NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Sunday, October 30, 2022

How Unresolved Childhood Trauma Can Affect Your Ability to Be Emotionally Vulnerable in an Adult Romantic Relationship

In my last article, Emotional Vulnerability as a Strength in a Relationship, I discussed the importance of being emotionally vulnerable as an adult in a romantic relationship.  I discussed how being emotionally vulnerable can bring people closer and create greater emotional intimacy (see my article: Vulnerability as a Pathway to Greater Emotional Intimacy in a Relationship).

Unresolved Childhood Trauma Can Affect Adult Romantic Relationships

But there are times when unresolved trauma can create an obstacle in terms of someone feeling safe enough to allow themselves to take the risk of being vulnerable, which is the topic of this article.

How Unresolved Childhood Trauma Affects Your Ability to Be Emotionally Vulnerable in an Adult Romantic Relationship
The following clinical vignette, which is a composite of many cases with all identifying information removed, illustrates how unresolved childhood trauma creates an obstacle to emotional vulnerability and how experiential therapy can help:

Bill and Sara
When Bill and Sara first met, the chemistry between them was so strong that they both knew they wanted to be in a relationship within the first month.  

But six months into the relationship, after the new relationship energy wore off, they were getting into arguments because Sara felt her emotional needs weren't being met in their relationship.

Specifically, Sara complained to Bill that he was often emotionally distant.  At first, Bill wasn't aware of being any different from how he had always been with Sara, but he took her complaints seriously, especially when she told him that he seemed to have difficulty now being emotionally intimate.  

She told him that he didn't seem to have any problem with being close to her during the first several months of their relationship, but after that he seemed more emotionally withdrawn. 

Initially, Bill felt annoyed. He felt she was making a big deal out of nothing.  But, over time, as he continued to listen to her tell him that she felt he was distant around her, he thought about it more carefully, especially since his last two girlfriends told him the same thing.

Since he didn't want to lose another girlfriend because of complaints about his being emotionally withdrawn, Bill started therapy to work on this issue. 

He had attended cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) in the past and he learned some relationship skills, but he felt CBT didn't get to the root of his problem.  

After hearing Bill's childhood history of childhood emotional neglect, his therapist understood why Bill was so uncomfortable allowing himself to be vulnerable with Sara and also in his previous relationships (see my article: How Unresolved Trauma Affects Intimate Relationships).

His father worked long hours and when he was around, he usually spent most of his time in the basement tinkering with gadgets he was developing.  

His mother spent a lot of time doing volunteer work for several organizations, so Bill was usually left in the company of the housekeeper.  She was emotionally cold, and she was  also preoccupied with her duties, so she didn't have time for Bill.

As a child, Bill was aware that he wasn't supposed to interrupt his father when he was tinkering with his gadgets or bother his mother when she got home.  This was made very clear to him by both parents. 

So, as an only child, he often felt lonely and as if he was a nuisance to his parents (see my article: Growing Up Feeling Invisible and Emotionally Invalidated).

Whenever he went to visit his friends, Bill was surprised to see how warm and affectionate his friends' parents were with them.  This was so different from his own experience with his parents.

Now that he was in therapy as an adult, he admitted to his therapist that it was easier for him to tell Sara that he loved her during the first few months.  But after that, he felt uncomfortable and he didn't understand why.  

His therapist explained to Bill that as a couple gets closer and a relationship gets deeper, unresolved childhood issues come up and affect the relationship--especially issues involving emotional vulnerability (see my article: Reacting to the Present Based on Your Traumatic Past).

She also provided psychoeducation about childhood emotional neglect and how this often triggers issues with emotional intimacy in adult romantic relationships after the initial new relationship energy wears off.

At first, Bill had problems getting in touch with his fear of being emotionally vulnerable.  But working experientially with Somatic Experiencing (SE) with a recent memory of his discomfort when Sara asked him to tell her that he loved her.  

As he sensed into his body, he felt the right side of his neck and shoulder tense up.  He also felt a tightening in is stomach (see my article: Experiential Therapy and the Mind-Body Connection: The Body Offers a Window Into the Unconscious Mind).

His therapist asked Bill to stay with that feelings for as long as they were tolerable.  Then, she asked him to identify the emotions he felt that were connected to the tension in his body.  

