“Anything that is human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable. When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary. The people we trust with that important talk can help us know that we are not alone.” Fred Rogers

In psychotherapy, when we try to understand more about ourselves, we cannot ignore the profound impact of past experiences. Our past experiences forge a significant part of who we are today and how we respond to situations. 

Complex or developmental trauma resulting from repeated and prolonged exposure to relationship mishaps can significantly influence how we navigate adult relationships. During childhood and adolescence, our most meaningful interpersonal relationships are with caregivers.

A history of interpersonal trauma confronts us with our challenging, confusing and painful times and, at the same time, our engrained need as humans to thrive and build Resilience. Most of us deeply desire to be loved, love others and belong to safe and nurturing relationships.

There are intricate ways in which complex trauma can play out in relationships, shedding light on the challenges faced by individuals with trauma histories and their partners.

Understanding Complex Trauma: 

Complex trauma encompasses many adverse experiences that often occur within interpersonal relationships. These experiences include childhood abuse, neglect, domestic violence, highly dysfunctional divorce and family dynamics, or ongoing exposure to chaotic events. 

Unlike a single traumatic incident, complex trauma involves a pattern of persistent exposure to overwhelming experiences. When those experiences are followed by the absence of a safe adult with whom to process them, they profoundly affect our psychological, spiritual and emotional well-being.

The Impact on Relationships:

  • Trust and Intimacy Issues: Complex trauma can erode an individual’s ability to trust others. Deep-seated fear and hypervigilance can make establishing and maintaining healthy intimate relationships challenging. Trauma survivors may struggle with sharing their vulnerabilities, fearing potential betrayal or harm.
  • Emotional Dysregulation: Emotional dysregulation is a hallmark of complex trauma. Individuals may struggle to manage their emotions effectively, leading to frequent mood swings, intense outbursts, or emotional shutdowns. This rollercoaster of emotions can strain relationships, as partners may struggle to understand and respond appropriately to the survivor’s needs.
  • Attachment Insecurity: Secure attachment, a vital foundation for healthy relationships, may be disrupted by complex trauma. Survivors may develop insecure attachment styles, such as anxious or avoidant, leading to difficulties forming and maintaining close bonds. These attachment patterns can create emotional distance or clinginess cycles, causing distress and confusion for both partners.
  • Triggers and Flashbacks: Traumatic triggers and flashbacks can rekindle the overwhelming emotions associated with past traumatic experiences. In relationships, these triggers may arise from seemingly innocuous situations, leading to heightened anxiety or defensive reactions. Partners who are unaware of these triggers may struggle to provide the support and understanding needed to navigate these challenging moments.
  • Self-Worth and Boundaries: Complex trauma can significantly impact an individual’s self-esteem and self-worth. Survivors may harbour deep feelings of shame, guilt, or worthlessness, manifesting as a lack of assertiveness or an inability to establish healthy boundaries in relationships. These difficulties can lead to power imbalances or enable codependent dynamics within the partnership.


Healing and Growth.

Recovering from complex trauma and fostering healthy relationships is possible with dedication and support. Here are some strategies that a trauma therapist may consider as being beneficial for individuals and their partners:

  1. Trauma-Informed Support: Seeking professional help, such as trauma and attachment-focused therapy, can provide invaluable guidance and support. Trauma-informed therapists can help survivors navigate past traumas, develop coping strategies, and foster healthier relationship patterns.
  2. Education and Communication: Partners can educate themselves about complex trauma to better understand their loved one’s experiences. Couples or family therapy offers opportunities for open and empathetic communication. Establishing a safe environment where both partners can express their needs, fears, and triggers without judgment is crucial.
  3. Patience and Empathy: Healing from complex trauma is a gradual process. Patience and empathy are vital in supporting the survivor’s journey. Partners should strive to create a nurturing and validating atmosphere, validating their loved one’s experiences and offering support.
  4. Building Resilience Together: Engaging in activities that promote self-care, emotional regulation, and personal growth can benefit both partners. Encouraging healthy coping mechanisms, such as mindfulness practices or hobbies together.

Some of the therapeutic modalities informing our team are versed in supporting individuals who experienced complex trauma:

ACT, TF-CBT, EMDR, Emotion Focused Therapy, Trauma Informed Mindfulness, Psychodynamics, Trauma Informed Sex Therapy, and IFS