Relationship Trauma

Relationship Trauma. Psychology Fanatic article header image

Are you safe, kind, mean, lazy? We like to label—a cognitive heuristic. How we label someone—whether consciously or not—influences following interactions. We are biased. We label everybody—friend or foe, safe or dangerous, pleasant or unpleasant. Many scientists suggest the importance of social skills for survival spurred human brain growth. Ancestors unable to differentiate between friends from foes didn’t survive. Maybe our evolutionary past is part of the reason we join in social gossip. There’s a tremendous payoff to having accurate social judgments, quickly determining safe from dangerous is advantageous. Although genetically capable with our complex evolved brains of social smoothness, many of us are lacking. Early experiences of trauma leaves scars. Our relationship trauma lives on spoiling new relationships.

“​For many people, their behavioral patterns stem from emotional, mental, or personality issues/tendencies developed over the course of their lifetimes (feelings of abandonment, inferiority, low self-esteem, narcissism, etc.).”

~Randy Conley

We adapt to life. Experience spurs emotions to motivate. Pleasant emotions attract; negative emotions repel. Future encounters use memories to analyze the present. If a man acted violent yesterday, his presence makes us nervous today. But associations spill-over affecting more than connected elements.

​The location of a past mishap, although now safe, may feel threatening, stirring unnecessary fear. Similar movements, hand gestures, or words may startle, reminding of a frightful day. New encounters are constantly and unconsciously compared to the past. The organism continually asks the ultimate question:  Am I safe?

Wounds From Relationship Trauma

Relationship trauma digs deep, leaving wounds that last. We all encounter mean people that cruelly attempt to harm. Relationship trauma is dealt from the hands of those we trust. Susan Johnson wrote, “I’ve discovered that certain incidents do more than just touch our raw spots or “hurt our feelings.” They injure us so deeply that they overturn our world. They are relationship traumas.” She continues “indeed, there is no greater trauma than to be wounded by the very people we count on to support and protect us” (2008, Kindle location 2158).

Nothing wounds as deep as the slaps and slanders coming from those we expect to protect. Our secure base is a chamber of sorrow. Instead of acceptance, we are invalidated. These wounds live on fear attaches to our experiences of love, haunting future relationships with the relationship trauma from the past.

Predictions of Danger are Subjective

Our ability to predict danger isn’t perfect. We routinely judge based on false pretenses from the past—ill-suited for the present. A painful childhood attachment may project danger on all future attachments. New attachments are painful when childhood attachment programming was chaotic, past pain spilling into the present, frightened when no threats exist. In Attachment theory, we refer to these as internal working models.

New attachments strike fear and leave us screaming for escape—the past relationship trauma influencing the present. These intricate pairings of past and present occurs beneath consciousness and are stubbornly resistant to reason.

​The trauma orchestrates feelings easily triggered in the present. Successfully navigating personal constellations of hurts requires new cognitive strategies, some therapy, and a host of supporting others. With experience, we recognize the past interfering, manipulating the emotions. disrupting peace and misguiding choices.

​Empowered by wisdom we are strengthened to better manage behaviors, and act in healthier ways. But we may need a little more. Once the symptoms are identified, the underlying beliefs creating the disruptions must be confronted and unlearned.

“Intimate partners who repeatedly engage in attack and defense maneuvers become relationship sword fighters, always on guard in the presence of the other.” 

~Randi Gunther Ph.D.

When I first wrote this article in 2014, I titled it “When the Past Destroys the Present.” Google passes right over such titles and eventually I changed it to something more Google search friendly. Sadly, our past have a way of intruding, and causing sad histories to reemerge, destroying opportunities in the present. While a bit wordy, the intrusion of the past on the present is the predominant message of this article.

Some Strategies Effective During Childhood Trauma May Limit Adult Intimacy

The old cognitive strategies providing stability in chaotic childhoods interfere with adult intimacy; adaptive for the child but maladaptive for the adult. Abuse and neglected children rely on a variety of adaptive survival styles.

The broken soul inappropriately clings or emotionally disconnects; fearing abandonment or recklessly fighting attachment. These destructive drives twist and pull on relationships, requiring emotional understanding in partners to work through the burdensome demands. But coming from a chaotic past, our demands often seem appropriate—natural responses to feelings disrupting inner-peace. Instead of correctly identifying flawed internal mechanisms, we self-righteously project blame on to partners for triggering an unjustified storm. No changes can occur without recognition of these flawed emotional learnings.

“Defensiveness blocks creativity. It heightens negativity and prevents partners from having access to humor, affection, and the ability to listen and empathize with each other.”

~Kyle Benson

New Relationships and Momentary Bliss

New relationships temporarily disguise these maladjusted reactions. We overlook external triggers blinded by the natural haze of new love. The new partner is perfect—and they may also see us as perfect. The temporary escape proves or misguided blames of outside forces—not personal maladjustment. Emerging from a recent painful relationship, we idolize the new love object. Our interpretations are distorted. We interpret a new partner’s poor behaviors as positive. New relationships feel good and we feel good—in love, and when in bliss, the whole world is great.

The blissfulness ends and reality returns. The past relationship trauma still etched in our hearts resurfaces—emotions and all.