At first, Bill couldn't think of anything, but as he continued to stay with his bodily experience, he had a sense of fear and sadness when his therapist used a technique called the Affect Bridge, which is used in hypnotherapy, Somatic Experiencing, EMDR and other types of experiential therapy.

Over time, Bill and his therapist continued to work with this memory in subsequent therapy sessions, another memory came to him where he asked his mother to play with him when he was five years old.  

His mother had just gotten in from one of her volunteer projects and she seemed annoyed.  She told him to go to his room and play by himself, which made him feel sad and fearful of making his mother angry.

In other subsequent sessions Bill remembered trying to approach his father to try to get him to play catch with him.  But his father said he was too busy and sent Bill away to play on his own.

His therapist provided Bill with additional psychoeducation about childhood emotional neglect, which surprised Bill because he never thought of himself as being emotionally neglect, but now this made sense to him.

As Bill continued to work on these issues in therapy using the mind-body connection, he was able to put words to emotions about his early experiences of being dismissed by his parents and what came to mind for him was, "I'm not good enough" (see my article: What is the Felt Sense in Experiential Therapy?).

Over time, Bill made the connection between his early feelings of not being good enough and his fear of being emotionally vulnerable with Sara.  He realized that he had put up a wall with her--a defense mechanism to ward off his fear of being rejected, which was connected to his childhood emotional neglect and not feeling good enough. 

Deep down he feared Sara would discover that he wasn't good enough for her, so he protected himself by being emotionally distant with her.

His therapist explained EMDR Therapy to Bill and how it can help with unresolved trauma (see my article: Experiential Therapy, Like EMDR, Helps Achieve Emotional Breakthroughs).

Experiential Therapy Can Achieve Emotional Breakthroughs

Gradually, Bill worked through his childhood trauma in therapy so that it no longer affected him in the present.  The work was neither quick nor easy.

Once he worked through his childhood trauma, being emotionally vulnerable was no longer a problem for him and he was able to express his emotional vulnerability openly with Sara without fear (see my article: Healing Old Emotional Wounds That Are Affecting Your Relationship).

Sara was happier in their relationship than she had ever been because she felt her emotional needs were now being met, and Bill was happy because he was no longer burdened by childhood trauma.

For the purposes of this blog article, which is short compared to scholarly articles, the vignette above is a simplified version of trauma therapy using Somatic Experiencing and EMDR therapy.

In real life cases clients might need other interventions, like doing Parts Work to work through obstacles that come up in trauma therapy--obstacles which are often fairly entrenched by the time a client reaches adulthood and comes to therapy.

Generally, experiential therapy, like EMDR and Somatic Experiencing, tend to work faster than regular talk therapy because an experiential therapist is using the mind-body connection to get access to the unresolved trauma and the unconscious emotions connected to it.

It is often the case that these types of problems don't come up early in the relationship, as seen in the vignette.  At that point, couples are often carried along with the excitement of new relationship energy (NRE), which is a heightened emotional and sexual state during the beginning phase of a relationship.  

The wearing off of NRE, which is also referred to as limerance, varies for people.  However, in most cases NRE wears off anywhere from a few months to a couple of years.  At that point, the couple usually enters into a new phase of the relationship where emotionally intimacy deepens, and this is when problems with emotional vulnerability often comes up.

Without the NRE (or limerance) to carry him along in the scenario above and faced with the deepening of emotional intimacy in the relationship, Bill's unconscious fears of allowing himself to be vulnerable surfaced.

Before he attended therapy, Bill would not have made the connection between his early childhood neglect (and the fear this engendered in him) and his emotional withdrawal from Sara.  It was only when he began doing Somatic Experiencing in therapy that he felt the connection--physically and emotionally--between his childhood experiences and his current relationship with Sara.

Getting Help in Therapy
Unresolved childhood trauma often creates obstacles once a romantic relationship deepens and one or both people feel the need to withdraw emotionally to protect themselves.  Most of the time, this occurs on an unconscious level so they are not aware of what is causing it.

Since emotions are stored in the body, experiential therapy creates a connection between the mind and the body so that clients are able to have a felt sense of these issues.

Once the original trauma is worked through, the client is free of their traumatic history so they can allow themselves to be emotionally vulnerable without fear.

About Me
I am a licensed New York City psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR, AEDP, EFT, Somatic Therapy and Sex Therapist.

I work with individual adults and couples and I have helped many clients to overcome trauma (see my article:  What is a Trauma Therapist?).

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.