Trauma and Its Effect on Relationships

September 18, 2017|Mental Health|
Hartgrove Hospital Trauma and Its Effect on Relationships

By: Kathryn Millán, MA, LPC/MHSP

Traumatic incidents are uncontrollable, distressing events that leave a lasting imprint on the people they affect. People who have survived trauma often continue to live normal lives, but the effects of trauma may impact mood, motivation and relationships. It’s normal to experience some changes after a distressing and uncontrollable event, and it’s important to know when to seek supportive trauma treatment.

All humans have unique life experiences and backgrounds, and each person may react to a traumatic incident in a unique way. Events that are traumatic to one person may not feel as distressing to another person. Everyone reflects on and recovers from trauma in their own way, and it may have differing effects on relationships, confidence and the sense of overall safety each person experiences.

Types of Trauma

There are different types of trauma. Some people experience a single traumatic event in a given time period, while others experience what is known as “complex trauma.” Complex trauma occurs when traumatic incidents are repeated, or when new, unique traumas continually occur. For instance, complex trauma may occur in families that struggle with domestic violence, addiction, poverty, chronic illness or ongoing community violence.1

Both single-incident trauma and complex trauma can impact relationships with co-workers, friends, spouses, family members and the relationship with self.

If you experience some of the following symptoms, trauma may be affecting your life2:

  • Irritability or chronic anger
  • Anxiety
  • Insomnia or difficult sleep
  • Agitation, impatience or an inability to sit still
  • Intrusive memories, nightmares or flashbacks
  • Feeling “out of body” or disconnected from other people
  • Becoming “shut down” or unable to accomplish goals
  • Struggles with depression or unhappiness
  • Changes in appetite
  • Needing to have things a “certain way” or repeat activities over and over
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Engaging in risky, dangerous or unusual behaviors
  • Wanting to hurt yourself or others
  • Difficulty trusting others
  • Feeling unsafe
  • Using drugs, alcohol or behaviors to numb anxiety or distress
  • Avoiding friends, loved ones or activities you used to enjoy
  • Worsening of other mental health issues or diagnoses

How Childhood Trauma Impacts Adult Relationships

Many people experience some type of traumatic incident before the age of 18. Psychologists agree that our early family environment can impact our adult relationships. Traumatic incidents that occur during childhood can become part of a person’s adult attachment style.

As children, we look to our parents and other trusted adults to help us form ideas about the world. Children want to know if other people are trustworthy, if the world is a safe place and if their loved ones will be there for them if they are in need. The information they gain from the close adults in their lives help form lasting impressions of the nature of love, friendship and trust.3

Childhood experiences can create particular attachment styles that last well into adulthood. A person’s attachment style reflects how warm or close that person likes to be in relationships. Attachment style can influence the way we communicate with others, and how we handle separations, arguments and intimacy.

As adults, we can change maladaptive attachment styles through personal insight, counseling and support. Taking time to improve relationships can also improve other conditions, such as anxiety, PTSD or depression.4

Consider the following styles of attachment, and see if any might apply to you or someone you love.4,5

Secure attachment: A secure attachment style is the healthiest attachment style. People who have secure attachments often had supportive childhood caregivers. These individuals feel comfortable connecting with others, asking for help as needed, and sharing emotions with others to a reasonable and healthy extent. People with secure attachment do not live in fear of abandonment or rejection, and they have a healthy view of themselves and others.

Dismissive-avoidant attachment: Individuals with this type of attachment (also known as “insecure-avoidant”) often experienced childhood neglect or rejection from caregivers. These individuals may avoid being close to others and often strive to be very independent, even to extremes. They may be more likely to keep secrets or fear threats to their perceived independence.

Fearful-avoidant attachment: These individuals may have experienced some type of childhood abuse, chaos or neglect. This attachment style often occurs when loved caregivers are also a source of pain. The resulting attachment style may make these adults afraid to be alone, but also afraid of closeness and intimacy. They often have difficulty trusting others, and may alternate from one extreme of closeness to complete avoidance.

Anxious-preoccupied attachment: This attachment style occurs when adults have experienced constant childhood change, inconsistent parents or caregivers who alternate between extreme attentiveness and distant coldness. As adults, these individuals experience a great deal of anxiety about their relationships; they may be clingy, needy or hypersensitive to any changes in their partner. This anxiety may drive loved ones away, thus becoming a bit of a “self-fulfilling prophecy” of abandonment.

Adult Trauma Disorders and Recovery from Trauma

Trauma that occurs in adulthood can also change attachment styles, because trauma impacts the way we see the world as a whole. Often, intimate partners, spouses and family members witness the most intense effects of an individual’s trauma. It can be frightening, confusing and difficult to witness the effects of trauma in a loved one.

Spouses and partners can also experience emotional after-effects of trauma together. Those partners who experience a trauma at the same time may cope with the trauma in different ways, and those coping skills may strengthen or destroy relationships.6

The good news is that it is very possible for spouses or families to grow closer and stronger after trauma. Family members who are educated about trauma often see better outcomes for themselves and their loved ones.7 That is why it is absolutely imperative to seek supportive treatment for the effects of trauma. Programs like Hartgrove’s dedicated and evidence-based trauma treatment program can make an incredible difference and lead to a brighter future.


1 Courtois, C. A. (2008). Complex trauma, complex reactions: Assessment and treatment. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, S(1), 86-100. Accessed August 24, 2017.

2 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. SAMHSA’s Concept of Trauma and Guidance for a Trauma-Informed Approach. July 2014.

3 Ogden, P., & Fisher, J. (2015). Sensorimotor Psychotherapy: Interventions for Trauma and Attachment. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. Accessed August 24, 2017.

4 Fraley, R. A Brief Overview of Adult Attachment Theory and Research. 2010. University of Illinois. Accessed August 24, 2017.

5 McLeod, S. (2008). Attachment: Mary Ainsworth. Simply Psychology. Accessed August 24, 2017.

6 Whisman, M. A. (2014). Dyadic perspectives on trauma and marital quality. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 6(3), 207-215. Accessed August 24, 2017.

7 Evans, S. E., Steel, A. L., Watkins, L. E., & DiLillo, D. (2014). Childhood exposure to family violence and adult trauma symptoms: The importance of social support from a spouse. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 6(5), 527-536. Accessed August 24, 2017.

Share This Post

Schedule an Assessment

Need help? Call 773-413-1700 to schedule an assessment or receive more information. You may also walk in anytime. We’re here 24 hours a day, seven days a week.