What are the signs of a trauma bond and why are they so difficult to leave? Have you ever been in an explosive relationship, going from feeling adored to being criticised and like nothing you do is ever good enough? It could be an indication of trauma bonding

It started out with ecstatic feelings of passion and adoration. But now you don’t feel like your old self, finding it almost impossible to break free from the relationship, even though you know deep down that it’s not good for you.

What is trauma bonding?

A trauma bond is attaching to someone who causes you harm. It is characterised by abuse where the abuser uses manipulative tactics to keep control. Abuse can be emotional, physical, sexual, domestic, financial, and/or cultural. Trauma bonds can easily be misinterpreted as feelings of passion or closeness.

Addiction and trauma expert, Dr Patrick Carnes, coined the term to explain why sometimes people stay in abusive relationships. It derives from ‘Stockholm syndrome’ which explains why hostages develop a psychological attachment to their captors like sympathising with their goals and opposing the actions of the police.

Why do people fall into trauma bonds?

A rollercoaster of intoxicating emotions set the scene for an early trauma bond. They usually first start with displays of love bombing, a type of manipulation where the person being love bombed experiences a heavy dose of affection from the love bomber as a way to gain control over them. This can look like constant compliments, excessive attention, gushy social media posts, and a need to commit too soon.

Life coach directory member, Gail Berry says, “You can experience intense adoration and what seems like love, but this is alternated with neglect, disapproval, abuse and abandonment.” She goes on to link this experience back to deep-seated childhood experiences, “It comes from a deep childhood wound where the child will do whatever it takes to stay connected to a parent.”

Being singled out might feel like a rush of heady emotions or might even bring about a sense of safety and trust from this early commitment. But then things take a sharp turn for the worse when criticism and manipulation seep in.

Stages of trauma bonding

After the initial love bombing phase there are usually six more stages of trauma bonding. Understanding the seven phases throws more light on why they can happen in the first place and why they are so difficult to quit.

Trust and dependency. Everything feels so good, you start to get hooked- nothing or no one else matters. It’s all about them. You want to spend more and more time with them and depend on their presence to feel loved. They are testing you: are you all in as there’s no going back?

Criticism. Being swept off your feet dies down a bit and things get a bit more real. It starts off with small criticisms like who you’re hanging around with, what you spend your money on, or what you choose to wear. You might start to question yourself or even start apologising to them. It can start feeling like hard work when you try harder to please them but never quite get anywhere.

Gaslighting. Things are moving up a gear now as you start to wonder if you’re losing your mind. They accuse you of all the problems in the relationship and deny abusive behaviours, making it seem like you are imagining things. Gaslighting is a way to maliciously convince you that you have it all wrong and is linked to narcissistic abuse.

Resignation. You’ve tried questioning their behaviours and setting some boundaries but it's only leaving you utterly exhausted. They are picking up pace as they can now see you are giving in to their manipulation. You wish things were like how they were in the beginning but feel so detached from your own thoughts; it feels almost impossible to do anything about the situation.

Loss of self. You don’t know who you are anymore, losing sight of your true self. Every ounce of your energy is now invested in making sure your abuser is OK, but no matter what you do, it’s never good enough. People you care about are really starting to worry as you’re not you’re old self and are wondering why you don’t just get up and leave.

Emotional addiction. The excessive highs and lows now seem completely normal; your brain now craves the dopamine hit linked to this never-ending cycle of abuse. They may start again by love-bombing, making you think things will get better now. You might feel like you can’t really live without them.

In this video, counsellor Leigh Taylor explains more about emotional abuse, and how therapy can help.

What are the signs of trauma bonding?

Understanding some easy-to-look-out-for red flags might be helpful if you’re worried that you’ve developed a trauma bond. Your partner may set off a few or most of these alarm bells, but what’s most important is how that person makes you feel. If you’re not sure you can trust your gut feeling at this point, reach out to a qualified professional who can help.

  1. Feeling like they are the centre of your world and you can’t cope without them.
  2. Finding yourself distancing from others, especially those who point out abusive behaviours at play.
  3. Overlooking or even agreeing with their reasons for treating you badly.
  4. Fixating on them and the feelings you have for them, even if the relationship has ended.
  5. Feeling like you need to ‘walk on eggshells’ or have the ‘right’ response to the things they say or do in fear of ‘setting them off’.
  6. Worrying you aren’t good enough for them or anyone else in fact, like no one else would ever be interested in you.
  7. Growing detached from the abuse as a way of normalising it, often feeling confused or like you don’t know if you’re coming or going.
  8. Finding it impossible to leave them or fearing for your wellbeing if they leave you.
  9. Doubting your memories or wondering if you’re making things up.

Why are trauma bonds so difficult to leave?

These steps can give us a pretty good idea as to why people get addicted to trauma bond relationships, but what's important to remember is that the abuser is accomplished at making their partner feel like they are their only source of happiness.

Counselling Directory member, Ian Stockbridge says, “Abusive people can often also be skilled manipulators and engage in techniques that reinforce the bond, such as gaslighting and love bombing. Abusers can often work hard to separate you from friends and family by discouraging you from going out or meeting with people. This can make it even harder to leave.”

Questions to ask yourself if you think you may be in a trauma bond?

If you think you might be in a trauma bond, it's important to seek advice from a professional as they can help you assess the situation effectively and create a safe plan to break free from the relationship. There may be some useful questions you can ask yourself to help process things.

  • How does this person make me feel like I can’t cope and what steps can I make to feel like I can cope by myself?
  • Have I been attracted to or experienced dangerous people in the past?
  • When else have I felt like I need others to give me a sense of being needed?
  • Do I find myself lying to keep the peace in relationships?
  • When do I feel the need to be validated by those who don’t seem to treat me well?
  • When do I feel empowered and in a good emotional space?

How can I get help for trauma bonding?

Many people have walked in your shoes and there is help out there. Everyone deserves the right to be respected and treated with kindness so taking action is key. Taking a look at Maggie’s Resource Centre or Helpline can be a good starting point to help you recognise the signs of abusive behaviours.

Opening up to friends or family may be difficult if you find yourself in one of the later stages of trauma bonding, but if there is anyone you trust to share your experience with, this can be a step to acknowledging the seriousness of the situation.

If you feel worried about speaking out, call an anonymous helpline such as Refuge as they can offer you free, impartial advice on how to deal with the situation. Working with a qualified counsellor can also help you work through your feelings and move forward into a healthier place.