When I made that left turn on green, a car doing about fifty seemingly appeared out of nowhere. Time stood still, and I saw the look of sheer terror in the eyes and faces of each of the car’s occupants. It’s a look you never forget.
Even as windows exploded, airbags deployed, and reality crumpled around me, I was still acutely aware of the surging input from my five senses.
At the same time, I must have left my body temporarily because I remember the screaming engine and smoking rubber calling me back into my limbs to un-stomp the gas pedal. I vividly recall returning to my body only because I had to. Twenty years later, I can still replay that clip in high-definition.
There are very specific, involuntary, physiological responses to traumatic events that can last a lifetime. Even for events that happened once and lasted all of ten seconds.
So what can we say of relational trauma chronically inflicted upon children all throughout their formative years? Physical, mental, emotional, verbal, and sexual abuse. Neglect and abandonment. What happens when your family becomes a source of terror and helplessness — the very hallmarks of every traumatic experience?
In some ways, it’s not unlike being in a car accident. But imagine being in a car accident every day.
Why Repeated Relational Trauma Sucks
When we are regularly hurt in relationships — by parents, siblings, peers, etc. — we are impacted in at least three ways.
First, we suffer the pain of whatever awful shit we experience. Second, we adapt for survival — armor up, shut down, escape, perform, fight, lie, cheat, steal, or whatever it takes. Third, we completely miss out on appropriate learning and development that might otherwise have happened if we weren’t busy surviving.
The worst part about being hurt in relationships isn’t that you are hurt, but that your trust in relationships in general is damaged. Your very capacity to connect with others is altered. And the inconvenient irony of it all is that you can only mend the wounds of dysfunctional relationships from within a relationship. That is, you have to go back into what is broken in order to fix it.
The problem here is that most people don’t know how to make such repairs, so they keep plunging themselves back into the waters that nearly drowned them and flailing about aimlessly.
You cannot use your broken relationship skills to fix your broken relationship skills.
This is why therapeutic relationships and safe supports are so important to the healing process. You have to reprogram yourself for healthy connection by experiencing one. In that regard, the therapist, coach, mentor, 12-step sponsor, etc. acts like a splint that holds a broken bone in place while it heals and becomes strong enough to function properly on its own.
The Healing Power of Relationships
Aside from physiological necessities and the basic securities of life, a sense of belonging is the next important human need in Maslow’s hierarchy. Relational trauma makes meeting this vital need kind of tough.
Yes, I need to feel accepted by and connected to others to cultivate self-esteem, confidence, and purpose. But many of my childhood relationships were with people who stripped me of these very things. So what the fuck am I supposed to do, life?
Can you see the perplexing dilemma of relational trauma?
I know someone with a tattoo that says, “Love heals all wounds.” This is the healing fantasy that people chase into burning buildings all their life. It’s completely false, although it does acknowledge the healing power of relationships.
I think her tattoo should read, “Providing someone a healthy connection and holding a safe space makes healing possible, but it certainly doesn’t guarantee it.” Ok, so maybe that’s less romantic and harder to write across a collar bone, but it’s true.
People are drawn into relationships because they intuitively know they are a gateway to healing, the proving grounds for spiritual growth, the final frontier of emotional development. Your relationship can never be healthier than you. Therefore, in order for your relationship to not suck, you have no choice but to grow into the very best version of yourself.
Unfortunately, so many people are wounded in their own way and lack the knowledge, skills, and resources to pull that off. And so, instead of a gateway to healing, relationships become a revolving door of chaos.
Simple Guidelines For Healing
If you’re sick and tired of lugging your shitty past around with you in a musty duffle bag, please focus all of your effort on the following two things:
1) Removing toxic people from your life — people who suck and are not helping you grow. This includes all those weirdos on social media who you don’t really like all that much. If you wouldn’t invite them over for dinner, unfriend them. This applies to family members as well. If they consistently behave like flesh-eating bacteria, don’t feel bad about amputating them. That’s what any doctor would recommend.
2) Surrounding yourself with healthy, happy, wholesome people — those who inspire, love, support, and encourage you—people who are healing, learning, and growing into their best selves. You want to be around these people. Trust me.
You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with. If those people are assholes, then Houston, we have a problem.
When you have healthy relationships with yourself and the people who matter most in your life, your romantic relationships will drastically improve.
But don’t take my word for it. Try it for yourself.