When we begin to explore and understand the impact relational trauma has on an individual’s life it is important to understand the definition of relational trauma and attachment. Laura Berk, author of Development Through the Lifespan, defines attachment as, “a strong, affectionate tie we have with special people in our lives that lead us to experience pleasure when we interact with time and to be comforted by nearness in times of stress (Berk, 2007).” Relational trauma can be defined as “a violation inflicted by one person or another in the context of an interpersonal relationship (Kavarnstorm, 2018).” Throughout our developmental stages, relationships can be affected at a complex level by relational trauma experienced in infancy, childhood, adolescence and adulthood.
Following relational trauma an individual can experience significant difficulties in their ability to engage in secure attachments within many of their interpersonal relationships. It is important for individuals to understand their personal attachment styles to more effectively respond to their trauma responses. Relational trauma can take on the form of attachment styles examined by John Bowlby in his attachment theory. Understanding the presentation of these attachment styles helps us understand how our personal relational trauma has impacted us.
This attachment style demonstrates satisfaction, balance and successful interpersonal boundaries within relationships. These individuals demonstrate experiencing a secure base and have created stability in their independence and connectedness. Connection is vulnerable, honest and open within these relationships, moving away from a false sense of safety. Individuals who demonstrate a secure attachment are comfortable with themselves within and outside of relationships as they are able to trust, share and explore their experiences with curiosity and compassion. Within this framework individuals are able to soothe themselves appropriately and manage forms of conflict and rejection effectively.
Anxious Preoccupied Attachment
This attachment style is highlighted by an individual who is anxious about their relationships and display emotional starvation that they seek to be filled through a partnership. Often times this is observed as desperation, clinginess and hypervigilance in relationships. This individual is seeking safety and security through their relationships in a means that often creates their fear of abandonment and rejection. Due to historical instability and unsafe relationships in their life often people with this form of attachment will become possessive, easily jealous, demanding and controlling. Independence from a counterpart in a relationship is perceived as threat of abandonment and affirmation of the anxiety this individual experiences.
Dismissive Avoidant Attachment:
This attachment style can be identified through an individual’s emotional distance and disconnect. An over independence is identified in an individual with dismissive avoidant attachment as they take on the role of parent to themselves. Often they lack openness to others as they are preoccupied with their focus on themselves and attending to themselves meeting unmet needs and expectations. Despite the natural human need for connection these individuals continue to seek independence as priority, dismissing others in their life. Not only do they demonstrate emotion inhibition within interpersonal relationships, this inhibition is inner related also. They are perceived as cold, defended and overly logical which supports their efforts in detaching easily from self and others.
Fearful Avoidant Attachment:
Individuals with a fearful avoidant attachment exhibits fear of closeness and distance. They demonstrate a desire to present as an individual described as dismissive and often are also experienced as an anxious preoccupied individual. They work hard to avoid their emotions and this dismissal of emotions often leads to ruptures emotionally, leading them to be experienced as emotionally unpredictable. Often there is an underlying belief that closeness is necessary to meet ones needs, however, if you become too close you will be hurt, leaving them in an emotional dilemma and ultimately a mass of unmet emotional needs.
Our relational trauma has significant impacts on our relationships and formations of attachment. This can be a daunting, lonely and painful continuation following an already painful experience. Hope lies in the knowledge that our trauma does not have to control us and there is ability for change and growth. Becoming aware of our personal impact from relational trauma, engaging in our own personal work through therapy and building trust with individuals with secure attachment styles to provide example and challenge to our patterns can help form stability in our attachment and connection to self and others.
Berk, L.E. (2007). Development through the lifespan. 4th ed. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon
Kavarnstorm, Elisabet. (2018). The Relationship Between Relational Trauma and Functioning: How
Therapy Can Help. Brightquest.com