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  • Writer's pictureFaye Packer

Finding love after childhood trauma

“I crave a love that drowns oceans” – K. Azizian

I found this beautiful quote just the other day. I don’t know about you, but this quote turns my head all fizzy. It makes me feel nostalgic for a love that I thought only existed in dreamscapes and movies. I love the idea of love and romance. I think most people do - even the people who try to convince you that they are better off alone and that love will only lead to painful heartbreak.

We are all deserving of love, and nobody deserves love more than survivors of childhood trauma. The impact of childhood trauma is often underestimated and unrecognised by society. Survivors of childhood trauma are frequently written off as chaotic individuals who are ‘difficult’ and emotionally unstable. Yet if we look into the upbringings and family background of these individuals, we find voids of emptiness, shame and self-hatred. We discover people who grew up never feeling safe or looked out for, who believe they are worthless and inhuman, who just want to disappear into nothingness.

Survivors of childhood trauma particularly struggle being in romantic relationships. They find it impossible to imagine that anyone would or could fall in love with them. Some survivors are anxious that they themselves are incapable of love. Here are some reasons why love might feel out of bounds if you experienced childhood trauma:

1) Hypervigilance:

Children who grow up in abusive or traumatic environments develop the ability to quickly read the moods or unspoken feelings of adults. This is an unconscious survival technique – if they know when the abuser is angry, the child can physically hide or mentally dissociate from any potential abuse. Hypervigilant children often grow up to be highly anxious adults who are constantly scanning their surroundings for signs of danger…and this inevitably impacts romantic relationships. If you experienced childhood trauma, you might find it very difficult letting your guard down and feeling safe. You might unconsciously expect to be disappointed, mistreated or even abused by other people, including romantic partners. This can stop you getting close to anyone beyond a couple of dates.

2) Aversion to touch:

Touch has huge power in the parent/child relationship for a few reasons. Firstly, appropriate touch between parent and child can communicate a love that is beyond words. Babies cannot talk but they can express their love through cuddling, kissing and other non-verbal gestures. Touch in childhood also helps you feel a sense of existence. You learn the boundaries of your body and start to feel grounded within yourself through appropriate parental touch. When there has been inappropriate touch or an absence of touch in childhood, you start to feel a sense of detachment and alienation. You begin to feel defective, as though there is something fundamentally wrong with you and that perhaps people cannot bear to touch you. Now the thought of being touched by someone might make your skin crawl. As an adult, you may find it difficult to be affectionate or intimate with another person. You might dissociate during sex too.

3) Unworthiness:

Feeling loved by a parent teaches you to love yourself. A child needs to look into their parent’s eyes and know that they are accepted, cared for and loved unconditionally. This helps the child develop self esteem. They learn that they are worthy of being loved. But if the parent is emotionally or physically abusive/absent/traumatising, the child is often starved of love. The sense they make of the trauma is that it is their fault, that it happened because they are unlovable. These children grow into adults who do not believe that another person can ever truly love them. If you grew up in a home empty of love, you might both desperately crave love and actively reject any signs of love.

4) Co-dependency:

Some survivors of childhood trauma and abuse go on to develop co-dependent traits in romantic relationships. They cling onto the relationship even if it is shockingly bad, and cannot maintain their individuality and ‘self-ness’ with their partner – they become blended into their partner instead. Co-dependent traits can stem from a survivor having no inner feeling of safety. There is no kind and compassionate inner voice – only a cruel and critical one. So the survivor starts to become dependent on external validation and looks to other people to give them value. If you grew up in a environment that felt chronically unsafe, you might find it difficult to have a healthy romantic relationship and might too freely accept negative opinions of yourself. You might feel easily trapped when you are in romantic relationships but also never want to leave.

If you identify with this list of behaviours, you might worry that finding love in adulthood is an impossibility and that you are doomed to be forever alone. But this is not the case and as a therapist, I strongly believe that we all have the ability to change and grow as individuals. Here are some helpful pointers to get you started:

· Practice compassionate curiosity. Next time you feel anxious or awkward with a potential partner, try to sit with the feeling and explore it. Can you name the feeling? Have you felt this in the past? If a friend was experiencing this situation, how would you respond? Could you show yourself more empathy?

· Create some comforting imagery or mantras that can help you through emotionally difficult situations. An example would be quietly repeating to yourself “I give myself kindness” or “I am safe. I am present.” If you find comfort in imagery, imagine a place that makes you feel welcomed, safe and secure. Use your five senses to imagine what you can see, touch, smell, taste and hear in your safe place. If you find it difficult to think of a place that feels safe, have a go at creating your own. Your safe place could be a tropical beach under a pink sky, a Scandinavian winter woodland, a glittering oasis in a desert…the list is endless.

· Consider starting therapy if you think that you would benefit from exploring the impact of childhood trauma. It’s great to learn some self-management skills but sometimes you need a professional to help you in your recovery. If you are thinking of starting therapy, what sort of therapist would you like to work with? What sorts of things would you hope to gain from therapy? How would you like your life to look in the future?

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