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Trauma Reenactment in Our Intimate Relationships

Three ways our romantic relationships can reenact our attachment trauma.

Key points

  • Patterns of revictimization in a person’s romantic relationships may be based on unconsciously choosing partners that trigger attachment wounds.
  • We tend to unconsciously gravitate to what feels comfortable, even if it’s toxic to our psychological health or emotional growth.
  • When early attachment trauma is reenacted, it is often based on inter-generational transmission of abuse, neglect, abandonment, or betrayal.
Source: mcaron/Unsplash
Source: mcaron/Unsplash

Children who grow up experiencing trauma as “normal” in their lives may be conditioned in learning dysfunctional behavior as functional. This conditioning occurs through the process of modeling and imitation from parent to child. Kids also learn vicariously; what they are taught as acceptable or normal behavior in their home tends to generalize to many areas of their lives, including how they see themselves, the type of friends they choose, and the quality of their romantic relationships as adults.

Attachment trauma affects a child’s sense of safety and belonging. It can take years to unpack and heal the damage caused by a traumatic childhood. Yet even if a person consciously knows how their childhood has affected their relationship choices, they may not “see” the big picture, or how these patterns tend to manifest.

For example, some may notice that they’re drawn to the same “type” of partner which ultimately creates similar dynamics from one relationship to the next. What may not be seen is how chosen partners may share similar personality styles, similar behavioral quirks, or similar past traumatic experiences as themselves. Cyclical patterns, themes, behaviors, or habits that repeat from one relationship to the next are identified as trauma reenactment.

There are three specific types of trauma reenactment that include: revictimization, reenactment of neglect, and reenactment of attachment trauma.


Have you noticed that some people choose partners who resemble their parent? Maybe they share similar physical traits such as height, weight, or nationality. Or, their partner may share personality traits, behavioral patterns, attitudes, or character traits that resonate with an abusive, abandoning, or negligent parent.

Some theorists such as John Gottman call this a pattern of “imprinting” where our adult attachment style tends to reflect our early trauma. However, psychoanalytic and behavioral theories refer to an unconsciousattraction” to our early trauma as repetition compulsion, or a compulsion to repeat our developmental wounds.

If there is a pattern of revictimization in a person’s romantic relationships, it is likely based on unconsciously (or sometimes consciously) choosing partners that trigger unhealed, core attachment wounds such as abandonment, betrayal, abuse, or neglect. For example, irrespective of how the partner physically looks, they may be outwardly invalidating, dismissive, or make the person feel unseen or unheard as a negligent caregiver may have in their early years. Or, a person may unconsciously seek out partners who are narcissistic, impulsive, unpredictable, or emotionally volatile as “safe” because it resonates with their early attachment trauma and is “predictable” in its unpredictability.

We tend to unconsciously gravitate to what feels comfortable, even if it’s toxic to our psychological health or emotional growth.

Reenactment of Neglect

Growing up with a history of emotional or physical neglect can place a person at an increased risk for unconsciously replaying this pattern in their romantic relationships, including increased risks for a pattern of pathological behavior towards love. For example, a person may be unconsciously attracted to abandoning partners in their intimate relationships because of abandonment trauma survived in childhood. If fears of abandonment are triggered, the person may “chase” their partner for validation, become “clingy,” or excessively needy in the relationship, which may push their partner away, thus creating a self-fulfilling prophecy of reenacting their early abandonment trauma.

Similarly, a person with an early history of abandonment may misperceive their partner’s need for space or time to themselves as being abandoned by that person, which can trigger their abandonment wounds. This may set off a pattern of self-defeating behavior by impulsively abandoning their partner, or immediately replacing that relationship with a new one.

Reenactment of Attachment Trauma

When early attachment trauma is reenacted, it is based on inter-generational transmission of abuse, neglect, abandonment, or betrayal. This pattern is seen in parents who are unaware of their own trauma, or have not chosen to heal it, and have thus passed similar trauma on to their own children.

Common maladaptive coping strategies seen in inter-generational trauma include living in “distractions” (or, behavioral compulsions used to emotionally disconnect), use of toxic positivity to minimize and negate the effects of the trauma, and use of denial, where traumatic experiences are not acknowledged. These can breed further trauma by invalidating the family member’s experiences, by repeated exposure to the same kinds of trauma, or by becoming estranged from the family as a result of the trauma.

Common patterns of inter-generational trauma include: fostering codependency and an inability to be alone, cycles of abuse, neglect, abandonment, betrayal, poverty, substance or alcohol abuse, divorce, or covert or unidentified trauma that can be implicitly taught from one generation to the next. For example, fears of abandonment deriving from a parent’s own childhood trauma can be transmitted to his/her children through learned maladaptive beliefs, or behaviors, such as a constant need to be in a romantic relationship to feel worthy or to have value. This in turn can condition their children to hold the same fears, the same misbeliefs, and ultimately the same pattern of maladaptive behaviors and repetition compulsion that negatively affect their happiness.

Healing From Trauma

Healing from a pattern of trauma reenactment can be challenging. While there are often overarching themes, trauma reenactment is often specific to a person's own lived experiences, early attachment trauma, beliefs, and where they are in their own level of self-awareness and growth. Once a person begins understanding how their earliest experiences have shaped their adult life, they can begin diving deeper into how trauma may have impacted their choices, or their patterns. Reach out to a clinician trained in attachment trauma and adult relational trauma who can help provide support and guidance.

To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.


Bateman, A. W., & Fonagy, P. (Eds.). (2012). Handbook of mentalizing in mental health practice. American Psychiatric Publishing, Inc.

Gottman, J, et al. (2016). The Man's Guide to Women. New York: Rodale.

Van der Kolk, B. (1989). The compulsion to repeat the trauma: Reenactment, revictimization, and masochism. The Psychiatric Clinics of North America (12)2, 389-411.

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