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Relationships

Introduction

If you struggle with relationships, you are not alone. Many people have difficulties forming and maintaining healthy, successful relationships, and for survivors of sexual abuse and assault this can be especially difficult. But with practice and support, there are things that can help to improve this. This section takes a look at the impact that trauma such as sexual abuse can have on relationships and explores some of the most common attachment styles. It also discusses some tips and exercises which you may find useful in helping you to develop the supportive, loving relationships which you deserve.

1 – Relationships – Survivor Stories

Click the video below to hear from survivors about their experiences of forming and maintaining relationships.

You may find that your experiences of relationships as a survivor are different from the ones we describe in this section, and that is completely normal.


Click the links below to watch the survivor interviews in full on YouTube:

 

 

Click the video below to hear survivors share the coping strategies that helped them to maintain healthy relationships.



You may find that you relate to all of the points explored on this page, some of them, or none at all. This guide may be a useful starting place for you to learn more about relationships and how trauma can affect these, as well as some ways to learn how to navigate through challenges that relationships can bring. Resources are not exhaustive, and you may find the exercises and tips useful, or they might not be the right options for you at this moment in time. We are all unique in our experiences and where we are in our recovery journey, so take this section at your own pace, and explore the suggestions that feel right for you at this moment in time.

Remember: not everyone who has experienced sexual abuse or violence will struggle with relationships. This section is aimed to be a resource for survivors who may be having difficulties and/or just want to learn more about the impact of trauma on relationships.

2 – The Impact of Trauma on Relationships

Trauma can have lasting effects on survivors of rape or sexual abuse, causing significant impact on their relationships. Survivors often fear becoming close with another person after a traumatic event, or they may feel like a burden to those around them. The effects of trauma on relationships extend not only to the survivor but also to their family, friends, partners, and their children.

 

While everyone experiences relationships differently, many survivors share some typical responses to what has happened to them. Traumatic events deeply challenge the survivor’s sense of safety and security in the world, and the way they think and feel about themselves. These can be reflected in relationships in a variety of ways. While these are unique for each survivor, some common examples are:

  • Trauma shapes attachment style
  • Relationships are seen as dangerous
  • Fear of abandonment or rejection
  • Fear of enmeshment
  • Need to regulate closeness
  • Longing to be close yet fearing closeness
  • Fear of intimacy
  • Feeling jealous due to fear of abandonment
  • Experiencing a lack of trust or being over-trusting
  • Being submissive and compliant
  • Being avoidant and hostile
  • Having trouble expressing needs
  • Having trouble setting boundaries and saying ‘no’
  • Lack of relationship skills
  • Use of control to stay safe
  •  Trauma re-enactments (repeating patterns of behaviour experienced during traumatic events).

The betrayal of trust and inappropriate boundaries experienced by survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse (CSA) mean that many survivors experience relationships as dangerous rather than safe, as they believe love is equated with harm and abuse. Understanding the ways in which trauma affects both the survivor and other person in relationships is important for the survivor’s process of healing and being able to maintain healthy relationships.

Trauma can make it extremely hard to trust others or get close to them. Fear of being hurt again, or fear that closeness will be sexualised, can lead to the avoidance of intimacy. While this is a protective survival strategy, it comes at a huge cost, not least because of difficulties in relationships. Some survivors withdraw and become unresponsive when their partner is trying to communicate with them as they doubt their partner’s love or commitment. While the partner may be constantly trying to give love to the survivor, it can be hard for the survivor to accept it, despite a constant need for reassurances of love.

Many survivors find it hard to trust others as they fear further betrayal, rejection, or abandonment. The need to be liked, accepted, and understood can lead some survivors to trust too easily, even when there is no evidence of trustworthiness. In contrast, survivors who are unable to trust tend to avoid relationships. In some cases, survivors fluctuate between wanting to trust and be close to others, followed by not trusting and pushing others away.

In addition, shame and a negative view of self can make survivors suspicious of anyone who claims to love or care for them. To protect themselves they resort to keeping people at a distance often through anger or hostility. This anger is typically due to fear rather than aggression and requires empathy and compassion rather than judgment or punishment.

 

Some survivors may fear closeness and intimacy so intensely that they are unable to form any significant relationships and remain isolated throughout their lives, which can sometimes become a further source of shame and can be considered by the survivor as ‘proof’ of their worthlessness.

 

To survive CSA, the child often becomes compliant and submissive as they fear the consequences of not complying. The fear of rejection or further punishment leads to the child trying to please others or attempt to rescue or ‘fix’ them. This desire can stay with the survivor in both childhood and adulthood. This leads to so-called ‘co-dependency’ in which the individual ‘needs to be needed’ and is often enmeshed with people who ‘need to dominate’.

