Have you ever been in an explosive relationship, going from feeling adored to being criticised, and like nothing you do is ever good enough – but you don't feel you can leave? 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. Sound familiar?

What is trauma bonding?

A trauma bond is attaching to someone who causes you harm. It is characterised by abuse – which could be emotional, physical, sexual, domestic, financial, or cultural – where the abuser uses manipulative tactics to keep control. The problem is that 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, such as 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 a person exudes an intense amount of affection towards their partner as a way to gain control over them. They may fall into this behaviour due to their own childhood experiences, such as going out of their way to feel connected to a parent, and now, as an adult, they shower romantic interests with constant compliments, excessive attention, gushy social media posts, and a need to commit too soon.

For the receiver, this can feel like a rush of heady emotions, or might bring about a sense of safety and trust from the early commitment. But, things take a sharp turn for the worse when criticism and manipulation seep in. 

Stages of trauma bonding

After the initial love bombing, there are usually six more stages of trauma bonding, which shed more light on why they can happen, and why they are so difficult to quit.

Trust and dependency. Everything feels so good, and you start to get hooked – nothing and no one else matters. It’s all about them. You want to spend more and more time together, and depend on their presence to feel loved.

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 begin to question yourself, or start apologising to them. It can feel like hard work, as you try more and more to please them, but never quite get anywhere.

Gaslighting. Things are moving up a gear now, as they accuse you of being responsible for all the problems in the relationship, and deny abusive behaviours, making it seem like you are imagining things.

Resignation. You’ve tried questioning their behaviours, but it's leaving you exhausted. They pick up pace as they can now see you are giving in to their manipulation. You wish things were like they were before, 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. Every ounce of your energy is invested in making sure your abuser is OK, but no matter what you do, it’s never good enough. Loved ones are really starting to worry as you’re not you’re old self, and are wondering why you don’t leave them.

Emotional addiction. The excessive highs and lows now seem normal; your brain 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. You might feel like you can’t live without them.

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. They will work hard to cause a rift between you and friends and family, perhaps even colleagues, so that you are dependent on them, and feel like you have nowhere and no one else to turn to.

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, you could 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. Distancing yourself from others, especially those who point out the 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.

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

The following are some useful questions you can ask yourself to help process things, but 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 to create a safe plan to break free from the relationship. 

  • 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?
  • Why 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?

If this is all hitting a little close to home, just know that many people have walked in your shoes, and help is out there. Everyone deserves to be respected and treated with kindness, so taking action is key. 

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, you can call an anonymous helpline such as Refuge (0808 2000 247) for free, impartial advice. Working with a qualified counsellor can also help you work through your feelings and move forward into a healthier place.

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.