10 Ways Trauma Affects Relationships


Children who experience trauma often struggle to learn the same boundaries and behaviours that so many of take for granted.

As a child is growing and developing, they look to their carers for how to interact with the world around them. If those carers behave in dysfunctional or unhealthy ways, chances are high that children will learn to mimic these same unhealthy behaviours, even if unintended. For many of us, the effects of abuse and neglect as a child manifest in dysfunctional relationships as an adult.

Going back to childhood and the teenage years usually sheds some light on adult behaviour. The ways in which our carers interact with us, as well as each other, shape our view of the world and those around us. As an adult, this will affect our sense of self, the way we communicate, and how we form relationships. Unless we do the work to develop more self-awareness of our behaviours, we will usually repeat these same patterns in our adult life.

So, if you’re caring for a young person who has experienced childhood trauma or an adult who experienced trauma as a child, I want share 10 ways that childhood trauma can manifest in adult life and relationships:

First,  is a fear of being abandoned. Children who were neglected or abandoned by a carer often struggle with fears of abandonment long into adulthood and into midlife, even if they are unaware of these fears. While their underlying fear is that their partner will eventually leave, these thoughts often reveal themselves in everyday situations such as getting scared when a partner goes out by themselves, or being unable to take care of them self if a partner leaves the room during an argument. This fear can also manifest as jealousy, or in extreme cases, possessiveness.

Second, is becoming irritable or easily annoyed with other people. When we grow up in environments where we are often criticised, or witness others being criticised, we learn that this is a natural way to express our unhappiness with relationships. We learn that our imperfections and quirks are intolerable, and project that intolerance onto our partners or others around us.

Third, is the need for a lot of space and time for one self. Growing up in a chaotic or unpredictable environment creates a lot of stress, and can leave a child’s brain in a constant state of hyper-vigilance. Then they become adults who need a lot of time to themselves in order to calm these feelings of anxiety nervousness, and fear. Staying home, where you can control your surroundings, feels safer and allows you to relax. In extreme cases, some adults can become socially anxious sort even agoraphobic.

Fourth, is the way we deal with financial and household responsibilities. Sometimes this can look like a reluctance to rely on a partner at all due to fears of depending on another person. Or it might look like taking complete control of financial or household responsibility in a partnership, or fully taking care of the other person to the point where you are taken advantage of. The opposite — relying too much on them to the point where they take care of you — is also a result of unmet childhood needs.F

Fifth, is settling and staying in relationships for a much longer periods of time that are healthy or normal. When a young person grows up in unstable environments, with carers who struggle with drug addiction, mental illness, or even illness or death, children often develop a sense of guilt that comes from wanting to end a relationship before we have been able to "fix" the other person. Staying with a person who is not a good fit for someone who has experienced trauma sometimes feels safer than being alone.

Sixth, is constantly arguing or fighting in relationships, or avoiding conflict at all costs. All relationships have conflict, but children who grew up in environments where carers were always arguing, or who avoided any sort of conflict whatsoever, often do not learn the skills necessary to have constructive and healthy communication. This includes healthy and productive ways to navigate and manage conflict.

Seventh is not knowing how to repair relationship after fights and conflict. If we haven’t learnt how to manage conflict in healthy way, then we also don’t know how to repair a relationship after the inevitable conflict that happens in adult relationships. This can look like pretending that a problem  didn't happen, not knowing when or how to compromise on an issue, or even dishing out the silent treatment.

Eighth, is that childhood trauma shows up in adult relationships is spending as little time as possible being single, moving from the end of one relationship to the beginning of a new relationship as quickly as possible -  being a serial monogamist. This can often be due to fears of being hurt again, fears of being alone, or even trying to prove that you are worthy of the love and affection that you didn’t receive as a child. With each new partner comes new hopes to confirm that you are worthy of the love and care you missed out on.

Ninth is worrying about settling too easily, being fearful of committing, or avoiding relationships altogether. This often occurs because carers were unreliable or abandoned you, leaving you distrustful of those who claim to care for you. If you fear that others will hurt you the way your carers did, avoiding settling down can feel safer as it allows you the freedom to leave the relationship when and if necessary.

The tenth way is worrying about changing your partner. This is a trauma response that comes from the belief that we need to do the best with what we have, or even the fear that we cannot do any better. Children are powerless to change who their carers are, so they learn to try to make do with what they have.

As adults, it is common for this pattern to carry over into our relationships, causing us to desire changes within our partner in order to calm our own fears of relationships. If we can "fix" the person and make them a better partner, we can somehow prove to ourselves that we are worthy and able to have a successful relationship.




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