“Why can’t I find someone that respects me?!?!”
“I always manage to end up with a supervisor that doesn’t take me seriously.”
“I work so hard to be nice to other people, why doesn’t anyone seem to care how I feel about things?”
While most people have asked themselves similar questions, people who have experienced abusive or traumatic relationships in the course of their lives, particularly in childhood, tend to be plagued by questions like these. Almost every relationship, whether at work/school or with family/friends can seem lopsided. There can be a tendency to feel obligated to say “yes” to any request; fears that any disagreement means the other person will now want nothing to do with you. As a result, the closer the relationship, the more uncomfortable it can feel.
The desire to connect and form close relationships with other people is a natural, and biologically hardwired, drive. In our hunter-gatherer past, those bonds helped us survive as it was the bond between caregiver and baby that was the first and best line of defense against harsh environments and predators. Millennia later, despite technological developments that allow us to travel the globe, wear designer jeans, and watch television on several devices simultaneously, this simple fact has not changed. Our relationships are an integral source of our sense of vitality, comfort, security, and joy and it is through these earliest relationships with our mothers, fathers, and siblings that we learn about ourselves, how to communicate, and feel close to another person.
Early interactions with our family or caregivers become a blueprint for how we approach our relationships as adults. It is for precisely this reason that childhood relational trauma (as in physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, neglect, or separation and loss) can have such a devastating impact on relationships through many stages of life. Our earliest relationships shape how we perceive ourselves and others, and try as we might, those perceptions tend to track through life unless alternative ways of thinking/living are learned.
Perhaps it’s best to illustrate with an example of how this learning takes place. Let’s take little Johnny. Johnny falls and skins his knee while riding his bike; he starts crying. His mother comes running over, she kneels down and checks his knee. Realizing it’s not serious, she gives him a hug and gently says, “It’s okay, I know falling was scary but you’ll be okay, and you’re safe”. Then she helps him inside where she washes his wound and wraps it in a band aid. After Johnny has calmed down and is no longer crying, his mom helps him get back on his bike. Noticing that he is apprehensive, she says, “I know you feel scared because you just fell, but you’ve ridden your bike so many times and have done such a good job!” With that, Johnny looks up at her and smiles, gets on his bike, and starts to ride.
What did little Johnny learn from this interaction? His mother’s reaction showed him that she cares about his well-being, and if he’s hurt, she will be there. Her response allowed him to experience what it’s like to feel comforted and soothed, both with words and touch. With repetition of similar events, he will learn how to soothe himself in similar ways. Finally, her encouragement and support of his getting back on the bike helps him experience himself as resilient. Even if something scary happens, it does not need to be avoided in the future.
Imagine how this experience would have been different if his mother was nowhere to be found when he fell, or if she witnessed his fall, but then continued what she was doing? What if she yelled at him to stop being a baby and just get back on the bike, or alternatively, that he should no longer ride at all because it isn’t safe? What if he was punished for being reckless? What would repeated responses like these have taught him about himself or what he can expect from others in times of need or when he is in pain?
When one’s needs for support, comfort, and nurturance are not met in a repeated way early in life, the world can feel like a scary place and expectations for other people can be very low. In traumatic upbringings, children frequently learn that their needs and wants are not important. That the people in their lives are unaffected by their pain or, worse, inflict pain upon them intentionally. So, how does the learning that takes place in traumatic relationships play out in a person’s life, even after the abuse has ended? Many survivors may experience:
- Difficulty trusting others, a general view that people should not be trusted
- Hypersensitivity to rejection, fears of abandonment
- Difficulty maintaining boundaries in relationships
- Difficulty advocating for oneself and/or asking for help
- Belief that expressing vulnerability to others is a sign of weakness
- Engagement in risky activities/behaviors in relationships
- Belief that I am damaged/unlovable, and others will view me as such
Any of these sound familiar? As hard as we may try, it’s difficult for adults to “disbelieve” these core assumptions about themselves and others that were established repeatedly earlier in life.
Thankfully, what we know now from years of clinical research is that there are effective treatments that help people cope with the pain associated with early childhood trauma. Treatments that can help them learn new ways of thinking about themselves and the world around them. Treatments that teach skills they can practice to engage in better self-care, regulate their emotions, communicate more effectively and express their needs.
The desire to connect is not a choice, it is how we are made; it is the product of hundreds of thousands of years of evolution. Learning to do it in a healthy way can be life altering.
If you are someone who grew up in a chaotic, traumatic or neglectful environment as a child, and wonder if those experiences are causing your current relationships to be unfulfilling, you may want to consider exploring some of the current evidence-based treatment options: Skills Training in Affective and Interpersonal Regulation (STAIR), Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT), Prolonged Exposure (PE) and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). It’s never too late to learn healthier ways to feel empowered and confident in challenging relationships and capable and connected with the important people in your life.