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Trauma and Awareness - From a Relationship and Attachment Perspective

By Jen Zajac, MFTI#73826

Supervised by Jennine Estes, MFT#47653

A traumatic experience can be devastating, and can have serious emotional impact on an individual and how they emotionally attach to others. If left untreated, trauma can resurface unexpectedly in many areas of an individual’s life. In my work with couples I see that trauma, in the current relationship or prior to, can cause blocks in bonding and leave a partner confused about how to repair the bond.

The first step to repairing trauma is awareness. Below are different types of trauma and a brief description of how they may appear in relationships and/or effect secure attachments. Keep in mind that because discussing a traumatic experience opens an individual up to vulnerability, it is essential within a relationship that the other partner responds positivity to the trauma survivor opening up about this vulnerability. If you are the one sharing your vulnerable experience, you can gently coach your significant other how you would like to be comforted, such as “I just need to know you are here for me”, or “it means so much to me that you can listen and understand what I’ve been though”. If you are the partner listening in on the traumatic experience, you don’t need to “fix” the situation; being nonjudgmental and providing a safe, comforting environment may be just what your partner needs.

Please note that everyone experiences trauma differently, and the symptoms/effects listed here are not exhaustive and they are described from an attachment perspective.

1. Physical abuse (although physical abuse wounds may heal on the surface, emotional abuse almost always accompanies physical abuse and takes far longer to heal.): An abused partner may feel isolated, mistrusting, have anxiety, depression, feelings of low self-worth/self-esteem, have signs of PTSD related to the abuse, and may withdraw from future relationships because of trust issues. Physical abuse is NEVER acceptable in ANY relationship.

2. Sexual abuse: May have similar symptoms of physical abuse, but may also be accompanied by confused feelings of secure relationship attachments, and may view physical closeness as equivalent to emotional closeness.

3. Emotional abuse (including acts of lying, cheating, hostile or attacking comments/language, or withholding important information that is detrimental to the relationship): Can cause an individual to withdraw from relationships as trust has been violated. Can be accompanied by depression, anxiety, low-self-esteem/self-worth, and difficulty maintaining secure attachment bonds as safety has been violated

4. A humiliating or deeply disappointing experience: Lack of trust and/or lack of feeling secure in the relationship

5. Neglect (especially as a child): Difficulty forming trust and secure attachment bonds

6. Serious accident or illness (including serious medical procedure): May cause strain on a relationship especially if view of self or role in the relationship has changed

7. Witness to domestic violence and/or community violence (including gang related violence): Much of the way we learn to form attachment bonds as adults have been learned through our experiences as children. What an individual has witnessed at home as a child (and developed feelings of safety/trust/mistrust) shapes the way we feel about connecting to others as adults

8. School violence (including bullying): There has been a lot of research in the media that points out how devastating bullying can be (and it takes on many social media forms as well)- in severe cases some teens have chosen suicide of a means of escape from the hopelessness and depression they have faced

9. Natural or manmade disasters: Traumatic events can challenge one’s sense of safety and security, and any loss can cause fear of attachment as the environment appears unstable

10. Forced displacement: Can also challenge one’s sense of safety and security, and any loss can cause fear of attachment as the environment appears unstable

11. War/terrorism/political violence (common outcome can be PTSD): Can bring up extreme inner fears and flashbacks that interfere with relationships and daily functioning

12. Victim/witness to extreme personal/interpersonal violence (includes homicide, suicide): Challenge’s individuals perception of safety and security, and can cause extreme grief and/or depression

13. Grief/separation (includes loss of a family member, friend, or end of a relationship): Challenges individuals perception of safety and security, and can cause extreme grief and/or depression

14. System-induced trauma (includes removal from a home as a child, foster placement): May cause difficulty in attachments/trust

(List adapted from Georgetown University Center for Child and Human Development online)

Important things to understand about trauma:

Individuals can experience the same event or situation differently, and can develop very different coping mechanisms or defense mechanism as a result. From my attachment perspective, an eating disorder, for example, can develop from childhood sexual abuse- the disorder manifests as a way the individual can seemingly gain “control” of their life.

Prior trauma, such as learned experiences (from parent or sibling relationships, for example), can “teach” someone that a situation or connection is “unsafe”. Individuals learn ways to cope with this based on their experience, and therefore may have blocks to developing secure bonds with others. If an individual experiences relationships that are insecure or if they do not offer comfort or satisfy their needs, it may be more difficult to form healthy, secure attachments where they feel safe openly sharing their needs or emotions. They may have learned that they need to “deal with it” on their own.

However, even if an individual has formed healthy, secure attachments, a “relationship injury”, such as an affair, can cause trauma within a relationship that requires intensive repair work to rebuild trust that has been compromised.

Lastly, trauma that is unrelated to one’s personal relationship connections, such as PTSD from military service or an illness, can cause strain on a couple coping with emotional effects that have now been introduced to the way the couple communicates with each other.

If you or someone you know needs help with a traumatic experience, Emotionally Focused Therapy can help in processing the event and re-establishing secure attachments with others. For more information or to scheudle an appointment, you can contact me here.

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