6 Ways the Past Complicates Relationships in the Present for Trauma Survivors

010919Maintaining good relationships is probably one of my biggest struggles. Yet, it was a struggle I was unaware of until recently; I just thought I was good at avoiding drama. I never reflected on the fact that the same situations have played out in a number of friendships throughout my life. Turns out I have been selling myself short as a master of avoidance and walking away.

The more I learn about the physical changes to my brain due to trauma in childhood and the psychological effects, as a result, I am becoming aware of a lifetime of behavior that has always produced negative results in my life. Yet I continued to be drawn to the patterns.

I have started to share my reflections on these embarrassing moments in my life, not only to help me process the shame but to learn and move through it. I also wanted others to feel some comfort. I was overwhelmed by how many other childhood trauma survivors shared my same exasperations with repeat behavior.

Over the last few weeks, I have been wrestling to accept that I have made the right decision to walk away from a long-term friendship. I wish that the knowledge alone would alleviate this hurt that I feel. As I reflect on why the friendship had to end, and why I am struggling to let it all go, I came up with what I believe are some core issues for trauma survivors when it comes to why relationships aren’t successful.

No Boundaries

Trauma survivors struggle with establishing and maintaining proper boundaries. As children, the sense of self is crushed under the weight of fear and survival. There is no individual identity, no understanding, confidence, or trust in yourself to build the foundation necessary for healthy boundaries that dictate respect because your boundaries were never recognized as a child. You were never taught how to establish them because you weren’t allowed to say NO.

People Pleasers

Trauma Survivors carry a lot of grief due to loss. The loss of your childhood, your innocence, safety, and trust – the world became unpredictable and dangerous. The thought of losing more people can cause all kinds of emotional discomfort, even when those people treat you badly. After all, being treated badly by people who are supposed to love and care for you is a natural and familiar place for your emotions to sit (and turn off).

So instead of setting boundaries, survivors tend to people please. Self-worth hangs on how others treat you.

The belief that the Treatment is Deserved

Living a life conditioned to believe the abuse being endured is what you deserve sticks with you into adulthood. Abused children grow up feeling ashamed, unlovable, and worthless.; groomed to believe what is happening to them is what they want and what they deserve. Continuing to accept judgment and shame from people who take advantage of your inability to establish and maintain boundaries, or perhaps completely disregard the boundaries you do set, is second nature.


Now that I can see clearly the behaviors that I need to work on, and how this friend took complete advantage of my lack of boundaries and inability to truly stand up for myself – why can’t I just let it go? Why do I find myself continually drawn into my own head running monologues of defending myself?

I have a couple theories on this one too.

Here are some core reasons I believe trauma survivors struggle with letting things go, even when it is absolutely the right thing to do. It has more to do with our past, than our present.

Feelings of Betrayal

As a child, being abused by the people who are supposed to provide care and protection is a huge betrayal to carry into adulthood, especially as the awareness of how innocent you truly were begins to sink in. Any sense of betrayal in real-time relationships can become an emotional trigger deep-seated within, that has far more to do with your past than the current situation. Trying to disconnect that link doesn’t come easy.

Being Shamed/Judged

There are known behavioral patterns in people who live with PTSD. Those patterns are a result of the physical changes in the brain. PTSD is an illness.  Feeling judgment, and pointed shame from someone who is supposed to understand your illness can trigger all kinds of ugly. As a child you couldn’t defend yourself against the shame and judgment, so you ran it like an old tape in your head trying to work out for yourself, that the shame is not yours to bear. That’s what is still happening.

Moral Justice/Need for Apology 

The majority of childhood trauma survivors receive no real justice. The need for moral justice, even if not consciously recognized, manifests in the overwhelming desire to teach a lesson. If only you could have one more interaction with the person who has betrayed you so you can ensure they understand the error of their ways.

Finding closure alone and understanding that some people will always stand in judgment can be extremely difficult for a trauma survivor to do.  It is far too reminiscent of how the years of abuse felt, and most survivors will be damned if they are going to let anyone make them feel that way again (at least that’s the conversation most have in their heads).


Recognizing emotional triggers like this is probably some of the hardest work I have ever done. It has forced me to sit with all the hurt, betrayal, shame, anger, fear, and mistrust in myself that I have been driftlessly trying to maneuver through for so long.

010919 #2

Going up against physiological changes in my brain is intimidating, even hard to accept at times. It pisses me off how much my abuse still affects me. I do know, however, that the brain is regenerative, and that PTSD can be managed successfully, and in some people healed completely.

In my own case, I feel like PTSD and I will be longtime friends, but I hope we eventually come to a point where we can have mutual respect for each other. I have been through some serious atrocities; the abuses I suffered were at the hands of my closest family, severe, quite regular, and over the course of an entire childhood. PTSD has a place in my life which I will honor – for it is the result of a lifetime of badass survival.

Still, I will not allow it to be a driving force in my life. I deserve wholeness, connection, awareness, and emotional peace.

I will learn to coexist with my PTSD right now, and hopefully, one day bid it farewell.


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5 thoughts on “6 Ways the Past Complicates Relationships in the Present for Trauma Survivors

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  1. This is so eloquently written. I’m also an abuse survivor and this post resonates strongly with me. I’ve had so much therapy and I’m diagnosed with type 2 bipolar disorder. I’m not sure if i will ever be free from the symptoms you’ve described so well. Thank you for writing this ❤

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