How Traumas Create Negative Patterns in Relationships
Unresolved traumas can create challenges in communication, intimacy, and trust.
Posted August 13, 2019 | Reviewed by Gary Drevitch
Traumas are extreme life events that threaten your physical or psychological survival. A percentage of people who experience traumas have clinically diagnosable post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but many more have trauma-related symptoms like physiological reactivity to triggers, panic attacks, chronic anxiety, feelings of anger or numbness, or a loss of trust.
In addition to traumas like rape, childhood abuse, or military combat, a pileup of negative life events, unresolved chronic stress (e.g., prolonged unemployment), past abusive relationships, or growing up in a dysfunctional family can also lead to trauma-like reactions and susceptibility to emotional triggering and reactivity.
Trauma professionals often refer to these types of events as "little t" traumas to differentiate them from the "big T" of life-threatening events. But either can impact your relationships in negative ways if you don't deal with them through therapy or self-help.
Following are four ways traumas can negatively affect romantic relationships:
1. Getting triggered into traumatized states
Our brain wiring is such that if you have unprocessed trauma or PTSD symptoms, or experience chronic, ongoing stressful situations, you are likely to get triggered into states of “fight, flight, or freeze” when you encounter situations that remind you of the original trauma or ongoing stressor or situations which your brain deems important for physical/emotional survival.
Because our ancestors were tribal and depended on the tribe for protection, food, and shelter, we are wired to react to perceived abandonment or rejection in relationships as if they were threats to our physical survival. If you also have past traumas or currently experience situations that are actual threats to survival (e.g., debt, unemployment, serious illness), you may become even more likely to react to relationship conflict or rejection with the brain’s primitive survival mechanisms.
A part of the brain called the amygdala is wired to take over and generate fighting, fleeing, or freezing responses when your brain labels a relationship conflict as an emergency. This can lead you to say things you don’t mean, scream, or lose control, or feel overwhelmed and shut down. All of these responses can cause a partner to feel attacked, rejected, or abandoned, which triggers their emergency response network, and so the cycle continues.
2. Fighting, fleeing, or freezing
Unprocessed traumas or ongoing serious chronic stressors can cause the primitive brain networks involved in survival and threat response to hijack your brain into a “fight, flight, or freeze” state.
If one of these responses helped you survive childhood trauma (e.g., fleeing from a borderline parent or fighting a drunk, angry parent so they wouldn’t harm a younger sibling), your brain will give that type of response priority and automatically generate fighting, fleeing, or freezing when the amygdala signals a relationship emergency.
This can result in the following behaviors which are damaging to relationships:
- Fight. Attacking your partner verbally or physically, raging at them, blaming them for all of your problems, expressing contempt, being controlling or demanding, or not letting things go.
- Flight. Avoiding dealing with problems, panicking and acting impulsively, or running away from intimacy or emotional situations
- Freeze. Feeling helpless, feeling unable to act, or shutting down and disconnecting from your partner.
3. Shame-based responses
Interpersonal traumas or chronic rejection can create toxic shame. Shame is a destructive emotion for relationships (unless you have actually done something terrible). Shame makes you want to hide or feel rage toward people you perceive as having shamed or rejected you. Shame makes you hide important parts of yourself from your partner. You may put up a “wall” or mask your insecurities by attacking others or overcompensating.
Shame also makes it difficult for you to hear criticism, even if it is well-meaning. You are likely to respond defensively because you don’t want your flaws to be exposed. Shame makes you want to give up on relationships rather than fight for them.
You may turn to addictions or compulsive behaviors as a way of self-medicating the shame. You may drink or take drugs, play video games to excess, shop compulsively, act out sexually, or become a workaholic. All of these patterns take you away from being available to a partner because they lead you to prioritize the substance/behavior of choice above your partner’s needs and feelings.
4. Rigid, negative beliefs about relationships
Experiencing relationship trauma or having a dysfunctional family history that you haven’t dealt with can shape your beliefs about relationships in negative ways. These beliefs can then bias how you perceive your partner’s actions, leading you to interpret them in the worst light. You may be unable to trust, and therefore constantly monitor the status of your relationship or try to control your partner.
You may be overly scared of rejection or abandonment and therefore not put yourself out there to find intimacy, or you may reject others before they can reject you. You may feel that your partner will never be able to understand your feelings or be motivated to meet your needs. This can lead you to not express what you want or need and end up resentful when your partner doesn’t read your mind.
5. Traumas can lead you to choose unhealthy partners and stay with them too long
Traumas in your family of origin (both "big T" and "little t") can leave you with insecurities and feelings being undeserving of love. Therefore you may be more likely to tolerate disrespectful behavior or make excuses for a partner, rather than setting boundaries or leaving.
You may feel that a dysfunctional relationship is the best you can do or feel too scared of being alone to leave even an abusive partner. You may take on too much of the guilt and blame or be easily manipulated (as you were by your dysfunctional parent). You may be drawn to abusive or unloving partners because of "trauma bonding": Trauma experience can make you addicted to emotional intensity, so you reject the friendly, honest, respectful person in favor of the inconsistent, rejecting, demeaning, or manipulative one.
If any of these patterns sound familiar, it might be a good idea to get an evaluation from a mental health professional. Self-help books and articles may help as well, depending on the level of severity.
Interpersonal traumas leave their legacy through enduring beliefs and patterns of behavior that make it more difficult for you to find and maintain genuinely loving and authentic relationships. By becoming aware of these patterns, you can begin to think and act differently, giving yourself more respect, protection, and self-love and making wiser decisions about relationships and whom to partner with.
You can learn not to have relationship discussions when triggered and to feel increased self-worth that makes you less sensitized to conflict and rejection. Over time, you will be less likely to overreact to relationship ups and downs with primitive, emergency responses.