How Untreated Trauma Impacts Interpersonal Relationships

relationship

When we have experienced trauma, either as a single event or a prolonged series of events, our lives are influenced by that trauma until we resolve it at the roots. As renowned psychologist Carl Jung puts it: ‘Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life, and you will call it fate.’ Trauma, especially when it occurs in our childhood, a time of important psychosocial development[1], has a profound effect on our adult lives. We are not always aware of our trauma either – sometimes an event or events can be so psychologically overwhelming that we cast its memory deep into our subconscious. Despite burying our trauma, it is ‘still alive in the form of gnawing discomfort‘[2], as explains Bessel van Der Kolk in his book The Body Keeps the Score. Until we resolve our trauma, our lives, in particular in our relationships, will be significantly negatively impacted.

If we have an experienced a trauma such as child abuse – which could be physical, sexual, emotional, or verbal[3] – that trauma can have lasting repercussions. The effects of childhood abuse, whether we are aware of it or not, can manifest as unhealthy, dysfunctional interpersonal relationships. This is because childhood trauma is associated with ruptures in secure attachment, an essential aspect of developing into a healthy adult able to form and maintain healthy interpersonal relationships.

For many survivors of abuse, even a basic understanding of the many ways in which trauma can manifest in adult life and in interpersonal relationships is a key step in developing the self-awareness and compassion required to begin the healing journey.

Secure Attachment and Relationships

As humans, we are innately social. From birth, the world around us and the social interactions we experience continuously shape the formation of our identity and our developing understanding of the world itself. In our early childhood, our social interactions are highly formative, as it is a time when we begin to form attachments that can have a huge influence over our well-being as we grow up.

As psychologist, author, and co-founder of Attachment Theory John Bowlby explains, attachment is a ‘lasting psychological connectedness between human beings.’[4] When we experience secure attachment, we are provided with:

  • A strong inner sense of security, even at time of emotional distress
  • A belief in your ability to safely and confidently engage with the world
  • A stable sense of self
  • The ability to attune to and understand the thoughts, feelings, and behaviours of yourself and others

If we are fortunate enough to have experienced unruptured secure attachment in childhood, we will have been provided with a solid foundation for understanding both ourselves and other people. Secure attachment promotes self-sufficiency and positive social interactions, which in turn reduces the likelihood that a person will come to entirely depend on others to get their needs met. More benefits of secure attachment include:

  • Emotional resilience
  • The ability to form healthy relationships throughout life
  • The ability to manage your expectations, both of yourself and of others

Ruptures in Secure Attachment

Secure attachment stems from love, nurturing, and stable caregiver-child relationships. Our needs are met, and we feel secure even in times of distress. Secure attachment becomes ruptured when we experience abuse. Our sense of the world around us becomes coloured with distrust and our relationships to others will be compromised by an inability to be open and vulnerable while also feeling safe and secure in oneself.

How the Trauma of Childhood Abuse impacts Interpersonal Relationships

If we have not experienced secure attachment in childhood, or have had our sense of security ruptured by adverse childhood experiences such as sexual or emotional abuse, our ability to self-regulate is compromised and we are likely to go on to develop dysfunctional attachment styles. These can significantly negatively impact our adult interpersonal relationships. Survivors of abuse are subject to a range of interpersonal difficulties[5] as they enter into adulthood, including:

  • Trust issues
  • Avoidant attachment style
  • Ambivalent attachment style
  • Disorganised attachment style

Trust Issues In Relationships

Trust is a vital ingredient to the formation and maintenance of any healthy interpersonal relationship. If a person has experienced the trauma of childhood abuse, their ability to trust others is heavily compromised. As a result, survivors may experience a resistance or reluctance to be open and vulnerable with others, out of fear that the other person will hurt or betray them. They are likely to build walls around themselves to prevent others from getting too close, which prevents any opportunity to form healthy, mutually beneficial and growth-oriented interpersonal relationships.

