Relationships after Severe Trauma: Making Healthy Choices

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?

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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?
  6. 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?

Kathleen Young, Psy.D.

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34 Responses to Relationships after Severe Trauma: Making Healthy Choices

  1. Lucy Marrero says:

    Wonderful post, Kathe! I love the bulleted tips!

    This also stood out for me:
    **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.**

    Yes! I have definitely noticed this personally and have found it particularly challenging when disengaging isn’t an option (i.e. in professional/academic settings). Negotiating the setting of good boundaries in the context of having to consider the ramifications for disentangling oneself from someone who feels “dangerous” can be so very difficult–at least that’s my experience!

    I’m definitely interested in the strategies folks employ when they’ve been sniffed out as a vulnerable target to communicate to the person that they are NOT a target when flat out, full on, self protection mode isn’t an option. Does that make sense?

  2. Hi Lucy-

    I think I am understanding what you mean, about how to cope in settings (for example professionally) when you can’t just cut off all contact and have to interact in some ways? Am I getting that right?

    It sounds like a great conversation…do you want to start it off and share what you’ve tried/what works for you?

    Recognizing that it is happening, that you are being sought out by someone who feels dangerous, is huge and an important step in itself!

  3. Lucy Marrero says:

    Yes! I’ll go first. 🙂

    I think you’re right that recognition is huge. I’ve also tried to strategically engage the help of others who I suspect are in a similar situation with that person. It’s been enormously successful. Recently, a colleague and I have been supporting each other not only emotionally (we are finally able to talk about how we feel around this person and try to make sense of the tactics this person employs that seem to lead to both of us feeling violated), but also practically by sharing the “burden” of contact with this person and rescuing each other when we get “trapped” into conversation with this person when the person seems intent on getting something from her/me–the person seems inordinately interested in telling others about themselves or planting seeds of doubt or uncertainty while seeming to be complimentary.

    It’s really helped!

    • Great strategies! Yes, in recognizing what is happening you trusted your gut. In these kinds of situations it is important to set limits (for example keeping the conversation brief and focused to tasks at hand). You also were able to find someone to use ass a reality check and support system, fantastic!

      I hope to hear others’ experiences too 🙂

      • Hope says:

        Recently, I had to learn how to deal with that type of situation. One of my “friends” in college was infatuated with me, and was mentally unstable. The day that I convinced him to go to counseling, he started badgering me about my past. He apprantly got out of me that I was abused for about eight years while growing up, although I honestly do not remember telling him that. He found any chance/ excuse he could to get my attention, poking and prodding for the chink in my armor (he quickly found out that threatening suicide was my weakness, and I would come running to help him). This eventually reached the point where eight hours of my day were spent listening to him complain and press for details about my past. I didn’t realize the gravity of the situation until I went into counseling, where she described the concept of setting boundaries to me.

        The boundaries that I set would be as simple as restricting the time I spent conversing with my “friend”, or refusing to let him interrogate me about my history of abuse, although these acts were difficult to execute, especially since we had an almost identical class schedule (I later discovered he planned his schedule to match mine). This all culminated with my friend threatening my life with a weapon, as well as verbally threatening the lives of many of my other friends. Needless to say, he was hospitalized and I cut off all communication with him. The most important aspect that I have learned is that I am not able to help everyone, no matter how much I want to…that sometimes, I have to trust others to help.

      • What a harrowing experience, Hope!

        You took away a powerful lesson about boundaries and the limits of “helping” as a friend. I hope you are getting the support you need in the aftermath of that traumatic experience.

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  6. Shen says:

    There is a lot of good information in this article, and too much of it echoes things in my own life. Another thing I notice is the lack of trust I have,not just for others, but for myself. I don’t trust my own opinion of, intuition about, or assessement of my relationships.

    It took a long time, but with the trust I have in my therapist, I have found myself in the habit of getting her approval of and opinion on every aspect of my life. I feel like, since she has seen more of me than I have seen of myself, she would have a better idea of what is true and real in my relationships.

    • Amira says:

      I have this too! I dont trust anything about my own views of the world, no matter where they came from. Im never sure if I’m right, or wrong or doing/saying/thinking/feeling something rational or something totally off base. Its so frustrating to never know if what you are thinking or feeling is even based in reality half the time.

