- Developmental trauma survivors may have developed sophisticated and complicated coping mechanisms in order to survive.
- These coping mechanisms can have strong negative effects on their adult relationships.
- Impacts may include difficulty asking for help, struggling to establish or respect boundaries, and needing time away.
Developmental trauma is a term used in psychology literature to describe significant adverse experiences—such as abuse (physical, sexual, or emotional), neglect, or other profound kinds of harm—that occur in childhood during vital stages of cognitive, emotional, and social development. If you or someone you love experienced developmental trauma, it’s helpful to know how these experiences could impact relationships in adulthood. Developmental trauma survivors have developed sophisticated and complicated coping mechanisms in order to survive. Even once a survivor is in a safe relationship, it can be difficult for them to change or let go of such coping mechanisms even if they are negatively affecting the relationship.
Here are 10 ways that developmental trauma can negatively impact relationships:
1. Fears of abandonment. Developmental trauma often includes disruptions in attachment in childhood. When a child experiences abuse, neglect, or inconsistent caretaking, they can develop a deep-seated fear of abandonment that stays with them into adulthood. Inconsistent caretaking can occur for many reasons, such as a caretaker’s imprisonment, military deployment, divorce, a single parent or both parents working long hours, or the child’s caretaker having a mental illness or developmental trauma of their own. As an adult, fear of abandonment can manifest in struggles to attach to and trust others, jealousy, and possessiveness. Some trauma survivors report subconscious efforts to sabotage their relationships in order to make the other person end a relationship, since knowing that they will experience abandonment feels more manageable than the possibility that they might experience abandonment.
2. Constant conflict. Imagine that a person grows up in an environment in which arguing, yelling, and conflicts occurred often. As a child, they will learn that this is how you interact with loved ones, and they might continue to engage in these unhealthy interactions in their adult relationships. As a result, developmental trauma survivors might create or intensify relational conflicts. In addition, survivors may struggle to engage in healthy conflict because they may lack effective communication skills and methods to emotionally regulate during conflicts.
3. Avoiding conflict. While some trauma survivors may initiate and escalate conflicts, others may avoid conflict. Imagine that a person is raised in a home in which conflict does not occur or in which participating in any conflict is not safe. As an adult, they might develop patterns of avoiding conflict in order to keep themselves safe even though they are actually safe to engage in conflicts in their current relationships. All healthy relationships involve conflicts; conflicts provide opportunities to establish and maintain safety, build trust, promote attachment, and practice mood regulation. When one avoids conflicts, they can miss out on these vital benefits. In addition, trauma survivors may not have the skills necessary to resolve conflicts in a healthy way, which may also prevent them from participating in conflicts.
4. Difficulty asking for help. If you did not have someone who was consistently available and receptive to you when you asked for help as a child, you may struggle to ask for help as an adult. Developmental trauma survivors may feel more comfortable doing things on their own rather than asking others for assistance. They might struggle to delegate tasks at work and in the home or to rely upon others to contribute. Imagine someone who insists upon completing most or all of the household tasks even though it causes them to feel stressed or resentful. In addition, trauma survivors might struggle to ask their loved ones for help when they are in crisis or in need of emotional support. Such dynamics can inhibit expressions of vulnerability in their relationships, which hinders attachment.
5. Struggles to establish boundaries. Developmental trauma survivors might find it difficult to identify the boundaries they need in their relationships, to communicate their boundaries to others, and to respond when their boundaries are crossed. Imagine growing up in a home in which there were few (if any) boundaries, in which the existing boundaries were not clearly communicated or consistently reinforced, or in which it was unsafe to have or communicate one’s boundaries to others. As an adult, it may be difficult to know how to communicate your boundaries or to feel safe doing so.
6. Struggles to respect others’ boundaries. Developmental trauma survivors might have difficulty acknowledging and accepting the boundaries of others. This can be due to many factors, such as fear of abandonment, anxiety, or lacking healthy relational experiences as a child. Survivors might have grown up in a home in which the boundaries of others were nonexistent, not communicated, or not reinforced when crossed. As an adult, survivors may struggle to understand, acknowledge, and accept the boundaries of others.
7. A need to fix others. Developmental trauma survivors may have experienced role reversals as children that required them to act as caretakers of parents, siblings, or other family members. Children are not developmentally prepared to act as caregivers and having been forced into this role can create a negative dynamic in a survivor’s adult relationships. Survivors might act as caregivers for other adults (who don’t need caregivers), or they may attempt to fix adults who need to fix themselves. For example, a survivor might be drawn to people who are emotionally unavailable in an effort to “fix” them by making them emotionally available. “Fixing” or taking care of others contributes to unhealthy relationship dynamics.
8. Difficulty ending relationships. Developmental trauma survivors might be used to participating in relationships in which people are unsafe, toxic, disrespectful, or just not a good fit. Children are usually not allowed to end relationships with adults, so it can be difficult to learn this skill as an adult. Toxic relationships may feel normal to survivors, and therefore it may be difficult for them to realize when it’s time to end a relationship. Furthermore, if a survivor struggles with fears of abandonment, it might feel scarier to be alone than to stay with someone who is unsafe. In addition, survivors who struggle to engage in conflict might have difficulty initiating, communicating, and managing the end of a relationship.
9. Needing a safe space. Developmental trauma survivors may need a safe physical space. Imagine growing up without a safe place to live and thrive. As an adult, you might need to create and maintain your own safe physical space, one that you alone control and can access when needed. For example, some people have a separate room in a shared home, in a friend or family member’s home, in a spiritual place, or somewhere in their community.
10. Needing time away. Developmental trauma survivors may experience hypervigilance, anxiety, and overwhelming physical symptoms that might require them to need time away from people in order to emotionally cope. This can be difficult for loved ones who may perceive this as the survivor being standoffish, antisocial, or resistant to help and support. Yet, survivors often take this time and distance in order to reengage in their relationships in a safe and healthy manner.
Developmental trauma can have strong negative effects on adult relationships. Can these effects be remedied? Yes, they can.
Gillis, K. (2022) 10 Ways Childhood Trauma Can Manifest in Adult Relationships. Psychology Today. Blog post retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/invisible-bruises/202202/10-way…