If you don’t feel secure with your partner, it’s difficult to open your heart and your body to receive the joy of love. For many people, feeling insecure in an adult relationship is a product of unresolved childhood pain. Old fears and hurts can leak into your bond and interactions with your lover. If you experienced trauma when you were young, it may have left you feeling chronically insecure, afraid, or confused.
To resolve those deep, dark feelings, it’s important to be honest and open with your partner about the difficulties of your past. Hiding or minimizing the past can impact your feelings of safety, and impact your partner’s feelings, as well.
To resolve past traumas, you first need to understand how your past is affecting your present. A history of abuse, injury, or severe loss can deeply impact your sense of trust and love in your relationship.
Here’s an example: During an everyday conversation with your partner, one of you can get triggered into a sudden extreme reaction. It might be a threatening comment that escalates into a fight. It might be a controlling or cutting remark, making you feel the need to defend yourself. Or your partner may suddenly disconnect, and become sullen or withdrawn. Without warning, there’s yelling, blaming, or abrupt separation.
Many people try to fix the conflict by asking, “Who started it?” There are more productive questions to ask: “What just happened?” and “What can we do to prevent it from happening again?”
To change the nature of vicious reaction cycles, you need to understand traumatic attachment. In clinical literature, the severe form is called Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
There are many causes of trauma in children, including:
- Any type of physical neglect or abuse
- Psychological abuse such as name-calling, criticism, or demeaning language
- A parent or caregiver who is unpredictable or scary
- Family members with severe personality disorders
- Anger or rage projected at or around the child
- War experiences, including dislocation of family members
- Being rejected or abandoned by a parent or family member, including by death
In groundbreaking research called the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, Kaiser Permanente and the Center for Disease Control surveyed more than 17,000 people to gauge the impact of traumatic and stressful childhood experiences on later adult health. The study revealed, “63% of people in the population had experienced at least one category of childhood trauma. More than 20% had experienced three or more categories of adverse childhood experiences.”
In a related field, two decades of research on the neuroscience of attachment reveal that childhood traumas, especially those caused by a parent or family member, can cause significant difficulties in one’s adult relationships, years or decades later.
Any past traumas can fuel a sudden reaction, varying from mild to severe. Reactions fall into two basic categories, depending on how the reaction is expressed:
Some reactions are outward-directed, for example:
- Intensified language or tone (outbursts of anger, blame, etc.)
- Verbal or physical attempts to dominate or control
- Intimidating non-verbal body language and facial expressions
- Moderate to excessive drama
- Quick or continuous violence.
Other reactions are inward-directed, such as:
- Sudden disconnection or withdrawal (energetically or physically)
- Addictive numbing out with TV, drugs, alcohol, work, etc.
- Overwhelming emotional floods (e.g., sadness or confusion)
- Feeling out of control
- Inability to feel emotional relief, even after stating one’s feelings
You might find yourself – or your partner – in these descriptions. You also may find that you have a mixture of both styles. This is not the time to feel shame or self-judgment. You have the opportunity to learn about the source of these reactions, and learn how to stop them. Relief and freedom are possible.
Every couple gets reactive from time to time. The natural stresses of life can make us tense and upset. If blow-ups happen frequently, however, and don’t get resolved, you or your partner may be suffering from the impact of unconscious childhood trauma patterns, and if so, they need some attention.
When something traumatic happens to a person (especially a child), it gets stored in the subconscious mind. Anything that happens later that’s similar to the traumatic incident can trigger those memories, which then triggers the behaviors used to survive the trauma. This continues to occur until the traumatic memories and reactions are consciously and systematically repaired.
If your reaction (or your partner’s) is much bigger in scope than the real-time issue calls for, it’s likely that the cause is past trauma. Everyone unintentionally hurts their partner from time to time. If it’s pointed out to you, and you can authentically apologize and express remorse, you are focused in your present adult self. If, instead, you react by constantly escalating the problem, you probably don’t feel safe to be vulnerable. Your insecure emotions have overwhelmed your rational adult mind.
