thing. For years, I couldn’t get a grasp on what was happening. I had no idea that is was all by design. He would do the most random things and I couldn’t figure out what was going on.
He would mess up the alphebetical order of my tape collection by taking out a new one (for instance, Chicago) and putting the old tape in the new case (let’s say that one was Whitney Houston). He would do this several times a week so the only way to find the tape I wanted was to go through the whole collection until I found it in the wrong case.
When I talked to him about how hard it was to find the tape I wanted because he kept putting them in the wrong cases, his reply was criticism that I would be so picky and then he would say there was no wrong way to put tapes back in their cases. I was too dumbfounded to stand up for the truth. I couldn’t believe anyone could think that way.
Later, when I could get my bearings, I would tell him it was too hard. And I would use the example of if things were randomly put away at his work, the library, or the grocery store, there would be no hope of getting things accomplished. Again, he insisted he was not wrong and I was too judgmental. This went on almost daily with random things for nearly 30 years.
The fourth stage of trauma bonding, gaslighting, is an extension of the last two. For those who have never heard of gaslighting, it is a reference to the movie, Gaslight, starring Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman, with Angela Lansbury in her first ever movie role. It basically revolved around the premise that the narcissistic husband kept lowering the gaslights and moving things mysteriously around the house, then telling his wife that she was crazy when she noticed things weren’t in their place or the gaslights were flickering. And then he convinced everyone around her that she was crazy, all while keeping her isolated so she couldn’t defend herself.
My Experience With Gaslighting
Gaslighting was a regular occurrence from the time I started dating my ex-husband. And I had no idea what it even was, let alone that I was falling for it, until I had been married for 27 years.
Things disappeared all the time. I just chalked it up to being forgetful. Or I would joke that it was ghosts or the Borrowers (the cutest movie to watch alone or with a friend or kids if you have them!). I started growing smart to what was going on pretty early on.
I had two babies in the house when money I had left on my dresser kept coming up missing. And my ex would accuse the babies!!! I was incredulous. The oldest one was about 21 months old and the youngest one was 6 months old. They couldn’t even see over the top of the dresser. He continued to steal money for years, until he no longer hid it and would just walk up to where it was and say if it was left there it deserved to be stolen. Or he would offer to keep the kids’ money in his wallet for “safekeeping.” Which meant they would never see it again.
Game pieces always came up missing. Every game in the house was nearly useless after one or two uses.
When he did the landscaping overhaul a couple of times a year, he would run over my garden beds and say it was too hard to avoid them, even though there was plenty of space. My favorite bushes and trees would disappear. And he would say he thought they were weeds.
I could probably write a book about all of the things he gaslit his whole family with. But you get the point.
This next stage of trauma bonding is such a perfect transition from gaslighting, because the trauma bonding victim feels so powerless to get on their own feet. They feel like they can’t ever get anything right. And they can’t ever discuss it with the other party because they will just get slammed even harder (speaking figuratively here).
Once a trauma bonding victim feels there is nothing they can do to make things right, they just exist in a state of resignation. They don’t have the strength to rise above. And they are tired of being thrown under the bus. So they just maintain the status quo. At least it beats more confrontation and chaos.
My Experience With Resignation
Once I realized I was trapped with a husband/father to my kids that had no ability to relate on a healthy level, I resigned myself to life with my kids. He was in the Navy and gone more than he was home. We found those times a reprieve from the craziness and we didn’t have to walk on eggshells.
When he was home, I was resigned to still care for him as a housewife. I cooked the meals, kept the house, did his laundry. But I no longer put myself in his pathway. I didn’t open myself up to conversations I would be “punished” for if he didn’t like what I had to say–which was pretty much everything I said towards the end.
At first he loved it because I wasn’t in his way. He got everything he wanted without having to interact with me at all. It was a miserable existence. I was alone and he was happy as a clam because he was getting everything he wanted with no commitment on his part to any of his family. He was just as uninvolved with the kids as he was me. And they worked just as hard to stay out of his way to avoid his wrath as I did.
