- Relational trauma can hinder secure attachment, trust, and emotional regulation in relationships.
- Childhood trauma can lead to fears of abandonment, communication issues, and unhealthy relationships.
- Our biological drive for relationships can conflict with fears.
Relational trauma impacts our ability to form secure, healthy attachments.
The preeminent couples counselor, researcher, and mental health thought leader Ester Perel, LMFT, has often been quoted as saying, “The quality of our relationships determines the quality of our lives.”
And yet, increasing bodies of research tell us those of us who come from relational trauma histories often struggle mightily in our relationships.
What do I mean by this? And what impact does that have on the quality of our lives? Let’s unpack this.
Relational trauma—particularly the kind of trauma that results over the course of time in the context of a power-imbalanced and dysfunctional relationship (usually between a child and caregiver)—can result in a host of complex and lingering biopsychosocial impacts for the individual who endured the trauma.
The term “biopsychosocial impacts” refers to the combined effects of biological, psychological, and social factors on an individual’s health, well-being, and overall functioning.
This concept recognizes that a person’s health and experiences are influenced by a complex interplay of biological (physical), psychological (mental and emotional), and social (environmental and societal) factors.
Understanding these impacts involves considering how various aspects of a person’s biology, mental health, and social environment interact and contribute to their overall health and functioning.
With regard to what we’re exploring in today’s post, we’re centering it on the “social” component of the biopsychosocial model—the relational component.
Those who endure childhood trauma—relational trauma—often experience a wide variety of impairments when it comes to their ability to form close, connected relationships socially.
What are some of these impairments?
Insecure attachment: Attachment theory, developed by the incredible psychiatrist Dr. John Bowlby, M.D., suggests that early experiences with caregivers play a crucial role in shaping one’s ability to form secure attachments in later relationships. Childhood trauma can disrupt the development of secure attachment patterns, leading to attachment insecurities.
- Impaired ability to trust and be vulnerable: Childhood trauma can lead to issues with trust and vulnerability. Individuals who have experienced trauma may struggle to trust others and may be hesitant to be emotionally vulnerable in their relationships, which can hinder the formation of secure attachments.
- Fear of abandonment: Individuals with a history of childhood trauma may have an increased fear of abandonment due to past experiences of neglect or rejection. This relational trauma impact can manifest as clinginess, possessiveness, or a constant need for reassurance in relationships (this is an extrapolation of insecure attachment).
- Communication challenges: Childhood trauma can also affect an individual’s ability to communicate effectively in relationships. They may struggle to express their needs, emotions, or boundaries, which can lead to misunderstandings and conflicts in relationships.
- Emotional regulation: Childhood trauma can impact emotional regulation. Individuals may have difficulty managing intense emotions, leading to emotional outbursts or emotional withdrawal, which can strain relationships.
- Seeking unhealthy relationships: Some individuals with a history of childhood trauma may be more prone to entering into relationships with partners who replicate the dynamics of their past traumas. This impact of relational trauma can perpetuate a cycle of unhealthy relationships.
And this is just a handful of the ways that those of us who live through relational trauma histories can develop maladaptive (aka dysfunctional or unhealthy) beliefs and behaviors in and about relationships.
Our relational trauma impacts are often in conflict with our impulses to date and mate
But here’s the rub: even though relationships often feel like a source of pain and struggle, if not terror, to those of us who come from relational trauma histories, biologically we are also predisposed to seek out relationships—to be in them and to be with others.
What do I mean by this?
Studies have shown that human beings are undeniably hardwired to be drawn to relationships due to their evolutionary and biological roots. Research in evolutionary psychology suggests that forming and maintaining social bonds and relationships has provided significant adaptive advantages throughout human history.
Our ancestors who formed close-knit groups and relied on one another for safety, cooperation, and support had a higher likelihood of survival and reproductive success.
The attachment system, as proposed by John Bowlby (who I mentioned earlier) and expanded upon by the Canadian-American psychologist Mary Ainsworth, highlights our innate need for secure and dependable relationships.
From infancy, humans are wired to seek proximity to caregivers for comfort and protection. This biological predisposition continues into adulthood, driving us to form romantic relationships and seek out social connections.
Numerous studies have examined the biological mechanisms involved in social bonding. Oxytocin, often referred to as the “love hormone” or “bonding hormone,” is released during social interactions, promoting feelings of trust, intimacy, and attachment.
Neuroimaging studies have shown that various brain regions associated with reward and attachment light up when individuals are engaged in positive social interactions.
However, for those of us who have experienced relational trauma, the natural impulse to seek relationships can be at odds with the fear and anxiety associated with past painful experiences.
Our fear of relationships is in direct conflict with our desire to be in them. What a bind.
We often arrive into adolescence and adulthood with myriad maladaptive beliefs and behaviors
So, many of us from relational trauma histories arrive into adolescence and adulthood with a mighty conflict inside of us: fear of relationships and an equal if not greater draw to be in them, likely coupled with a variety of maladaptive beliefs and behaviors we formed about ourselves and others as a result of what we lived through.
This is a profound relational trauma impact.
In the next post in this two-part series, we'll explore what maladaptive beliefs and behaviors look like when we come from relational trauma histories, and, importantly, we'll explore how to change them into more functional and adaptive beliefs and behaviors.
Please follow this blog to read the second part of this post.
Bolton, D., Gillett, G. (2019). The Biopsychosocial Model of Health and Disease: New Philosophical and Scientific Developments. Germany: Springer International Publishing.
Evolution and Social Psychology. (2013). United Kingdom: Taylor & Francis.
Handbook of Counselling Psychology. (2009). United Kingdom: SAGE Publications.
Bowlby, J. (2012). A Secure Base. United Kingdom: Taylor & Francis.
Attachment and Bonding: A New Synthesis. (2015). United Kingdom: MIT Press.