“Our brains are wired for connection, but trauma rewires them for protection. That’s why healthy relationships are difficult for wounded people.”Ryan North
Do these words speak to you? Trauma can come from many different sources, and sometimes this includes those closest to you – your family. Negative experiences you had growing up, or even heavy responsibilities and expectations placed on you throughout your childhood can often be too difficult to forget. Psychologists call these Adverse Childhood Experiences — potentially traumatic events that can happen from a child’s birth until they reach adulthood. According to Centers For Disease and Prevention, these events are “linked to chronic health problems, mental illness, and substance use problems in adolescence and adulthood”. So even as you grow up and replace the family you were born into with the family you choose for yourself, it’s still hard to let go of the trauma. It seems as if the ghosts of your past come alive and try to make it all about them, once again. And even if you know in your heart that your partner is not the parent who hurt you, it may not help. What kinds of trauma can one experience through their lives? And how do these traumas impact their romantic relationships? Let’s explore 4 types of trauma and their effects on your romantic life.
Let’s start with the trauma of being rejected. Rejection trauma is born in a home where we’re made to feel like we don’t matter. Try to think back into your childhood: were you always pushed away? Did you feel like you’re not worthy of your parent’s time? If instead of love and warmth you felt rejected, you may have carried that feeling with you. And today, you might find yourself fearing rejection all over again, only this time you may feel rejected by your romantic partner. A 2015 research paper published in Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience examined emotions that occur when people perceive rejection in their relationships. According to researchers, rejection trauma could make you feel hurt, jealous, lonely, ashamed, guilty, socially anxious and embarrassed. All of these emotions can later negatively impact your relationship and your self-esteem within that relationship.
For example, psychotherapist Amy Morin said for VeryWellMind that people who went through rejection trauma may “interpret rejection as proof that they are unacceptable in some way”. If your partner is too busy to spend time with you or doesn’t reply to your message right away, you may say to yourself: “Yup, I knew it. They don’t care about me.” Do you sometimes think like this in similar situations? The reality might be, and often is, completely different, but you still may perceive it as rejection and take it personally. Maybe you believe that you only matter if you’re accepted by others, or you might struggle with constant fears and worries – expecting rejection to inevitably happen.
Hand in hand with rejection often comes abandonment. As children, we depend on our parents to feel safe, and be safe. But in some cases, our parents make the world feel unstable and dangerous. Have you experienced some kind of neglect or abuse that made you feel unsafe at home? Maybe it was lack of supervision, physical and narcissistic abuse or staying hungry all day because you weren’t given anything to eat. When a child goes through these experiences, they can’t really understand why these things are happening. And often, they can explain this only by believing they don’t actually deserve any attention or care. They start to believe that the world is not worthy of their trust, while they aren’t worthy of the world. They feel abandoned.
Abandonment trauma often leads to formation of an anxious attachment style. A 2017 study published in Current Opinion in Psychology found that “individuals with an anxious attachment style may be hypervigilant and worry about their worthiness in a relationship and their partner’s desire to be with them.” And in some cases, severe trauma can even cause the development of personality disorders, such as borderline personality disorder. Psychiatrist Mark Zimmerman wrote for MSD Manual that fear of abandonment is a common symptom of borderline personality disorder. Even if you don’t suffer from BPD, you could still feel the same mix of emotions when you feel abandoned by your partner: angry, anxious and scared. You might react intensely – acting jealous and possessive or crying your heart out – because all you know is that you can’t stand the thought of being alone again.
Maybe the worst thing about these childhood wounds is the fact that they were brought to us by the people we trusted. People who were supposed to love us more than the world, people who were supposed to be our superheroes. Suffering trauma by someone you’re close to and depend on for support and survival is defined as betrayal trauma. Have you been deeply betrayed by someone you loved and depended on? This could mean discovering that one of your parents or your partner cheated, family members justifying abusive behavior, or maybe one or both of your parents engaging in drinking or gambling instead of providing for you. If things like these happen to a child, they might have trouble accepting it or believing it, so they often just suppress it.
One study from 2009 published in The American Journal of Psychology suggests that those who suffer from betrayal trauma often “dissociate traumatic experiences from conscious awareness in order to preserve the relationship”. It’s because they are too dependent on their abuser to believe otherwise. And once they grow up, they might continue the same patterns. They might become codependent, feel inadequate to be on their own and decide to stay in toxic relationships. They might be too afraid to leave, too afraid to be betrayed again, so they just put on a happy mask and suffer in silence.
And lastly, your childhood may have left you with a wound of toxic shame – humiliation trauma. Was there a time when your parents made you feel deeply ashamed of yourself? They might have laughed at your changing body during puberty or mocked you for not getting the highest grade in school.
In order to survive feeling ashamed and humiliated, you might have developed some coping mechanisms that you still use to this day. Dr. Linda Hartling said for Modern Intimacy.com that there are 3 strategies that you might use as a way of dealing with toxic shame from your childhood: “moving away, moving toward or moving against shame.” Moving away from shame means isolating, keeping secrets, or withdrawing from your partner. Moving toward shame could show up as codependency or people-pleasing behavior, becoming what you think your partner wants you to be, even if it means losing your sense of self. And when you move against shame, you might try to fight those who shame you – maybe you use passive aggression or insults to shame your partner before they get the chance to shame you. These strategies might help you cope, but they might be detrimental to your relationship in the long run.
Do you feel like some of these trauma types describe you and your relationship patterns? Have you recognized some other childhood wounds that get in the way of a fulfilling love life? Unfortunately, sometimes we may unconsciously seek partners who imitate those who hurt us. Later on, this can lead to a trauma bond within a relationship. Are you stuck in a trauma bond? Take a look at this video and find out if it’s a trauma bond or love: 8 Signs Its A Trauma Bond, Not Love
But don’t forget: you matter. Thanks for reading. Until next time!
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Leary, M. R. (2015). Emotional responses to interpersonal rejection. Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, 17(4). https://doi.org/10.31887/DCNS.2015.17.4/mleary
Morin, A. (2019, April 23). What is rejection sensitivity? Verywell Mind. https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-rejection-sensitivity-4682652
Ph.D., A. T. & CCTSA. (2022, August 30). 3 ways rejection sensitivity can show up in relationships. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/understanding-ptsd/202208/3-ways-rejection-sensitivity-can-show-in-relationships
Simpson, J. A., & Rholes, W. S. (2017). Adult attachment, stress, and romantic relationships. Current Opinion in Psychology, 13, 19–24. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.copsyc.2016.04.006
Zimmerman, M. (2021, May 5). Borderline personality disorder (BPD). MSD Manuals. https://www.msdmanuals.com/home/mental-health-disorders/personality-disorders/borderline-personality-disorder-bpd