• Lisa S. Larsen, PsyD

10 Things Trauma Survivors Sometimes do to Mess up their Relationships

arguing family members perhaps traumatized by their past
When people's past hurts are triggered in arguments, their relationships can suffer

Like it or not, a lot of our patterns of relating to others are based on what we learned in our families of origin. If we did not have good role models for setting limits, having boundaries, sharing our feelings effectively and considerately, and other crucial relationship skills, the chances of us having good relationships as adults is lessened. However, we can learn these skills and have the relationships we desire and deserve. Here are some of the patterns that can get us into trouble when we grew up in dysfunctional families and apply those patterns to current relationships.

1. Take out our anger at their abuser on current loved ones. The current people in our lives may not even be doing anything mean or wrong to them; sometimes these loved ones are “safe” to lash out at because they do not hurt or abuse us.

2. Assume the worst about others’ motives and then act in ways to bring about that feared outcome.

3. Unconsciously provoke others’ anger/revulsion/rejection so they feel more in control. Instead of being rejected we can feel like they hastened the inevitable outcome (of being rejected).

4. Do not take care of our own needs. Sometimes w place others’ needs above their own, at our own expense. This goes along with having trouble asserting our needs. Trauma survivors do not always know they have a right to have needs, let alone assert them; they have trouble saying no to unreasonable requests, or even reasonable requests that they do not have to go along with.

5. Put up rigid boundaries that will not let us give or receive love. For example, we might say “no” too often to things that might actually benefit us, because we fear taking the risk of experiencing something new.

6. Run “hot and cold” with people – pursue people aggressively when we feel lonely and desperate, but put distance between them and ourselves when we get too close and fear engulfment.

7. Seek out partners, friends or work situations that reenact childhood dysfunction from our families of origin. These are usually situations where there is a power difference in the others’ favor, but at other times, where we feel superior and more in control.

8. Stay in situations where our needs and desires are not met or we are habitually exploited or abused.

9. Vacillate between holding in our anger and suppressing it, or lashing out in anger when we can no longer hold it in. Neither response is helpful to the situation because neither is appropriate to the demands of the situation.

10. Exploit, manipulate or abuse other people, without even knowing it. This can happen in domestic violence situations where a child saw his or her parents hurt each other, for instance. The abusive pattern becomes the “normal” template for how to relate to others and when the survivor’s current partner makes them mad, they might not even think about slapping or hitting the partner, or demeaning them verbally.

It can be more subtle too, wherein a person whose boundaries have been violated repeatedly expects others to have overly loose boundaries. Such people might try to get away without paying for services or get “something for nothing.” This may work for them in the short run but they might alienate many people and/or have creditors hound them when others get fed up with their antics.

By becoming aware of these patterns and gaining a more objective, healthy distance from their behavior, survivors don’t have to repeat these patterns. When they notice these patterns arise, they can stop, make a different choice, and change their course of action. Many of these patterns may seem like they’re “hard-wired” – survivors may take it for granted that this is how relationships must go, how they always go.

The idea that one could do something differently seems like a foreign concept to them. They’ve seen their friends, family and everyone they know some or all of these patterns and they’ve developed a well-worn path to the negative outcomes that the patterns lead to. Some people are more fortunate and have had healthier modeling of successful relationships, but there haven’t been enough of those early positive relationships to copy and translate into current relationships.

Do things to remind yourself that the person you’re relating to is NOT your abuser or perpetrator. This might include talking to yourself before you see the person or while you’re seeing the person, like “this is my friend Joe, it’s not my mother or father,” or “He’s saying something that is bugging me right now; I wonder if it’s because it reminds me of something bad that happened to me earlier, or if it’s from right now?”

Another thing you might try is checking out your assumptions about the person’s intent with them. For example, “Joe, when you said X, I took it to mean that you were angry at me and that you didn’t want to be my friend anymore. Is that what you were intending?” This gives the other person the chance to correct your assumption or, if your assumption was accurate, confirm it. Either way you get a chance to see what assumptions or conclusions you draw are accurate and what are not. This assumes that Joe is capable of being aware of his own feelings and honest about expressing them.

If there are things about your current situation that remind you of your traumatic situation/dynamic, try to assess what is happening that is potentially threatening or hurting you. If the person to whom you’re relating is a friend or lover, you might even explain to them what’s going on. It might go something like this: “When you just laughed at me it reminded me of being derided when I was a child by my mother; it’s making me mad and it’s hard to relate positively to you right now.”

In an ideal world, the other person will have compassion and empathy for you, but they might be too upset or embroiled in their own inner turmoil to respond empathically to you. What matters is that you communicated with integrity, clarity, and that you were able to handle your feelings responsibly. As you become healthier and more rooted in the present, you will surround yourself with people who know how to respond appropriately to this kind of communication. The other person might not always be happy with what you’re saying but at least they’ll understand what you are experiencing.

You will notice that in my example I did NOT suggest telling the person “you remind me of my abusive mother.” Why? Well, how would you feel hearing that? Would it make you want to work through conflicts, or even stay around, someone who said that to you? It may be true but it’s not productive. Communication requires not only saying what’s on your mind but also thinking about how your audience will receive it.

When you sense that feeling of sickness in another person, the danger of being hurt or exploited, check it out against the situation in the present. Are there elements of the original abuse in your current situation, or are you being triggered by something that has little to do with real danger in the current situation? Sometimes once a person has been abused or exploited, they get a gut feeling when there’s something wrong in a situation or person, and this early warning signal can be quite helpful, as it can keep people out of danger. It needs to be tempered by and balanced with an accurate grasp of one’s current situation in order to be truly effective, however.

Finally, learn how to manage your anger and assert yourself in healthy ways. This may be in the form of a class, a group, or therapy. One can also read books about it and boundaries, and that can be a good basis for learning the concepts intellectually at first. However, at a certain point you need to leave the safety of your imaginary safety and plunge into the real life experience of taking interpersonal risks with other human beings. You can take it slow, though, and start with people you know well. Then eventually branch out to all the people you come into contact with. Like any skill it gets better as you practice and hone it.

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