‘She Feels Stuck’: How Childhood Trauma Spoils Romantic Relationships

Adverse Childhood Experiences affect adult romantic relationships which often make us end up in a loop of abuse 

By Wasim Kakroo

DO you feel trapped in a toxic relationship with a person and do not know why it is so and how to come out of it? Do you feel you always attract romantic partners in your life who abuse you and leave you with more bruises than before? Do you find yourself emotionally sensitive especially in close interpersonal relationships? Do you feel you are moody and it has become a part of who you are?

The answer may lie in the adverse experiences you have had while you were growing up as a child or an adolescent.

Trapped in Emotionally Abusive Relationships 

Those who have had traumatic childhood experiences, end up trapped in relationships that are destructive and often end up with abusive partners. Initially, they feel they’ve made the right choice without realising that they’re attracting partners who aren’t emotionally healthy themselves. This is the other side of like attracts like. They unconsciously attract people who have had traumatic childhood experiences and are emotionally damaged.

Many people struggling mentally and emotionally do not realise that much of the issues in their relationships are perhaps because both partners are emotionally damaged. In such cases, I often advise partners to cease the romantic relationship or to pause it and take time off. I advise them not to continue with the relationship before addressing, working on and healing their emotional bruises because continuing such relationships often makes matters worse and exacerbates romantic relationships further.

Jumping Into Relationships to Find the Perfect One 

Adverse Childhood experiences also manifest in relationships in the form of other patterns. For instance, some may enter relationships, one after another, and break up as soon as they feel any fear of abandonment. They jump from one relationship to another, in constant search of others to heal and solve their traumatic past. They keep jumping into different relationships to find the perfect partner without realising that it is they who need to work on themselves before anything.

Avoiding Romantic Relationships 

Yet another pattern that shows up is that people with adverse childhood experiences often end up actively avoiding romantic relationships.

Since they were not given enough love in their childhood, they feel they aren’t deserving of it. They also feel they are incapable of being in a romantic relationship and often find them meaningless.

Additionally, they feel inherently defective and this feeling of lack of worth makes them feel fundamentally incapable of being a good partner to someone. Therefore, they avoid relationships and become socially inhibited. Not only do such people ignore self care, they often end up being self destructive.

How one handles emotions depends upon how nurtured one has felt as a child and as an adolescent. If a child’s emotional needs are adequately met in childhood, it can make a person emotionally strong. However, if they have felt emotionally neglected, it can make them emotionally confused for the most part of their adult life. This is why, as adults, some struggle with handling negative as well as positive emotions. Such individuals often struggle with anxiety, depression, bipolarity and other mental disorders because of their unmet childhood emotional needs.

All of these patterns stem from a schema that was created because of childhood experiences.

Case in Point 

In my sessions, I have been witnessing all these patterns. People relive childhood trauma in their adult relationships. This is why we start with healing their emotional traumas as these have been for the most part the site for trouble.

It is often a daunting task to get people to not only understand their emotional bruises but to handle them as well. I had a patient in her late twenties whose parents divorced when she was very young. Over the years, she had shared a roof with an emotionally abusive mother who was not mentally stable. When she got into a relationship, that person too was mentally unhealthy and had Bipolar Personality Disorder. Very loosely, someone with BPD does not have control on their emotions.

Unfortunately, as her ex partner could not understand his own emotions, he inflicted his own bruises on her — she too developed BPD.

It has been difficult to disentangle her from this loop where she feels stuck even when the relationship has been over for years.

Science Behind Romance, Relationships and Childhood Trauma

Childhood experiences are crucial to our emotional development. Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) or traumatic experiences in childhood such as physical, emotional or sexual abuse, emotional neglect, exposure to domestic violence, and traumatic loss or bereavement can affect adult relationships in a variety of ways.

Adults who have experienced developmental trauma may develop Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or “cPTSD,” which is marked by difficulties in emotional regulation, consciousness and memory, self-perception, distorted perceptions of abusers, difficulties in interpersonal relationships, and negative effects on life’s meaning.

Identity formation is an important element of natural development that occurs throughout a person’s life. Because basic survival takes precedence over, and uses resources ordinarily allocated for, normal self-development, identity — including one’s sense of being good enough, integration of emotion and intellect, basic awareness of emotional state, feeling secure and coherent as an individual, and even the basic experience of who one actually are — is disrupted by ACEs. Because an environment defined by fear and neglect (common for somebody with rough childhood), for example, causes different adaptations of brain circuitry than one characterized by safety, security, and love, ACEs alter the course of brain development. The more severe the effect is, on average, the earlier the distress occurs. On average, the earlier the distress, the more profound the effect on brain development.

Adult identity development is difficult (though rewarding) enough for those who have had a stable, safe, and fulfilling upbringing, but it is extremely difficult for those who have experienced ACEs. Identity formation is thwarted as a result of developmental delays and the adult consequences of ACEs, which frequently include substance abuse, eating disorders, depression, increased risk for a variety of health problems, behavioural issues, and difficulty in personal relationships and professional development.

Adults with unresolved developmental trauma resulting from their ACEs frequently construct their identity around being a survivor and preserving basic safety in relation to others, resulting in re-traumatizing and depressing repetitions that inhibit growth-oriented experiences. In this situation, people become overly attached with a “traumatic self” at the detriment of a more inclusive, flexible sense of self. Individuals with significant traumatic experiences during childhood separate from their environment and from themselves early on as a survival mechanism and may stay detached from themselves all through childhood, youth, and early adulthood.

