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'I was lovebombed by a friend', AKA What Trauma Bonding Really Means

At the start of our friendship she put me on a pedestal, but didn’t hesitate to knock me down.
what is trauma bonding in friendship
PHOTO: Getty Images

Warning: this article contains descriptions of trauma bonding and emotional abuse.

“You hold up your relationship like a sacred cow!” Stella* screamed. “You’re so irresponsible for seeing him so much during a pandemic,” she added, face red, and body vibrating. But just a few minutes after her outburst, she approached me smiling, arms outstretched, saying “HUG?”.

This wasn’t the first time she’d spoken to me so aggressively and then quickly flipped the script. How could someone spout so much venom at me, yet still feel so entitled to my validation? Clearly, we didn’t have the promising, close friendship I once thought it was. Instead, I learned that her behaviour fell under a dysfunctional emotional cycle known as ‘trauma bonding’ — a cycle of manipulative behaviour that amounts to emotional abuse.

Trauma bonding: what is it?

Relationship therapist Marie Raleigh defines trauma bonding as an emotional attachment characterized by “a repeated cycle of devaluation that is mixed in with positive reinforcement.” It usually also relies on there being a power imbalance between individuals. Trauma bonding can be present in all kinds of relationships — romantic, platonic, and familial.

Perpetrators often alternate between dishing out praise and invalidating negativity, and trauma bonds are forged gradually over time. Once things start going sour and the abuse worsens, victims can become hooked in the hope of the initial positivity being restored.

Looking back, I realise my friendship with Stella started out with her lovebombing me — a manipulation tactic characterised by intense praise intended to influence another person. She professed her admiration of my personality, skills and talents. I thought her flattery was genuine and it felt nice, and in time I began to reciprocate these compliments. But things soon started to change and she’d make passive aggressive comments about my behaviour and lifestyle choices, especially during the pandemic. She started suggesting that by seeing my boyfriend on weekends, I was being “irresponsible” because of COVID. When I asked her why she didn’t wear a face mask, she was defensive and resentful. She criticised me about hanging out with my partner despite her frequently going on online dates and having group hangouts.


While she had rushed to put me on a pedestal at the start of our friendship, before long she didn’t hesitate to try to knock me down. As a result, our dynamic had no mutual support, kindness and trust. It was one-sided. In short, it wasn’t a friendship.

Another pattern emerged where she would judge others and mark them as toxic, while feeling victimised and morally superior in all her own relationships. Often, she would name-drop other people simply to bad mouth them in my presence. Stella would even belittle people I had never met, which I pointed out to her. Unfazed, she continued talking negatively about other people to me.

With trauma bonding friendships, “there are warning signs around lack of reliability and emotional and behavioural consistency,” says Marie. But these signs weren’t obvious to me until they got really bad. As friendships often have a more fluid and flexible sense of what intimacy is than romantic relationships do, it can make it harder to see red flags and identify dealbreakers. It’s why Marie says “people need support in tuning into the feeling that someone has crossed a friendship boundary.”

Finally, after a series of outbursts that left me feeling emotionally burdened by her, I realised the friendship wasn't healthy. I felt as if I had no choice but to reduce contact with her, hoping to starve her of fuel for toxicity. But I also felt silenced by the Angry Black Woman narrative, acutely aware of how quickly and easily she could paint me as the aggressor.

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To my surprise, she protested wildly at my choice to limit closeness to her. Fighting to keep myself composed in the face of her manipulative abuse took immense self-control. It was exhausting. Marie says that if you find yourself in this situation, the best way to maintain boundaries is by clearly communicating your friendship standards. “Instead of pathologising that you are broken, articulate the kind of boundaries you need to feel empowered, calm and secure. Everyone might encounter a friendship that is toxic as they grow and develop in life,” she explains.

It was important for me to remind myself that experiencing an abusive friendship does not necessarily mean that you’re doing something wrong. Contrary to self-help belief, you’re not attracting the wrong people into your life. The principal blame lies with the person projecting toxic patterns onto the relationship.

Trauma bonding: How to spot it

After speaking to others about their experiences, it's clear to me now that trauma bonding friendships vary wildly from person to person — making them even harder to spot.

Claire*, whose friend became hyper-critical over time, found the comments thrown at her throughout the friendship increasingly “harder to hear”. She says, “She made repeated comments about our choice of school for our son. She implied that we were being selfish parents for not sending him to private school. To attack my intentions as a parent, and to suggest I wasn’t doing the best for my son, was too hard to bear. That was the end of the friendship for me.”


Some trauma bonding friendships are defined by unequal emotional support. This was the case for, Tolani*, 21, who says; “We’d talk every couple of months or so, but it was just them dumping. They wouldn’t really ask me how I was, and I felt like I could no longer talk about my problems. Like I was just giving and giving so much.”

For 22-year-old Alyssa* her toxic friendship began with flattery, like mine. She says, “He never seemed to have a stable friend group and previous friends always seemed to be burnt bridges. People realised he was doing manipulative things. He would talk smack about other people we were friends with. Eventually I realised it wasn’t worth it so I stopped talking to him.”

Trauma bonding: What to do

While intense flattery and praise can feel good to receive, unfortunately perpetrators use these as a tool to draw people into their dysfunction.

Communicating your personal values can feel daunting, but doing so can make space for fulfilling friendships. Nobody is entitled to being in our lives in the way they choose, especially when they are causing us pain. Ultimately, someone willing to threaten my wellbeing has no friend in me.

*Names have been changed


This article originally appeared on Minor edits have been made by the editors.

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