      • marla calandro says:

        @Amira, I also second guess myself and censor my thoughts. I doubt my own sanity at times. I can totally identify with you and everything you said. I wind up shutting down, saying nothing and isolating. I panic and sweat if I have to speak to authority. I’ll even stutter and get nauseous if I have to speak in public. Depression and anxiety is my existence. I’m on disability because I can’t function around most people. I force myself to go to therapy and have recently joined a group with women who share these problems. It’s a relief to know that I’m not the only one who feels this way. My case is extreme due to a horrible childhood extending into an abusive 19 year marriage to a narcissist. The marriage is finally over, for a year now. I’m on the road to recovery thanks to articles like this and people like you. There is so much good advice and information here. xoxThanks……

  7. Thank you for sharing all of this information. Even if you are not dissociative, this information can be useful to a codependent Adult Child which is what I am. I learned about some of these same traits in Al-Anon and Adult Children of Alcoholics meetings.

  8. Another excellent post for The Blog Carnival Against Child Abuse. Thanks for letting us include it!

    If I am honest, I have to admit that I have probably experienced every one of those relationship difficulties on your bulleted list. If I hadn’t made the commitment to work hard with a qualified therapist who knows dissociation, I’d probably still be cycling through every one of those. You have a great numbered list of specific tips, as well. Very helpful!

  9. Kerro says:

    Great article, thank you. I see so much of myself, particularly in isolating because it’s not worth the risk. I know, now, that it is worth the risk but I need to start small/slowly… and use your tips about building trust, trusting your gut, etc.

  10. Nanette says:

    Hello I like your article. I am DID and don’t dare to really form any close relationships. I don’t want anyone to see when I get disorganized and lose track of time and other things. How can I establish safety when I can’t really count on myself? I was emotionally, physically and sexually abused as a child beginning at age 3. The emotional/physical abuse came from my parents. The emotional abuse continued so badly that in my early 40’s I broke off all contact with my family of origin. That was the hardest thing I ever did but it was a new beginning for me to go forward and heal. When I try to look inside myself I feel like I am walking into a maze and can’t see clearly and am overwhelmed by pain coming from many different voices. I can’t sort it out so I am numb to myself and the world most of the time. I not only use my dissociation to get away from the world I use it to shut myself down with. That way I can tune out to the voices and the pain enough to create some kind of normalcy in my life. I have good relationships with my husband and two children. This is alot of work for me and I don’t feel as though I can handle anymore ppl that I must act normal around and mask myself. I do go to therapy…we are into this stuff deep but it is still a maze full of painful cries coming in every direction. It’s alot of work to maintain my high functioning life. I am so used to being a master of disguise that I don’t know where to begin to learn to be anything else. Do you have any information you can share with me? My trauma with my family never ended until I left which was 7 years ago. Thank you for having a sight that I could come to where a professional can offer solid information that someone like me could count on.

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  21. Michele G. Wampole says:

    I am so lost. I have been abused: sexuallly, physically, emotionally, and mentally since I was fifteen months old. I have been diagnosed witih DID and Borderline Personality Disorders. I have been to therapists and doctors since I was nineteen years old, I am now almost fifty. I don’t know where to find the right help, it seems my therapists’ and I are just spinning our wheels. I have a lot of problems with voices–all condemning. I still cannot break free. I’ve been to inpatient hospitals, a private Christian therapist, DBT group and therapist, on medications. Nothing works. I really don’t know what more to do. I live in an area where I have to travel two or more hours to get specialty help. So I am limited as to where I can go. Any suggestions??

    • Josie says:

      Michele I really hope that you found some help some where. I don’t have DID but I do have a history of being abused and I too have taken a long journey to find help and often am left empty handed. I wish you the best.

    • Catherine says:

      Michelle, find something good to focus on and work on growing the good. I suggest acupuncture if you haven’t tried it. I know I too feel everything is against me healing. But I think we have to look at it from a different perspective. One that makes it possible to grow the good leaving less space for the rest. Wish you the best.

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  26. L says:

    Great article. In the last few years I realize I’ve been “targeted” on both a professional and romantic front. I did manage to put a stop to it in both instances, and a lot faster than I would have in the past.

    But the experiences linger with me and I felt so drained that I’ve found it difficult to put myself out there anymore. Professionally, I work in a field that’s extremely competitive and often aggressive and I just don’t have the energy to deal with some of the personalities I encounter. Constantly defending boundaries with people is just exhausting. I’m hoping to get into a new area soon where those pressures don’t exist.

    Romantically, well still working on it but I’m certainly more assertive and aware than ever before. I really wish it hadn’t taken so long to figure out how to deal with it.

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