Relational trauma impacts our ability to form secure, healthy attachments.
Relational trauma can deeply impact our ability to form healthy relationships in dating and marriage.
The preeminent couples counselor, researcher, and mental health thought leader Ester Perel, LMFT has often been quoted as saying, “The quality of our relationships determines the quality of our lives.”
And yet, as increasing bodies of research tell us those of us who come from relational trauma histories often struggle mightily in our relationships.
What do I mean by this?
And what impact does that have on the quality of our lives?
Let’s unpack this.
Relational trauma – particularly the kind of trauma that results over the course of time in the context of a power-imbalanced and dysfunctional relationship (usually between a child and caregiver) – results in a host of complex and lingering biopsychosocial impacts for the individual who endured the trauma.
The term “biopsychosocial impacts” refers to the combined effects of biological, psychological, and social factors on an individual’s health, well-being, and overall functioning.
This concept recognizes that a person’s health and experiences are influenced by a complex interplay of biological (physical), psychological (mental and emotional), and social (environmental and societal) factors.
Understanding these impacts involves considering how various aspects of a person’s biology, mental health, and social environment interact and contribute to their overall health and functioning.
With regards to what we’re exploring in today’s post, we’re centering it on the “social” component of the biopsychosocial model – the relational component.
Those who endure childhood trauma – relational trauma – often experience a wide variety of impairments when it comes to their ability to form close, connected relationships socially.
What are some of these impairments?
Attachment theory, developed by the incredible psychiatrist John Bowlby, MD, suggests that early experiences with caregivers play a crucial role in shaping one’s ability to form secure attachments in later relationships. Childhood trauma can disrupt the development of secure attachment patterns, leading to attachment insecurities.
Impaired ability to trust and be vulnerable:
Childhood trauma can lead to issues with trust and vulnerability. Individuals who have experienced trauma may struggle to trust others and may be hesitant to be emotionally vulnerable in their relationships, which can hinder the formation of secure attachments.
Fear of Abandonment:
Individuals with a history of childhood trauma may have an increased fear of abandonment due to past experiences of neglect or rejection. This relational trauma impact can manifest as clinginess, possessiveness, or a constant need for reassurance in relationships (this is an extrapolation on insecure attachment).
Childhood trauma can also affect an individual’s ability to communicate effectively in relationships. They may struggle to express their needs, emotions, or boundaries, which can lead to misunderstandings and conflicts in relationships.
Childhood trauma can impact emotional regulation. Individuals may have difficulty managing intense emotions, leading to emotional outbursts or emotional withdrawal, which can strain relationships.
Seeking Unhealthy Relationships:
Some individuals with a history of childhood trauma may be more prone to entering into relationships with partners who replicate the dynamics of their past traumas. This impact of relational trauma can perpetuate a cycle of unhealthy relationships.
And this is just a handful of the ways that those of us who live through relational trauma histories can develop maladaptive (aka: dysfunctional or unhealthy) beliefs and behaviors in and about relationships.
Our relational trauma impacts are often in conflict with our impulses to date and mate.
But here’s the rub: even though relationships often feel like a source of pain, struggle, if not terror to those of us who come from relational trauma histories, biologically we are also predisposed to seek out relationships, to be in them and to be with others.
What do I mean by this?
Studies have shown that human beings are undeniably hardwired to be drawn to relationships due to their evolutionary and biological roots.
Research in evolutionary psychology suggests that forming and maintaining social bonds and relationships has provided significant adaptive advantages throughout human history.
Our ancestors who formed close-knit groups and relied on one another for safety, cooperation, and support had a higher likelihood of survival and reproductive success.
The attachment system, as proposed by John Bowlby (who I mentioned earlier) and expanded upon by the Canadian-American psychologist Mary Ainsworth, highlights our innate need for secure and dependable relationships.
From infancy, humans are wired to seek proximity to caregivers for comfort and protection.
This biological predisposition continues into adulthood, driving us to form romantic relationships and seek out social connections.
Numerous studies have examined the biological mechanisms involved in social bonding.
Oxytocin, often referred to as the “love hormone” or “bonding hormone,” is released during social interactions, promoting feelings of trust, intimacy, and attachment.