Survivors also become fearful of setting boundaries, either because they expect no better or they believe they deserve to be treated badly. Not being able to say ‘no’ means that they may tolerate behaviours that are disrespectful or harmful, making them more vulnerable to coercive and controlling, and other types of abusive relationships. Some survivors will not have experiences relationships with healthy boundaries in place, and may not be sure of what these are.

The fear of being dependent on someone else or being let down and hurt again leads some survivors to detach and distance themselves from others and as a result become fiercely independent to mask their needs and vulnerability. This can lead to repeating abusive patterns from childhood to gain power and control over others.

Trauma bond

Children who experience trauma or abuse in childhood often develop a trauma bond with the abuser. A trauma bond is a strong emotional and psychological bond with someone who has power and control over them, and who intermittently threatens or abuses them. As the abuser is both the source of safety and fear it creates fearful dependency in which closeness elicits fear and alarm. As a result, relationships are seen as dangerous rather than a source of safety by the survivor.

As the child is unable to fight or flee from the abuse, they learn to suppress feelings such as anger or sadness and become compliant and submissive. Separation intensifies the bond as the child believes they cannot survive or are worthless without the abuser and tries to identify with the abuser in order to feel less helpless. This can lead to insecure attachment styles such as anxious-avoidant, anxious-preoccupied, or disorganised attachment styles (see next section for more information on attachment styles) and
dissociation.

 

Signs of trauma bond in relationships:
  • Taking responsibility for others’ emotional wellbeing and happiness
  • Being overly focused on the needs of others, and unable to identify or express own needs
  • Hyper-vigilant in monitoring others’ moods and needs – trying to ‘mind-read’; being hyper-aware of non-verbal cues and body language
  • Experiencing self-blame and shame
  • See the others as good and self as bad
  • Fear of abandonment and loss of the trauma bond no matter how harmful
  • Lack of self-empathy or compassion
  • Lack of self-identity, as too enmeshed or identified with other person or people
  • Either extremely self-sufficient or self-reliant, or excessively dependent
  • Intensely grateful for small kindnesses
  • Disorganised attachment.

The 'Trauma Triangle'

People who experience trauma tend to develop emergency coping strategies to help them survive. While these are adaptive at the time, they may not be helpful in the long term, especially in later relationships. As relationships are often viewed as dangerous, many survivors find themselves reacting in similar ways in different relationships without linking this to their initial trauma. Such patterns represent trauma re-enactments and contribute to difficulties in adult relationships.

The Trauma Triangle
, sometimes referred to as the Drama Triangle, is a way to understand and describe the roles or patterns that survivors re-enact in their adult relationships. These roles are primarily a result of the fight-flight-freeze response experienced during trauma

 

The three roles in the trauma triangle include the victim, rescuer, and persecutor (or perpetrator). While some survivors adopt one of the roles as their primary way of relating to others, most survivors adopt all the roles depending on what is triggered in a relationship and what they believe is the best way they can protect themselves or survive. 

 

    • The Victim is disempowered, and often feels taken advantage of. When in this role the survivor typically feels as though they have no control over their internal and external worlds, and as a result they feel hopelessness and helplessness
    • The Persecutor (Perpetrator) is the part that holds anger around the trauma which can be directed inward against the self, or outward towards a friend or partner
    • The Rescuer experiences feelings of unworthiness at having not been rescued at the time of the trauma. As a result, the survivor abandons themself and replaces this with ‘rescuing’ others.
     

An example of the interplay of the three roles is when a partner or friend, who may also have experienced trauma, embodies the persecutor role by being angry or aggressive. This can trigger the victim role in the survivor leading them to shut down in order to cope with their fear. This can lead the other person to feel abandoned, which in turn triggers his/her victim role. The survivor may lead the survivor to try to rescue him/her by making excuses for his/her aggressive behaviour.

As a survivor, it may feel uncomfortable to realise that you might be replaying the roles of persecutor, victim, and rescuer in your current life. It is important to remember that the trauma triangle roles are reactions to feeling completely powerless in the past and are protective strategies that helped you to survive but may no longer be helpful in your present-day relationships as they hold you hostage to the trauma you have experienced. Try to be mindful that the trauma you experienced, and how this might be re-enacted, is not your fault, and that it is possible to develop healthier relationships with time and practice.

Podcast – Love Matters: The Trauma Triangle – Aspen Relationship Coaching

Click this link to listen to a podcast about the Trauma Triangle and how it can impact relationships.

 

Please note: This links will take you away from The Survivors Trust Resources website. The link is being provided for informational purposes only. The Survivors Trust bears no responsibility for any advertising content shown on external websites and videos.

 

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3 – Healthy & Unhealthy Relationships

As a survivor, particularly if you are an adult survivor of childhood sexual abuse, you may have difficulties recognising whether relationships are nurturing and supportive or abusive and harmful. This is understandable if during childhood you experienced mostly unhealthy and harmful behaviours from significant others in your life and were often convinced that you were the cause of their behaviour and actions in some way.

