Complex Relational Trauma

“To be lonely is to feel unwanted and unloved, and therefore unloveable. Loneliness is a taste of death. No wonder some people who are desperately lonely lose themselves in mental illness or violence to forget the inner pain.” –Jean Vanier (Becoming Human)

Many of the men and women I treat evince the agony of loneliness rooted in incessant relational trauma. Relational trauma pertains to a “violation of human connection” (Judith Herman 1992), which result in attachment injuries. These relational traumas encompass a vast range of violations, inclusive of childhood abuse, domestic violence, entrapment, rape, infidelity, bullying, rejection, psychological/emotional abuse, and complex grief rooted in unresolved loss of important human connections. The consequences of these relational traumas are profound, particularly when they are the result of generational patterns passed on to children.

Psychodynamic theorist Gerald Adler attributed an early failure in nurturing to the experience of annihilation. He contended that the absence of a primary positive soothing introject/caregiver creates an insatiable emptiness that impedes the development of an organized Self. Additionally, the ongoing exposure to negative persecutory introjects such as abusive parents, further exacerbates the threat of annihilation.

Furthermore, the relational bond between an infant and its primary caretaker impacts the structure and function of the developing infant’s brain. Abuse and neglect within the child-parent attachment bond is absorbed as cellular memory, causing neural dysregulation and consequentially an imprint of trauma that may be reenacted throughout life. Likewise, if primary bonding is characterized by safety and mirroring, neurological integration can develop normally and an imprint of relationships as affording safety and pleasure occurs.

Consequently, the psychological repercussions of relational trauma are manifold. Impairments with relatedness to others, affect regulation, difficulties with emotional self-regulation and behavioral control, alterations in consciousness, self-destructive behaviors, and a nihilistic world-view embody the plight of complex relational trauma. The relationally traumatized individual vacillates between pseudo-autonomy and needy desperation, relentlessly seeking rescue and rejecting real intimacy. Unable to empathically attune to others, vocalize intrinsic needs/desires, and fearful of hurt and rejection, yet hungry for attachment (s)he repetitiously recreates the destructive cycle of maltreatment and disorganized ambivalent attachment. Difficulties with regulating emotions and affect manifest in aggressive posturing, behavioral problems and addictive disorders.  Ubiquitous despair, self-hatred, and hopelessness contribute to a radically cynical perspective, which asserts life is devoid of all meaning and purpose.

The paradox of healing from relational trauma is that it is what is most feared which will repair and restore. Psychologist Carl Rogers emphasized the essential elements of unconditional positive regard, genuineness, and empathy as the reparative force inherent in a successful client-therapist relationship. Rogers wrote, “When a person realizes he has been deeply heard, his eyes moisten. I think in some real sense he is weeping for joy. It is as though he were saying, “Thank God, somebody heard me. Someone knows what it’s like to be me.” As philanthropist Jean Vanier points out “when we love and respect people, revealing to them their value, they can begin to come out from behind the walls that protect them.”

Thus, when a relationally traumatized client engages in a therapeutic process with a clinician who offers the opportunity for corrective connection, healing occurs. In the context of such a relationship, traumas can be effectively processed. Successful treatment necessitates allowing sufferers of relational trauma to safely know and experience all which has been disowned and silenced. The heroic and arduous journey of recovery for the relationally traumatized individual means repairing fragmentation, stabilizing the consequences of somatization and limbic system dysregulation, cultivating life skills, and developing a cohesive meaningful narrative that lends itself to a life-affirming sense of identity and an inspired frame of reference. Only then can the survivor of relational trauma experience the birthright she was denied; to give and receive love.


Author: Rev Sheri Heller

Rev. Sheri Heller, LCSW, is a seasoned NYC psychotherapist with 25+ years experience in the addiction and mental health fields. Sheri is also an interfaith minister and playwright, and the founder of The Sistah Tribe - Phoenix Project, a therapeutic theater event for at-risk women and girls in the public sector of NYC.

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