Relationship-based trauma – though there does not seem to be any set, agreed-upon definition – generally refers to stressful events experienced within the context of an intimate relationship that shakes one’s sense of security and leads to a host of unpleasant emotions (e.g. anxiety), thoughts, and behaviours. Relationship-based trauma may be experienced as early as infancy with your primary caregivers, which can then set an insecure foundation for how you handle stress and self-regulate as an older child or adult. It can also be experienced or perpetuated in relationships with loved ones (friends, family members, and romantic partners) in your adult life. In addition, relationship trauma can be indirect: such as observing others’ tumultuous relationships (e.g. your parents) over an extended period of time. Furthermore, in its more extreme form, this sort of trauma may lead to a host of symptoms aligned with what is called Post-Traumatic Relationship Stress or Post-Traumatic Relationship Syndrome.
As you have probably gathered thus far, relationship-based trauma is not specific to romantic relationships. However, it is important to note that relationship-based traumas of any kind have the potential to impact present and future romantic relationships in significant, observable, yet often misunderstood ways. Given that many of us desire to be in healthy, long-lasting romantic relationships, it is important for us to understand how this sort of trauma, when we do not take the time to heal from it, can negatively affect our ability to sustain healthy romantic relationships.
Therefore, without further ado, I present nine ways you can pinpoint how very stressful experiences from past relationships are still crippling you in your present life or in your current/future romantic relationship(s).
1. You are completely avoiding romantic relationships OR you are withholding love/care/vulnerability in your relationship because you are afraid of being hurt again.
One of the most prominent feeling states associated with trauma is fear. Fear that the stressful situation(s) will happen again. Fear of experiencing the unpleasant and distressing emotions associated with the stressful situation. Or even fear that you may not be able to recover if you were to experience the stressful event again. As such, after experiencing relationship-based trauma, a person may decide to stay clear of romantic relationships entirely (even though they may desire one). Or, if in a relationship, this fear may manifest as a thought that, if you let your guard down, you will be vulnerable and exposed to being seriously hurt again. It may also manifest in the action of putting distance between you and your partner, such as not being entirely invested in the relationship or giving less to your partner than she may require to feel secure in the relationship.
2. You are always waiting for something to go wrong in your romantic relationship
Generally, trauma of any kind tends to skew the way you see yourself, others, and the world in a negative way. Relationship-based trauma – whether via your lived experience or observation of others’ failed/tumultuous relationships – can lead to the development of negative core beliefs about others like “people cannot be trusted,” “others are going to let me down,” or “people cannot be committed to just one person,” to name a few. These core beliefs, though largely subconscious (as you are not actively thinking about them all the time), can reinforce feelings of insecurity in the relationship and make it difficult for you to fully trust the love, goodness, and commitment of your partner. You may find yourself constantly waiting for your significant other to do something to seriously disappoint you, like commit an act of infidelity, break a promise; or be verbally, physically or emotionally abusive.
3. You are consciously (or subconsciously) creating dramas in otherwise healthy romantic relationships
Unhelpful beliefs that develop in response to relationship trauma like, “all couples break up eventually,” or those mentioned under the previous point can set a foundation for how you see your significant other as well as the level of trust you have in them and their ability to be committed to you. Sometimes the insecurity you feel due to these negative beliefs may lead you to start arguments or create problems in order to get a rise out of your partner that will only reinforce those negative thoughts that you already deem to be true. For example, if you have the conscious or subconscious belief that “no one can stay committed to their partner forever,” you may accuse your significant other of being disloyal to you when you have little to no evidence, which may then put stress on the relationship and lead to a break up. And when you break up, this reinforces your belief that “no one can stay committed to their partner forever,” in spite of you creating the drama in the first place.
4. You do not trust your partner, even when they have not given you any reason not to trust them.
Trust and security are two important virtues lost when you experience relationship-based trauma. These virtues are also inextricably tied to one another. When you experience relationship-based trauma, particuarly in a romantic relationship, your mind has a tendency to generalise these feelings of distrust and insecurity across other romantic relationships as well. So, even though your partner, with whom you generally have a healthy relationship, has not given you any reason not to trust him/her, you may find yourself looking through your partner’s phone when he leaves it unattended, grilling your partner detective-style about her whereabouts; or being micromanage-y about how, when and where he does things because you do not trust his judgement or motives.
5. You second guess or doubt most, if not all, of what your partner says to you
In line with point #5 is distrusting what your partner says to you. You have a hard time taking her at her word or you see “coded messages” or double meanings in everything he says. He tells you he loves you and you tell yourself “he does not really mean that.” She tells you, “I’m going to check my friend for a bit,” and you suspect she is going to meet up with another love interest. He tells you, “I want to take you somewhere nice today,” and you assume he is only doing it because he wants to make up for something bad that he did. You are scared that whatever ways past partners lied to you, broke promises, or had ulterior motives, your current partner will do the same.
6. You make a big deal out of small mistakes or benign events
One symptom often seen in the aftermath of trauma is hypervigilance – a state of increased alertness to “hidden dangers” that are often not real. With relationship -based trauma, this may look like searching for problems in the relationship where there are none, magnifying small mistakes made by your partner (and getting really upset about them), or blaming your significant other for things he did not do. You may also find yourself having a hard time forgiving small mistakes because you are fearful that, if you do, your partner will not understand the gravity of the impact of her behaviour or the problem will get bigger.
7. You do not think you are good enough for your partner
This point is especially true if in past relationship(s) persons often condescended to you, did things to put you down, or engaged in actions that were abusive in any way. Such actions have a tendency to negatively affect your self-esteem and self-worth, and lead to negative self-thoughts in future romantic relationships like “she is too good for me” or “I am not deserving of his love.” Believing you are not good enough for your partner can then lead to a host of unpleasant emotions and behaviours, including jealousy toward anyone your partner gets remotely close to (that you perceive as a threat) or failing to assert your needs with your partner.
8. You are walking on eggshells in your romantic relationship because you are terrified of doing something wrong
When you have been in one or more toxic relationships and have become accustomed to that type of dysfunction, you may find yourself unsure of how to behave in or what to expect from a healthy, functional relationship. You may also be terrified that you will do something to mess up the relationship and then lose the best relationship you ever had. As such, you may find yourself apologising for every little thing or going along with anything your partner asks of you (even if it goes against what you want/need/believe). In this way, you may introduce unhealthy patterns to an otherwise healthy relationship.
9. Whenever a present partner does something that even slightly resembles a negative past situation with an ex, you find yourself comparing your partner to them
This may strike a nerve for some and, if it does, it may be helpful to ask yourself why. When we do not take the time to heal from relationship traumas of the past, it is easy for us to compare present partners and other loved ones to people or situations we have been hurt by in the past. Whether we do it in our heads or verbally express it, we may find ourselves wrongfully generalising past situations from past relationships to present ones.
Relationship-based trauma is very real and can be a major hindrance to our success in having healthy, stable, trusting, loving, and mutually-respectful relationships in the future. If you see yourself in the above, or someone you know is experiencing one or more problems highlighted in this post and needs mental health support, feel free to reach out. Relationship-based trauma, and other related syndromes, can be crippling, but you are not alone. UPWARD Counselling and Psychological Services is based in Trinidad and Tobago and is here to support and promote our population’s mental health and wellness. Contact information for UPWARD’s Clinical Psychotherapist, Reycine Mc Kenzie, can be found under the “Contact” tab of this website.
Let us continue to build on and promote our mental wellness through healing from the past.
Love and Regards,
Reycine Mc Kenzie, Msc.
Founder and Clinical Psychotherapist
UPWARD Counselling and Psychological Services