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7 Stages of Trauma Bonding

by Danielle Wright & Lisa K. Stephenson, Author and Relationship Coach

Trauma Bonding is a term coined by Patrick Carnes, Ph.D., CAS in 1997. Carnes is a specialist in addiction therapy and the founder of the International Institute for Trauma and Addiction Professionals (IITAP). Carnes described the connection as “dysfunctional attachments that occur in the presence of danger, shame, or exploitation” and considered it one of the nine possible reactions to a traumatic situation.

He surmised that trauma bonding occurs due to the way our brains handle trauma with the two most important aspects being: how people respond to its severity and how long it continues.

The bond forms out of the basic human need for attachment as a means of survival. From there, an abused victim may become dependent on their abuser. Most trauma bonds start innocently enough as with today’s climate and the rise of situationships, it’s easy to fall victim to this abuse very early on.

Self-Worth Therapist and Coach, Dontea' Mitchell-Hunter shares, “Whether you call it a situationship, someone you’re seeing, it’s complicated, or just hanging out, if the majority of the experience feels one-sided, it only occurs in situational experiences—for example, you only see the guy when he determines when and for how long—you are possibly in a situationship. With that being said, do not back down from your needs. If you desire respect around your time, and the guy is two hours late, cancel the date, and he can reschedule.”

In the above scenario, you can see how your reaction to such a simple action can determine the outcome of your relationship. Your basic human need for companionship may allow you to enter into a situationship with a partner who does not value you or your needs, let alone your time. Your positive reinforcement of their negative action will only lead to more unfavorable behavior where the outcome will be considered a dysfunctional attachment.

Avoid this early on by “asking a man point blank what his relationship goals are. Men are surprisingly very honest and upfront when confronted. It’s better if you ask him before revealing yours. You have a better chance of getting an honest answer.

That way he does not have a chance to mirror your wants and desires,” says Christy Piper, Author and Relationship Coach. “A good man wants a good woman for a long-term commitment. He will take his time to vet you. But he’ll be upfront from the beginning if he is looking for a commitment to marriage. But he won’t try to rush you. He wants to take his time to ensure that you’re a good match for him.”

This leads us to the 7 Stages of Trauma Bonding...

Stage 1: Love Bombing – During this stage, the abuser will shower their victim with love and affection making the victim feel deeply connected to the abuser. They may start to believe the abuser is the only person who understands them. Piper also mentions, “If he starts talking about kids and marriage too early and pushing for it, this maybe a red flag. Many men know this is what women want. So, they may say it to hook a woman if they are not honest.”

Stage 2: Gaining Trust and Loyalty - An abuser may go out of their way to be helpful, be as accommodating as possible and start to exhibit signs of dependence. In some cases, the person may become very clingy or needy, wanting to spend their time with you.

This is prevalent in most situationships, “A situational connection includes the frequency of sex and interaction. It is because you are going with the flow rather than actively attempting to develop toward the future, you seem to be more than what one may refer to as “friends with benefits” in this specific ambiguous relationship. Normally, you engage with this person just as much as if they were truly dedicated to you. However, things get complicated when someone wants to know “what are we?” says, Sai Blackbyrn.

It is not uncommon for most women and men to develop a trauma bond from a situationship just as they would a long-term relationship.

Stage 3: Devaluing – This shift is gradual as you begin to question the relationship and the abuser starts to pull back. Going from stage 2 to this stage is critical and can lead you to begin questioning yourself, your worth, and whether or not you did something to cause this change. Suddenly, you are hearing things like, “You’re too argumentative” or “You’ve been complaining too much”.

This is a natural trauma response after getting comfortable with someone (having your basic needs for companionship met) to feelings of isolation. During this stage they become more demanding of you, leading you to further lower your standards. This stage is also part of a narcissistic cycle – an abusive pattern that leads to trauma bonding.

Stage 4: Gaslighting – During this stage, your abusive partner will deny your feelings and experiences. This is an emotional manipulation technique and can make you doubt your thoughts. An example of this is when I was seeing someone for a year – we were not in a relationship, but a situationship. I remembered his birthday is before mine, I wished him a Happy Birthday and spent the evening with him. My birthday is precisely two months later. One month before my birthday he came by and we were discussing a previous situation where my feelings were hurt—yet he continued to dismiss me.

To change the subject, I asked him about plans for my birthday. He did not know when my birthday was, did not ask and proceeded to gaslight me by asking, "Do you even know when my birthday is?" Of course, this took me by surprise. He saw the look of fear on my face. He then continued, “Now why are you asking me that? Why do you like to argue so much?” This is a clear example of gaslighting and an attempt to manipulate me. Immediately I told him to leave!

Stage 5: Resignation – The abuser is no longer interested in working things out as much as they would in the past. When you were quiet, meeting their needs and had no complaints about the abuse you were enduring aka going with the flow, your abuser spent a lot of his time with you. Once you began to question things, he slowly backed out with the idea that you will bend to his will, eventually. Having an open and logical discussion at this stage seems almost impossible. You will continue to be blamed and criticized. It is in your best interest to walk away at this time.

Related articles: How to Break a Trauma Bond

Do not try to do things their way. This will enable them to continue disrespecting your boundaries, while you’re hoping to get back to stage 1, receiving their love and affection. I know from experience that this does not work. It will leave you feeling mentally and emotionally exhausted. One thing I can say for sure is that once you leave, they always come back! Men love in our absence, while women love in their presence. Always remember, the woman who leaves holds the most value.

Stage 6: Loss of Self – If you continue past stage 5, you will begin to experience low self-esteem. Questioning why you are not good enough or what you could have done differently. A common symptom of trauma bonding is losing touch with your true self, your principles, and your personality.

Stage 7: Emotional Addiction – By now you will feel anxious and stressed. You struggle to find pleasure in anything, and you crave relief from the pain as a result of being rejected by your partner. This is similar to drug addiction.

Healing from this trauma bong is vital, else one of two things can occur: you can hear from this person later on in life and reenter this cycle or you will date another person, again, missing the signs early on and end up in the same relationship/situationship.

This is often why most women believe all men are the same or the term narcissist is thrown around so loosely. We are missing the red flags and not allowing ourselves time to heal to set healthy boundaries that we do not compromise from the very beginning.

Now that you know the signs, begin working on healing your trauma bond so that you will recognize the signs early and retreat as soon as possible.


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