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Are Trauma Survivors Able to Have Healthy Relationships?

Identifying unhealthy or even dangerous patterns empowers us to grow.

Key points

  • Many of the coping skills people learn in childhood are used in their first romantic relationships.
  • Some of these coping skills can be dysfunctional, unhealthy, or even harmful to themselves and their partner(s).
  • Without doing the work of growth, these same behavior patterns will continue long into adulthood.
There is no such thing as a perfect relationship. But, a happy and healthy relationship is possible with effort and growth.
Source: source-pixabay

Almost weekly, I am asked, "Why do I seem doomed to have dysfunctional relationships?"

This is a common question among survivors of family trauma, who often spend multiple relationships repeating the same patterns before they come to therapy asking, "Do I have a chance at a healthy one?" I respond that it depends on your level of insight, and the amount of work you are willing and able to put into yourself and your relationship(s). But most often, to answer questions about human behavior, we must go back to our early experiences.

We adopt certain coping mechanisms during the developmental stages of life. Whether intended or not, the way we learn to interact with our caregivers is usually mimicked in our early years of relationships. Unless we intervene to develop more self-awareness of our behaviors, we usually follow the same patterns into adulthood. Many of our daily interactions are based on ways we learned to interact with others as we grew and developed. If any of these interactions were dysfunctional—even if unbeknownst to us—we can carry on dysfunctional ways of engaging with the world.

Going back to early childhood development usually sheds some light on adult behavior. Since we are born into complete vulnerability, our caregivers oversee those initial phases of cognitive installation. As we age from newborns into speaking children and young adults, we depend on our caregivers’ provision of sufficient care and love to grow into healthy and successful adults. The level of care they provide will, in turn, affect three fundamental structures: our sense of self, the way we communicate, and how we form relationships.

For this reason, traumatic experiences with caregivers become firmly rooted in our established understanding of socialization. When a child is confronted with neglect or abuse, they establish coping mechanisms to manage the source. As a child grows, they internalize those mechanisms, and it becomes difficult, at least in its early stages, to see that abusive dynamic as anything but “normal.” Even as we become educated adults, it may take time for us to recognize our own traumas—whether from our family of origin, or in our new relationships.

Adverse Childhood Experiences, a term coined by the CDC to describe a set of 10 childhood trauma experiences such as physical, emotional, sexual, and psychological abuse, have been directly linked to mental health concerns and chronic illness. "The impact of major childhood adversities persists well into adulthood" (Schiling, 2007).

This is why it becomes so easy for children with family-of-origin trauma to grow up and fall into dysfunctional relationship patterns. It's because they recognize them as being familiar. For traumatized children turned adults, relearning that core infrastructure in order to have healthy relationships is usually more challenging than maintaining unhealthy ones. It is much easier to keep using the maladaptive coping skills already present than to relearn healthy ones because our brains are already formed. As a therapist, I am constantly asked, "Is this normal?" about relationships and family dynamics. This shows that many of us find it is sometimes more difficult to define "healthy" relationships vs. unhealthy ones.

Not all people who experience childhood traumas will end up in dysfunctional partnerships. But there are common links. Many only first recognize and confront their childhood traumas when they first find themselves in a difficult relationship as adults.

Dysfunction exists on a spectrum. Most of us can and will exhibit dysfunctional ways of interacting with others during single moments or during a bad time in our life. But if the childhood traumas were bad enough, many people struggle to know what is normal and what is not. For some survivors who have left abusive relationships and wondered, “Why me?” knowing this connection can give them an answer.

Copyright by Kaytlyn "Kaytee" Gillis.

Excerpted in part from my book Invisible Bruises.

References

Schilling, E.A., Aseltine, R.H. & Gore, S. Adverse childhood experiences and mental health in young adults: a longitudinal survey. BMC Public Health 7, 30 (2007). https://doi.org/10.1186/1471-2458-7-30. Accessed 1/24/2022.

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