“Traumatized people chronically feel unsafe inside their bodies: The past is alive in the form of gnawing interior discomfort. Their bodies are constantly bombarded by visceral warning signs, and, in an attempt to control these processes, they often become experts at ignoring their gut feelings and in numbing awareness of what is played out inside. They learn to hide from themselves.” [And in turn, hide from others]. – Bessel A. Van der Kolk, The Body Keeps The Score [addition mine].
The life-long impacts of trauma are vast. Trauma can affect the body, the mind, the memory, and the emotions. It can affect the way someone sees the world and how she views God. It can also affect her relationships. This perhaps is one of the biggest areas to suffer when someone has traumatic experiences, especially when the trauma is abuse.
From domestic violence to childhood physical and sexual abuse to rape and emotional abuse, abuse changes people. Their relationships are first to suffer the ripple effects. This article will discuss Adverse Childhood Experiences, various types of trauma in adulthood, and the impact these experiences can have on someone’s relationships.
Adverse Childhood Experiences
Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs, are various traumatic experiences that occur in childhood (until age 17). They are linked to substance use issues, many mental health problems, crime, and health problems in adults. They can lead to poverty, trafficking, risky sexual behaviors, and financial instability.
The higher number of ACEs in someone’s life, the more issues they usually have unless they do the work to overcome the effects. Adverse Childhood Experiences can be prevented, for the most part, but if someone has experienced any of them, the value of professional counseling cannot be ignored. ACEs are quite common, as over half of the population has experienced at least one. Some Adverse Childhood Experiences are:
- Witnessing violence or abuse in the home or community
- Victim of violence, abuse, or neglect
- Having a close person due by suicide
- Medical Procedures
- Parental mental illness
- Substance misuse in the home/family
- Family incarceration
- Extreme bullying
- Traumatic loss
- Large transitions
- Natural disasters
Trauma in Adulthood
Children are not the only ones who experience trauma. Adults can experience traumatizing situations just as often. Trauma in adulthood can lead to more health problems in older adults than childhood hood trauma. These can lead to more poverty, a cycle of addiction, serious mental health issues, suicide, and crises of faith. Some of the types of trauma adults can face include:
- Rape, Sexual violence
- Sexual harassment
- Traumatic loss
- Domestic violence
- Job Loss
- Serious medical issues
- Financial insecurity or poverty
- Emotional abuse
- Spiritual abuse
Effects of Trauma on Relationships
“Over time as most people fail the survivor’s exacting test of trustworthiness, she tends to withdraw from relationships. The isolation of the survivor thus persists even after she is free.” – Judith Lewis Herman, Trauma and Recovery
Trauma can impact every area of human life, and it is a direct example of the devastating effects of sin in the fallen world, a constant reminder that it was never meant to be this way. Because humans were created to be in harmonious and loving relationships with each other and with God, it makes sense that relationships would suffer after the Fall.
Cain killed Abel out of jealousy. Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery because they were jealous. Noah’s neighbors made fun of him for obeying God. David murdered Uzziah after he slept with her husband. Sarah manipulated her slave, Hagar, to have a son for her. Saul hated David and continued to try to kill him.
Laban lied to and manipulated Jacob. Tamar was raped. Pharaoh enslaved thousands of Hebrews. Religious leaders killed Jesus. Saul killed Christians. People were separated from God and unable to get back to Him without the cross.
Traumatic experiences were never supposed to be a part of the story, and relationships were not meant to be broken. However, this is a post-fall world, and the effects of sin cover every part of life.
Here are some of the effects of trauma on relationships:
ACEs and adulthood trauma can have long-lasting effects on relationships. Not only because trauma can lead to other serious issues, like mental illness, substance misuse, and health problems, but also because traumatic experiences can change the chemistry and structure of the brain (see The Body Keeps the Score for more in-depth information).
It is difficult for someone to have healthy, thriving relationships after a history of adverse childhood experiences and even through traumatic experiences in adulthood, and near impossible without therapy or deep inner work. Healing is possible, but it cannot be done alone. Traumatic experiences, especially abuse, can lead to these relationship problems:
- Withdrawal and isolation. – It is safer to be alone than to be hurt.
- Mistrust. – Someone he trusted hurt him, so how can he trust anyone else?
- Infidelity in romantic relationships. – Sex is how she was shown love in the past, and if her spouse is not showing her love in this way, she finds it elsewhere.
- Sexual acting out. – It is all she has known, so when she needs love and attention, she knows how to find it.
- Pornography use/addiction. – Sex brings an odd sense of comfort and escape, so this is his “out.”
- Out-of-balance independence. – “I don’t need anyone. I can handle it all on my own.”
- Clingy behaviors/ neediness. – “I need you to be happy. I can’t go on without you.”
- People-pleasing. – “I have to do this for someone to like me.”
- Lack of communication skills and assertiveness due to a lack of voice during one’s life
- Loss of/shaken up faith. – “What kind of God would let this happen to me?”
- Extreme diet and exercise to get attention or extreme obesity so no one will pay uncomfortable attention to you. – Discomfort in one’s body
- Boundary issues. – He was never shown how to have good boundaries.
- Fear of abandonment. – “My dad left me; everyone is going to leave me.”
- Serial dating/marriages. – Full commitment is too scary. Once things feel hard, she is gone.
- Betrayal. – It is what he has been taught, so it comes easy for him.
- Fear of loss. – She clings to those close to her.
The Importance of Relationships in Trauma Recovery
Though trauma throughout one’s life greatly impacts relationships, it is not hopeless. Relationships are also the tool God uses most to heal people from the hurt they have experienced in life. He made people to be in community with Him and others, and when someone is committed to personal healing and restoration in relationships, their relationships can be part of what makes her whole. Their relationship with God is the most healing connection in their life, but healthy relationships can also provide:
To have these benefits, you need to remember that not all people are safe people on this road to healing. If someone has repeatedly hurt you or broken your trust, has not advocated for you during past hurt, has tossed you aside as if you are meaningless, has manipulated or taken advantage of you, or tried to over-spiritualize your pain, he or she is not a safe person for you.
People who have advocated for you, listened to you without judgment, maintained your trust, and prioritized your relationship are considered safe to walk with you on your healing journey. Some relationships that someone can prioritize in the process of healing from trauma are:
- Professional Counselor
- Close, safe friends
- Safe family members
- Church family and church leaderships
Relationships can be broken through trauma, but they can also be a part of the healing. It is up to a person who has experienced trauma to be intent on choosing a pathway of healing instead of staying in a cycle of brokenness. Though someone cannot control what has happened to her in her life, she can choose to be aware of areas in her relationships that are now suffering and commit to seeking help to overcome them.
The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. Bessel van der Kolk, M.D. Penguin Random House: New York, NY. 2014.
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