3 Common Pitfalls of Unresolved Trauma in Relationships

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The term trauma was once predominately associated with veterans suffering from the effects of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). However, we have now become more informed about the depth and breadth of trauma and its potential consequences on a person’s life, including the quality of their relationships.

While some today may use the word too casually in social circles, clinically speaking, trauma is defined as any distressing event that negatively affects a person’s ability to emotionally and physically cope. There is now an increased awareness of the various types of trauma and their adverse effects, including attachment trauma, isolated or chronic trauma, physical trauma, emotional trauma, and narcissistic abuse. As a result of being more trauma-informed, clinicians are now able to understand the implications of different forms of trauma on a person’s ability to function.

In the words of Gabor Mate (2023), “Whether we realize it or not, it is our woundedness, or how we cope with it, that dictates much of our behavior, shapes our social habits, and informs our ways of thinking about the world.” Because of this richer understanding of the effects of different types of trauma on a person’s life, there is also an increased awareness of how unhealed trauma can impact a person’s romantic relationships.

Some of the more common symptoms of unprocessed trauma in romantic relationships can include pathological patterns associated with behavioral addictions, avoidance of relationships altogether, an inability to be alone or without a romantic relationship, a lessened ability for conflict resolution, poor communication skills, and choosing a partner that is often a stand-in for an abandoning or invalidating caregiver.

Other common patterns may also be present but may be less obvious to a person with unresolved trauma. However, these patterns are just as detrimental to a person’s healthy functioning in a romantic relationship and are based on “push-pull” dynamics or traumatic bonds.

These patterns can include the following:

1. Bonding on Shared Trauma Instead of Shared Connection. If a person has unresolved trauma, they may find themselves in a relationship with someone who shares similar core wounds. For example, partners may bond over having grown up feeling unseen or unheard, or both may come from broken homes, conditions of abuse or neglect, or environments where addiction was common. Similarly, a partner may be looking to be “saved” or to “rescue” the other as a way of validating their own worth, while subconsciously repeating their pain. While shared healthy experiences can foster connection between partners, it can become a slippery slope when partners bond based on shared traumatic experiences.

Establishing a relationship with someone who has experienced similar trauma may help a person feel momentarily seen and understood and that the other person “gets” them. However, what often happens is that shared trauma is misinterpreted as a shared connection. The fact that two people may have experienced similar traumatic events in their lives is not an indication that they will be compatible in a romantic relationship.

2. Trying to Create “Perfection.” Some who grew up in invalidating environments were conditioned to perform, achieve, or accomplish as tokens of their worth. They may have learned that what they do is more important than how they feel. As a result, they may have developed perfectionistic tendencies that often include workaholism, high achievements, excessive or dangerous exercise routines, eating disorders, or other behavioral addictions as a way of overcompensating for feeling a lack of worth. Many “stuck” in this pattern are trying to make amends for feeling inadequate or not good enough by focusing on ways of “perfecting” themselves.

This “need” for perfection also extends to their romantic relationships in which they may struggle with experiencing vulnerable emotions both within themselves and with their partner. As a result, some may turn to “toxic positivity” as a maladaptive coping strategy to re-establish the illusion of the “perfect” relationship. Others may become dismissive or invalidating or place unrealistic expectations on themselves or their partner as a way of trying to re-establish things as “perfect.”

3. Using a Relationship to Avoid Healing. A common theme with unprocessed trauma is that some will turn to establishing a romantic relationship as a way of avoiding their own growth or healing. Some with histories of “chasing” relationships to avoid being alone also have histories of turning to a relationship as a distraction to self-numb. This pattern operates twofold. First, it reinforces a pattern of “chasing” a distraction as ego validation by securing a new partner. And, second, it is used to escape their own pain by focusing on the intensity and “honeymoon” phase of a new relationship. This pattern can become cyclic: Each time a threat of loss surfaces, a new relationship is turned to as a way of continuing to self-numb.

Unfortunately, this exacerbates a pattern of self-numbing and emotional unavailability because the choice of partner is not based on healthy intention or authentic connection but often as a “placeholder” to escape and avoid their unprocessed pain.

Recognizing the Pattern

If you are trying to heal from this pattern, know that you are not alone. It’s important to connect with a behavioral psychologist trained in supporting clients in healing from maladaptive patterns associated with love and romantic relationships. It is equally important to learn how to rediscover your sense of self and your independence and autonomy, and to explore how your early lived experiences may have influenced your choice of partner, your romantic relationships, or the patterns that replayed within them.

To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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