 

It is normal for children to believe that they are responsible for events in their life as a part of growing up and learning about boundaries, interpersonal skills and the dynamics of cause and effect. This makes it easy for children to feel guilt and shame, and responsible for any abuse or harm that they experience. This belief can continue into adult relationships and be further reinforced in unhealthy relationships, be it with a partner, friend, colleague or boss, or a continued relationship with an abuser who may be a family member.

Video – 6 Signs of Trauma Bonding – YouTube 
Click this link to watch Psych2Go’s animation on trauma bonding, including definitions and examples.

 

Please note: This link will take you away from The Survivors Trust Resources website. The link is being provided for informational purposes only. The Survivors Trust bears no responsibility for any advertising content shown on external websites and videos.

 

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Signs of an unhealthy relationship

Disentangling and gaining a good understanding of your own responses and behaviour from another person’s during interactions can be confusing, especially for a survivor. It can be difficult to identify what might be a triggered response or behaviour by you from another person’s comment or action being either an unwitting trigger and ‘reasonable expression’ from an attempt to control, manipulate and harm you.

Click here to read The Hotline’s article on signs of healthy, unhealthy and abusive relationships.


If you are unsure whether you are experiencing a relationship that is unhealthy or even abusive, try this exercise:

  • Are you mostly unhappy in the relationship? Are there more bad times than good?
  • Ask a trusted friend, family member or professional for their feedback
  • Sometimes it just doesn’t feel right, even if you can’t explain it
  • Do things seem to be getting worse between you?
  • Do you believe that you cannot live without this person and/or rely on them for a lot of things?

Video – 12 Signs You’re in an Unhealthy Relationships – YouTube 
Click this link to watch Psych2Go’s animation on signs of an unhealthy relationship.

 

Please note: This link will take you away from The Survivors Trust Resources website. The link is being provided for informational purposes only. The Survivors Trust bears no responsibility for any advertising content shown on external websites and videos.

 

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No type of abuse is ever acceptable. If you are worried about your wellbeing or safety, you can contact the police or call the National Domestic Abuse Helpline on: 0808 2000 247.


Click here to read 
Help Guide’s article on domestic violence and abuse for more information on this topic.

Healthy relationships

Healthy relationships are nurturing, fulfilling and help you grow as a person and usually consist of some of the following features that allow you to:

  • Be yourself
  • Communicate openly
  • Take care of yourself
  • Feel good
  • Maintain relationships with friends and family
  • Have independent interests
  • Be supportive and able to work through problems together
  • Not feel frightened or controlled.

Video – Healthy Relationships – Young & Free – YouTube 
Click this link to watch a video by the Terrence Higgins Trust on what healthy relationships look like.

 

Please note: This link will take you away from The Survivors Trust Resources website. The link is being provided for informational purposes only. The Survivors Trust bears no responsibility for any advertising content shown on external websites and videos.

 

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4 – Experiencing Relationships – Attachment Styles

Early relationships and attachment styles

Early experiences in childhood shape how we relate to others and how much we value ourselves in relationships. Survivors may not be consciously aware of this as it is often sensed, felt, or just ‘known’. How parents and caregivers relate and respond to their child from infancy forms the basis, or template, for later attachments in childhood and adulthood. There are four main attachments styles that people may adapt throughout their lives. Trauma plays a big role in how attachment styles are shaped, and how these are played out in adult relationships.

 

Video – What Is Your Attachment Style? – YouTube 
Click this link to watch The School of Life’s video on the four main attachment styles.

Please note: This link will take you away from The Survivors Trust Resources website. The link is being provided for informational purposes only. The Survivors Trust bears no responsibility for any advertising content shown on external websites and videos.

 

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The main attachment styles

Secure attachment develops as a result of having experienced loving and supportive caregivers who meet a child’s needs. Their caregivers are emotionally available and appropriately responsive to the child’s attachment behaviour, as well as capable of regulating the child’s positive and negative emotions. People with a secure attachment style tend to trust others easily, asking for help when needed, and being able to connect on emotional levels. They are able to express and share their emotions in a healthy way, and generally have a positive view of themselves and others. They tend to be confident and do not live in fear of rejection or abandonment, and have access to a range of healthy coping skills. They are comfortable with intimate relationships, are able to trust others, and are not afraid of closeness.

Common signs of a secure attachment style include:

 

  • Not being scared of emotional pain
  • Not being afraid of honesty
  • Being available for emotional attachment
  • Not being afraid to show feelings
  • Feeling confident to reveal any distress
  • Enjoying freedom to pursue own passions
  • Trusting others
  • Respecting the needs and boundaries of others
  • Valuing the opinion of others
  • Supporting others to be independent.
The insecure attachment styles

People with insecure attachment styles generally have trouble making emotional connections with others. They can be aggressive or unpredictable toward their loved ones. They are afraid of showing and witnessing emotions, intimacy, and emotional closeness or are dependent and fear being alone. The two mostly commonly recognised types of insecure attachment are anxious-avoidant attachment and anxious-preoccupied attachment. A third has been added more recently and is known as disorganised attachment.

