Relationship Difficulties & Complex PTSD

When I learned that childhood trauma is also known as relational trauma, another piece of my life puzzle fell into place. I finally understood why finding and maintaining close friendships and fulfilling romantic relationships seemed to be so challenging for me. Until then, I had no idea that I had been navigating my relationships with a nervous system and psyche full of emotional landmines, constantly on the alert and ready to go off at the slightest hint of danger.

Close relationships are stressful for survivors because our brains were wired to expect stress since this was what we experienced growing up with our family members. Understanding the dynamics of relational trauma helped explain how it had sabotaged my past romantic relationships with fellow survivors.

When former partners, who were also survivors, and I attempted to connect in a romantic relationship, our unhealed relational trauma issues would inevitably get triggered. Instead of understanding that 90% of our conflicts were due to triggers from unresolved childhood trauma issues and not the presenting problem, we blamed the problem on ourselves or each other. But we never got to the root cause of why we kept fighting about the same issues. After repeatedly running up against the same problems, we became convinced that our conflicts were insurmountable and that the only solution was to give up on the relationship.

What I didn’t understand until I learned I had C-PTSD is that when we’re triggered, our unhealed trauma replays past bodily sensations and thoughts, making it impossible to be in the present. When you’re unaware you have C-PTSD, you won’t realize you’ve been triggered into a state from your past. It’s as if there’s a gaslighting effect going on since you really believe what you’re feeling is solely related to the conflict in the relationship you’re in, even though it’s not.

My Partner Maria & I

Thankfully today, I’m fully aware when a relational trauma trigger hits. Instead of blaming myself or my partner, I can slow down and be more mindful of my feelings and where the trigger is coming from. I’m also aware that it’s in the relationship’s best interest for me to wait until my nervous system has calmed down before talking to my spouse about a conflict.

Discovering I’d Adopted a “People Aren’t Safe” Worldview

Learning that childhood trauma is relational trauma also helped explain why I struggled so much with social anxiety. For over a decade of my childhood, I witnessed an out-of-control alcoholic mom who regularly shamed my dad and frequently shamed me. I also experienced walking through life as an overweight child and later as a severely obese lesbian in a fatphobic and homophobic culture.

What did all of these experiences have in common? People who were hurting, judging, or condemning me. This taught me that people weren’t safe since they were the source of my deepest pain. This insight helped me understand why for the first ten years of my recovery in AA, the only people I hung out with were lesbians who were also in recovery with alcohol, drugs, and food. They were the only people I felt safe with since they were just like me. How could they judge me? They were me!

I had no idea I’d adopted a worldview that people weren’t safe until I discovered this aspect of childhood trauma. With this new awareness, I saw that my “people aren’t safe” worldview had significantly impacted my ability to connect with new people. I’ve made a lot of progress in this area, yet it’s often still challenging to feel safe being open about my history of trauma, obesity, and addiction with people I don’t know well.

Since I wasn’t aware of having a “people aren’t safe” worldview until a few years ago, I couldn’t understand why I had hardly any close friends. It baffled me because I really like people and love having fun with friends. Once I feel safe, I love connecting with people.

Today I’m aware that when I don’t feel safe with someone, a stress response gets triggered in my body, making me anxious and uncomfortable. As a result, I feel the impulse to distance myself or leave for self-protection. Understanding how I’d adopted this worldview and how it has impacted my social interactions and relationships has been extremely helpful.

Now that I have this awareness, I’m much more mindful when I start assuming that people aren’t safe. When it comes up, I challenge my assumption and ask if it’s true or if it’s just an old default stress- response program running.

Now when I attend social functions, I set goals designed to foster corrective relational experiences to help rewire my brain and rewrite my narrative to “most people are safe enough.” As a result, I’ve experienced significant progress in feeling safe and connected with people I would never have felt safe with before.

I’ve written about how I’ve been able to heal the relational aspects of my trauma and what I’ve done to forge and  maintain healthy relationships in my book It’s Not About Food, Drugs, or Alcohol: It’s About Healing Complex PTSD.

I also provide several worksheets, quizzes and questionnaire on how to develop close, healthy relationships in the workbook section of my book. 

Mary Giuliani
Complex Trauma & Resilience Coach

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