Avoidant Attachment Style and Relationships

If in our early childhood we did not experience a secure attachment and thus form a secure attachment style, we may decide to avoid attachment altogether. Our needs were not met, so we choose – consciously or unconsciously – to ignore them or try to get them met by ourselves. As we develop into adulthood, this typically manifests as social avoidance and emotionally distant interpersonal relationships. Our own needs were not met, so we find it difficult to attune to and satisfy the needs of others, thus we can be said to have an avoidant attachment style.[6]

Ambivalent Attachment Style and Relationships

Childhood abuse can often result in the development of an ambivalent attachment style, which is characterised by a deep desire for intimacy combined with a heightened vigilance for even minor changes in relationship dynamics.[7] This attachment style usually forms if the perpetrator of abuse was responsive at times and neglectful at others. Interpersonal relationships are impacted by ambivalent attachment styles as the person is likely to experience deep insecurity and will easily become frustrated, even resentful, if they feel vulnerable or misunderstood.

Disorganised Attachment Style and Relationships

If the attachment style you experienced and developed in childhood was not secure but instead disorganised, you are likely to be fearful of relationships, while at the same feel a deep desire for emotional connection. Intimacy and being alone are scary thoughts, yet displaying affection for others is difficult. As a result, the ability to form healthy interpersonal relationships is compromised. Those with disorganised attachment styles as a result of childhood trauma often have poor emotional regulation, a poor understanding of social cues, and a distrust of other people.

The Impact of Abuse on Mental and Behavioural Health

The trauma of childhood abuse has dire consequences for our mental health as we develop into adulthood. Those who experience abuse in childhood are significantly more vulnerable to developing mental health disorders in adulthood than those without a history of abuse, such as[8]:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
  • Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD)

These mental health conditions and disorders can make life challenging, and make it difficult to form and maintain healthy interpersonal relationships. Further, when the ability to experience healthy interpersonal relationships is compromised, our emotional and attachment needs may go unmet, which can drive us to engage in unhealthy behaviours and toxic relationship dynamics that can further impact our psychological health and well-being, and make it increasingly difficult to form healthy relationships.

Get in touch

If you have a client, or know of someone who is struggling to heal from psychological trauma, reach out to us at Khiron Clinics. We believe that we can improve therapeutic outcomes and avoid misdiagnosis by providing an effective residential program and out-patient therapies addressing underlying psychological trauma. Allow us to help you find the path to realistic, long-lasting recovery. For information, call us today. UK: 020 3811 2575 (24 hours). USA: (866) 801 6184 (24 hours)

 

 

Sources 

[1] Orenstein GA, Lewis L. Eriksons Stages of Psychosocial Development. [Updated 2020 Mar 9]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2020 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK556096/

[2] The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. New York: Viking, 2014.

[3] “Types Of Child Abuse”. Qld.Gov.Au, 2018, https://www.qld.gov.au/community/getting-support-health-social-issue/support-victims-abuse/child-abuse/what-is-child-abuse/child-abuse-types. Accessed 29 Oct 2020.

[4] Bowlby, John. Attachment And Loss. Basic Books, 1999.

[5] “Interpersonal Outcomes”. Child Family Community Australia, 2013, https://aifs.gov.au/cfca/publications/long-term-effects-child-sexual-abuse/interpersonal-outcomes. Accessed 29 Oct 2020.

[6] Moghadam, Marzyeh et al. “Relationship between attachment styles and happiness in medical students.” Journal of family medicine and primary care vol. 5,3 (2016): 593-599. doi:10.4103/2249-4863.197314

[7] Moghadam, Marzyeh et al. “Relationship between attachment styles and happiness in medical students.” Journal of family medicine and primary care vol. 5,3 (2016): 593-599. doi:10.4103/2249-4863.197314

[8] Springer, Kristen W et al. “The long-term health outcomes of childhood abuse. An overview and a call to action.” Journal of general internal medicine vol. 18,10 (2003): 864-70. doi:10.1046/j.1525-1497.2003.20918.x

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