Also known as ‘dismissive-avoidant’ or ‘fearful avoidant’ attachment, this attachment style is typically seen in people who were abused, neglected or rejected by their primary caregivers in their childhood. People with anxious-avoidant attachment style tend to have a positive self-view and a negative view of others. They are often fiercely independent, and feel anxious when someone gets too close, leading to an avoidance of intimacy and fear of forming connections. It is important for them to feel self-sufficient and as a result they find it hard to reach out or seek help and fear anything that appears to be a threat to that independence. As they saw their caregiver as indifferent and insensitive, they learned to avoid showing distress, and felt forced to become extremely independent and self-reliant. They tend to get anxious when someone gets too close.

 

Common signs of an anxious-avoidant attachment style include:

  • Not wanting to be close or intimate with others
  • Difficulties showing or feeling emotions
  • Uncomfortable with physical closeness and touch
  • Avoiding eye contact
  • Accusing others of being too clingy or overly attached
  • Never or rarely ask for help
  • Refusing help or emotional support from others 
  • Perceiving other people and their support negatively
  • Fearing of their vulnerability and dependency
  • Fearing that closeness to others will cause them to get hurt
  • Tendency to seek out faults in partners or friends so they can have an excuse to leave a relationship
  • Resisting commitment and intimacy
  • Sense of personal independence and freedom is more important than partnership 
  • Excessively self-reliant and self-sufficient
  • Not relying on others during times of stress, and not letting others rely on them
  • Seeming calm and cool in typically high-emotion situations
  • Having a high number of casual sexual partners
  • Easily getting angry, aggressive or violent.

 

Video – The Challenges of Anxious-Avoidant Relationships – YouTube 
Click this link to watch The School of Life’s video and learn more about anxious-avoidant attachment styles.

Video – How to Cope With an Avoidant Partner – YouTube 

Click this link to watch The School of Life’s video which explores some tips for managing a relationship with an avoidant partner.

Please note: These links will take you away from The Survivors Trust Resources website. The links are being provided for informational purposes only. The Survivors Trust bears no responsibility for any advertising content shown on external websites and videos.

 

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Anxious-preoccupied attachment forms as a result of primary caregivers switching between being nurturing and neglectful. Such inconsistency leads the child to seek constant reassurance and exaggerate distress to elicit a caring response. People with this attachment style have low self-esteem and tend to see others much more positively. While they seek out intimacy and security from others, especially romantic partners, they can often become overly dependent on relationships which can lead to overwhelming panic and worry when their partners are not available. Their tendency to be very clingy and their hypersensitivity can drive others away, as they are viewed as being too needy in requiring constant validation and reassurance.

 

Common signs of an anxious-preoccupied attachment style include:

  • Emotional enmeshment
  • Negative self-worth and insecure
  • Emotional dysregulation – high level of emotional expressiveness and impulsiveness
  • Seeking a high level of intimacy, approval and responsiveness
  • Continual need for reassurance and validation that they are cared for
  • Feeling highly anxious when their partner is not present
  • Finding relationships stressful or highly emotional
  • Difficulty trusting others, especially their partner
  • Constant fear of rejection and abandonment
  • Worrying that their partner will leave them
  • Being overly dependent and clingy in relationships
  • Possessive of others and experiencing a high level of jealousy
  • Constant need to please and gain people’s approval
  • Hypersensitivity to others’ actions and moods
  • Blame themselves for lack of responsiveness from others
  • Highly emotional, unpredictable, moody, and lack of impulse control
  • Prone to acting out to get others’ attention
  • Easily triggered if others are unresponsive, e.g. not responding to texts
  • Increased risk for anxiety disorders and catastrophising.

 

Video – 8 Signs of an Anxious Attachment Style – YouTube 
Click this link to watch Psych2Go’s animation on signs of an anxious attachment style.

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A more recent addition to attachment styles is disorganised attachment, also known as fearful-avoidant attachment. This attachment style is based on fear, and usually develops as a result of having experienced physical, verbal, or sexual abuse in childhood wherein the caregiver is both a source of safety and a source of fear. As a result, the child realises that they cannot rely on caregivers to meet their physical or emotional needs, and that they are causing harm to them. This unpredictability means that the child is in a constant state of hypervigilance as they never know whether their needs will be met, or what will happen next. In addition, they have an unstable and fluctuating view of self and others.

Disorganised attachment can also develop if the child witnesses traumatizing experiences such as their caregiver being abused, or if their caregiver is traumatised and suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or Complex-PTSD (C-PTSD). As a result of the caregiver’s unpredictability and ‘fear without solution’, the child may seek closeness and care and at the same time reject and avoid closeness as they fear being hurt again.

