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Navigating Relationships in Recovery: Building Healthy Attachments After Trauma

According to “How to Manage Trauma” from the National Council for Behavioral Health, 223.4 million (70%) U.S. adults have experienced trauma. Despite the prevalence of trauma, with the help of adaptive coping strategies, people can process their trauma and heal. However, when left unaddressed, trauma can manifest into other challenges like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Moreover, when you are overwhelmed and unable to cope with trauma, it impairs your daily functioning, life goals, and healthy attachments.

The impact of unaddressed trauma on healthy attachments is vital to whole-person care and healing. Without healthy attachments, the pains of trauma act as a source of self-destruction in your life. Thus, understanding the relationships between trauma and healthy attachments can provide insight into the importance of relationships. The relationships you form with others impact how you respond to life stressors and move through the world.

At The Guest House, we believe carrying trauma is the root cause of self-defeating or self-destructive behaviors. The weight of overwhelming distress can lead to unhealthy coping strategies that impede multiple areas of your life. Working from a place of distress can lead to challenges in maintaining healthy relationships and being productive. Therefore, we are committed to helping you uncover trauma, dismantle self-defeating behaviors, rebuild healthy attachments, and thrive in recovery.

Yet, you may still have questions about the connection between trauma and healthy attachments. How does trauma disrupt healthy attachments in your relationships? What are healthy attachments? More awareness of how you respond to trauma can provide insight into how self-defeating behaviors disrupt relationships.

Addressing the Impact of Trauma on Healthy Attachments

In general, healthy attachments can be associated with mutually supportive relationships. However, it is important to note that healthy attachments in relationships do not mean everything is always positive. Every relationship – even a healthy one – has some level of conflict. However, healthy attachments use adaptive strategies to work through those conflicts together.

Healthy conflict and communication can be valuable to deepening and strengthening your relationships. Thus, healthy conflict cannot exist without healthy attachments. Yet, what makes a relationship healthy? As noted by New York State, healthy relationships are built from honesty, trust, respect, and open communication. Listed below are some of the characteristics and foundational pieces of a healthy relationship:

  • Mutual respect: You value each other and understand each other’s boundaries.
  • Communication: You avoid miscommunication by speaking honestly and openly in a way that makes each other feel safe and heard.
  • Setting boundaries: You find ways to meet each other’s needs in ways that everyone feels comfortable with.
  • Trust and honesty: Together, respect and honesty help you build and strengthen trust in each other and your relationships.
  • Compromise: You acknowledge each other’s points of view and work together to give and take where possible.
  • Problem-solving: You identify new solutions by breaking them into smaller parts and talking through them together.
  • Understanding: You take time to make sure you understand and consider each other’s feelings.
  • Individuality: You never compromise who you are to make the other person happy and you are supportive of each other’s goals.

Whether it is a romantic relationship, friendship, or familial relationship, characteristics like mutual respect, communication, and boundaries support healthy attachments. However, trauma can disrupt your healthy attachments and impair your ability to lead a fulfilling life. As stated in the Clinical Psychology Review, relationship functioning encompasses the overall health of your relationships. Additionally, relationship functioning considers broad and specific constructs, including:

  • Your relationship satisfaction and distress
  • How you communicate
  • Your perceived level of alliance with each other
  • The extent of your mutual trust in each other

These important relationship factors are impaired by the symptoms of PTSD and co-occurring conditions like depression. Yet, how do trauma symptoms impair healthy attachments? Looking at trauma symptoms will give you insight into how trauma contributes to relationship conflict through self-defeating behavior.

Experiencing trauma often leaves you feeling overwhelmed by fear, confusion, and a sense of helplessness. Although everyone’s experiences and symptoms are unique to them, trauma can be disruptive to how you function in the world. Listed below are some of the ways trauma can impair how you function internally and externally:

  • Changes in how you think: Traumatic events can change the way you think about yourself, others, and the world
    • Your sense of safety in the world may be shattered by trauma and leave you feeling unable to trust in yourself or others
  • Feeling on edge: Trauma can overstimulate your fight or flight stress response, which causes you to perceive things as a threat even when they are not
    • You are easily startled by sounds and movements
  • Disassociation: Prolonged trauma can leave you feeling numb as your brain detaches as a protective mechanism
  • Deregulation: Trauma can cause you to have emotional/behavioral responses that are out of proportion with the situation
    • You may be overly irritable or angry in your interactions with others
  • Avoidance behaviors: To feel safer, you avoid people, places, and things that remind you of the trauma
  • Feeling alone: You have difficulty expressing your feelings and believe others cannot understand what you are going through
    • When you feel misunderstood, you start to withdraw socially and physically from others

The many ways trauma can impede your functioning also impact how you interact with others. Thus, as the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) explains, trauma and PTSD symptoms can damage close family relationships or friendships. Your trauma symptoms can make it difficult for you to trust, communicate, and feel close to your loved ones. You may feel detached from others, or difficulty regulating anger may lead you to distance yourself from others.

