Relationships are a fundamental part of human life; we exist as part of communities, relying on and contributing to them to survive. While not all relationships we have throughout our lives will be good and healthy, experiencing positive relationships gives us something to aspire to and work towards. They can be a force for good, driving personal development, providing love, care, and joy, and even healing past wounds. Conversely, abusive or toxic relationships can be a source of trauma and pain that lasts years, even decades, beyond the relationship.
Relational trauma can stem from abuse, abandonment, and neglect in all kinds of relationships, from those between parents and children to adult relationships. Relational trauma can affect how we relate to and form relationships with people in the future.
Causes of Relational Trauma
As with any kind of trauma, relational trauma can be caused by a range of situations and factors. It is most often associated with abusive relationships, domestic abuse, and childhood neglect, violence or abuse.
Relational trauma is also sometimes referred to as complex trauma or developmental trauma. It is generally caused by prolonged adverse experiences in interpersonal relationships, particularly during critical developmental periods. Some of the most common causes of relational trauma include:
Abuse and Neglect: Physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, as well as neglect and abandonment by parents, caregivers, or significant others, is a particularly common cause of developmental or relational trauma.
Dysfunctional Family Dynamics: People raised in families or close communities with unstable relationships, high conflict, mental health issues, or substance abuse can create a traumatic environment for a child. Growing up in this environment can cause a wide range of physical and mental health issues throughout life. Research into Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE’s) has explored the association between childhood adversity, trauma, and adverse health outcomes. Over the last two decades, ACE research has been extensively developed and replicated globally, detailing the relationship between childhood experiences and health outcomes.1
Caregiver Instability: Inconsistent and unpredictable parenting, such as frequent changes in primary caregivers or a lack of emotional attunement, can lead to relational trauma. There are a wide range of reasons that this can happen. Postpartum depression in mothers, incarceration of parents, foster care or adoption, homelessness, and mental illness or parental trauma can all constitute caregiver instability and result in relational trauma.
Loss and Separation: Experiencing the loss of a loved one can disrupt attachment bonds, sometimes resulting in relational trauma. This could be the loss of a parent or other close relative, as well as a close friend or a non-blood-related guardian.
Intergenerational Trauma: Trauma experienced by previous generations can impact the family environment and perpetuate relational trauma through generational patterns. Intergenerational trauma is the transmission of psychological and emotional effects of traumatic experiences from one generation to the next. It is thought that this happens through the transmission of genetic information as well as environmental factors.
Betrayal and Rejection: Being betrayed, rejected, or abandoned by someone trusted or important in one’s life can cause profound relational trauma. Betrayal and rejection can take many forms; they could be caused by neglect or abandonment by a parent or caregiver and not being believed by a parent when disclosing.
Chronic Stress and Adversity: Living in an environment of ongoing stress, poverty, or other adverse conditions can lead to relational trauma, especially in childhood. ACE research has shown that chronic stress also impacts physical and mental well-being throughout life.
Insecure Attachment: Early experiences of insecure attachment, where caregivers were inconsistent or unavailable, can cause relational trauma in later life.
It’s important to recognise that each individual’s experience of relational trauma is unique, and its effects can be long-lasting, impacting emotional, psychological, and relational well-being. Knowing the signs of relational trauma can help with identifying where mental health challenges may step from and what kind of support to seek.
Short-Term Effects of Relational Trauma
Trauma can affect people differently, with some people experiencing the effects immediately and others having a delayed onset of symptoms for months or even years after the traumatic experience. Short-term effects of relational trauma may include:
Emotional Distress: Anxiety, fear, guilt, shame, and sadness due to traumatic experiences and disrupted or broken relationships.
Physical Symptoms: Headaches, digestive issues and stomach pain, muscle tension, chronic pain, and sleep disturbances such as insomnia and nightmares can arise from stress and emotional turmoil, intensified by the release of stress hormones.
Impaired Coping: Difficulty managing emotions and engaging in healthy coping mechanisms, becoming startled easily, and experiencing difficulty concentrating can all happen as a result of relational trauma.
Relationship Difficulties: As relational trauma stems from relationships; it can cause struggles with forming and maintaining trusting and secure relationships with others. It can also disrupt relationships that have already been formed. For example, a child who experiences relational trauma as a result of parental incarceration or death might experience difficulty in their relationship with other family members or guardians.
Emotional Numbing: Feeling emotionally detached or disconnected from oneself and others is common. Trauma is often so overwhelming that it causes people to experience a sense of ‘emotional numbness’, as if feeling nothing at all is safer than feeling the complexity of emotions that are caused by the trauma. This is not a conscious decision a person makes but rather a defence mechanism.
Long-Term Effects of Relational Trauma
Complex PTSD: Relational trauma can result in Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD) due to prolonged exposure to trauma in close relationships. Childhood abuse and domestic violence are common causes of C-PTSD.
Attachment Issues: Relational trauma can make it difficult for people to form and maintain healthy intimate relationships as a result of insecure attachment. People may find it difficult to trust others, express vulnerability, and maintain stable relationships when they have experienced relational trauma due to attachment issues. Experienced in early childhood can last into late adulthood if unaddressed.
Mental Health Disorders: People who have experienced relational trauma are at a higher risk of developing anxiety, depression, and other mental health conditions. It is common for teenagers to have co-occurring disorders, as trauma can cause depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and PTSD.
Substance Abuse: Research shows that those who experience relational trauma have increased vulnerability to substance abuse and addiction as a coping mechanism. Individuals may use substances to ‘self-medicate’ or cope with the post-traumatic effects of relational trauma.
Physical Health Problems: Research has shown that childhood trauma can cause chronic health issues related to stress, such as cardiovascular problems and weakened immune system functioning.2 It is essential to provide healthy coping mechanisms to regulate their nervous systems and early trauma interventions for young people who experience relational trauma.
While these signs may help to identify relational trauma, individual experiences may vary, and some individuals may demonstrate resilience and coping strategies that mitigate the long-term effects of relational trauma. Seeking professional help and support can significantly aid in healing and managing the impact of relational trauma on one’s life.
- Herzog, J. I., & Schmahl, C. (2018). Adverse Childhood Experiences and the Consequences on Neurobiological, Psychosocial, and Somatic Conditions Across the Lifespan. Frontiers in psychiatry, 9, 420. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2018.00420
- Danese, A., & J Lewis, S. (2017). Psychoneuroimmunology of Early-Life Stress: The Hidden Wounds of Childhood Trauma?. Neuropsychopharmacology : official publication of the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology, 42(1), 99–114. https://doi.org/10.1038/npp.2016.198