A woman is struggling with a toxic relationship with her boyfriend but cannot deny to leave.

The Ultra-Toxicity of Trauma Bonding: How it Happens, and How to Leave

Are you exhausted, embarrassed and depressed by your relationship? Trauma bonds have a way of slowly eating away at your sense of self, leaving you feeling completely lost and unsure as to what to do next. Knowing what is happening and how to leave is critical in getting out of this toxic relationship.

Not every relationship is meant to work out over the long-term, and many end simply because your interests, values or personalities aren’t compatible and you are no longer satisfied. But what happens when you find yourself in a relationship in which you’re incompatible, unhappy and often mistreated – but somehow still there and unable to leave? 

You’ve probably heard of the term “toxic relationship,” but may be less familiar with the specific concept of “trauma bonding.” Understanding the nuances of this deeply destructive bond is critical in identifying if you are in this type of relationship, and how to begin to extricate yourself.

What is Trauma Bonding?

The essence of trauma bonding is loyalty to someone who is destructive. Though these relationships can occur after a trauma or stressful event, they may also occur in the normal course of dating. Anyone, including people who are strong and confident, can find themselves lost in the storm of a trauma bond. This is due to the way in which the relationship progresses and how it triggers certain parts of our brains.

Some common characteristics of trauma bonds include:

  • Your partner consistently breaks promises
  • You keep having the same, damaging fights that are never resolved 
  • You are blamed for everything in the relationship, and face constant demands for changes in your behaviour or actions
  • You try unsuccessfully to get your partner to change addictive or abusive behaviour
  • People around you are disturbed by your partner’s behaviour towards you, but you are not or you make excuses for it
  • You don’t trust your partner, or even really like who they are, but feel stuck in the relationship
  • If you do finally leave, you deeply miss this person, or somehow find yourself sucked back into the relationship

Trauma bonds are deeply damaging to your confidence and sense of self, and often leave you unsure as to what you are feeling or if your perceptions are valid. These are reasons why it can be so difficult to extricate yourself from a trauma bond, and why it is so important to seek outside help in doing so.

What are the Seven Stages of Trauma Bonding?

A trauma bond is formed over time, and in an insidious manner that slowly reshapes the way you perceive yourself and your relationship. Trauma bonds end up functioning almost like an addiction – you may realise that this person is bad for you and be unhappy with who you have become, but find it extraordinarily difficult to leave. Understanding the stages of trauma bonding sheds light on  how and why this happens.

Stage 1: All Love

In the beginning, your connection feels deep, intense, and genuine. Your partner showers you with love and affection in an all-out show of attention also known as “love bombing.” You feel appreciated and loved, and may even consider this person your soulmate.

Stage 2: Gaining Trust, Establishing Dependency

In this stage, your partner does everything they can to win your trust. You will feel you can rely on them, and are beginning to feel dependent on them for love and validation. Because your partner has been providing this in full supply, this won’t feel risky, but sets the stage for what is to come.

Stage 3: Shift to Criticism

The criticism generally begins slowly, and might just seem like the normal progression of two people getting to know each other more. It will become pervasive, and you’ll find that you are often being blamed for things, including their feelings or perceptions, and that your partner will become more demanding. These demands will gradually extend to an insistence on changes in your normal behaviour, personality, or relationships with others.

Stage 4: Gaslighting

During this stage, you’ll feel lost and confused as your partner convinces you that your feelings and perceptions are invalid and that all problems in the relationship are solely your fault. This type of emotional manipulation is called “gaslighting,” and can make you seriously doubt your own thoughts and reactions. 

Stage 5: Resignation

You are getting absolutely nowhere using your usual methods of problem solving or open discussion in a relationship – every time you try to work things out, your partner unleashes a barrage of blame and criticism that is both painful and exhausting. You decide to try and do things their way in order to resolve conflict and get back to Stage 1.

Stage 6: Loss of Self

Any attempt to push back against the way things are in your relationship results in extreme emotional manipulation and abusive behaviour from your partner. Your family and friends, who have probably expressed concern about the relationship in previous stages, are now very worried. You have lost your confidence and your bearings, and will do anything just to avoid another fight.

Stage 7: Emotional Addiction

At this point, your body is running on near constant levels of high stress and craving relief or pleasure, creating a cycle of dependency that can feel very similar to a substance addiction. You probably have some sense that the relationship is bad for you, but are either making excuses for it (like your partner has a troubled past or trauma of their own), or feel unable to leave it.

What Do These Stages Do to the Brain?

The exposure to love and approval at different points during the early stages set up a pattern of “intermittent reinforcement” in the brain. Research has shown that when our brains are randomly rewarded at varying, unpredictable times, we continue to seek those rewards, even if there will never be another.

Psychologists also point to Stockholm Syndrome, where people form unlikely bonds with kidnappers or abusers as a way of survival, as another reason that trauma bonds form. 

Breaking Free of a Trauma Bond

Many independent and intelligent people find themselves stuck in a trauma bond and wondering how they ended up in such a toxic, destructive relationship. Understanding the slow and steady manipulation and psychological conditioning that occurs during different phases of a trauma bond offers some insight into why this happens. 

Because a trauma bond essentially makes you doubt everything about yourself – your perceptions, emotional reactions, and even your basic character – it can be very difficult to leave this type of relationship on your own. Having a strong support network of people who can not only validate your perceptions but also help build up and reinforce your self-image is critical in rediscovering your strength and ultimately putting an end to a destructive partnership. 

Emerging from a trauma bond can be very difficult, particularly in the early stages, and your partner will likely say and do all the things that you feel like you need from them in order to keep you in the relationship. Unfortunately, once you’re back in, the pattern will restart, and you will find yourself in exactly the same place. To fully break free of a trauma bond, you need to remove yourself from that relationship and stay removed as much as possible to “detox” yourself emotionally from that person.

Professional support can be extremely helpful in gaining a trained, objective perspective on what is happening in your relationship, rebuilding your confidence, and reconnecting with your sense of self. You’ll need time to reflect and heal after a trauma bond, and a therapist is well-equipped to support you through every step of this process. 

Reconnecting with Yourself at The Dawn

The Dawn mental health retreat Thailand is the perfect place to getaway from the toxic relationship and you can truly heal from your inner self.

The Dawn Wellness Centre and Rehab in Thailand offers a safe and sunny getaway with highly-personalised mental health treatment. Our experienced, Western-trained psychotherapists help our clients identify the root cause of their problems, develop healthy coping mechanisms and start feeling better almost immediately. Our unique “Twin Pillars” approach seamlessly integrates effective psychotherapeutic techniques with proven wellness practices like yoga and meditation for holistic, lasting healing. You’ll leave The Dawn thriving, with a renewed sense of self-confidence and strength.

Our welcoming professional team is just a call away. Reach out today and learn more about how we can support you as you reconnect with yourself.

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