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Trauma

The Common Effects of Complex Relational Trauma

The patterns that replay childhood trauma in our adult relationships.

Key points

  • "Relational trauma" is a term used to describe the aftermath of abuse, neglect, maltreatment, or abandonment within a relationship.
  • Experiencing childhood abandonment can affect how a person sees themselves and the type of relationship they believe they "deserve."
  • Adults who experienced childhood relational trauma commonly trace the origins of their traumatic experiences to narcissistic parenting.
  • An unconscious compulsion to repeat our unhealed trauma is at the core of unhealthy relationships and conditioned in our earliest experiences.
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Source: atran/unsplash

Relational trauma is a term used to describe the aftermath of abuse, neglect, serious maltreatment, or abandonment within a relationship. Adults who experienced childhood relational trauma commonly trace the origins of their traumatic experiences to patterns of attachment trauma, distrust, abuse, betrayal, or other adverse events that occurred at the hands of their caregivers, often severely narcissistic parents.

These wounds can get carried with them into their adult relationships and function in the background of other mental health conditions including personality disorders, complex PTSD (cPTSD), major depression, anxiety, or a history of traumatic bonds with those in their lives. Physically, the stress of adult relational trauma can manifest as migraines, gastrointestinal issues, hyper-vigilance, social isolation, and mental health issues and reflect symptoms commonly diagnosed in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or complex PTSD (cPTSD).

Other symptoms of adult relational trauma can include:

  • An overall sense of worthlessness
  • Social anxiety or social avoidance
  • Over-dependence on others, neediness, or attention-seeking behavior
  • Mistrust of others
  • Hostility, anger, rage, or bouts of sadness when emotionally “triggered”
  • Recurrent flashbacks and emotional “triggers”
  • Negative or nihilistic attitudes about self or the world in general
  • Chronic physical ailments, fibromyalgia, or other body aches or pain
  • Hyper-vigilant behavior
  • Avoidance of people, places, or situations of their traumatic experience

However, there are some common themes that may not be as obvious, especially for those with histories of childhood relational trauma. Sadly, if a child is taught that neglect, mistreatment, or abandonment are “normal,” they’re more apt to have these patterns repeat in their adult relationships.

History of Abandonment or Infidelity by a Partner

If a person has experienced childhood abandonment, this can affect how a person sees themselves, their sense of self-worth, their attachment style, and the types of relationships they believe they “deserve.” As a result, they may choose partners who mistreat them, abandon them, come in as a “hero” to “fix” them, or with histories of cheating on them—all of which can negatively reinforce a person’s feelings of not being “good enough.”

Insecure Attachment

A history of being abandoned (either physically or emotionally) in childhood can be the cause of an insecure attachment style, which includes anxious, avoidant, or disorganized. People with an insecure attachment style tend to have volatile relationships, be “clingy,” struggle with being alone (separation anxiety), and tend to have histories of either pushing partners away, trouble maintaining relationships, an increased risk of infidelity, staying in a narcissistic relationship, or may panic and replace relationships at the first sign of threat.

Increased Risk of Repetition Compulsion

An unconscious compulsion to repeat our unhealed trauma is at the core of some unhealthy relationships and is conditioned in our earliest experiences. Originally, Sigmund Freud coined the term “repetition compulsion” as unconsciously repeating a personally traumatic event in the hope that they can work through the trauma. However, more current research opposes this view in support of a “compulsion to repeat” as a form of self-sabotage.

Coping with relational trauma can be challenging. However, it is possible to heal. While the trauma we may have experienced will not disappear, the effects of the trauma can be managed and overcome. If you are looking for support and guidance, please reach out to a professional in your area.

References

Ria, R. M. (2019). Posttraumatic relationship experiences in women in South India. Cogent Psychology, 6(1), doi.org/10.1080/23311908.2019.1703472.

Van der Kolk, B. (1989). The compulsion to repeat the trauma: Re-enactment, revictimization, and masochism. The Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 12(2), 389-411.

Van Dijke, A., et al. (2018). Affect dysregulation, psychoform dissociation, and adult relational fears mediate the relationship between childhood trauma and complex posttraumatic stress disorder independent of the symptoms of borderline personality disorder. European Journal of Psychotraumatology, 1 (9), 1 – 14.

World Health Organization. (2019). International statistical classification of diseases and related health problems, (11th ed.).

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