Like many traumas, relational trauma (also referred to as relationship trauma) is exactly what it sounds like. Relational trauma is trauma that comes from an unhealthy relationship (or a series of unhealthy relationships). However, unlike many other types of trauma, relational trauma is not caused by a single event. It is caused, instead, by a series of ongoing events and the overall nature of the relationship.
Here, we’ll dive into some of the common causes of relational trauma, signs of relational trauma, and how you can heal from it.
Causes of Relational Trauma
Relational trauma is typically a result of a disrupted relationship with a caregiver as a child that we only typically realize as we begin building adult relationships. This is, of course, not the only way that someone could get relational trauma, but it is typically the most common. A disrupted relationship could include any of the following.
Abandonment or Neglect
This could be physical abandonment (such as being put up for adoption or one parent or guardian leaving permanently), emotional abandonment, or abandonment of parental roles and responsibilities.
When a child is left without a consistent, safe, and healthy space, it can make them have to fill those parental roles themselves. This can dramatically limit their ability to trust others later on in life because they feel (either consciously or unconsciously) that they cannot rely on others.
Abuse can cause a number of traumas, and it is typically one of the most common causes of relational trauma. When we are hurt by the ones that are supposed to love us the most, we may associate that type of behavior with any type of close relationship. This can make us fear connecting with others in the future and dramatically limit our ability to trust and engage intimately with the people in our lives.
An enmeshed relationship is one where there is no separation or emotional independence between child and parent. This can stunt a child’s ability to think and behave separately from their parent, which can make it tremendously difficult for that child to build relationships in the future. The lack of boundaries in an enmeshed relationship can affect a child’s sense of self and set unhealthy examples of how to set boundaries in future relationships as well.
Signs of Relational Trauma
While many people may develop relational trauma due to events that happened during childhood, the signs may not appear until later on in life. It is when you are developing adult relationships of your own, including becoming a parent, that these signs may surface.
Here are some of the common signs of relational trauma. Keep in mind that you may have all, some, or none of these signs, as everyone reacts differently to this type of trauma.
- Low self-esteem
- Problems setting and maintaining boundaries
- Fear of abandonment
- Taking on too much responsibility for the emotional needs of the relationship
- Challenges with maintaining healthy relationships
- Generalized or social anxiety
- Difficulty becoming or acting independently
- Using avoidance as a coping mechanism
- Carefully monitoring other people’s moods and adjusting or accommodating based on this
- Manipulation, clinginess, or neediness in a relationship
- Cognitive difficulties or developmental delays in children
How to Heal
Now, just like you may experience different signs of relational trauma, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to healing from this trauma.
As mentioned earlier, many people develop this form of trauma earlier in life but may not notice until they have become adults. This can make knowing how to process, overcome, and heal from this trauma even harder. But knowing that it is not a lost cause is crucial. You can recover and heal and build the healthy, respectful, and intimate relationships you seek in your life.
Here are some tips you can use to begin the healing process.
Focus on You
The first step to overcoming anything in life is to recognize it and how it affects you. Identify your triggers. What makes you respond in a way that you do not like? How can you cope with these triggers and work on dealing with them healthily and productively?
Find outlets that you enjoy and bring you value. Maybe for you, this is journaling. Maybe it is drinking a cup of relaxing herbal tea after dinner and decompressing from a long day. Perhaps it is breathing or mindfulness exercises. Whatever it is for you, take the time for yourself and your needs.
Work on Building Trust and Intimacy in Your Relationships
Another crucial element to working on to heal from relational trauma is to really take care of your relationships. Relationships are a lot of work — whether they are friendships, romantic relationships, or familial relationships.
It can be especially hard to maintain these relationships if you are suffering from relational trauma, but making an effort can be one of the best ways for you to heal in time. Intimacy and trust will take time to build in your relationships, but anything you can do to work on these critical parts of your relationships can be helpful. This is also an excellent topic to discuss with a therapist if you are looking for strategies to improve and better maintain your current relationships.
Leading a Healthy Life
Taking care of yourself is always important. But, if you are struggling with maintaining healthy relationships, one of the best ways to heal is to work on your relationship with yourself. Show yourself the love, care, and respect that you deserve.
Give your body the fuel it needs — both physically and mentally. Get enough sleep each night. Move around throughout the day and get some time out in the sun. Ensure you are eating nutritious foods and getting enough water throughout the day. If you spend too much time around people who are negative or impacting your recovery, try removing yourself from these situations where possible. Spend more time with the people who love, support, and care about you, as they will help you heal rather than prevent your healing.
Visit a Therapist
Relational trauma is typically challenging to heal because it can affect how we relate to our loved ones. It can make it hard to trust and share intimate connections with the people we love, even if we want to. Because of this, therapy (either individual or couples sessions) can be an excellent solution. A therapist can help you discover the tools and strategies that will be the most effective for you and your particular needs.
Since everyone reacts differently to relational trauma, finding the right strategies for overcoming your specific challenges is crucial. A therapist can help you discover these strategies and overcome your trauma in a safe and healing environment. So, if you are struggling to connect with your loved ones because of a bad experience in your past, please do not hesitate to reach out to us at Love Heal Grow to schedule an appointment with one of our therapists.