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What Is Relational Trauma?

girl traumatized from her mom

There are many different traumatic experiences a person can go through, from car accidents to natural disasters. Most people are aware that these events can stick with a person for a long time after, negatively affecting their mental health. There are dozens of ways to experience trauma that are not often thought about as trauma. One of those types of trauma is relational trauma.

Trauma From Relationships

People are social creatures. They thrive the most when they make healthy connections and long-lasting friendships with people who support their growth. Unfortunately, not every connection is healthy. Some connections can be toxic to the point of being abusive. The experience of a toxic or abusive relationship can even cause trauma for others.

What Relational Trauma Looks Like

Trauma is defined as an experience or repeated experience where a person was in physical or emotional danger. In the context of relationships, this can look like living through domestic abuse, experiencing abuse as a child, or being neglected in a relationship.

For example, if a person experienced coercion or control in a relationship, or their boundaries were repeatedly violated, those experiences could cause relational trauma. Another example would be a relationship with unequal power dynamics. This would be a situation where a manager might be dating or making advances towards one of his employees, or a teacher making advances towards a student. This unequal power dynamic could potentially be traumatizing if the person with less power felt like they could not reject their superior without losing their job or failing a class.

This trauma often is experienced by children with their caregivers which can affect how they develop interpersonal relationships later on. A person who lived through childhood abuse or neglect will struggle to form healthy relationships and might have a shattered sense of identity.

Many therapists screen for adverse childhood experiences or ACE. Some of the experiences fall under the category of relational trauma, such as emotional or physical abuse from a caregiver or witnessing abuse committed by or to another caregiver.

How to Cope With Relational Trauma

If a person has experienced trauma from interpersonal relationships, it can be hard to make connections again. They might be afraid that people will continue to hurt them, or that they will not be able to catch the red flags next time. It can be hard to trust again after experiencing relational trauma, especially if it has happened more than once.

Pay Attention to Your Emotions. If a person feels that something does not feel right, there is a chance that it is not. When someone feels uncomfortable, anxious, sad, or angry about the way another is treating them, then the connection is not safe.

Listen to Your Body. How a person's body feels can be an indicator of how another is making them feel, emotionally. If a person constantly feels tense around the other, then it might be time for the individual to evaluate how that relationship is making them feel.

Be Aware of Your Own Patterns. While relational trauma is normally not the victim's fault, there still might be a part the individual plays. If someone has a history of negative social experiences or a habit of sticking around longer than is safe, there might be some patterns of behavior that are worth evaluating.

When a person looks at their own patterns, they should consider whether they might be attracted to codependent relationships or if they ignore red flags. Often people choose connections that feel the most comfortable to them and reject the ones that feel alien. Recognizing these patterns now can help the next time it comes up.

Rediscover Your Identity. Experiencing relational trauma can affect a person's connection with themselves and their interests. Someone experiencing PTSD might lose interest in activities that they once enjoyed. A person who invested entirely into an abusive relationship might come out of it not knowing themselves anymore.

Often, people in codependent relationships wrap their entire identity around the relationship, losing themselves in it. After leaving an abusive relationship, or coming to terms with relational trauma, it is important for the individual to discover themselves again. By building an understanding of themselves, they can develop a healthier relationship with themselves.

Relearn to Love Yourself. Relational trauma can negatively impact self-esteem and self-image. Through the process of healing, it is essential for an individual to learn how to love and care for themselves again. Loving oneself can help to put one's needs above others and feel comfortable and justified when setting and enforcing healthy boundaries.


When your traumatic experience involves a toxic or abusive relationship, it can make it extremely difficult to trust again and form healthy connections. The emotional, physical and psychological abuse that transpired can make it hard to feel safe in other relationships, causing you to socially isolate yourself. You might also find yourself seeking or accepting relationships that are just as toxic as the previous ones because it is what you are most comfortable with. In order to properly heal from this trauma, it is important to acknowledge the wounds and come up with a plan to process this trauma while learning how to make healthier connections. At Chateau, we know how relational trauma can impact one's mental health. Many people with substance addiction have a history of relational trauma and have used substances to cope with the symptoms. There is still hope for you.
Call (435) 222-5225 to learn more about how we can help.

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