NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Friday, August 3, 2012

Overcoming Childhood Trauma that Affects Your Adult Relationships

Many people are unaware of how much their attitudes and feelings about relationships are affected by early childhood traumatic experiences.  Attitudes and emotions can be unconscious, especially when it comes to romantic relationships.  

When we start to observe our own thoughts and feelings about relationships, we can begin to question in a more objective way whether or not these thoughts and feelings are distorted based on childhood experiences. 

Overcoming Childhood Trauma that Affects Your Adult Relationships

The following is a vignette which, as always, is a composite of many different cases with all identifying information changed to protect confidentiality:

Angie, who was in her mid-30s, came to therapy because she had longstanding problems in her relationships with men.  Her pattern was that she would meet a man that, initially, she would really like but, after a while, she would begin to fear that she could not trust him.

Angie was aware that these feelings of mistrust weren't based on anything that was actually going on in the relationship.  It was more of a sense that she got.  She would try to dismiss her fear, but it would become increasingly uncomfortable for her to remain in the relationship.  Soon after that, she would find it too uncomfortable and she would end the relationship abruptly.  The pattern was that, after she ended the relationship, she would feel relieved for a while because she was no longer consumed with fear.  But soon after that she would feel very lonely and question whether she had been right to end the relationship.

There were times when she was in and out of the same relationship, unable to decide if she should stay or if she should go.  Her ambivalence and fear created emotional chaos for herself as well as whoever she was seeing at the time.  It also made her feel unstable and unsure of herself.  She felt she couldn't trust her own judgment in these situations.

After a particularly difficult relationship ended, where she was in and out several times, she decided that she needed psychological help to try to understand why she was unable to maintain a relationship with anyone.   She was beginning to worry that she wouldn't ever be able to sustain a romantic relationship.  She wanted to be in a stable relationship, get married, and have children.  She feared that if she didn't change, she would never get married and she wouldn't have children.

Angie's early childhood was chaotic.  Her father, who was a salesman and an active alcoholic, had difficulty holding onto a job.  As an intelligent, charismatic man, he would impress employers, initially, as a very promising salesperson.  He had a way with customers that soon won them over.  At the start of each job, he would be making good commissions on the services that he sold.  But sooner or later, his performance would suffer due to his alcoholism.  He would stop showing up for work.  He would stop responding to customer calls.  And soon after that, he would be fired.

Angie's mother was rather passive.  She tried as best as she could to keep the family financially afloat, but the family finances were often precarious.  They also moved around a lot from one city to the next as Angie's father lost one job and started another.  Angie would only spend one or two years in a particular school, making friends and then having to say goodbye when the family moved to a new city.

Angie loved both of her parents a lot, but she also felt angry with each of them.  She couldn't understand why her father, who was a loving dad, couldn't just stop drinking.  Whenever he was "on the wagon," he seemed happier and more optimistic. At those times, she felt hopeful that he was on an upward spiral.

He would come home from work, whistling a tune, pick her up, swing her around, kiss her mom, and talk about his workday in a glowing, happy way.  During those times, Angie saw her dad as her hero.  She felt there wasn't anything that he couldn't do.  Unfortunately, those times didn't last very long.  Then, Angie would find her father in the den, brooding, consumed with his own thoughts, drinking whiskey, and in a dark mood.  If he saw her looking at him, he would silently close the door.

Angie could never reconcile these two sides of her father.  After a while, she learned to be very vigilant  to try to determine if he was the happy, loving father that she loved or if he was in one of his dark, emotionally inaccessible moods and often drunk states.  She worried a lot, and she hated her mother at times for being so passive.

By the time she went away to college, Angie was relieved to be away from her parents.  She continued to worry about them but, at least, she didn't have to be in the day-to-day chaos of life at home.  In high school, she had both male and female friends, but she didn't date, feeling too shy and unsure of herself. In college, she began to feel a little more confident, which enabled her to start dating.

From the start, Angie felt increasingly anxious whenever her feelings for a man developed to more than just a physical attraction.  Her friends were her sounding board about her relationships, and she would spend a lot of time talking to them about whether she could trust whoever she was seeing.  When her fears became unbearable, she would break off the relationship, often against her friends' advice.  They would try to tell her that her fears were baseless, but she couldn't tolerate her anxiety any more and would feel compelled to end the relationship.  This became her pattern in relationships.

Overcoming Childhood Trauma that Affects Your Adult Relationships

In therapy, Angie started making connections between her chaotic relationships and the chaos of her childhood, especially her relationship with her father.  But this was only the beginning.  

Having an intellectual understanding of her problem was not enough to allow her to change her pattern in her relationships.  She needed to work through the earlier trauma.  Her therapist recommended that they work through the earlier trauma using a mind-body oriented psychotherapy called Somatic Experiencing.

Using Somatic Experiencing, Angie was able to develop not just an intellectual understanding about her problems but, more importantly, she able to overcome the damage of her earlier history so that it no longer dominated her adult life.  Over time, she was able to develop a satisfying relationship with a man  without being overcome by her usual fears.

Somatic Experiencing - A Mind-Body Psychotherapy
Somatic Experiencing is not a "magic bullet."  It requires an openness and willingness to do trauma work.   As opposed to regular talk therapy, it tends to be more effective in allowing psychotherapy clients to overcome emotional trauma that has been affecting them, often for many years.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, Somatic Experiencing therapist, and EMDR therapist who works with individual adults and couples.  I am certified in mind-body oriented psychotherapy.  

I have helped many clients to work through childhood trauma that had been negatively impacting them so that they could lead more fulfilling lives.

To find out more about me, visit my website:  Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.

Also, see article:  Fear of Dealing with Past Childhood Trauma