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4 Ways Complex Trauma, Developmental Trauma, and CPTSD can impact relationships:

*Disclaimer: This blog is for educational and informational purposes only. It is not intended to treat or diagnose. Reading this blog does not create a therapist/client relationship with Sahra Riccardi, ATR-BC, LPC. If you find this information to be relevant to you, you are encouraged to connect with a licensed mental health care professional who specializes in treating PTSD or C-PTSD. If you are interested in Online Therapy in Pennsylvania for PTSD or C-PTSD, or becoming a client of Embodied Expressions Therapy, please connect with me by visiting:

4 Ways Complex Trauma, Developmental Trauma, and CPTSD can impact relationships

Complex Trauma, Developmental Trauma, and CPTSD all come from prolonged exposure to traumatic contexts such as childhood abuse and neglect (for more on this-click here and here!).

Because the trauma happens over a long period of time, often spans important developmental phases, and most frequently occurs within the context of close interpersonal relationships, there is often serious impact to the survivor’s ability to feel safe and connected in relationships with others well into adulthood.

Here are 4 major impacts:

1. Difficulty trusting others

Complex Trauma is often caused by people who should be safe: parents, caregivers, family who perpetrated abuse or neglect, or did nothing to stop it. If we grow up in a family system that either condones or ignores the abuse, we don’t have the chance to feel safety in relationships. This often gets compounded because it often leads to missing important developmental and social tasks along the way, making it progressively harder to safely connect/trust others.

When the body has learned that people aren’t safe, we can get caught up in a pattern of constantly looking for evidence that others’ intentions aren’t good or may believe that when people let us down that they did it on purpose. These ways of viewing the world had very important survival functions while the abuse was happening, but it is pretty hard to make friends or date when you are constantly suspicious of others!

2. Difficulty relaxing around others (or even just relaxing in your own home!)

Forget trust! Sometimes just feeling comfortable existing around others can be difficult for people who have experienced complex or developmental trauma. Because CPTSD comes from interpersonal relationships, our bodies can learn that interpersonal relationships aren’t safe. Our bodies may feel “on edge” or “on alert” when we are interacting with others. This can lead us to be in a constant stage of “performing” and we may feel exhausted by interactions. We may feel like no one really knows us, or if they did, they’d reject us.

This can increase in severity as the relationships become closer, or when the environment becomes closer to that of the abusive/neglectful context.

Here are some common examples:

  • While dating, physical and sexual contact may feel safe, but when the relationship increases in closeness such as moving in together or getting married, it can become overwhelming.

  • People who have experienced trauma in their home can have difficulty relaxing in their homes as adults. This can be exacerbated when their partner is home, especially if they are active or seem to be having strong emotion.

With complex trauma, the relationship can often become increasingly triggering the closer/more intimate it becomes.

3. Simultaneously craving and fearing closeness

Humans are social creatures. We depend on connection to others for survival. When the people we depend on for survival are also hurting us, we are in an impossible, unsolvable situation. One of the ways we can cope with this is to fragment parts of ourselves in order to survive. This can result in a sensation that feels like:

"a part of me" wants to connect, but "a part of me is terrified."

This is actually an amazing adaptation, but is one that can cause a lot of pain in our adult relationships. It can lead us to dive in and then pull away or can create persistent battling with ourselves about what boundaries to hold with others. This can lead to feelings of self-abandonment or self-betrayal. Partners are often left feeling confused or unsure of where the relationship stands.

4. Hiding your feelings or true self for fear of being “too much”

If you were ridiculed for having needs as a child, it can feel like you don’t “deserve” to have your needs met as an adult. If your emotions were dismissed as “dramatic” or you were shamed for having emotions, the lesson often received is “there is something wrong with me.”

Many times this leads people to hide their feelings, or try to adapt to what they perceive others want. This can lead to codependent behaviors, compulsive caretaking, and constantly feeling the need to “audition” or “prove” yourself as worthy of love. This pattern is particularly harmful because it leads you to abandon your own needs, can make it difficult to set boundaries, and can even make you more vulnerable to future abusive treatment.

As you may have guessed (or experienced), all of these things can be barriers to the types of safe, intimate relationships you’d like to have (and deserve to have!).

If you are feeling stuck in any of the patterns listed above, a licensed mental health professional who specializes in treating Complex Trauma, Developmental Trauma, or CPTSD can help! If you are a resident of Pennsylvania and are interested in becoming a client, please visit:

Stay tuned for more ways that Complex Trauma and CPTSD can impact relationships. Part 2 coming soon!


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