Many adults with a disorganised attachment style are afraid to be alone but are unable to get close to others and trust them. In contrast to people with avoidant attachment who do not seek closeness, people with disorganised attachment want to be close but are terrified of closeness. Intimacy is fraught with anxiety, fear, and pain as well as doubts about safety and security as they shift between getting close to others and then needing to avoid them or push them away. The reason they feel uncomfortable with closeness is due to not being able to trust or depend on others, and fear of getting hurt. This makes for very confusing behaviour and inconsistency in their relationships.

Such behaviour can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy in which the person expects and predicts that they will be rejected by others, despite any evidence of this, and as a result start to behave in a way that leads to the ending of the relationship. Alternatively, they might sub-consciously choose relationships that induce fear, thereby confirming their perception that they can’t trust others or their partners. These are often due to re-enactments of traumatic attachment in childhood and represent a way to gain mastery or control over their past relationships.

As people with disorganised attachment did not get the care and support to regulate their emotions, they are emotionally dysregulated and unable to self-regulate their emotions, making them more vulnerable to seeking external sources to regulate them through the use of alcohol, drugs, food, work or shopping. They are also more at risk of depression and Borderline Personality Disorder (also known as Emotionally Unstable Personality Disorder).

 

Common signs of disorganised attachment style include:

  • Fear of either abandonment or being trapped in a relationship
  • Difficulty with regulating emotions – moving from low to high very rapidly
  • Fear of showing or feeling their emotions or believing that they don’t feel anything, or have emotions
  • Difficulty managing stress
  • Binary thinking about relationships – either good or bad, seeking extreme closeness or extreme distance with no in-between
  • Highly anxious about the intentions of others
  • Poor social skills making it hard to connect with others 
  • Fluctuations in setting boundaries – not revealing anything about themselves or oversharing past trauma with people
  • Shutting down rapidly when pushed to share their emotions and intimate thoughts to protect them from being too exposed
  • Poor self-image and self-hatred, and unstable view of others
  • Vulnerable to choosing partners who exhibit both frightening and loving behaviours which confirm their belief that people are unsafe – who are emotionally, physically, or sexually abusive
  • Discomfort with physical closeness and touch
  • Reluctance to seek help or emotional support from others
  • High tolerance for unpredictable, stormy, unstable and highly emotional relationships with dramatic highs and lows
  • Viewing conflict and friction as ‘normal’. When these are not present the relationship is experienced as boring
  • Conflicting feelings about relationships – idealising others and then denigrating them
  • Having trouble believing that others will love and support them as they are
  • Shifting between wanting to be close and being fearful of being hurt or abandoned
  • Fear or anxiety about being inadequate for a partner or relationship
  • Withdraw from relationships when things get intimate or emotional, preventing the development of long-term, meaningful relationships
  • Lacking empathy for self and others
  • Attacking, threatening, or taking advantage of others
  • Frequent outbursts and erratic behaviours
  • Poor self-image and self-hatred
  • Replaying trauma dynamics in relationships as they view others as unpredictable
  • Taking care of others without considering own needs. They may be afraid to maintain boundaries for fear that they will lose the relationship
  • Difficulty making sense of their experiences and integrating emotions and memories.

Video – Dr. Dan Siegel on Disorganised Attachment – YouTube 
Click this link to watch psychologist Dr. Dan Siegel discuss disorganised attachment.

 

Please note: This link will take you away from The Survivors Trust Resources website. The link is being provided for informational purposes only. The Survivors Trust bears no responsibility for any advertising content shown on external websites and videos.

 

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5 – Relationships Toolkit

While childhood trauma has a significant impact on attachment styles it is possible to heal from these and establish and maintain healthy relationships. A healthy relationship is one where individuals are mutually caring, supportive, respectful, and loving toward one another. Such relationships can help you to feel less insecure and to have a more positive view of yourself.

 

Your previous beliefs, ways of thinking and relationship patterns can be changed to allow you to build the safety and security you need to trust and allow yourself to love and be loved. Remember it is possible to develop secure attachments – this is known as earned secure attachment. While it requires risk-taking and showing vulnerability, it can also bring you the kind of love and security you have always wanted. An earned, secure attachment style can change your life and your relationships for the better.

Video – Loving and Being Loved – YouTube 
Click this link to watch The School of Life’s video on the difference between loving and being loved.

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Tips to develop healthy relationships:
  • Become aware of your attachment style and relationship patterns
  • Recognise when you are re-enacting trauma dynamics
  • Try to open your communication – disclose your true thoughts, feelings, wishes, and fears
  • Develop trust in others
  • Practice mutual respect – towards yourself and others
  • Learn how to regulate your emotions and self-soothe rather than rely on others to do this
  • Practice listening without judgement
  • Develop relationship skills
  • Identify and express needs, and acknowledge others’ needs
  • Practice setting healthy boundaries. It is okay to say ‘no’
  • Practice setting mutually agreed ground rules
  • Be willing to negotiate and compromise
  • Recognise that all relationships, even healthy ones, can fluctuate and be messy
  • Try to repair any damage to relationships that you want to keep
  • Try not to take others for granted
  • Have fun in your relationships.

