Lisa Ferentz LCSW-C, DAPA

Healing Trauma’s Wounds

When Getting Close Equals Getting Hurt, Part One

The struggle for intimacy

Posted Sep 22, 2015

 Robin Green/Flickr
Source: Photo: Robin Green/Flickr

As a trauma therapist, I work with clients who have experienced profound betrayal in their most meaningful and intimate relationships.  Often, in session, they discuss what they believe to be their ongoing need for building and sustaining a shield of armor around their hearts.  “I know how to keep people at arm’s length,” they’ll say, or “My friends think they know the real me, but I would never let them get that close to me.”  In the age of social media and online communities, many trauma survivors take refuge in relationships that “Let me hide behind an image I create with my laptop and just words.”  It makes so much sense that prior experiences of rejection, abandonment, and disloyalty would create a template for relationships that associates closeness with getting hurt.  However, it’s tragic that the coping strategy of distancing and avoiding intimacy becomes the solution when in actuality these are people who desperately need and deserve close relationships in order to heal and reconnect with the world.

Allowing for closeness involves healthy risk-taking.

Being in a relationship that is genuinely loving, safe, and satisfying, requires courage as well as a willingness to be authentic and, therefore, vulnerable.  There are no guarantees, in any relationship, that being fully open will never lead to getting hurt. Allowing for closeness involves healthy risk-taking, and also requires a leap of faith that when a breach occurs it can be acknowledged, addressed, and fully mended. It is certainly easier for people to take that risk when past relationships were respectful, gratifying, loving, and safe.  When trauma survivors even think about forging an intimate relationship, they are often haunted by the past.  Assumptions and expectations rooted in prior neglect or abuse get unconsciously superimposed upon the present.  I was hurt before.  Therefore, I’ll be hurt again.

That fear sets in motion a variety of ways in which trauma survivors can keep others at a distance.  Anger, irritability, criticism, sarcasm, inappropriate humor, constant testing, perfectionism, unrealistic and unfair expectations, and inappropriate boundaries can all be used to short-circuit or sabotage potential connections.  In the short-term, these behaviors serve their purpose: increasing a sense of safety by not letting anyone in or not letting the relationship progress.  But in the long-term these coping strategies increase alienation, deepening feelings of low self-worth, inadequacy, loneliness, and even despair.  

In the next installment we’ll look at some ways in which therapists can begin to help trauma survivors relinquish the armor that feels so necessary but in actuality keeps them so stuck.