Neuroimaging studies have shown that various brain regions associated with reward and attachment light up when individuals are engaged in positive social interactions.
However, for those of us have experienced relational trauma, the natural impulse to seek relationships can be at odds with the fear and anxiety associated with past painful experiences.
Our fear of relationships is in direct conflict with our desire to be in them.
What. A. Bind.
We often arrive into adolescence and adulthood with myriad maladaptive beliefs and behaviors.
So, many of us from relational trauma histories arrive into adolescence and adulthood with a mighty conflict inside of us: fear of relationships and an equally if not greater draw to be in them, likely coupled with a variety of maladaptive beliefs and behaviors we formed about ourselves and others as a result of what we lived through.
This is a profound relational trauma impact.
What can this look like practically speaking?
Building on those impacts I mentioned earlier in the essay, some of the practical and tangible impacts might look like this:
Maladaptive beliefs are thoughts or ideas we hold about ourselves and the world that are unhelpful and can cause problems in our lives. These beliefs often stem from the impact of relational trauma and can make us feel bad about ourselves, affect our relationships, and influence our behavior in negative ways. They are called “maladaptive” because they don’t help us function well or have healthy relationships. Instead, they often lead to distress, anxiety, or difficulty in our daily lives. A sample of maladaptive beliefs about relationship might look like:
“I’m too messed up to be loved by anyone.”
“No one will want me once they know about my past.”
“All guys/girls are cheaters, just like my father.”
“I’ll end up alone just like my parents did.”
“I’m too broken for a happy relationship.”
“I don’t even know what love looks like.”
“I can’t trust anyone, so I’ll always be alone.”
“I have to expect the worst from people to protect myself.”
“I don’t deserve happiness or love because of my past mistakes.”
“I’m just a burden to anyone who gets close to me.”
“I’m unlovable, and no one could ever truly care about me.”
“I’m destined to be alone because of my past experiences.”
“I’ll just end up getting hurt again if I let someone in.”
“I don’t deserve love because of the mistakes I’ve made.”
“I’ll never find someone who can handle my baggage.”
Maladaptive behaviors are actions or ways of behaving that are unhelpful or counterproductive in achieving our goals or maintaining our well-being. These behaviors often result from maladaptive beliefs and can lead to difficulties in our lives and relationships. Maladaptive behaviors are typically harmful or self-defeating, preventing us from adapting to new situations or finding better solutions to problems. In essence, they are actions that don’t serve our best interests and can hinder our personal growth and overall happiness. A sample of maladaptive behaviors in relationship might look like:
- You let people treat you poorly because you think it’s all you deserve.
- When someone disappoints you, you often end things right away, thinking you have no other choice.
- Often, you expect your partner to cheat on you, which can lead to jealousy and unfounded accusations.
- You might isolate yourself because you’re afraid you’ll always be alone.
- In relationships, you might push people away or keep your distance to shield yourself from getting hurt.
- You don’t think much of yourself, believing that nobody could truly love you.
- Expressing your feelings and needs can be tough for you (let alone knowing what they are!)
- You tend to be hard on yourself, constantly dwelling on past mistakes and flaws.
- You sometimes act possessive and jealous, which can strain your relationships.
- Trusting others can be a real challenge for you.
- You have a tough time opening up about your emotions and needs because you’re scared of rejection.
- You might unknowingly recreate the same unhealthy relationship patterns, feeling like you’re meant to be alone.
- To avoid feeling like a burden, you may keep to yourself and avoid sharing your problems with your partner.
- Without realizing it, you might do things that lead to getting hurt, as if you’re expecting it to happen.
- Making emotional connections can be hard because trust issues get in the way.
- You often keep a close eye on your partner’s actions and words because you’re afraid of the worst.
- You steer clear of situations where you might face rejection, even if it means missing out on potential connections.
- Sometimes, it’s tough for you to accept gestures of love and affection from your partner.
- When you feel overwhelmed by your negative beliefs, you may turn to unhelpful behaviors like drinking or binge eating or purging.
- You might believe that being alone is your only choice, which can cause you to end relationships prematurely.
And this is only a handful of maladaptive behaviors and beliefs that can stem from coming from a relational trauma history.
