Trauma and Relationships
Stings from the Past
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | April 2013 (edited November 11, 2022)
Traumatic pasts strain the present. Traumatic experiences with love and attachment heighten emotions in relationships. We can graciously accept our history and improve intimacy in the present.
As innocent children, we gleefully frolic, feeling the joys of aliveness. But an awkward landing or a painful sting changes the experience. Once joyful play transforms into fear as we run through fields burdened by hidden dangers. Relationships frighten because of our injurious pasts, projecting dark experiences onto the present, heightening emotions and challenging connections.
Life has many joys. Moments of opportunity, hopes, securities, and fun abound. Yet, interwoven into the experience of living is many cruel paradoxes. Little compares to ghastly attachment injuries that painfully blast our psyches during critical and vulnerable moments. These injuries from childhood abuse and emotionally traumatizing relationships continue to haunt fundamental needs for many years, if not the remainder of our lives. These stings from the past that continue to painfully ruin the present.
The Human Drive to Belong
A fundamental human need is to belong (Baumeister and Leary, 1995). When fundamental dysfunctions of emotions collide with human bonding, we get tossed in a self perpetuating battle of unfulfilled longing for love and relationship sabotage. We seek connection but fears ruin closeness. Strong conflicting mechanisms engage in a life disturbing battle.
"I'm still coping with my trauma, but coping by trying to find different ways to heal it rather than hide it."
Emotions , Learning and Trauma
The motivational system is functional. Feeling affects proceed conscious thought. The world is populated by living organisms that survive—and even flourish—without
conscious thought. Our internal sense of well-being relies on conscious translation of these feeling affects, creating what we experience as emotions.
Consciousness has a strong serviceability for survival in complex and competitive environments—emotions are a byproduct of consciousness. Our biological system signals good, bad, and dangerous through chemical changes that disrupt homeostatic balances, we experience discomfort and prepare to receive or resist.
Many emotional responses are innate—a baby feels hungry and cries. But other emotions arise from learning, we associate things, places and people with the past; when a history was chaotic, learning projects chaos on the present. Attachment injuries may poison the otherwise good good feelings associated with attachment.
Daniel Siegel, clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine and executive director of the Mindsight Institute explains that "childhood trauma and neglect have been found to impair the growth of the integrative fibers of the brain" (2009, location 3335).
Survival in our complex social world is difficult. the intricate cultural rules of belonging are learned during infancy and prolonged childhoods. We develop skills of relating in the earliest months of life. Psychology research in object relation theory and attachment theory examine the inticacies of these necessary stages of development.
Robert DeMoss, former Clinical Director of a mental health center in New Mexico, currently working as a psychologist in Colorado, wrote "during infancy, we humans are completely dependent on others for our survival, and during our prolonged childhood, we readily learn language, many cultural rules, and the basics of living in a society—merely through being in the presence of others." These critical times are not all rosy. DeMoss cautions, "however, during the earliest years of our lives, we cannot resist the influences of other people, whether those influences are positive or negative" (1999, page 163).
"What we see and experience...has far reaching ramifications for our 'understanding' of appropriate social behavior" (DeMoss, page 149). Trauma is a significant source of learning. Painful events are marked as important to future survival. Futures are interpreted through the lens of the past.
Opportunities to bond are disrupted by rascal histories of relationship trauma, bursts of emotion erupt and interrupt. The stings of the past re-emerge, reminding of trauma that we closely associate with belonging.
Six Ways Childhood Trauma Impacts Adult Connection:
Grant Hilary Brenner MD, FAPA. Psychology Today. 6 Ways That a Rough Childhood Can Affect Adult Relationships
Trauma from a Thousand Small Injuries
Life shattering events damage our psyches and interrupt normal processing. These traumatizing disasters require new learning, reorganizing and critical care for healing. However, single devastating events are not the only cause of trauma. Long, protracted experiences of emotional neglect, frustrating needs, and harsh judgements grates on well-being leaving notable scars on our souls.
My twenty-year marriage fits the latter. No notable single event, just a series of disappointments and loneliness. These traumatizing relationships give just enough space to hope they will improve—many never do.
After my divorce, I began dating a nice gal. We both were recovering from painful relationships, experiencing residue from the emotional damage. One night, while we were cooking dinner, she made a gentle correction, “the pan is too hot, you need to turn down the heat.” Unexplainably, the simple remark stung (I suppose associated with my twenty year history of criticism).