6. Loss of Self
The next step of trauma bonding is a continuation of resignation. One cannot live in resignation that long before they feel a loss of self. Once a trauma bonding victim is resigned and just goes through the motions, it isn’t long before they have lost themselves. There is nothing to look forward to, no relating to their partner, and no moving forward in the relationship. There is just nothing. Motivation is gone. Excitement is gone. New things are gone.
And even worse, it feels impossible to move on from where they are. They don’t have the energy (and usually don’t have the resources) to climb their way out and begin a new life. So they just stay, buried under their narcissist abuser, who by this time is on top of the world, thinking they have their victim exactly where they want them. And that actually leads us right into the next stage of trauma bonding.
My Experience With Loss of Self
I can’t really say that much about my experience with this stage of trauma bonding. That is because by this time, I was so unaware of my condition. I thought I was surviving somewhat okay. I thought I was making the most of a not great situation. I knew in my head (wrongly) that I could never leave because I pledged before God “till death do us part.” And I chose to be respectful and nice, even though he didn’t perceive it that way because he was no longer the center of my world.
What I can tell you is that when I began counseling and started emerging from the abuse, it didn’t take long before people told me I was a totally different person. My pastor even told me that I held my posture better than he had ever seen. He said I was no longer carrying myself around as beaten down. Funnyy think is, I never realized I was doing it to start with. I thought I was doing a great job of hiding things behind closed doors.
About a year later, I noticed that I could all of a sudden reach the top shelf of my very tall kitchen cabinets, something I had not been able to do in the 17 years I had lived in the house. I had no idea that I had lost myself until I started getting myself back.
In this stage of trauma bonding, the victim feels like they need to be with the abuser. They have given up all they have. They don’t have the time or the ability to move on and start again. And they rationalize that things probably aren’t that bad. Their abuser is actually nice sometimes. Every once in a while they bring home a gift. Or they go on a shopping trip together that goes well. There is always a bone thrown at them that makes them think things will be okay. But they really aren’t.
My Experience With Addiction
I remember almost daily thinking that there were so many people that were worse off than me. There were Christians dying for their faith. There were people wrongfully being prosecuted for things they didn’t do. And there were wives that were being physically beaten by their husbands. I wasn’t so bad off. And every once in a while things would be good.
Both my counselor and my pastor said I couldn’t be that way anymore. What other people were experiencing had nothing to do with my life. If there were things wrong in my life, I needed o make them better. And with that, the addiction started to fade away quite quickly.
My ex’s feet were held to the fire. And his response was to spiral out of control. He became very angry. And soon there was nothing left for me to hold onto even if I wanted to. He left his family and life behind and started a new life with a new wife, new church, and new everything.
His new church gave him freedom to get a divorce because my church and I said he couldn’t come back home until he showed some healing on his part. (For more on the harm churches do in abusive marriages, click here and here). They did not believe that I had the autonomy to do that, so they granted him grounds to divorce me. But that is okay. I had all of the support and love I needed to start our new life without the years of abuse following us. The addiction was gone forever. And the counseling and emotional health I gained means I will never be in that place again.
So, these are the stages of trauma bonding and what they looked like in my 31-year marriage. The good news is that I am healed! And you can be too. I am now a leader of a support group for divorced people in the church as well as outside of the church. And I can tell you that most people heal pretty quickly once they realize what is going on and get the right support.
Please check out my resources page for some great books that will help you to start seeing things for what they are and getting on the road to healing. You will also find some great free printables to help you on your road to healing.
But if I had to tell you to start with one particular book, it would be The Emotionally Destructive Marriage by Leslie Vernick. Check it out! You will be glad you did.
Do you think you may be involved in a trauma bond relationship? Take this quick test to get more information!
Do you have experience with a trauma bond? What stages have you experienced and worked through? Have you escaped? What does life look like now? Do you still live in fear? Feel free to comment below, or contact me here if you do not feel safe posting publicly. Blessings to you!
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