With these issues in mind, I’d want to emphasise some of the fundamental ways that ACEs shape a person’s identity. Understanding these fundamental themes, which are frequently the result of dissociative effects on the traumatised psyche, can assist readers in identifying areas of difficulties and beginning the work of healing, repair, and personal growth.

People who had a particularly traumatic childhood frequently can’t recall a large part of their childhood. They may recall exceptionally vivid episodes, frequently referred to as “flashbulb memories,” that have no context. They frequently lack a distinct story of themselves as a kid, adolescent, early adulthood, and, in some cases, of later parts of their life. In attachment theory, this autobiographical sense is referred to as a “coherent narrative,” and it might be absent, underdeveloped, incorrect, or oversimplified. Many people feel as if their childhood has been stolen, and that without such a basis, their adult identity is unstable.

Children suffering from persistent developmental distress frequently separate crucial pieces of themselves in order to survive, a condition known as dissociation. They may begin to rely on one major identity to maintain stability and make it appear as though everything is fine — for example, being an exceptional student — while having little or no true personal life. Later in life, such people may feel as though they are missing pieces of themselves. They may be able to uncover and even build these missing pieces via personal development and psychotherapy. These missing pieces are frequently associated with specific emotional states and memories, and rejoining them leads to a more complete sense of identity.

It is not uncommon for people who have been traumatized by significant caregivers (especially during their childhood or adolescence through ACEs) to end up with friendships, romantic relationships, and even job environments that are not healthy for them. Even when they try to make different and better choices, they find others that suit their traumatic identity, resulting in re-traumatization through repetition of the past and thus the cycle of abuse continues in their life.

Understand and Address 

They may find themselves in the company of emotionally unavailable people, abusive or narcissistic persons, or trying to rescue and fix those they date. They desire to find someone who can provide them with what they rationally know they need and want, yet unconscious patterns take them down unwelcome, old alleys.

Often, there is a strong “chemistry” in new relationships that makes it appear as if the partnership will be different, only to discover with sadness that it is all too familiar. When friends warn them, it’s not uncommon for them to choose a new romance over a trustworthy buddy.

Getting into harmful relationships on a regular basis can be disturbing and confusing, causing one to question one’s self-understanding and locking one into the previous identity while preventing new identities from developing.

People, who have had negative developmental experiences with personal relationships, may choose to avoid contact and separate themselves. As an attempt to break the cycle of destructive relationships, this might occur early on or later in life. However, effective interpersonal interactions are essential for personal development because they provide chances for growth and change. Avoiding them as a self-protective tactic in adulthood further impedes the formation of a fully mature personality, establishing and cementing a self-perception of unworthiness and self-condemnation. Such people may think that they are too defective to care for others who deserve better. But such thinking is not a norm for an average among us. Most of us have the ability to provide more than we think we do, and as a result, we become more self-aware. People who have had bad developmental experiences due to ACEs, on the other hand, may unconsciously push people away, giving the impression that they themselves are a threat and are inadequate to be in a relationship when they are not.

When childhood trauma has been a defining component of crucial relationships — parents, siblings, and other important individuals — any reminder of those memories may lead to attempts to control negative emotions and experiences by escaping from oneself. If taken to its logical conclusion, this could lead to self-destruction.

Connection with oneself, as well as with others, is a potent reminder of earlier trauma, eliciting memories and emotions that are frequently too much to bear. Self-care is compromised, and it becomes habitual to live apart from oneself. They may be unable to reflect upon themselves at all and may avoid any invitation to do so. An inflexible traumatic identity is often marked by revulsion and intrinsic badness in one’s sense of self.

Emotions become separated from one’s identity when feelings have had no place in one’s family of origin. They continue to have an impact, resulting in disorientation and an unstable sense of self due to the inability to predict, and hence manage, powerful emotions. We require emotional information in order to be fully ourselves and make decisions. Emotional dysregulation causes issues in handling impulsive moments and makes it difficult to develop good relationships with others.

People may feel emotionally numb or as if they don’t have any emotions at all. They may have a limited range of emotions. For example, they may only be able to sense vague emotions like annoyance or boredom, or they may suppress negative emotions until it explodes out as anger. They may only experience negative emotions about themselves, such as disgust and self-loathing, and shrink back from anything or anyone who portrays a positive image of them. They may be uncomfortable with gratitude from others, not knowing how to take a compliment, or mistrustful of people who express kindness. They may take on an overly intellectualised persona, acting stiff with their lips sealed off or awkward in social situations. This causes problems in personal relationships (because emotions are necessary for closeness and influence job choices), and thus restricts their growth.

While reading about the impacts of trauma due to Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) in adulthood can be disappointing, and it can be frightening to consider doing the work of recovery and identity construction beyond the wounded self, I must say, therapeutic efforts done in collaboration with a trained psychologist are beneficial. Addressing these difficulties pays off, however it is not a given and may make a client feel frustrated to tread a path of recovery. For some, accepting an element of darkness in a flexible and ethical way, rather than rigidly opposing one’s nature, might be a key to sparking adult development.

Recovery, grieving over the past adverse experiences, and growth frequently take longer than one would like, and re-connecting with oneself needs work to be done at multiple levels. Even if it doesn’t seem possible or true, developing a sense that long-term goals are attainable and worth striving towards is critical. Working toward having basic self-care, as well as feeling comfortable requesting help when trust in caregivers has been lost, is an important first step and a trained psychologist who has experience working on trauma cases can help such people to take this first important step.

  • The author is a licensed clinical psychologist (alumni of Govt. Medical College Srinagar). He works at Kashmir Life Line, a free mental health counseling service. Author can be reached at [email protected]

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