I responded to the correction with a disapproving glance. The evening slowly deteriorated into uncomfortable silence. Small events in the present brought us back to the wilted meadows of our past, evoking implicit memories of hurt, and inciting protective emotions.
Intertwining of Past trauma and Present Relationships
Thoughts, experience and accompanying feelings intricately intertwine; past experience invokes feeling reactions to the present, feelings create value perceptions, and perceptions ignite thoughts and reactionary behaviors. Behaviors, even disapproving glances, impact others. The complex web of interconnected emotions. Personal histories aren’t self-contained; they escape our boundaries and pull the histories of others to the surface.
Our trauma becomes an integral part of our relationship to the world.
Painful experiences diminishes happiness. Those close to us respond to our projections. Our habitual return to trauma evokes powerful emotions, motivating responses. We are primed for action. Biological programming insists we respond to fear, unfairness, and loss. The emotions warn the body that something isn’t right, and we need to act—NOW. However, trauma disrupts our ability to correctly identify danger.
Misdirected Learning from Trauma
The larger the hurt, the greater the emotion. Dominant emotions burst through with robustness, giving more importance to triggering event than it deserves. We biologically prepare for a sizable threat when the correction or disapproving glance were harmless. An impoverished and hurtful childhood typically forges intense protective emotions that were adaptive to the child but problematic for later connections; the traumatic childhood memories imprint relationships with danger.
The adult burdened by brawny, over-aroused emotions is always guarding against the fears of unpredictable and chaotic connections. For some, any feelings of closeness sparks unnerving fear of abandonment.
See Fear of Abandonment for more on this topic
These dreadful patterns continue to haunt in the present. The powerful emotions influence thoughts that direct behaviors and, ultimately, alter the environment. Many unrealistic fears become reality; not because we accurately detected a threat but because our reactions placed unnatural burdens on delicate budding connections, overwhelming fragile relationships; the emotions become self-fulfilling prophecies.
Emotional Processing Theory helps explain this between past trauma and relationship interference in the present. The research finds that trauma victims often avoid trauma memories, and related cues. The avoidance is negatively reinforced, provide measured immediate relief from overwhelming emotions (Martinson, et al. 2013). Avoidance, however, maintains emotional processing and attachment fears remain intact and continue to disrupt closeness.
Boys that feel rejected and ignored by their parents "are likely to sidestep romantic involvements rather than endure the anxiety of bidding for an acceptance" they have never known, explains Carl Hindy Ph.D., J. Conrad Schwartz Ph.D. and Archie Brodsky in their wonderful book If This Is Love, Why Do I Feel So Insecure?: Learn How to Deal With Anxiety, Jealousy, and Depression in Romance--and Get the Love You Deserve! (1990).
Fear of Closeness Prevents Closeness
One of life's cruelest ironies. The victim's painful traumas that injured attachment motivates actions that inhibit closeness, leading to the likeliness of repeated painful endings. Each failure perpetuates a painful legacy, confirming the belief that relationships are painful.
The fear increases and motivates stronger alienating behaviors. The glance or the correction is attacked with protective defensiveness. The partner, the target of attack, often reacts with their own protections, around and around the present continually drags up the past further igniting relationship anxieties.
All the moving pieces—reactions, emotions and reactions to emotions—spread and strengthen, as relationships repeatedly moves through this dynamic cycle, closeness is destroyed. Another loss smolders in memories traumatizing the victim, accumulating the pain with other losses, and increasing vigilance of hurtful threats when the next attempt at love begins.
Interrupting Destructive Cycles
Aaron T. Beck in his classic book Love is Never Enough wrote:
"If our thinking is straightforward and clear, we are better equipped to reach these goals. If it is bogged down by distorted symbolic meanings, illogical reasoning, and erroneous interpretations, we become in effect deaf and blind. Stumbling along without clear sense of where we are going or what we are doing, we are destined to hurt ourselves and others. As we misjudge and miscommunicate, we inflict pain on both ourselves and our mates and, in turn, bear the brunt of painful retaliations."
Beck offers hope, these tragic interactions can be challenged and changed. He teaches that, "this kind of twisted thinking can be untangled by applying a higher order of reasoning."
Any hope for belonging and intimacy rests on interrupting the self perpetuating cycles that destroy relationships. When fear and anger rule, the impending overwhelms, magnifying emotions and dimming creative thought.
