Attachment trauma is the ultimate disruption of a relationship with another and, ironically, it can only be resolved and healed through a relationship.
Because of trauma’s impact on our view of ourselves in relation to others, trauma has a profound negative impact on relationships.
All trauma results in a feeling of being isolated from others. An individual who has a history of trauma will have a difficult time connecting and maintaining a healthy connection with other people.
Recovery from trauma is a reconnection with others; however, for an individual with a history of trauma it takes a specific type of relationship that will help the reconnection and healing process.
In this blog, we’re going to look at what type of relationship is needed in order to heal from trauma, especially when it comes to attachment trauma, where there has never been a healthy foundation of a relationship or connection laid.
Trauma and its Impact on Relationships
The effects of trauma can be seen everywhere; the lack of true connection with others is currently playing out within our society. The high divorce rates, the romantic patterns of someone with attachment disorder, even the manner in which people are able to treat, and even kill others, in a calm premeditated state is evidence that our society is plagued with individuals who have attachment trauma.
Trauma greatly disrupts our ability to connect with others, as well as ourselves, leading to all kinds of personal and social patterns that may not always be traced back to the trauma underlying it all.
The easiest place to see the direct impact of trauma on relationships is to look at the lives of individuals diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
When we look at their personal lives, we can see distinctly how trauma can have a huge impact on relationships.
In studies looking at the Vietnam Veterans with PTSD (Vietnam Readjustment Study), several key themes were found showing the long-term impact of trauma on relationships.
In a long-term Vietnam Readjustment Study on those with PTSD, they found the following relationship patterns:
- More likely to have a difficult time getting along with wives, girlfriends, or feeling emotionally close to anyone
- Less likely to get married
- More likely to have marriage problems
- More likely to have parenting problems
- More likely to divorce
- Many men become extremely isolated or resorted to violence against others
- Women had all similar relationship patterns though less likely to resort to violence
Why do these relationship patterns develop after trauma? Trauma not only changes our view of others, but also affects our sense and connection with ourselves. This needs to be understood, because in order for healing to occur, a relationship with another person needs to be rebuilt.
The Development of the Sense of Self
Those working with survivors of a trauma need to understand how the sense of self is affected by trauma. By doing so, they can engage in the relationship in such a way that will be beneficial and allow healing by rebuilding their sense of self.
A healthy sense of self can only be created within the context of a healthy relationship with another. Let’s look at how a healthy sense of self is supposed to be created during early childhood, because the process will be very similar when rebuilding someone’s sense of self after trauma.
The fancy term for “sense of self” is autonomy. Autonomy is understanding who we are by ourselves, apart from others. Autonomy is a huge part of who we are and how we define ourselves to be.
When an infant is born, they think they’re still physically connected to their mother. They eventually begin to learn that they’re now a separate person from their mother. They have their own bodies, likes, dislikes, desires, and will. This is the beginning of autonomy!
The development of autonomy is the second psychosocial developmental stage of a young child. In the first year of life, the first psychosocial developmental milestone should be reached, which is the development of trust rather than mistrust.
By 12 months of life, the foundation of implicit trust in their caregiver should be established, which will allow the child to go on to develop the second psychosocial milestone- the development of autonomy rather than shame and doubt.
This stage of life is often described by many as “The Terrible Two’s,” because it’s when the child begins to have a will of their own.
Thus, autonomy is the second level of personal growth after a foundation of trust in others is laid. If a foundation of mistrust was laid rather than of trust, they failed to successfully meet that milestone and that healthy development of the subsequent psychosocial milestones will not be possible.
Either way, in attachment trauma or other forms of trauma, both psychosocial structures are affected- trust and autonomy- and they both need to be rebuilt for healing to occur.
Trauma and the Sense of Self
While trust in others during a trauma is shattered, trauma also makes us question ourselves, even to the point of questioning our autonomy.
When someone or something overpowers us to the point where we don’t think we’re going to survive, we lose that sense of autonomy. In that situation, we feel we’ve lost the power of choice, and go on automatic mode just to survive.
Dr. Judith Herman states in her book, Trauma and Recovery, “One of the effects of a traumatic event a person’s sense of self is broken.”
Following a trauma, that feeling of being overpowered persists, and that individual will no longer feel like they have a will of their own or be able to exercise that will.
Trauma makes us doubt whether or not we have the power of choice. We’ve lost our power. In this sense, trauma destroys our sense of self.
When we lose our sense of self and the power of choice, we see threat everywhere and in every relationship, because we don’t believe we can remain ourselves in a relationship.
Healing Relationships After Trauma
A relationship that is going to heal someone after attachment trauma or other forms of trauma requires a very specific approach.
In a therapeutic relationship, more than just empathy and support are needed; however, if a trauma is still occurring, this is very helpful and protective.
A relationship that is going to heal someone from the effects of trauma needs to rebuild the psychosocial structures that were damaged as a result of the trauma, which will create a basic sense of safety and autonomy.
These frameworks need to be rebuilt in the same order and manner in which they were (or were supposed to have been) created in the first place during early childhood.