Traumas from childhood also range from very mild to very severe. Trauma is not always an overt or deliberate act of violation. It can be caused by normal life circumstances (such as parents who fight or yell, especially about divorce). The common trait of trauma is that it leaves the child feeling frightened or threatened a great deal of the time. It is rarely a result of one incident or a sporadic event. However, a single, very serious traumatic experience can create a deep-seated trauma memory (and thus, a later life response).
If traumas are not resolved shortly after they occur, they can remain buried in the psyche, leaving the child feeling unsafe for years without knowing why. Fears or insecurities may remain dormant in the subconscious until a later relationship or situation triggers the memory. Most couples are not aware when it occurs between them. With knowledge and wisdom, a traumatic trigger can be a potent opportunity to address and heal the past, since it’s revealing itself in the present circumstance.
Even very caring parents can unintentionally cause a trauma reaction in their children. The parent may be overwhelmed with personal hardships, and be unable to care for the child. The child can feel neglected or abandoned even if there are good reasons. In addition, many parents unconsciously repeat the patterns and unresolved wounds of their own past.
In the best circumstances, children are nurtured, held, and loved by one or both parents in a sustainable way. Trust in self and others grows. However, if a child experiences too much insecurity or danger, they develop a set of defensive strategies, and remain on high alert for any sign of threat. At the subconscious level, they remain cautious at all times. This makes it difficult to bond securely with their future partner. Traumatized children can also become hypersensitive or highly reactive adults.
In our practice, we see many couples who are reacting to each other frequently. They don’t understand the cause of their excessive triggering. We begin by helping them search for the subconscious triggers that lie hidden in the mind, like buried landmines that were set and forgotten about long ago.
All traumas have a neurological component. Understanding the neural mechanisms helps us recognize and repair patterns of extreme emotional volatility. The brain’s limbic system has a highly tuned threat detector. When it senses possible danger, it responds automatically with one or more defensive strategies. If a threat is not resolved swiftly, a reaction is triggered. There are four primary responses:
- fight (or protest) until the stress is resolved;
- flight (withdraw) to escape the danger or the feeling of not getting your needs met;
- fold (collapse) to avoid being further hurt;
- freeze (dissociate) to blend into the background and become invisible
Watch infants and children carefully, and you’ll see them use these strategies whenever they get upset or scared. When the limbic brain takes over, it takes time to return to feeling safe and secure.
Your partner may do something that reminds you of a past danger. They didn’t mean to trigger you. Their harsh tone of voice or the hint of judgment can trigger a memory of a shaming or frightening parent. Their sideways glance at another person could remind you of your indifferent parent who ignored you, or rejected your need for care.
The good news is that these trauma-based dynamics are healable. When you disclose your childhood wounds to each other, it will inspire more compassion and care. When you can see that your partner’s reaction is less about you than about their own past, it’s easier to hold them through their suffering.
If you have significant trust issues with your partner, it’s best to first discuss your childhood traumas with a psychologist or psychotherapist. Later, you can bring your partner into your therapeutic process.
We all need some healing of our past – it’s an essential part of building trustworthy love together. When each partner shares their fears and insecurities, you can begin the process of rewiring old patterns toward safety and security. When a couple commits to the practice of secure attachment, traumatic memories can be released and resolved. Deeper love and trust is the product of this co-healing commitment.
Partners can also trigger each other simultaneously, and this can be very challenging. We call it a “double-trigger.” They are surprisingly common, and they’re made more complex when one or both partners have unresolved trauma driving the reactions. If these occur often in your relationship, we strongly recommend that you work with a therapist who specializes in working with couples with trauma and attachment issues.
We help our clients identify their primary childhood bonding pattern and survival strategies by having them take the LoveStyle Profile Quiz™. You can take this free 5-minute Quiz and discover your own unique LoveStyle. Click here to get free access.
Until sudden reactions and traumas from the past are resolved, it’s difficult to stabilize your relationship in the feelings we all want: security and harmony. They ARE possible, however. The first step is to have a conversation about what happened in the past. From there, you can begin to build a future. Once you understand how your early childhood dynamics impact your current relationship, you can unwind unhealthy patterns, and find your way back to secure, passionate, love.