How childhood trauma affects adult relationships

Do you fear that your past shows up in your current relationship?

Maybe statements like: “I don’t know how to trust, it’s not safe”, “I don’t know when to reach out, I don’t want to be a burden to anyone”, or perhaps “I don’t dwell on how I feel, it’s easier to just move on” are all too familiar for you or your partner.

Oftentimes, we latch on to thoughts of being flawed or not good enough or unworthy of love when trauma was a part of our childhood. If relationships are a source of fear, then absent, insecure or disorganized attachments leave a person feeling helpless or alone. The mind finds a way to cope. But sometimes, coping does not lead to healing and your trauma can creep into adult relationships.

Even if the person can’t name the aftereffects, they feel them. Whether it’s feeling like a lifelong victim, acting passive-aggressively when upset, retreating into passivity during conflict, or creating an inauthentic version of yourself – there are many ways childhood trauma affects adults in a relationship. It can also feel difficult to support someone with trauma, especially in a partnership.

Survivors of childhood trauma deserve love and security in a relationship. Forming a healthy relationship can be full of missteps and confusion, but fostering intimacy can be full of healing and growth. Let’s discuss how we can better understand the impact of trauma and help partners love and live better.

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Seeing Childhood Trauma

Whether you or your partner has experienced trauma, the most important thing to remember is that (just like anyone) they want to be seen, heard, and understood. It starts with seeing the effects of trauma on your relationship. Do you and your partner experience:

  1. Disagreements fueled by emotions?
  2. Reactions heightened by common relationship issues?
  3. Aversions to conflict making talking through issues difficult?
  4. Assumptions that one person is against the other?
  5. Doubts about a partner’s love or faithfulness that linger?
  6. Issues accepting love, despite repeated reassurance?

Unhealed trauma is a deep wound and dynamic force in any partnership, which can amplify emotions and escalate issues. Whether it is you or your partner who has experienced childhood trauma, the language you use in conversation is critical to healing and growth in your relationship.

Talking Childhood Trauma

Building a stronger connection, healthier bond, and more intimate relationship requires a lot of communication. Talking about childhood trauma can be difficult and there are times when your current relationship will trigger those same fears. Learning how to navigate the conversation helps couples stay calm and collected as their understanding of trauma heals and grows their partnership. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

  1. Self-observation can slow down escalating emotions
  2. Mindfulness can raise awareness and identify triggers for each of you
  3. Phrasing can help you both stay grounded in the present

If during a conversation, something that is said or heard triggers an unwanted response or reaction then try redirecting the dialogue. You can use phrases like:

  1. “I wonder if we can slow this down or if we are heading into old territory”
  2. “It seems like we’re getting triggered. Can we figure out what’s going on with us?”
  3. “I’m thinking this could be something we should talk about in therapy.”

Healing childhood trauma is like healing a deep wound. It takes careful, hard work especially in an adult relationship. However, it is possible to replace old ways of being over time. And, finding a therapist who can recognize and acknowledge the hurt, which the survivor has carried alone for so long, can be the next step to repairing old traumas.

How Childhood Trauma Affects Adult Relationships

Oprah recently did a report on 60 Minutes that discusses how trauma plays a role in childhood development and what new methods are being used to help people who have experienced it. The piece has been life-changing for many. You can watch it here.

So, the question is, how does childhood trauma affect adult relationships? It affects how we see, hear, and understand each other. In an intimate relationship, the triggers are bigger and the stakes are higher. Couples must do the work to help each other feel seen, heard, and understood in their partnership (especially when trauma is at work).

If you walk away learning one thing, walk away seeing, hearing, and understanding the difference between “What is wrong with you?” and “What happened to you?” The difference here in how you perceive and receive your partner is subtle but profound. The first question looks to fix the trauma with blaming language while the second question looks to comprehend their trauma with safe language.

Everyone deserves to love and live better. Whether you or your partner has survived childhood trauma, you can decide to work together to heal and grow in your relationship. The more we understand about childhood trauma, the more we foster intimacy in adult relationships.

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