Between these beliefs and these behaviors, attempting to be in relationship with anyone, let alone a romantic partner that may trigger our attachment wounds to a degree and intensity than any other kind of relationship, can often feel like two hedgehogs trying to hug each other in a cold, haunted mansion.
Painful and perilous.
Many of us dismiss the reality that relationships can be the single biggest healing agent.
But here’s something else I want to highlight: painful and perilous as attempting to be in relationships might feel when we come from relational trauma histories, many of dismiss and/or don’t realize that relationship can actually be the single greatest accelerant for our personal healing work and the biggest variable that can help heal our relational trauma histories.
And this isn’t just positive thinking: this is neuroplasticity.
Neuroplasticity, or the brain’s capacity to reorganize and adapt, has been extensively documented in scientific literature.
For instance, a published study (Kleim et al., 2004) found that neural connections in the brain can be reshaped through experiences and learning.
The brain’s ability to rewire itself is not limited to early development but continues throughout life, as demonstrated by another study. This neuroplasticity forms the basis for the brain’s potential for change and growth.
Relationships can have a profound impact on the brain’s plasticity. A study in the “Journal of Psychiatric Research” highlighted how supportive social relationships can lead to positive changes in brain structure and function.
Another study published in “Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience” revealed that social interactions and relationships are associated with enhanced cognitive functioning and even a protective effect against cognitive decline in older adults.
Furthermore, a review in the “Annual Review of Psychology” discussed the role of close relationships in regulating emotional responses and reducing stress, which can, in turn, influence the brain’s plasticity.
These studies collectively underscore the significant impact of relationships on brain plasticity and emphasize the potential for positive changes in the brain through supportive and healthy social connections.
I do want to say, however, that it’s not just any kind of relationship that can lead to such positive neuroplastic remodeling, increased secure attachment, and many other positive physiological and psychological benefits.
In other words, you can’t come from a relational trauma history and then get into a relationship with an individual with Anti Social Personality Disorder and expect that you will have the high-quality experiences of attunement, mirroring, empathy, and safety that are prerequisites for the kind of neuroplastic change required to recover from early adverse relational experiences.
But you can expect and receive this kind of relationship from relational trauma therapists and others in your life who provide qualities of safety, security, consistency, etc.
And, absolutely, these kinds of relationships can be romantic in nature.
But how do we take those first steps to get into a romantic relationship when we know we’ve been negatively impacted by our early relational trauma histories?
So many of us have the belief that we can’t be in relationships until we’re “fully healed” or “healed enough” (whatever that means).
And yet I would argue that awareness couples with a willingness to work on yourself no matter what your current maladaptive beliefs and behaviors (or adaptive beliefs and behaviors are) can be a good enough place to begin from.
And let’s be real, many of us just fall into relationships without even having a clue of our pasts and our beliefs and behaviors, and that’s okay, too.
What are the relational trauma impact stories we have about what’s possible with dating and marriage?
So how can we bring more awareness to our stories about what’s possible with dating and marriage? How can we get to know the adverse social impacts of our relational trauma histories so we can begin working on them (with or without a trained trauma therapist)?
Self reflection is a powerful tool whether you are in a relationship or not, whether you are working with a trauma therapist or not.
So consider your answers to the following questions to begin to get to know the stories you’re telling yourself about dating and marriage as a result of your past:
- What are my earliest memories of love and relationships, and how might they influence my beliefs today?
- How do I typically react when I feel vulnerable or rejected in a romantic relationship?
- What negative thoughts or self-criticisms arise when I face challenges or conflicts in a relationship?
- Do I believe that I am deserving of love and happiness in a romantic relationship? Why or why not?
- What role did my caregivers or early relationships play in shaping my beliefs about love and attachment?
- What patterns do I notice in my past romantic relationships, and how do they relate to my beliefs about myself and love?
- Do I often fear abandonment or betrayal in my current or potential relationships?
- Why do these fears arise?
- What beliefs or messages did I internalize about my worthiness of love and care during my childhood?
- How do I react when someone expresses affection or love towards me? Do I feel deserving of their affection?
- What are some specific instances in my past where I felt unworthy or unlovable in a romantic relationship?
- What coping strategies or defense mechanisms do I use when I feel vulnerable in a romantic relationship?
- Do I have difficulty setting boundaries in my relationships? How do my boundaries reflect my beliefs about myself?
