How does childhood trauma affect adult attachment styles in romantic relationships?
Trauma is an experience or reoccurrence of experiences that are uncontrollable, distressing events, leaving a lasting imprint on the people they affect.
Despite many survivors of trauma going on to live normal lives, unresolved trauma may have effects on mood, motivation and relationships.
When trauma is left unresolved, victims often feel they are not ‘whole’ – that they are somehow broken. More often than not, this experience is brought to the footprints of their adult relationships. In order to have a healthy relationship, a healthy relationship with themselves is needed first.
Humans are relational beings; we require connection to thrive and survive. Those who care for us in childhood, as well as our cultural and social contexts, greatly impact and shape the adults we become. As infants and children we are “attached” to our mother or primary caregiver.
Types of Childhood Trauma
There are different types of trauma. Some experience a single traumatic event at a particular time, while others experience “complex trauma” which occurs when trauma incidents are repeated or when new, unique traumas continually occur. An example of complex trauma would be a family who struggles with domestic violence or addiction. Regardless, both types of trauma can impact relationships with friends, spouses, co-workers, family members and the relationship with self.
Its not uncommon to have experienced some type of traumatic events as a child. Psychologists agree that our early childhood environment can impact our adult relationships; and that trauma that occurs to us as children, can become part of our adult attachment style.
As children, we look to our parents or primary caregivers to help us form ideas about others, the world and ourselves. During childhood, we want to know if children are trustworthy, if the world is safe, and if our loved ones are there for us when we need them. This information we receive directly creates attachment styles that last well into adulthood. Our attachment styles reflect how warm and close we tend to be in our relationships, and can influence our communication with others – including how we handle break ups, arguments and intimacy.
What are the different types of attachment?
- Secure attachment: The healthiest attachment style. Those who had supportive caregivers in childhood will often have secure attachment styles. If you have a secure attachment style you feel comfortable connecting with others, asking for help, and sharing emotions with others to a healthy and reasonable extent. You do not live in fear of rejection or abandonment and have a healthy self-image.
- Dismissive-avoidant attachment style: Those with dismissive avoidant attachment styles (or “insecure-avoidant”) often experienced childhood rejection or neglect from their caregivers. They generally avoid being close to others and will make every effort to be very independent. They may be more likely to fear threats to their perceived independence.
- Fearful-avoidant attachment: These individuals likely experienced some abuse, chaos or neglect. This particular attachment style often arises when loved caregivers are the source of pain. Adults with this attachment style are often scared to be alone – but are also equally as scared of closeness and intimacy. They often have difficult trusting others and may oscillate between extremes of closeness and complete avoidance.
- Anxious-preoccupied attachment: This attachment style is common among those who experienced constant childhood change, inconsistent parents, caregivers or attachment figures who oscillated between being extremely attentive and distantly cold. In adulthood, they have significant anxiety about their relationships. This may present as being clingy, needy or hypersensitive to any changes in their partner. This can become a self-fulfilling prophecy of abandonment as they can push their loved ones away.
Childhood Trauma and Relationships
When trauma is unresolved, you will likely experience frequent triggers that can cause an emotional response. Often, these are behaviours of others that unintentionally act as reminders of the original trauma, leading us to experience attacks from partners where none were intended.
Emotionally fueled arguments can lead to more intense disagreements about commonplace relationship issues.
The trauma survivor may engage in withdrawal or become completely unresponsive when their partner is attempting to communicate with them. This arises from the survivor’s false beliefs that others are working against them, doubting the love and commitment in the relationship.
If you have recognised that childhood trauma is affecting your romantic relationships, seeking help from a psychologist may help you to create a richer, more rewarding relationship.
Author: Tara Pisano, BA (Psych) (Hons), M Psych.
Tara Pisano is a Brisbane psychologist with a special interest in early intervention in adolescents and young adults, as this is when three quarters of mental health conditions emerge. In her practice, she draws on a range of evidence-based therapies such as CBT, DBT, IPT, ACT and Motivational Interviewing, to promote recovery and positive outcomes.
To make an appointment with Tara Pisano, try Online Booking. Alternatively, you can call M1 Psychology Loganholme on (07) 3067 9129 or Vision Psychology Wishart on (07) 3088 5422.
- 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.
- Fraley, R. A. (2010). Brief Overview of Adult Attachment Theory and Research. University of Illinois. https://internal.psychology.illinois.edu/~rcfraley/attachment.htm
- McLeod, S. (2008). Attachment: Mary Ainsworth. Simply Psychology.
- Ogden, P., & Fisher, J. (2015). Sensorimotor Psychotherapy: Interventions for Trauma and Attachment. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
- Whisman, M. A. (2014). Dyadic perspectives on trauma and marital quality. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 6(3), 207-215.