Video – 6 Tips on How to Have a Strong Relationship – YouTube 
Click this link to watch Psych2Go’s animation on tips that might  help you to keep your relationship strong and healthy.


Video – The Easiest Way to Improve Your Relationship – YouTube 
Click this link to a video by the Gottman Institute which explains how paying attention to your partner can help to improve your relationship.


Please note: These links will take you away from The Survivors Trust Resources website. The links are being provided for informational purposes only. The Survivors Trust bears no responsibility for any advertising content shown on external websites and videos.

Click here for a guide on how to clear your YouTube browsing history.

Understanding your relationships

Trauma can make it extremely hard to trust others or get close to them. Fear of being hurt again or that closeness will be sexualised can lead to the avoidance of intimacy. While this can aid survival in the short-term, it can lead to difficulties in relationships, lack of relationship skills, and loneliness. This creates a paradox in which you yearn for closeness and are compelled to avoid it.

In essence, trauma can hijack our ability to trust or be close to others, for fear that becoming involved with others may cause us harm. Survivors often yearn for closeness but can be afraid of this and as a result avoid it by withdrawing or making themselves invisible to avoid getting hurt or being shamed. And yet, remaining invisible can sometimes lead to emptiness and loneliness. The desire for intimacy and fear of being hurt or abused can lead to the avoidance of intimacy, or to be too trusting, or over-intimate too quickly, making you more vulnerable to further betrayal or abuse.

 

To improve your relationships, it helps to know your attachment style, the roles that played out in the Trauma Triangle and relational patterns of behaviour (see sections above). Survivors are at risk of re-enacting behavioural patterns learned in childhood. It is important that survivors do not judge themselves for this as it is a way of gaining control and mastery over their trauma. But it is helpful to notice and recognise this. Childhood memories and experiences of insecurity can influence feelings and interactions in adult relationships. This can lead to high levels of emotional arousal and reactivity which can feel frightening and evoke old patterns of behaviour such as flight, fight or freeze.

Some survivors may subconsciously feel drawn to establish relationships that are similar to significant relationships in childhood as these feel more familiar, even if they are abusive or destructive. As many survivors experience relationships as a source of fear, terror and anxiety, they are often in a high state of arousal and find it hard to feel safe and often feel threatened. They may also be trying to master earlier relationships by seeking out powerful people who they believe will love, protect and take care of them, and repair their fragile sense of self and self-hatred. Re-enactments can also occur because the survivor believes they do not deserve to be treated in a caring, loving way and as result develop a high tolerance threshold for abusive behaviour.

 

Identifying relationship patterns

It helps to be aware of relationship patterns that are repeated, and how these link to childhood experiences. In addition, it is helpful to identify triggers which induce fear and anxiety in relationships, and how you react to these. The following exercise can help you to identify your experience of relationships, your fears and obstacles to intimacy, and negative thoughts or feelings behind these. To reduce obstacles, it is necessary to challenge negative beliefs, and replace these with more accurate ones. This will enable you to develop healthier relationships in which you enjoy greater intimacy. It will also allow you to relate more authentically in an atmosphere that is based on mutual respect and genuine care. 

Ask yourself the following questions and record your feelings and thoughts:

  • What does love mean to you?
  • What does mutual respect mean to you?
  • How do you show that you love someone?
  • How does it feel to receive love?
  • How does it feel to co-operate with someone else?
  • To what degree do you have confidence in others?
  • How do you know you can trust someone?
  • What evidence do you need to be ready to trust?
  • How does it feel to trust others?
  • How does it feel to be appreciated by others?
  • How does it feel when you are disappointed or let down by someone?
 

Look at your answers and reflect on them. For example, do you always prioritise or anticipate the needs of others over your own needs, or do you need to constantly please others or find yourself reading their minds? Or do you compartmentalise your feelings so that you come across as cold and unfeeling, or have you become fiercely self-sufficient and refuse all help? Do you veer between approaching your partner or avoiding them? Do you find that as soon as you open up you feel compelled to shut down, or feel angry after you have been close, and need to reject your partner?

Next, ask yourself the following:

  • What will make you feel more comfortable, safe, secure or happy in your relationships?
  • What would you like to change or heal in your relationships?
Identifying triggers

In order to pre-empt traumatic re-enactments and find alternative ways of responding to others, it helps to identify the triggers that cause you to react with flight, fight or freeze response.

Reflect on your relationships patterns and make a list of the triggers that activate these. These might include the following, as well as your own unique responses:

  • Fear or anxiety
  • Fear of abandonment or rejection
  • Being ignored or feeling invisible
  • Feeling helpless or out of control
  • Feeling someone has power over you
  • Feeling threatened
  • Physical closeness
  • Needing to mind read
  • Not being able to express your needs
  • Not being able to say ‘no
  • Sexual contact
  • Feeling humiliated or ashamed.