- What role does self-esteem play in my romantic relationships, and how do I perceive my own self-worth?
- Am I prone to self-sabotage in my romantic relationships, and if so, why might I engage in such behavior?
- What do I believe about the possibility of having a healthy, secure, and loving romantic relationship in the future?
- How do I define love, intimacy, and commitment, and do my definitions align with my desires in a relationship?
- Are there any specific triggers or situations that consistently bring up feelings of unworthiness or inadequacy in my relationships?
- Do I often seek validation or approval from my partners, and what role does this need play in my relationships?
- Have I considered seeking therapy or counseling to explore and heal these beliefs about myself and relationships?
- What steps can I take to challenge and transform these negative beliefs, and what self-care practices can I incorporate to foster self-love and self-compassion?
Once you identify your stories, the million dollar question becomes: how do I work through these stories? How do I actually heal from the adverse impacts of my past and rewire my brain to be able to find, form and keep healthy, functional relationships?
How do we work through those stories?
So how do we work through these stories once we identify them? How do we rewire our neural pathways through both relationship and new experiences?
The answer in two words: Trauma therapy.
Specifically, and with more context, it’s important for you to know that evidence-based therapies like EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) can be a truly wonderful resource.
EMDR has been shown to be particularly effective in rewiring maladaptive cognitions and behaviors associated with relationship formation or any other aspect of life.
Combine this with the kind or reparative relational experience you can have in a secure, attuned relationship with a licensed mental health professional who can provide the attunement, mirroring, safety and constancy that’s needed for recovery from adverse early childhood experiences, and it’s a powerful recipe for change.
Again, if you live in California or Florida, please just book a complimentary 20-minute consult call with our center’s clinical intake director and she can match you to an EMDR therapist on our team who is the best fit for you clinically, relationally, and logistically (and it very well may be me who is the best fit for you as a therapist!).
And if you live outside of California or Florida, please consider exploring my online course specifically designed for relational trauma recovery.
Finally, if you’re still not sure if this content applies to you, if you’re still not sure if you come from a relational trauma history and have any maladaptive beliefs and behaviors around dating, marriage, and relationship as a result, I would invite you to take my signature quiz – “Do I come from a relational trauma background?” It’s a 5-minute, 25-question quiz I created that can be incredibly illuminating and will point you in the direction of a wide variety of resources that can be of further help to you.
Plus, when you take the quiz, you’ll be added to my mailing list where you’ll receive twice-a-month letters from me sharing original, high-quality essays (with accompanying YouTube videos and audios you can stream) devoted to the topic of relational trauma recovery and where I share more about me as a person, my life, and how I’m journeying through my own relational trauma recovery journey and general adulthood.
My newsletters are the only place where I share intimate glimpses into my life (including photos), the resources that are supporting me, the things I’ve discovered that delight me, words that are uplifting me, the practices that nourish me, etc.
So please be sure to sign up for my mailing list whether or not you want to take the quiz as it’s the best way to be in touch with me and hear all the things I only share with my newsletter subscribers.
And now I’d love to hear from you in the comments below:
What are some of the stories YOU told yourself about what’s possible with dating and marriage if you came from a relational trauma history? What eventually helped you be able to go on to form healthy, functional romantic attachments?
If you feel so included, please leave a message in the comments below so our community of 30,000 blog readers can benefit from your wisdom. You never know when you leave a comment below what stranger on the other side of the globe you might be helping.
So thank you. And until next time, please take such good care of yourself. You’re so worth it.
- Bolton, D., Gillett, G. (2019). The Biopsychosocial Model of Health and Disease: New Philosophical and Scientific Developments. Germany: Springer International Publishing.
- Berger, E. (2004), “Hardwired to Connect: what are the main findings of this report?”, European Business Review, Vol. 16 No. 2. https://doi.org/10.1108/ebr.2004.05416bab.005
- Evolution and Social Psychology. (2013). United Kingdom: Taylor & Francis.
- Handbook of Counselling Psychology. (2009). United Kingdom: SAGE Publications.
- Bowlby, J. (2012). A Secure Base. United Kingdom: Taylor & Francis.
- Attachment and Bonding: A New Synthesis. (2015). United Kingdom: MIT Press.