Eventually, past cognitive programs re-emerge; insecurities strengthen and disrupt. Partner behaviors kindly interpreted during bliss now appear sinister from the darkness of our insecurity. Pain from the past reinserts itself into every relationship; we revert to the same protective cognitive strategies. These critical junctures determine the relationship’s direction –flourishing growth or damning pain. Following the same chaotic feeling states, we doom relationships with familiar heartaches.

“Pain from the past reinserts itself into every relationship; we revert to the same protective cognitive strategies.”

~ T. Franklin Murphy

All Relationships Create Some Vulnerability 

All relationships have a possibility of failure, no matter how skilled the partners. Attraction doesn’t guarantee intimacy. The more eccentric our traits, the more difficult it is to find a compatible partner. Compatibility takes weeks or months to discern. When childhood attachments were anxious or chaotic, patiently working through the exploratory phase can be hell, creating unhealthy dependence on potential partners before the relationship naturally develops or fearfully maintaining space when closeness is needed.

The chaotic attachments of childhood leave us unfamiliar with connection, missing opportunity, fearing healthy closeness and over-looking warnings of danger. A history of disorganized attachments creates anxiousness with new opportunity; because we can’t predict or properly interpret the flow of information. Am I safe? I don’t know. 

​Childhood relationship traumas dumbfound the adult when confronted with the confusing maze to connect. Even when confident in other areas, our relationships expose insecurity. A child born into darkness and hidden from light during the first few years of life will be blind. The missing sight stimulation in early development subjects sight modules of the brain to the pruning process, where synaptic connections, unneeded in the dark are eliminated. Likewise, a child neglected and abused during primary attachment stages also suffers significant loss of healthy synaptic connections, essential for adult relationships.

“​Defensive behaviors have the purpose of distracting you from your feelings of being hurt and feeling shamed.”

~Arlin Cuncic

Healthy Relationships After Attachment Trauma Possible

If fear of abandonment dominates, the self-confidence to enforce boundaries fails. If fear of attachment dominates, the commitment to respect boundaries fails. The path through childhood deficiencies often requires a skilled guide. Not all is lost. Change is possible. The adult brain continues to develop and adjust to environments. The blind child leans on other senses to survive and flourish.

A museum tour guide held the hand of a blind man, directing him through a maze of exhibits, explaining the historical artifacts. While deep inside of the building, with a flash of light and a crash of thunder, the lights were darkened. The guide instinctively grabbed the blind man’s hand a little tighter, “Hold on the lights are out, I will get you out of here.” The blind man chuckled, “You are in my world now. Hold on, I will now guide you.”

Intimacy Still Possible

Intimacy is not beyond our abilities. We may travel unconventional paths, facing experience differently than a child raised in loving and healthy environments; but we still can enjoy healthy attachments. We may need to recruit other areas to assist in connecting, seeking out those who will patiently work and grow with us. They may guide during the light; but we can guide during the dark.

Healthy and unhealthy relationships provide opportunities to learn. Our social encounters unveil faulty programming only available through honest examination. Raw emotions offer lessons. With help, we recognize the emotions, soothe them, and then practice healthier responses, abandoning the sharp retorts of the past. Knowing our pain, we can soothe with less defensiveness. Anxiousness will still exist, but we can prevail. Enjoyable connections maybe uncharted territory. Closeness will still strike tender wounds, spiking fears. Even for the healthy, relationships magnify emotions; but for those with disrupted childhoods, relationships ignite panic—intimacy, at first, may be limited but possible.

Unaddressed Emotions

Unaddressed emotions repeat, disrupting closeness, and preventing intimacy. We employ protective mechanisms to blur the embarrassment of underlying shame. We resent feeling inadequate and instinctively attack those initiating the stabbing reminders of our insecurity. Consequently, we bury the shame with anger, injuring the partner, and dissolving connection.

With anger we approach conversations differently, resorting to blame and character attacks—the cycle of deterioration begins. The idolized partner flips in our mind from perfect to flawed—from loved to hated; from friend to foe. The underlying negative labels, far from the beginning blissful states, become the foundation for behavior interpretations. The endearing behaviors of new love morph into anger triggering annoyances. In psychology, we call this negative sentiment override.

The biases of negative labels send the relationship spiraling downward. A harsh environment evolves to replace the joys. Both partners react to the changing environment—a little more protective; a little more defensive, setting off a chain of reactions where each partner responds to the other’s negative actions. Trauma destroys the security, happiness, and acceptance, once enjoyed. The loving partners retreat; the relationship is destroyed.

If we catch these destructive patterns early, we can intervene. Our brains are resilient. Early childhood connections influence future attachments but don’t predestine us to a life of solitude. Important circuits continue to form throughout our adult lives.

Change is Possible

We still have a chance. We are endowed with something that transcends the firing and wiring of neurons. Accordingly, we can learn, we can change the trajectory of our lives. Instead of responding from our past relationship trauma, we can respond with hopes of a better future. Once the discomforting emotions emerge, we can recognize them and their origin. Instead of attacking a partner in anger, we can share and connect.

​By addressing each partner’s negative emotions (Dyadic Regulation), the triggering episodes of feeling don’t destroy. We learn our perceived threats are false. Now facing discomforts can be combated; and by working through them with a loving partner creates safety. The feelings of safety establish a foundation for trust; and from trust, intimacy. The past no longer destroys the present. The present now defines the future.

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Johnson, Sue (2008). Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love. Little, Brown Spark; 1st edition.

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