 

Developing relationship skills

Perhaps due to lack of experience in relationships, many survivors lack confidence and the necessary social skills needed to get close to people. Developing your social skills through greater awareness of body language, eye contact and smiling can all help you to interact more easily with others.

It is a good idea to practice these skills first with a trusted friend or colleague so that it becomes easier and more automatic when you try them out. They can then give you advice or constructive feedback before entering more difficult social situations.

 

The more you understand the nature of relationships, the more you will be able to accept that all relationships, even healthy ones, fluctuate. Avoiding relationships reduces opportunities to develop trust and practise relationship skills and prevents you from experiencing the natural fluctuations in relationships. Relationships are dynamic and their quality changes over time, with periods of closeness and periods of distance. For instance, in romantic relationships the initial thrill and excitement of attraction usually progresses into deep affection, while passion may transform into compassion and increased security and emotional intimacy. Such changes can sometimes be experienced as ‘boredom’ or terror as the emotional closeness intensifies. It is important to remember that all relationships are messy at times, that ruptures can occur and, more importantly, be repaired. This will help you to be more tolerant and realistic in your expectations of others and yourself in relationships.

Video – The Secret of Successful Relationships: Rupture and Repair – YouTube 
Click this link to watch The School of Life’s video on how ‘ruptures’ and ‘repairs’ can cycle through successful relationships.

Please note: This link will take you away from The Survivors Trust Resources website. The link is being provided for informational purposes only. The Survivors Trust bears no responsibility for any advertising content shown on external websites and videos.

 

Click here for a guide on how to clear your YouTube browsing history.

Identifying and expressing your needs

Before expressing or communicating your needs, it helps to identify your needs in relationships. This can be hard if these were consistently ignored, or you were punished for expressing them in the past. You may not be in contact with your needs or may not feel entitled to have any. The exercise below might help you to improve this.

Think about your needs and make a list of them. If you are stuck, then consider some of the following:

  • To feel safe
  • To feel loved
  • To feel respected
  • To feel comfortable about showing your vulnerability without fear or shame.
  • To be able to say ‘no’ without being rejected or humiliated
  • To be listened to.
 

Try to add any other needs that are important to you. Look at the list and think about what you can do to meet these. 

 

Once you have identified your needs you will need to find a way of expressing them. This needs to be done assertively, which can initially be difficult as you may have no role models to demonstrate assertiveness if this is unfamiliar to you. This takes practice and no one gets it right all of the time, so try to be patient and kind to yourself. Try to take deep breaths and think about what your needs are and what you want, and how best to express these. Try to make sure you feel emotionally safe and be clear about what you want to say. It is likely that initially you will feel nervous and anxious, which is normal.

It is helpful to regularly check in with what you need and try to explore with curiosity and not judgement. Ask yourself
‘What is it that I need right now?’. Once you have identified what your needs are then you can think about how to communicate that to your loved one.

Try to be mindful of your tone of voice and strive for a calm, invitational tone, rather than an angry or accusatory one, as this can make your partner defensive. A gentle, inviting tone makes it more likely that your message will be heard in the way you wish it to be. Remember such open communication might also be new to your partner so they may be confused, or not get it the first time.

Try to be respectful and not get annoyed if they do not get it and gently try again. It is important when expressing your needs that you do not demand that they are met. Expressing needs are best done in the hope that they can be met in negotiation with the other person. This may mean reaching a compromise in which both parties feel respected.

The most important ingredients in open communication are honesty in stating your needs and being respectful to yourself and others. Using ‘I’ statements work best, such as, ‘
I need you to say good morning to me because it makes me feel loved and cared for. I know you love and care for me, but this extra step is really validating and eases some of my anxiety. Can you try to do this more often?’ In doing this you are communicating your needs clearly, why meeting the need is important to you, and give your partner a choice. If open communication is too difficult face-to-face with the person, this is not always possible. If this is the case, then consider writing a letter, phoning or acting through a trusted third party.

Remember: some people, especially those who have, or had, power over you will not respond well to assertion. They may try to punish you to bring you back in line. Be careful and remember to stay safe.

Setting boundaries and relationship ground rules

Once you feel comfortable expressing your feelings and needs, you can begin to work on setting ground rules for your relationships. Make a list of the ground rules and boundaries that ensure that your needs are met. As you write them down you may feel fearful about expressing them. You may have thoughts such asPeople wont like me;I will be rejected;I am being selfish;I will feel guilty’. You will need to challenge these to help you overcome them and begin to discuss them. 

Healthy boundaries can enable you to distinguish between genuinely nurturing and nourishing relationships and those that are forceful, controlling and harmful.

