How Childhood Trauma May Be Showing Up In Your Relationship

Relationships can be the perfect opportunity if you want to learn about yourself and grow. Nothing can push you to be more introspective than communicating, compromising, and working through triggers, especially in a romantic relationship. As mental health information becomes more accessible thanks to the Internet, many of us are learning about childhood trauma and how it shapes our behavior and personality. 

Whether we realize it or not, our childhood trauma often appears in our relationships. This trauma could include how you communicate, an inability to commit, not spending enough time with your partner because you overwork, and even having financial struggles that affect your finances as a couple. 

An example of childhood trauma and how it could show up in a relationship is experiencing emotional or physical neglect by a parent. 

“We don’t even think about absent parents being trauma, but it is traumatic to a child and it always in some capacity shows up in their relationships as adults,” says Krystal Rogers, a marriage and family therapist located in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.

Neglect by a parent could result in hyper-independence as an adult and difficulty trusting people. In a relationship, it could feel like you don’t ‘need’ your partner, struggling to depend on them, or always having one foot out the door. 

This could also be linked to a dismissive avoidant attachment style, which is when you avoid being close to others as a response to neglect during childhood. Those unfamiliar with attachment styles stem from attachment theory, which identifies and categorizes behaviors people have in and around relationships that stem from their relationship with their primary caregivers. There are three other attachment styles–fearful, avoidant, anxious preoccupied, and secure. 

“No matter what childhood trauma we have, it is often rooted in some neglect as a child,
says Tamyra Villines, a licensed mental health counselor and founder of Lynn E Therapy. 

“So that can be emotional, physical, financial, [or] environmental needs,” she explains. “An environmental need could be having food in the house, and if there’s no food in the house, that means that’s neglect. An emotional need could be needing reinforcement to know you did a good job, but if the only thing a person hears is negative reinforcement, that’s neglect.”

Trauma is not bad; anyone who makes it through life without any is pretty lucky, as almost half of American children have childhood experiences that could affect their health as adults, according to the National Institute for Children’s Health Quality. More than two-thirds of children experience at least one traumatic event by the time they clock 16. 

Not being aware of your trauma or dealing with triggers can hurt your relationships. To become more aware of your trauma, consider getting into therapy if you aren’t already there. Working with a professional can help you understand why you’re behaving in potentially unhealthy ways within your relationships and how to start healing so you can show up as a better version of yourself. You can also share your trauma with your partner if you feel comfortable so they better understand who you are and how to support you. 

Villines recommends people try both individual therapy and couples therapy. Individual therapy can help you understand yourself and your triggers, which is key to developing healthier relationship patterns. 

“The reason we fall into these relationships where we’re loving a person from our trauma place is that we may lack awareness of what’s happening,” says Villines. “A lot of us have an awareness of the trauma, right? So we know what happened. But we don’t know how it’s affecting us in real-time.”

Couples therapy will significantly help learn how to communicate as a couple and understand one another, says Villines. If therapy isn’t your thing, a community leader, pastor, or life coach may help too. 

“Communication is key when we talk about trauma and how that presents in relationships,” she explains. “It’s important that you learn how to communicate with your partner. It’s not really about what you communicate, but much more about how you communicate.”

Working together also requires more patience on both parts. When your partner acts out, look at their behavior with an inquisitive lens vs. an accusatory one. 

While supporting your partner, avoid falling into the trap of trying to save or heal them. Healing is the responsibility of each individual. You can only help them and cheer them on from the sidelines. Doing this requires a level of self-awareness, Rogers tells ESSENCE. 

“It requires the person trying to be the fixer knowing that their [partner] is not broken, So there’s nothing for you to fix. Just changing to that thinking, I think, will help a lot of people get out of the position of being the fixer and just being a partner,” she explains. 

In some cases, after going through therapy to address their childhood trauma, people feel no longer compatible with their partner. It can feel like the ‘healed’ version of you is no longer on the same page as your partner. If you find yourself in this situation, know this doesn’t always have to lead to a breakup. Rogers suggests couples therapy with a focus on these new compatibility challenges. 

“It could be that the style of the relationship changes,” she says. “Maybe you can explore other relationship styles to see if that works versus breaking up and not being together anymore.”

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