Understanding and Healing Relationship Trauma

Written by Rachel H.

June 27, 2022

Human beings are wired for connection and safety within relationships. When these needs are dismissed, ignored or we experience physical, sexual and/or emotional abuse within the very relationships that are supposed to bring us a sense of security and joy, our whole concept of ourselves, others and the world may shift dramatically. 

The very core of who we are and our sense of safety and stability in the world is shaken when relationship trauma occurs.

We may develop issues with trust, communication, self esteem and confidence, to name a few. Sometimes it’s obvious where this comes from: a past abusive relationship, whether in childhood and/or adulthood. However, it’s not always so obvious where relationship issues might stem from. More subtle relationship traumas (sometimes called “little t” traumas)  include:

  • An implicit or explicit message from caregivers and/or partners that who you are is not OK or “not enough”
  • Being shamed for expressing emotions such as sadness or anger
  • Caregivers and/or partners who are overly preoccupied with their own needs or needs of a sibling 
  • Caregivers who are overly involved in their children’s lives and rely on their children for emotional support (enmeshment)
  • Inconsistent behaviors and messages (such as a parent or partner who struggles with untreated substance abuse)

How an individual responds to these experiences may differ depending on the situation and that individual’s neurobiology, however common struggles include:

  • A deep seated sense of self as unworthy, unlovable and/or “not enough” or “too much”
  • A sense of having to be hypervigilant and over-attentive and accommodating to friends, family, and/or partners’ needs
  • Difficulty setting and maintaining boundaries (boundaries may either be too loose or too rigid)
  • Challenges speaking up for oneself and a tendency to communicate in either aggressive, passive or passive-aggressive ways
  • In adulthood, frequent challenges or conflicts within intimate relationships

If you are struggling with the impacts of relationship trauma, know that you are not alone and there is hope. You can have healthy, fulfilling and joy-filled relationships even if you and/or your relationship history feels shaky, broken or fear-filled. 

Here are some ways to begin to come back to a sense of wholeness within yourself and greater confidence, ease and connection in your relationships:

Educate yourself

The first step to tame it is to name it. Read books on the topic of attachment, trauma and relationship trauma. Learn about the various ways it shows up and its impacts. Talk to a professional counselor who specializes in relationship trauma and can help you understand that the ways you’re moving through the world and viewing yourself were once the best ways to protect yourself!

Learn to love yourself

It’s very common to turn the blame inward when we experience ongoing challenges in our relationships, and believe it or not, this was actually once an adaptive strategy (it’s much more empowering to believe that there’s something you can change about yourself than to see your primary caregiver(s) as dangerous/unreliable when you’re a small child).

The first step to shifting the relationship you have to yourself is to get to know all parts of you and the ways in which all these parts are just trying to help. Working with an experienced trauma therapist who specializes in relationship issues can help you with this journey. As we can begin to accept, embrace and offer kindness to the entirety of who we are, we can begin to shift the narrative and come to see ourselves for who we really are: more than enough, and completely worthy and lovable. 

Differentiate the now from the past

As you begin to understand why you’re responding to current relationship triggers the way you do, you can begin to notice when something in the present moment is bringing up a familiar pattern, feeling or belief that stems from past experiences. Even making space for noticing this, and the thoughts, feelings and sensations that arise, can help create a moment of pause where that will allow you to respond rather than react. 

Trauma therapies such as EMDR can help “desensitize” and bring new learning and adaptive beliefs to old, no longer helpful thinking and behavioral patterns. This can help bring compassion, protection and healing to younger parts of ourselves that are “locked” or “frozen” in the trauma.

Seek support

Healing from the impacts of relationship trauma takes a great deal of courage and patience. We may be meeting parts of ourselves that have been long-neglected or on the receiving end of self-judgment and criticism. Working with a qualified therapist means that you don’t have to go it alone. Feel free to reach out today for a free consultation.

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