How Childhood Trauma Can Ruin Your Current Relationship and How to Heal So It Doesn’t

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As a therapist, I deal with couples that are having challenges in their relationship.  As a professor at the USC School of Social Work, I teach graduate students the relationship between early developmental childhood trauma and the emotional, behavioral and cognitive symptoms that clients present when they come see the student interns for therapy.  One of the things I teach my students is that the brain develops in the first few years of life to adapt to the family who raises them.  For example, a person who was brought up in a family where the parent was inconsistently present may grow up unable to self-soothe and calm down.  This person might create drama in the current relationship even when it is unnecessary because of the drama and turmoil she was used to growing up.  Another person may grow up in a family where feelings were ignored and the healthy childhood dependency needs were denied and disavowed.  This person grows up distrusting others and handles problems on his own.  This may be the client who when asked after going through a challenging life event how he is doing, he says “Fine.”

The interpersonal environments I mentioned above can most definitely be traumatic.  These traumas can be stored in the deeper brain and get triggered in real life adult situations.  Then there is abuse and neglect where the very parents that supposedly love you are hurting you, neglecting you or not protecting you.  This can lead to more severe trauma and make healthy current relationships even more difficult.

The person who grew up with the inconsistent parent will “unconsciously predict” that the partner will be inconsistent as well.  The person who grew up where his dependency needs were ignored will as an adult see the partner as one who will never be there for him.  The one who grew up in an abusive or neglectful situation will have an even more difficult time trusting and not sabotaging even a potentially good relationship.  In the neurobiological field, these are examples of what we call “internal working models,” the way people were dealt with as a child becomes the template for the way they view their significant other(s) as adults.

The good news is that one’s internal working model can change.  Modern technology has shown that effective therapy does not only change the psyche, but it can change the way different parts of the brain are wired to each other. A caring, supportive in-tuned therapist can help the client heal and shift the way he or she views himself, others and the world.  The brain has plasticity meaning that it can be rewired and even though the past environment helps create the original wiring, nurturing therapeutic and relationships can heal much of went awry in the past.

In addition to good therapy, it has been shown that meditation and yoga can also shift the wiring in her brain as well as how we view ourselves, others and the world.  As people start to make good lifestyle choices and take care of themselves, that can be of great help in making positive changes.  As we improve and stabilize our healthy interpersonal patterns (for example the person who cannot calm down learns to soothe himself; the person who could never  let others be there for her, allows herself a healthy dose of dependency on trustworthy others), this can also begin helping people break free of the effects of early trauma.

Lastly, the specific treatment approach of Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing has demonstrated particular benefits in helping trauma victims relatively quickly break the chains of the trauma.  The people are now free to live happier, healthier lives with nurturing significant others around them.  It is part of the joy of the work I do; seeing people break free from the past and  increase their capacity to give and receive love.

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