Relationships are an essential part of life. Good relationships give people something to aspire to, but abusive or toxic relationships can be a big source of trauma.
Relational trauma can stem from abuse, neglect, and abandonment in adult relationships and between children and their caregivers, affecting how people approach future relationships.
Children rely on their caregivers for everything, from food and shelter to emotional fulfillment. During the critical years of development, their brains form an understanding of the world based on their reality. If they experience continued abuse and trauma, they will likely grow up with a warped sense of relationships.
Several things can cause relational trauma:
- Abandonment – in childhood, abandonment can mean either physical abandonment, such as being given up for adoption or being left with another family member, or emotional, whereby parents are unable to fulfill parental responsibilities. Children then fill in these roles themselves, and in adult relationships, they can struggle to form lasting, trusting relationships.
- Family cohesion – family cohesion is the emotional bond between a family. With good cohesion, people can have clear boundaries while fostering warmth and closeness between family. However, when there is a lack of clear cohesion, there is more of a risk of people developing relational trauma.
- Enmeshment – a close family is often regarded as a good thing, but enmeshment is an unhealthy and damaging style of closeness. Family members often become interdependent on one another, and children can become increasingly sensitive to stress. As a result, they may seek out codependent relationships in adulthood.
- Abuse and neglect – physical and emotional neglect or abuse is one of the most common causes of relational trauma.
The causes of relational trauma are not limited to childhood experiences. Neglect, abuse, and abandonment from partners, family members, and friends in adulthood can also contribute to trauma, leaving people with a deep sense of shame, guilt, and betrayal, subsequently affecting their future relationships.
Attachment and Relational Trauma
Attachment theory and relational trauma are closely related. Attachment is the social and relational connection children make with their primary caregivers and begins from birth. When caregivers respond appropriately to their child’s needs and show enough love and affection, they grow up with a secure attachment style, which helps them develop trusting relationships as adults.
Early relational trauma affects how infants develop attachments, resulting in one of three kinds of insecure attachment:
- Avoidant – when the caregiver is not sensitive or reactive to a child in distress, they can develop an avoidant attachment style. The child may learn not to show emotions or turn to others for comfort and be distant and unexpressive in future relationships.
- Anxious – also known as resistant attachment, this style results from a caregiver who is inconsistent with their responses to their child. As a result, children may use extreme emotional reactions or neediness to prompt their caregiver to react. As adults, anxiously attached people may constantly seek reassurance and validation in their relationships.
- Disorganised – children can develop a disorganised attachment style when their caregivers are abusive or their behaviours are frightening. Although they love their caregiver, they also fear them. In adulthood, people with a disorganised attachment style can simultaneously dread and crave close relationships, and self-sabotage their relationships out of fear their loved ones will leave them first.
These insecure attachment styles, coupled with relational trauma at an early age, contribute to how people act in relationships in adulthood. People can unconsciously foster or seek out unhealthy or toxic relationships without any healthy relationships to model their behavior.
How Relational Trauma Manifests in Adulthood
The consequences of relational trauma, whether in childhood or adulthood, can extend into many different areas of life. Primarily, it affects relationships, both romantic and platonic. People might struggle to trust that new friends or partners will not hurt them and may push them away to avoid getting hurt, contributing to greater loneliness and social isolation. Even if they are in a relationship, people with relational trauma can struggle with intense loneliness and emptiness.
People may vary between two extremes in relationships, from being clingy and needy to pushing people away and keeping them at arm’s length. This can depend on attachment style, causing people to see intimacy as a loss of independence (as is common in avoidant attachment styles) or constantly worrying about their security in a relationship (anxious attachment).
Relationships and relational trauma can also affect how people feel about themselves. Being abandoned as a child can cause significant self-esteem problems later in life, causing people to believe that they are unloveable or that something is wrong with them. Alternatively, people can also have a false sense of superiority if they were raised in an enmeshed family and had a lot of control over their parent’s emotional state. This can influence the type of relationships people seek in the future, negatively reinforcing these feelings by choosing partners they want to ‘fix’ or mistreat them.
Boundary issues are also common for those struggling with relational trauma. If raised in a heavily enmeshed family, people can lack solid boundaries and constantly try and prove their worth to others. They may try to please everyone, fix other people’s problems before focusing on themselves, or be taken advantage of by others.
Other symptoms of relational trauma in adulthood include:
- Social anxiety
- Mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, and personality disorders
- Reliving past trauma
- Physical symptoms such as muscle aches, migraines, and stomach problems without a clear medical cause
- Volatile emotions
Relational trauma is not a specific psychiatric diagnosis, but it can contribute to the development of other significant mental health problems. People may be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and struggle with symptoms such as hypervigilance, flashbacks, and the avoidance of triggers.
Relational trauma affects thousands of people, making adult relationships challenging to manage. However, it can be addressed safely and effectively with trauma treatment modalities, including somatic experiencing, internal family systems therapy, and sensorimotor psychotherapy.
If you have a client or know of someone struggling with anything you have read in this blog, 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 outpatient therapies addressing underlying psychological trauma. Allow us to help you find the path to realistic, long-lasting recovery. For more information, call us today. UK: 020 3811 2575 (24 hours). USA: (866) 801 6184 (24 hours).
 Shahri H. The present moment, trauma, and relational somatic psychotherapy. International Body Psychotherapy Journal. 2021;20(1):57-65.