Boundaries and ground rules help to build trust which will allow you to relate more authentically to others. With healthy boundaries in place, you can reduce the need to anticipate the needs of others, ‘mind read’, or take responsibility for the feelings, thoughts, and behaviours of others. This will help you to stop prioritising others at a cost to yourself.

 

Healthy boundaries will also enable you to distinguish between genuinely nurturing and nourishing relationships and those that are forceful, controlling and harmful. It will empower you to monitor the quality of your relationships and manage any difficulties more effectively rather than avoiding intimacy. Most importantly, in expressing your feelings and needs and by communicating these more effectively, you will be able to develop intimacy without feeling threatened. 

 

If you are triggered it helps to be able to express that. For example, you could say: ‘A trigger seems to be present right now. Can we try to work out what is happening? Could we please slow down so that we can work out what is happening between us, and not let the past interfere with the present?

 

Listening to each other, talking honestly, and expressing feelings, needs and desires will allow for more satisfying relationships which are built upon trust and mutual respect. If you feel you could benefit from extra support in helping you in your relationship you may consider seeking therapy or couples counselling.

Remember: connection and closeness increase resilience and are central parts of healing. Your recovery will be improved through healthy relationships and a trusted support network.

Help for supporters of survivors

It helps if partners, family members and friends of survivors are also able to communicate in healthy ways when dealing with issues related to past trauma. As a supporter, you will also benefit from being aware of their own emotions and being able to regulate them. In addition, it helps if partners can identify their own triggers.

In conflict, trauma responses can create a lot of intensity and there are points at which it may be hard for your partner to feel a sense of control over their behaviours. It can be extremely helpful to develop an emotional distress scale with your partner. This could consist of asking: ‘
On a scale of 0-10, how distressed are you feeling right now?’. If your partner is above 5, it is worth considering taking a break rather than continuing your conversation. This allows both partners to focus on regulating themselves before continuing.


In order to be empathic and compassionate towards a survivor, it helps to have a good understanding of how trauma affects the nervous system, the lack of control over this, and how this shapes behaviour and reactions. Knowing and understanding these helps others to reframe the survivor’s actions as fear responses rather than a personal attack. It also helps to learn how you can care for yourself and the survivor.

Supporters of survivors also need maintain their own boundaries. This means being able to say ‘
no’ appropriately and not condoning any behaviour that is unacceptable or abusive. This can be hard if you feel empathic and compassionate towards a survivor who is behaving in this way. It is crucial that both you and the person you are supporting each take responsibility for your individual behaviours, and work on these. Both of you can benefit from a good support system to reach out to, which can make both feel loved and supported in their relationships.

As trauma can create confusing and difficult dynamics in relationships which at times seem unresolvable, it is important to know when to seek help. There is no shame in seeking help and couples therapy can be especially useful for helping you understand patterns of behaviour that contribute to distress within the relationship. Getting treatment for trauma can minimise the risk of isolation and restore hope in a relationship. It also opens up a safe space for the discussion of traumatic experiences and the feelings associated with them. You may also consider engaging in individual therapy to help you to gain awareness and understanding of your own relational dynamics.

For more tips on supporting survivors, please visit the Supporting a Survivor section of our website.

Seeking help

Given the impact of trauma, survivors can benefit from discussing traumatic experiences and relationship difficulties with a professional who is familiar with the complex effects of trauma. A therapist can offer a safe relationship for building trust and a sense of security. The opportunity within that relationship to establish trust, meaning, purpose, and hope can be a first step in developing or re-establishing relationships with others and with oneself, and engaging more fully with life.

 

When a relationship involves a trauma survivor, it can be helpful for both partners to seek therapy or counselling together. Trauma-informed therapy is a good option, as it helps couples examine the ways trauma can affect the relationship, and how to separate past issues from present ones.

 

To access help and support you can go to your GP who can refer you to an individual or couple’s therapist who specialises in trauma. You could also get in touch with The Survivors Trust member agencies.

5 – Useful Resources for Relationships

Useful contacts

The Survivors Trust
www.thesurvivorstrust.org

Umbrella agency for over 120 member organisations which provide specialist support to men, women and children who are survivors of sexual violence.
Helpline: 08088 010818

Relate

www.relate.org.uk
The UK’s largest provider of relationship supporting, offering help to people of all ages, backgrounds, sexual orientations and gender identities.

British Association of Sexual and Marital Therapy

www.basmt.org.uk
Organisation offering counselling and therapy to couples.

Audiobooks
  • Brach, T (2017). Nourishing Intimacy: Cultivating Trust, Understanding, and Love in All Our Relationships. Audible Books.
Books
  • Hofstadter, K (2021). Mindful Relationship Habits. Independently published
  • Matsakis, A,T (1998). Trust After Trauma: A Guide to Relationships for Survivors and Those Who Love Them. New Harbinger Press
  • Sanderson, C (2016). The Warrior Within: A One in Four Handbook to Aid Recovery from Sexual Violence 3rd Edition. London, One in Four.