Step 1: Rebuilding a Basic Sense of Safety
Rebuilding a basic sense of safety is the first step in healing from a trauma.
Physical safety should be addressed first, because a nervous system will never allow a person to focus on emotional safety if it still feels physically threatened. Establishing a sense of safety with another human being is not difficult, but misunderstood by many.
Even when we look at how infants build trust in their caregivers, it’s through being in a state of vulnerability and dependency on someone bigger and stronger than you, who can do what you cannot. Experiencing them time after time by changing their diapers, feeding them, and playing with them creates the trust that you’re big and strong enough to protect them and keep them safe. When you care for the newborn and infant you are showing that child that they can trust that you will use your strength to do good things for them.
Similarly after a trauma, having someone that is perceived as bigger and stronger (whether physically or emotionally) is an important piece to a relationship that is going to be therapeutic and healing.
If you perceive someone as not being any bigger or stronger than you, you won’t trust them to be able to keep you safe, because you weren’t big or strong enough to keep yourself safe.
Thus, Step 1 of rebuilding a basic sense of safety requires a relationship with someone who embodies strength with structure and boundaries all implemented in a kind and calm manner.
Don’t misunderstand this concept. many people can be just kind and just calm, however, to someone recovering from trauma, being just kind and just calm will be perceived as a weakness. For instance, it would appear that that person would be someone others could walk over and take advantage of; this is not someone that they can trust to protect them after a trauma.
While they may test the limits, a person recovering from trauma needs to be in a relationship with another person who they perceive as strong and is able to protect them. For this to be a healthy therapeutic experience, this person needs to have amazing inner strength who has and maintains boundaries.
I have seen many individuals recovering from trauma histories attach themselves to people who are perceived as strong, yet are not kind. The importance of strength in the development of trust cannot be underestimated!
Those individuals with histories of trauma will gravitate toward people who come across as strong, because they do feel a sense of safety and protection from them.
It’s the respect for the strength and goodness of someone that facilitates both the development and the rebuilding of trust, laying the foundation for the next step.
Step 2: Rebuilding a Sense of Self
Once basic sense of safety is reestablished, building a positive view of self is the next step in healing from trauma.
Rebuilding a sense of self is especially important in healing from attachment trauma, because a healthy sense of self was never established in the first place. To break the long-term relationship patterns that would be a characteristic of someone with an insecure attachment style, a true and stable sense of self has to be created.
In any kind of trauma though, our self-regulation systems get unbalanced. Our regulation of intimacy and aggression is disrupted by trauma and must be restored.
In the rebuilding of a sense of self, it requires that others show some tolerance for a fluctuating need for closeness and distance. As healing occurs, there’ll be more attempts to reestablish autonomy and self-control, which needs to be encouraged, but not pushed.
Unproductive Relationship Dynamics
There are many negative behaviors that can be present in a person with a history of trauma! Dr. Judy Herman talks about this in her book Trauma and Recovery.
While stress may motivate us to come closer to others for support, a trauma creates such a disruption in our connection with humanity that it causes damages to other relationships.
Confusion and despair are the initial response after a trauma, and this inevitably results in emotional withdrawal from relationships. Those with PTSD alienate their families; although having a strong family of origin is protective against PTSD.
Aggression, manipulation, and isolation are some of the more common behavior patterns, and yet, can be very subtle.
Bringing these issues to light is necessary, because the individual may not understand or recognize what they’re doing.
This is where being a person of calm inner strength and firm boundaries implemented with kindness is really important! Often times too much latitude is given for angry outbursts and emotional isolation.
There’s also no need to tolerate these behaviors, especially uncontrolled outbursts of aggression. Tolerating any of this behavior is actually counterproductive to healing, because it ultimately increases the person’s sense of guilt, shame, and alienates them further.
The Balance Required in Therapeutic Relationships
If you’re in a position, whether a parent or provider, it’s essential you understand the balance between strength and kindness. It’s imperative that you are able to be both empathic and confrontational, that you are able to express understanding while maintaining healthy boundaries.
Being only empathic and kind will not be enough to bring someone back from the clutches of trauma.
The better you can train yourself to read someone’s nervous system and their emotional states, the more you will grow in your skills of knowing when to confront and when to sit in silence, when to hold and when to let them walk.
It’s the most beautiful thing in the world to see someone come back from a place of fear, distrust, and isolation to a place of trust, connection, and self-empowerment!
Having the knowledge and skills to walk someone through this process, and be the calm, strong person they need is a gift of a lifetime.
I look forward to hearing your experiences of either being that person for someone or having had someone be that for you. It’s rare, but I hope that by clarifying what is needed in the relationship dynamics to heal someone, that more people will be empowered to fill those roles in our homes and treatment centers.
To Health and Healing ~
P.S. You can schedule a consultation with me to work through this one-on-one.
Herman, Judith (1992). Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence – From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror. Basic Books.
Jordan, B. K., Marmar, C. R., Fairbank, J. A., Schlenger, W. E., Kulka, R. A., Hough, R. L., et al. (1992). “Problems in families of male Vietnam Veterans with posttraumatic stress disorder.” Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 60, 916-926.