We all need connection. Interdependence, mutual relationships are crucial for our well being. However, for those who have experienced severe childhood trauma, relationships were also the source of betrayal, wounding and abuse. What does this mean then for those who have been severely abused by parents or caretakers as children? Or those who have dissociated, losing awareness of some aspects of early relationships? For example, those with dissociative identity disorder (DID) may have some parts of their system who only know about the “good mother” while others hold the memories of abuse and/or neglect. In this way, dissociation can make evaluating who is healthy or safe and who is not more difficult. This results in obvious and multiple complications in forming and maintaining later relationships.
Some types of relationship difficulties clients of mine describe fairly often include:
- Feeling so wounded and mistrustful of people in general it doesn’t feel worth the risk to attempt connections. This results in extreme isolation and loneliness.
- The belief or fear that there is something so “bad” about oneself that it will harm/destroy anyone you get close to.
- Premature attaching to others, disclosing sensitive/a great deal of information about oneself before assessing how safe a choice the other is.
- Inability to fully assess potential friends and romantic partners due to dissociation. Missing “red flags” due to dissociation, different parts holding information.
- Experiencing kind, safe, gentle people/relationships as boring, undesirable or frightening.
- Sabotaging relationships (for example picking a fight) when things are going smoothly or feeling “too” close. This may be a way to get distance, push away or about seeing what happens. For example, if a friend or partner (or therapist) gets angry at you, will they become violent or abusive like childhood figures did?
- Extreme care taking or people pleasing. Do you feel like you must suppress your needs/feelings in the service of taking care of others? Do you feel like you must shift who you are in order to be loved/approved of by others around you?
- Additional adult abusive relationships. You may find yourself in other abusive relationships: with friends, romantic partners or even helping professionals.
How does this happen? How do survivors wind up in unhealthy relationships and what can be done about it?
Imago relationship theory suggests that we wind up repeating early relationship dynamics because we are drawn to potential partners who are an amalgam of the significant characteristics (positive and negative) of our early caretakers. This explains why children of alcoholics so often wind up partnering with alcoholics themselves as adults, for example. This is not completely bad news: the theory also holds that picking someone who fits this “imago” gives us the unique opportunity to work through our wounding and achieve a different outcome. However, this requires that we are aware enough of our own issues, ready and able to work on them and that our imago choice is not also abusive. Instead of healing this could lead to re-enacting the abuse experiences with resulting additional traumatization.
Attachment theory addresses the vulnerabilities abuse survivors face when attempting to form later relationships. Bessel A. van der Kolk, MD describes a “vulnerability to traumatic bonding” for those severely abused in childhood:
People who are exposed early to violence or neglect come to expect it as a way of life. They see the chronic helplessness of their mothers and fathers’ alternating outbursts of affection and violence; they learn that they themselves have no control. As adults they hope to undo the past by love, competency, and exemplary behavior. When they fail they are likely to make sense out of this situation by blaming themselves. When they have little experience with nonviolent resolution of differences, partners in relationships alternate between an expectation of perfect behavior leading to perfect harmony and a state of helplessness, in which all verbal communication seems futile. A return to earlier coping mechanisms, such as self-blame, numbing (by means of emotional withdrawal or drugs or alcohol), and physical violence sets the stage for a repetition of the childhood trauma and “return of the repressed.” [I would add to this another form of "numbing": dissociation!]
What does this mean? Too often survivors hear this as more condemnation of themselves, as proof somehow that there is something innately “bad” about them causing others to behave abusively. I want to emphasize strongly that this is not my experience or how I understand this information.
I see the “repetition compulsion” as an unconscious attempt to master that which went so awry, early abusive relationships. Like imago relationship theory suggests, we all function this way. We all seek to rework the ways we were wounded. The problem arises when those early experiences were severely abusive, leading us to pick another abuser.
Another piece of this puzzle involves understanding the dynamics of abusers. Many abusers are good at selecting “victims”. By that I mean that they can sense who is vulnerable. I believe many abusers test and see how far they can push boundaries and pick partners who will not notice early boundary violations or control tactics. Dissociation, the very thing that is life saving in childhood, can make you more vulnerable as an adult. How do you make good relationship choices if you do not have access to all the information about people in your life? Many clients with DID have described to me having no awareness of the abusive behavior of current people in their life. Only later would we unravel that they were switching to different parts (those used to handling such things) prior to a friend or partner starting to behave in a way that was borderline abusive. If this information is split off it can impact your decision making and safety.
So what can you do? The answer really isn’t to avoid people altogether. Learning that not all relationships are like your early abusive ones is an important part of the healing process. How can you work on making informed relationship choices?
- Avoid going to extremes. Neither isolation or premature, instant attachment are healthy for you. Learn to share of yourself with people in your life gradually, over time.
- Learn to hear and pay attention to your “inner voice”. This could be your intuition, your gut sense of something feeling not quite right with another person. This could also be the voices of other parts of you. Do not discount what they have to say without exploring it. Yes, some parts may have the job of warning you away from anyone, but there may be valid reason for concerns about an individual in your life.
- Get to know yourselves. Develop relationships with other parts of yourself. Learn to communicate with each other. Share information about people you are meeting, developing friendships or intimate relationships with.
- Do you already have someone in your life you trust? A friend? A therapist? Use them as a sounding board or reality check. Share what concerns you. Listen to feedback, especially if you tend to “forget” things that concerned you regarding the new person’s behavior.
- Remember that trust is something that is earned. Trust is built in relationships by experiencing each other over time. Pay attention to whether what others say and do matches up (or does not), look for consistency over time. Let yourself evaluate whether the relationship is mutual or one sided: do you each get a chance to talk, receive support and attention 0or does it seem to flow in one direction mostly?
- Learn how to sort out whether your reactions are present- or past-based. Are you angry because someone has violated your boundaries now or are you reminded of past experiences? Sometimes it is both!
We all deserve healthy relationships that nurture and support us. I’d love to hear your experiences: what works for you and where do you still struggle?