Yet, the difficulties trauma brings up in relationships are not only a result of your symptoms. Relationships are a two-way street; thus, how your loved ones feel and respond to your symptoms also impacts the relationship. The challenge of trauma symptoms may leave your loved ones feeling hurt, cut off, or down about the relationship. Over time, your loved ones may become angry or distant because everyone lacks the tools for healthy coping. Without healthy coping, it becomes easier to engage in maladaptive coping strategies like self-medicating.

Self-Medicating Trauma: How Addiction Disrupts Healthy Attachments

When trauma is left unaddressed, you may seek to alleviate or suppress your distress with substances. Self-medicating with substances can quickly move from misuse to addiction, which can further disrupt healthy attachments. Much like the distress of trauma, addiction can also cause a rift in your close relationships.

Meanwhile, addiction does not only affect a person with substance use disorder (SUD). Rather, the changes in behaviors that come with trauma and addiction affect the entire family system. In both addiction and recovery, one family member’s changing behavior upsets the equilibrium of the whole family system. Thus, poor coping skills can lead family members to engage in maladaptive behaviors that enable continued misuse and harm each member’s mental health. According to Social Work in Public Health, substance use disorder (SUD) can have a significant impact on every stage of the family life cycle. SUD can cause entire family units to become stuck and unable to reach developmental milestones to lead fulfilling lives.

More specifically, listed below are the stages of the family life cycle that can be impaired by SUD:

Married Without Children

  • Your developmental task is to establish a healthy marriage
    • SUD increases poor communication and conflict and impairs emotional and physical intimacy

Childbearing Families and Families With Preschool Children

  • Create a safe and loving home to foster secure, healthy attachments
    • SUD reduces physical and emotional safety and fosters insecure attachments
  • Promote your child’s growth and development and build adaptive coping
    • SUD leads to inconsistent parenting, parental neglect and abuse, marital conflict, and loss of parental rights

Raising School-Age Children and Parenting Teenagers

  • Encourage your child’s education and build connections in your community
    • SUD increases home conflict and potential intimate partner violence (IPV), and children experience educational neglect
  • Help balance freedom and responsibility, establish healthy peer relationships, and support the development of educational and career goals
    • SUD increases family conflict and school and legal issues
    • Teens and children may experience anxiety, depression, or oppositional disorders
    • Children have difficulty forming healthy peer relationships, and teens are at an increased risk for developing SUD

Launching Young Adults

  • Help young adults leave the nest with appropriate assistance and maintain a supportive home base. The task of young adults is to start developing careers
    • Failure to launch for young adults happens because they are unable to support themselves
    • SUD increases relationship conflict

Middle-Age Parents and Aging Family Members

  • Rebuild your marriage and maintain ties with the younger generations
    • Marital conflict and relationship conflict with your adult children
      • Adult children may disconnect from you and prevent you from seeing their children
  • Adjust to retirement and cope with bereavement and living alone
    • SUD can increase isolation and depression or vice versa

The relationship conflicts that arise from trauma symptoms, and SUD showcases the importance of healthy attachments in infancy and early childhood. Thus, understanding attachment styles can help you understand how they impact relationships.

The Importance of Attachment Styles in Relationships

Although every family system is different, your family is typically your primary source of attachment, nurturing, and socialization. As noted in Frontiers in Psychiatry, attachment is a motivational, behavioral, and interactional system meant to provide security in early childhood. Through healthy attachment in infancy and childhood, you form a secure base that helps you build resilience to life stressors. With a secure base, you are better equipt to cope with trauma and prevent self-defeating behaviors like SUD.

Listed below are the four attachment styles found in early relationships:

  • Secure attachment: Forms when caregivers can consistently fulfill the child’s physical and emotional needs
  • Anxious-ambivalent attachment: Forms when caregivers do not or are unable to meet the child’s physical and emotional needs consistently
  • Avoidant attachment: Forms when caregivers do not or are unable to provide adequate emotional support
  • Disorganized attachment: Forms when there is an erratic relationship marked by traumatic experiences with the primary caregiver

Thus, your early experiences impact self-understanding, building healthy relationships, and functioning in daily life. However, early exposure to traumatic experiences can impair attachment style and relationships and increase risk factors for SUD. Moreover, exposure to trauma and SUD in adulthood can further complicate your relationships and encourage unhealthy attachments. Therefore, the attachment style you form in childhood is instrumental to how you experience relationships throughout your life. When you uncover the roots of your SUD and or co-occurring mental health disorders, a clear line between early attachment and self-defeating behaviors can be seen.

