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6 Ways Unresolved Trauma Can Shape a Relationship

2. Projecting the past onto the present.

How often does conflict in relationships—for example, between partners in a couple—serve as an interpersonal or social defense against uncomfortable feelings: sadness, grief, trauma, loneliness? How often do we use the performance of caring, going through the motions, to avoid authentically connecting?

How do therapists work with interpersonal conflict in order to help people find their way? "Enactment" is a psychoanalytic term (an "interpersonal-relational" one) as used here, referencing what is happening between the two people in therapy. Each person brings their own perceptions, interpretations, and distortions to the mix.1 Enactment happens outside of therapy relationships as well. We may "enact" the past, and when we enact unresolved trauma, it tends to be retraumatizing and confusing.

We each bring our own history to the mix, together co-creating unique yet familiar patterns. In therapy, the goal with enactments is to notice when they happen and learn from them through the process; this working through does not necessarily happen in other relationships. There are many avenues by which unresolved trauma, often hidden, can shape our relationships.

6 Relevant Considerations: How Unresolved Trauma Runs in the Background of Relationships

1. Trauma ≠ PTSD. Trauma itself is not pathological and is fairly common. Most people who have a traumatic experience do not develop a clinical disorder. Traumatic experience, more so when we are not conscious of it and actively coping, can still have a negative impact in the absence of resilient responses. PTSD nevertheless affects up to 8 percent of the population.

2. We tend to project the past onto the present. Most of us are only partially aware of this, but developmental experiences shape how we make sense of the present, how we think about relationships and ourselves, what we allow ourselves to think and feel, and so on. With active trauma, defensive patterns and expectations shape how we see things. For example, we may erroneously see another person as an enemy when they are a friend—or as trustworthy when they are anything but. People who agree are idealized and drawn in (until they disappoint), while those who ask questions find themselves extruded.

3. We tend to have trouble recognizing that we are blurring past and present. Part of having a system of defenses, or unconscious "security operations," is that we are not aware of what we are doing. Becoming aware of often-hidden defensive processes, which function to maintain security no matter the cost, is often accompanied by fears of destabilizing or uncertainty about whether change is possible.

4. Projecting onto others spares us the challenge and trouble of self-recognition. One common and primal security operation, the stuff of dreams and fantasy, is projection. We get rid of the "bad" parts of ourselves by displacing them onto others, resolving any confusion about good versus bad. Reflection is in short supply—without a middle ground, we "split," seeing things as either all good or all bad. Splitting is inaccurate; it excludes key data about reality in order to enable the temporary use and gratification of oversimplification. Reality tends to be complex, requiring a complex framework and the capacity for contemplative experience.

5. Dissociation is often present, and unrecognized. We may see ourselves as very consistent and non-contradictory. In contrast, others may see that we have many different sides to who we are, which vary from situation to situation. There may be unnoticed gaps in self-awareness and sense of self. This may lead us to miss things we said or did, getting confused and sometimes hostile when others point it out or express confusion. In Fight Club, the book and movie about a meek and constricted man with a pugilistic and liberated imaginary alter-ego he thinks is a friend but is really a dissociated version of himself, the first rule is “no one talks about fight club.” We lock the lock and throw away the key to memory.

6. Dysfunction in the present will persist until past and present issues are differentiated and addressed in part and integratively. Dysfunctional enactments, patterns of blame and hurt based on projection and splitting, will go away only when we separate past and future, what is threat-based and related to trauma and what is not. The only way to really know someone is over time. If we don't slow down and catch nuance, we won't be thinking through things constructively or leaving room for emotions to guide us through. Emotions can take time to emerge, especially if trauma has left us avoidant of feeling or flat-out numb.

When people do approach us with genuine compassion and regard, it's hard to conceptualize what they are doing and form a relationship with them. Offers of help may be seen as suspect, as grooming us to believe the other person is safe when in fact they harbor ulterior motives, whether malign or merely selfish. Unresolved trauma may make it easy for us to trust perpetrators and be wary of those who are trustworthy and truly kind.2 Being massively self-sufficient solves the problem of working out whether any particular person can be trusted.

Toward Constructive Change

Post-traumatic dynamics are not present in all situations, but are fairly common and, when present, often downplayed. It requires careful assessment to work out what is happening. Exploring such dynamics within ourselves and our relationships, personal and professional, with people and with institutions, requires a level of reflection and self-directed developmental effort.

Calming down the body is an important step, as is cultivating mindful self-compassion. This helps us have the resilience to sort out what's working from what's not. Too often, we defensively must feel sure about what we know, especially when survival has been at stake and others have failed us. As they say, though, what got us here won’t necessarily get us there.

Learning when and how to ask for help, and developing a concept of trust based on getting to know people over time, rather than relying on chemistry or intuition to form bonds, is key for slowing down and building healthy relationships over time, what co-authors and I have called "relationship sanity."

Facebook/LinkedIn image: DimaBerlin/Shutterstock


1. In therapy, the patient brings their transference and the therapist (or psychoanalyst, more formally) their countertransference. It happens in other human relationships, perhaps all—we can’t help but bring our ways of seeing and interpreting relationships and other people into situations. When trauma is an ingredient, enactments can throw the relationship off the rails—often after an early, powerful bond has been forged in the unconscious recognition of shared suffering.

The basic traumatic enactment, the repetition of being stuck inside a painful, destructive situation and feeling that change is impossible, is the top-level; it plays out in many different ways, organized around shared fight-flight-freeze-fawn influences. There is much more to relationship function and dysfunction than trauma, though trauma often stands out. Trauma often has too much influence, unless and until it is placed into the context of one’s overall life and narrative.

2. Help-rejecting behaviors are a symptom of the above dysfunction, making good advice difficult or impossible to receive. In this familiar state of mind, we often reject helpful suggestions or get rid of people who don’t fit into the trauma-based paradigm of friend-or-foe. Accepting help may be seen as equivalent as to inviting abuse, if trauma has involved betrayal by purportedly well-intentioned others.

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