In this blog we explore how untreated trauma impacts our romantic relationships. First we will explore exactly what trauma is. There are a few different types of trauma, each with their own traits and characteristics. When a person experiences trauma as a single event, this is usually referred to as ‘acute trauma’. The symptoms of acute trauma come on within a few days to a month of the traumatic experience and result in feelings of anxiety, flashbacks, and sleep issues, such as insomnia or nightmares.
When trauma persists for more than a month and a person experiences anxiety, flashbacks, irritability, sleep issues, hyper or hypo arousal, and increased irritability, to name just a few symptoms, they can be said to have chronic trauma, or Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
When we experience trauma for a prolonged period of time, through a series of events, we may develop what is known as ‘complex trauma’ (also known as Complex PTSD or C-PTSD). C-PTSD is similar to PTSD, but is usually concerned with instances of trauma where the perpetrator or abuser was a close family member, such as when a parent or caregiver sexually or emotionally abuses a child.
All types of trauma mentioned above can harm our relationships with others and ourselves. If you are suffering from trauma, you will likely experience some of the following trauma-related symptoms:
- Impatience, restlessness
- Flashbacks, nightmare, intrusive thought and memories
- Dissociation, feeling disconnected from the body
- Emotional shut down, being unable to achieve goals and complete tasks
- Depression, frequent sadness
- Significant changes in appetite
- Poor concentration
- Engaging in high-risk behaviour
- Thoughts or intentions to harm yourself other people
- Trust issues
- Substance use to mask feelings
- A general sense of being unsafe in the world
- Withdrawal from friends and loved ones
- Worsening of pre-existing mental health conditions
Knowing the signs and symptoms of trauma is important information for those who suspect that their suffering relates to a traumatic event or events. If you experience a number of the above symptoms, it is advisable to speak to a mental healthcare professional.
Childhood Trauma and Romantic Relationships
A fact agreed upon by all psychologists is that our early childhood years and the environment we grow up in influences our relationships in adulthood. If we experience trauma as a child, this experience can contribute to the development of our attachment style, which then influences how we relate to others as we get older. When we are children, we look to our caregivers for information about the world around us. The way our caregivers respond to our curiosities and our needs thus informs our understanding of the world and how it works. Essentially, the information we learn from our relationships with our caregivers contributes to how we see love, relationships, and trust as we become adults.
Whatever experience we go through with our caregivers in childhood, we will form an associated attachment style, and this attachment style will inform how we feel and behave in our adult relationships. Attachment style plays a role in many aspects of how we relate to others, how we deal with separation, how we argue, and our capacity for intimacy.
Though our learned attachment styles make a lasting impression, maladaptive attachment styles can be altered through awareness and therapy. If we take the time to address our early childhood issues and the thoughts, feelings, and behaviours associated with them, we can drastically improve our relationships to others and ourselves. Seeking support for maladaptive attachment can also help us to manage better conditions such as anxiety, depression, and PTSD.
Below we have outlined the general attachment styles that we all experience. Consider the following to gain insight into your own attachment style, or the attachment style of someone you know.
Secure attachment is the ideal attachment style. People with a secure attachment style have usually had loving and supportive relationships with their caregivers. As a result, these people feel comfortable enough with others to be open and vulnerable and create lasting, healthy, intimate relationships. Secure attachment means that a person is unlikely to fear rejection or abandonment, and will have the ability to self-regulate their emotions.
An anxious/preoccupied attachment style usually develops when, as a child, we experience inconsistency in our relationship with our primary caregiver. The caregiver may in one moment provide us with a lot of attention and be highly responsive, and the next be cold and dismissive. In adult relationships, those with this attachment style may exhibit clinginess or neediness regarding intimacy and affection, and will be highly sensitive to shifts in the relationship dynamic. The fear of abandonment that characterises this attachment style may drive a partner away, making this fear a self-fulfilling prophecy in many cases.
A fearful/avoidant attachment style usually develops when one’s caregiver is also the perpetrator of abuse. As a child, this person has likely experienced abuse in the home, in the form of physical or sexual abuse, neglect, or a chaotic family dynamic. Those with this attachment style may fear being alone but also be fearful of connection and intimacy. Trust is a huge issue, and the person may swing from a deep desire for closeness to a tendency towards avoidance.
Dismissive/Avoidant Attachment is also known as Insecure/Avoidant Attachment. This attachment style often occurs as a result of neglect from our caregivers. A person with this attachment style will avoid intimacy and closeness to preserve their sense of independence. Any threats to one’s sense of independence will be feared or met with frustration or irritation, and the person is likely to keep secrets from their partner.
Childhood Trauma Impacts our Ability to Trust
The experience of trauma can leave us with expectations of harm or betrayal in our adult romantic relationships. Trauma survivors, particularly survivors of childhood abuse, may feel highly vulnerable when it comes to relationships and may often feel confused about what is safe and appropriate, and what is not. As a result, it is extremely difficult to trust others enough to form and maintain healthy, mutually beneficial relationships.
Getting close to others is difficult because we may fear getting hurt, and if we do get hurt, dealing with that pain may be overwhelming, even devastating to our sense of self, as childhood trauma also compromises our ability to regulate our emotional states.
The deep need for intimacy for affection may be too much for a partner, who may then be driven away. An inability to be open and vulnerable may also drive a partner away, as we may be unable to meet their emotional needs.
Healing Trauma and Healing Relationships
“History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.” – Maya Angelou
Healing is possible, but only when the truth is met with understanding and compassion and clients feel safe enough to explore their thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. In therapy, clients who have been through childhood trauma, and as a result have had their secure attachment ruptured, can be guided and supported in coming to a better understanding of their experiences and how those experiences are informing their present day relationships.
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).
 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. SAMHSA’s Concept of Trauma and Guidance for a Trauma-Informed Approach. July 2014
 Orth, Ulrich. (2018). The Family Environment in Early Childhood Has a Long-Term Effect on Self-Esteem: A Longitudinal Study From Birth to Age 27 Years. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 114. 637-655. 10.1037/pspp0000143.
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