Consequences of Insecure Attachments in Adulthood

According to “Exploring Attachment Styles and Their Influence on Interpersonal Dynamics” by Francesco Galvano et al., attachment styles help you understand your relational behaviors. Thus, you can better understand your interpersonal dynamics and how different types of relationships are formed. Moreover, each attachment style can give you insight into how trauma has influenced how you see yourself and access to healthy attachments in childhood and adulthood.

Secure Attachment Style

  • You were made to feel safe and secure, which empowered self-confidence, trust, and hopefulness
    • Early characteristics: You perceived yourself as loveable and deserving of love and attention. You view others as reliable and trustworthy
    • Adulthood: You have solid or high self-esteem and can establish and maintain stable and fulfilling relationships
      • Your relationships are based on trust, friendship, and positive emotions
      • You are comfortable sharing emotions in mutually supportive relationships
      • In romantic relationships, you do not fear intimacy or get anxious when your partner needs space. Your needs and happiness are not reliant on your partner

Anxious-Ambivalent Attachment Style

  •  Inconsistent caregiving made you anxious and uncertain if your needs would be met
    • Early characteristics: You have low self-worth and think you are unworthy of receiving love and attention from others
    • Adulthood: You have low self-esteem and crave intimacy but worry that you are unwanted and unworthy
      • You have difficulty maintaining close relationships because you are viewed as too needy or clingy
      • Your sense of self-worth and happiness is dependent on how others are treating you in your relationships
      • You may fall in love easily and want deep intimacy quickly
      • Difficulty maintaining healthy boundaries

Avoidant Attachment Style

  • Unavailability or rejection by a caregiver forced you to distance yourself emotionally and self-soothe
    • Early characteristics: You view yourself as unlovable and incapable of receiving affection and love.
      • You perceive others as unavailable or intrusive
    • Adulthood: You value your independence, fear and avoid intimacy, and find it difficult to trust others
      • The closer people try to get to you emotionally, the more you distance yourself
      • You are uncomfortable talking about or sharing your feelings with others
      • When things feel like they are getting too serious, you end relationships
      • You seek causal relationships or emotionally unavailable partners

Disorganized Attachment Style

  • Your caregiver was a source of fear and comfort, which left you feeling confused and disorientated in your relationships
    • Early characteristics: You view yourself as unlovable and undeserving of affection and love.
      • You perceive others in chaotic and inconsistent ways, swinging from available, rejecting, frightening, and abusive
    • Adulthood: You desire acceptance and validation of yourself and your needs from others.
      • You perceive others as rejecting or threatening
      • Refuse to  take responsibility for your actions creates relationship conflict
      • You crave meaningful intimacy but avoid it because you feel unworthy of love and fearful of getting hurt
      • Often engaged in an emotionally and or physically abusive relationship
      • Experience difficulty trusting your partner
      • You can be selfish, controlling, and insensitive to your partner

With more understanding of your attachment style, you can start to dismantle the self-defeating behaviors and rebuild healthy attachments.

Learning How to Build Healthy Attachments at The Guest House

Some of the ways you can support healthy attachments in your life include:

  • Reflecting on how your childhood experiences have impacted you
  • Working on building security in yourself
  • Focusing on listening and understanding to build good communication
  • Building and respecting each other’s boundaries
  • Learning adaptive coping tools to manage stress

At The Guest House, we believe in holistic healing to support your needs for healing as a whole person. With holistic healing, you can understand how your early experiences have impaired healthy attachments in your life. Through holistic care and a wide range of therapeutic modalities, we can be a source of support and guidance to help you dismantle trauma and build healthy attachments in adulthood.

At The Guest House, we remind you that you are not alone in your recovery. Here, you can find the comfort and safety you need to rebuild your strength and repair your relationships to thrive in long-term recovery.

Building and maintaining healthy attachments in adulthood is impeded by trauma. Thus, trauma is at the root of your challenges with SUD, mental health disorders, and unhealthy relationships. In particular, difficulties with your caregivers in infancy contribute to insecure attachments. The insecure attachment you develop in early childhood often manifests itself in insecure attachment styles in your relationships as an adult. Therefore, increasing awareness of your early relationships and other adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) can help you understand your self-defeating behaviors. With more self-awareness, you can dismantle maladaptive strategies to foster healthy behaviors and relationships. At The Guest House, we are committed to providing personalized holistic care to heal your trauma and relationships. Call us at (855) 483-7800 today.