Young couples, unaware of accumulating small hurts, miss opportunities to intervene and prevent another painful ending. The hope that the new relationship will cure all the ills from the past is magically blinding. As the relationship progresses, if necessary relationship building elements are neglected, the small hurts begin to accumulate in large traumas. As lovers become more invested and dependent—old fears resurface.
The fears then spur thoughts and protective reactions. The young couple, just emerging from bliss, is unprepared for the emotional road ahead. The mounting frustrations, hurt, and dramatic interactions may be too much for intimacy to develop.
See True Love Takes Time for more on this topic
Underneath conversations lie a growing fear: "you don’t love me." The returning ache from childhood abuse and past attachment injuries invade the soul and overwhelm the possessor. During emotional flooding disagreements can't be resolved, meaningful discussion is replaced with defensiveness. Love and intimacy is never found in these cycles.
Expecting A Partner to Do Our Emotional Work
When we task a partner to relieve our painful relics of trauma, we unwittingly blame them for when connection is frustrated. Perhaps, we are expecting too much, driving caring and considerate others away. We have personal emotional work to do.
Old processes are recycled with each new connection; joy is replaced with fear, magnifying anxiety, and motivating attempts of control to prevent the inevitable. Overloaded emotions stimulate hysterical responses—even neutral triggers cause us to jump. The rotating partners doesn't resolve our emotional injuries. They can't fulfill emotional needs, when we suck everything they have to offer into an unfillable wound.
See Emotional Black Holes for more on this topic
Trauma leaves lasting impacts on perception, everything is subject to unconsciously interpretations as threats. The slightest word, facial expression, or gesture triggers powerful emotions. Those reactions are our monster to tame. A partner may help. Yet when we blame the demons on our dear partner, the one we once loved, our labels transform them into the enemy.
See Self Confirming labels for more on this topic
Hope for Change
There is hope. We can untangle these relationship-destroying patterns. With recognition, we can change directions, avoiding familiar pit falls. Healthy relationship changes require knowledge, skill, and empathy; and most importantly—patience.
Emotions unfitting to experience are embedded deep in the fabric of our psyche. Quick solutions to break long existing patterns seldom work. Reconstructing a broken relationship requires more than stumbling through a new technique. We need practice, patience, and often professional guidance.
Healing Broken Relationships
Relationships can be healed. We can resurrect from the depths of sorrow. Broken relationships require a healing environment. We must confront automatic responses and emotional reactions together with our partner. Relationship friendly skills must be invited into the circle. Mastering skills of compromise, cooperation and follow through, establishing the beginnings of trust and security.
We must also forgive. We all have imperfections. Flaws are easily exploited and deemed at fault for a lack in closeness.; we must avoid blaming a partner’s peculiarities and take responsibility for the health of our connections. Compassion must be displayed in our words and felt in our hearts.
If we fail to take responsibility, we will continue to blame our partners for the internal disruptions caused from the stings of the past. A partner may trigger emotions but not be the sole cause—the cause is much more complex. Emotional disruptions are a relationship problem not a partner problem. We must accept personal accountability for unhealthy behaviors, recognizing the programmed emotional responses.
Over-time, we notice subtle changes from the accumulating positive interactions. As we respectfully work through disagreements, trust increases. Some problems are resolved; others continue. When we approach issues with patience and understanding, we find solutions. Our partner’s differences may annoy but with skill we artfully differentiate serious problems from normal irritations of connection. We learn to integrate the personality differences without demanding change. As partners cultivate healthy skills of relating, they find welcomed relief from those bothersome stings of the past.
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Baumeister, R., & Leary, M. (1995). The Need to Belong: Desire for Interpersonal Attachments as a Fundamental Human Motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117(3), 497-529.
DeMoss, R. T. (1999). Brain Waves Through Time. 12 Principles for Understanding the Evolution of the Human Brain and Man's Behavior. Basic Books
Hindy, C., Schwartz, J. C., and Brodsky, A. (1990). If This Is Love, Why Do I Feel So Insecure?: Learn How to Deal With Anxiety, Jealousy, and Depression in Romance--and Get the Love You Deserve! Fawcett; 1st Ballantine Books Ed edition
Martinson, A., Sigmon, S., Craner, J., Rothstein, E., & McGillicuddy, M. (2013). Processing of Intimacy-Related Stimuli in Survivors of Sexual Trauma. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 28(9), 1886-1908.
Siegel, D. J. (2009). The Healing Power of Emotion: Affective Neuroscience, Development & Clinical Practice (Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology). W. W. Norton & Company; Illustrated edition.