Emotional connections formed with an abuser are known as trauma bonds. Healing from abusive relationships is possible with appropriate support.

People who have experienced abuse in a relationship often have mixed feelings toward their partner. At times, the abuser may be manipulative; other times, they’re very loving and affectionate toward them.

For those who have experienced insecure attachments with others, it may cause you to jump into unhealthy relationship dynamics.

It can be hard to recognize those unhealthy dynamics or realize that you could be experiencing emotional, physical, or sexual abuse. When you bond with an abusive person, you form a trauma bond.

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Trauma bonding is an emotional attachment that forms with a perpetrator of abuse. In trauma bonds, the abuser has significant power over the individual being abused because of the dependency that forms in trauma bonds.

Trauma bonding can take a toll on the mental health of the individual experiencing abuse. 2022 research suggests that it may be difficult to break this cycle as the abuser often implements intermittent rewards and punishments in a pattern that forms strong attachments that are hard to break.

If you’ve experienced intimate partner violence, a 2019 review of studies indicates that you’re more susceptible to:

These conditions can make it hard to focus on other aspects of your life.

Trauma bonding occurs in stages. If you have experienced trauma bonds in your life, you might recognize these stages when dealing with an abuser.

1. Love bombing

In the first phase, love bombing, an abuser might shower their partner with excessive admiration, attention, or gifts. Research indicates that when gaslighting occurs within relationships, it usually begins with love-bombing behaviors.

If you have experienced love bombing, you may find it enjoyable but confusing. Having someone give you lots of attention may be disorienting. The love bombing can often reel you in, so you form a deep attachment with the abuser fast.

2. Trust and dependency

The second stage of trauma bonding involves trust and dependency. Dependency forms when you have to rely on an abuser for many aspects of your life.

The abuser may shut out other forms of support that you may have relied on in the past so that you only rely on them. They may also make it so that you’re financially dependent on them so you don’t leave them.

The trust piece of this stage involves the abuser giving you attention, being a trustworthy partner, and showing that they’re reliable. These traits aren’t long-term; once you trust and are dependent on an abuser, they start the cycle of abuse.

3. Criticism

In this stage of a trauma bond cycle, the abuser may begin to devalue you by criticizing, name-calling, and gaslighting you. For anyone trapped in a trauma bond cycle, this shift to devaluation may be confusing and shocking.

Criticism in a relationship is one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse, as described by Dr. John Gottman, a famous relationship therapist. Dr. Gottman uses the four horsemen of the apocalypse to predict divorce or that your relationship may be headed down a dangerous path.

4. Manipulation and gaslighting

In this stage, the abuser is fully involved in emotional abuse through manipulation and gaslighting. These tactics may make you question what you said or did. It may lead you to also question what your abuser is doing.

Your abuser may make you try to feel like things that they did or said didn’t happen — a prime example of gaslighting.

Manipulative tactics used by abusers during this stage, according to 2023 research, may include:

  • blaming you for situations that have gone wrong
  • denying their words or behavior
  • minimizing their behaviors or words
  • trying to intimidate you
  • contradicting themselves
  • isolating you from friends and family
  • controlling where you go, who you talk with, and what you spend money on
  • lying to you

Manipulative tactics such as those listed above can make you question the reality of events and statements, making you feel like conflict is your fault.

5. Resignation and giving up

In this stage of the trauma bond cycle, individuals may give up or give in to their abuser’s demands. If you’re in this stage, you might give in to your abuser’s requests to prevent further conflict.

Many people resort to “fawning,” a trauma response in which individuals engage in people-pleasing behavior to:

  • keep themselves safe
  • help prevent further conflict
  • appease their abuser

At this stage, you may be aware that abuse is occurring, but it may be hard to recognize the extent of what’s happening and make a change.

6. Loss of self

The loss of self stage involves being so dependent on another person that you’ve lost your identity. The abuser has completely isolated you from others, and it may be hard to recognize yourself.

At this point, your mental health may be in bad shape, and you may feel hopeless, depressed, or suicidal. It’s best at this stage if you can learn how to break out of the cycle and seek help from an experienced mental health professional.

7. Addiction to the cycle

Trauma bonding involves a cycle of addiction. You go through all the stages, and then the abuser love bombs you yet again, beginning the cycle all over again and making it harder and harder for you to leave.

People can form trauma bonds with others based on childhood experiences, fear of being abandoned, and fear of being alone. You don’t have to stay in cycles of abuse, and you can get help.

Breaking a trauma bond cycle first involves awareness that you have formed trauma bonds with an abuser. Once you’ve recognized that you’re in a trauma bond and have formed a relationship with an abuser, it’s time to begin working on getting safely out of that relationship.

It can take individuals in abusive relationships many times to leave. Knowing what the abuser’s tactics are can help you get out of the relationship. You will need to seek the support of others in your life and most likely seek the support of a mental health professional.

If you do decide to break the relationship with the abuser, it’s best to do so when the abuser is not present and you have plenty of support and a safe place to go. You can also call, text, or chat with The National Domestic Violence Hotline for support and assistance.

Trauma bonds are emotional connections that form between an individual and an abuser. In the beginning, the abusive behavior may not be shown immediately to suck you into the relationship and make you dependent on them.

As time goes on, abusers can begin to gaslight and manipulate you, and this can leave you feeling overwhelmed, hopeless, and depressed. Finding a positive support system, seeking the help of a mental health professional, and leaving the relationship can all help you heal.

For more information about trauma bonding and leaving abusive relationships, check out Psych Central’s resource page on trauma bonding. If you’ve experienced suicidal thoughts, please call 911, call a support hotline, or go to your nearest emergency room for help.