Symptoms of childhood trauma in adulthood

It is widely accepted that our experiences in childhood shape our lives as adults. The effects of Developmental Trauma (or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder PTSD), are formed from a pattern of long-term abuse and neglect experienced in childhood. Childhood abuse has a particularly strong and enduring impact on individuals. Developmental trauma shapes the way your spouse sees themselves, their intimate relationships, and their world.

Depression, anxiety, panic attacks, a trauma response in intimate relationships, as well as a host of other mental health issues are common. They may also believe they are 'crazy' and try to conceal their symptoms. To cope, they may distance themselves emotionally, leading to a lack of intimacy, emotionally and physically.

Emotional intimacy is challenging because those with developmental trauma might shift from rejecting attention and wanting to be alone to feeling deep loneliness. They may struggle with deep feelings of emptiness and suicidality.

The Adverse Childhood Experiences questionnaire can help you to identify if you have had trauma. Here are the 10 ACE questions listing types of trauma in childhood. You can answer the questions below to evaluate your own ACE score.

Complex trauma & experienced ACEs

Have you seen the effects of adverse childhood experiences in your life or the life of your partner? ACEs influence the brain and nervous system in a major way, resulting in Developmental Trauma that can be hard to break free from.

Symptoms of trauma that have come from childhood can show up in a diverse number of ways. We will talk here about how it impacts intimate relationships.

Trauma creates trauma

People with Developmental Trauma often suffer from a range of cognitive, emotional and physical issues that can put a great strain on marriages. It is quite common for those with childhood traumatic events to want to avoid talking about it.

They may view trauma recovery as threatening or a waste of energy. They may prefer to simply ignore the problems because, while they are suffering today, they fear help will be more painful tomorrow. Dodging therapy is the result.

In response, their refusal to get help, combined with destructive and self-destructed patterns, affects those who live with them and love them.

By collaborating with your traumatized spouse and allowing things to ride, you are doing neither of you any good. Buying into their refusal to seek treatment is ultimately an unloving act disguised as respecting their decision.

No one can make anyone attend therapy. However, all of us have a responsibility to establish firm boundaries. Unresolved emotional trauma in marriage doesn't just impact those who are traumatized. It affects the entire family.

Unresolved trauma in relationships

Sexual problems in complex trauma

If your husband or wife's trauma included childhood sexual abuse, you might experience strong rejection. At other times, your partner might passively accept your sexual advances but become "absent" during sexual arousal.

"My partner triggers my trauma."

Survivors of childhood trauma often struggle to feel safe, even when their partner shows sympathy. Unfounded fears of attack cause them to become defensive, and their emotions can quickly change from numbness to extreme anger or panic.

The traumatic stories will no doubt move those with a caring heart and a rudimentary understanding of trauma.

This is different, however than believing that normal behaviors or interactions should be stopped because it generates anxiety or "triggers" in a traumatized partner.

While any loving spouse should be willing to modify behaviors that aren't a core need, they should not give up on vital aspects of married life. The biggest, of course, is having an active, vital sexual life.

Each of you is responsible for identifying on what side of the "street" your problems come from. For example, If you approach your partner for sex and are met with an angry response. In this case, it is perfectly acceptable to work together on finding the best way to express your interest in intimacy. It isn't acceptable to be told that all intimate relating is off the table and isn't up for discussion.

Working with a therapist

Recognizes that the process of working with a therapist may require temporary adjustments in marital relationships. This may mean placing certain sexual behaviors or discussions on the back burner.

However, too often, a trauma therapist disregards the reasonable needs of the partner in service of helping their patient. This is understandable. But an open-ended "it will take as long as it takes" answer in response to a loving spouse's inquiries may be true but profoundly unfair.

A marriage-friendly therapist understands the tension that trauma work brings to a family. They should encourage you to discuss how imbalanced your relationship becomes when trauma recovery is prioritized.

Discuss what behaviors and actions are and aren't acceptable. Accept that each of you feels pressured: one of you when change is expected, the other when change is not. Talk openly and change this dilemma from a private struggle to an open challenge.

Trauma therapy gets worse before it improves

No one wants to hear this. Not the client, the therapist, or the client's spouse. However, not creating a calm environment to explore this fact leaves everyone confused.

Expect an increase in the fight-flight-or freeze response. Individual therapy can help the conscious part of your brain process information but this response is out of your control.

Your stress levels and anxiety rise not only because you are talking about deeply disturbing memories; that alone is grueling. It is also because you have become aware of all of the missed opportunities, self-sabotage, and damage you are inflicting on yourself and others historically and even today.

You are actively re-examining your most important relationships in a new light, and rage, deep sadness, and exhaustion are only some of the emotions you will go through.

Respect the process

Many spouses are unaware that their partner has just spent 50 minutes in a horror movie, where they were the target. The trauma survivor may meet you afterward, feeling exhausted and raw. They may have physical effects like body tension, migraines, or a flare-up of autoimmune diseases.

It is not appropriate to ask your partner what they talked about in therapy. They may have no interest in reliving that horror twice in one day.

Plan preemptively. This may not be the day to schedule heavy talks, important social events, or "have it out" about some upsetting incident. It may be better to plan a night in sweats and TV or to realize that they just may want to be alone on the day they have therapy.

The trauma survivor's partner may be perceived as a potential threat rather than as a source of comfort. Try not to take it seriously; his or her love for you makes you a stand-in for everyone who has hurt them.

This side effect of therapy sorts itself out but might take a while. This might be a great time for you to do your own therapy and make sure that your behaviors are not toxic. You might also discuss how to create clear boundaries. It is unlikely that clear boundaries were present in your traumatized spouse's early life.

Feeling bad to feel better

When therapy works, it is an educational process that helps you to prepare for what is up ahead. A skilled therapist is someone you trust to help you to conceptualize what has happened to you. Talking about it in a structured way really does help.

They will let you know that you might sometimes love them, sometimes hate them, and sometimes have no feelings about them whatsoever. Experiencing emotional pain has often meant that this is something we should avoid. Yet this is useful pain that helps us move the toxic memories through and out of us.

Sometimes that toxin comes to the surface and lingers before moving out. That's the time for both of you to keep up your communication so that a distinct difference can be made between ghosts in your past and your current spouse.

Get help to heal from childhood trauma

Science-based couples therapy can help marriages make stronger connections. They can help a couple to clarify relationship goals and boundaries. The lack of a safe and secure environment in early life can be the source of their ongoing difficulties, but only if left unchecked. Couples therapy can remove the blame on either the survivor or their partner and help them through this difficult period of healing.

Ready for a change in your relationship?

It starts with a no-obligation 15 minute phone call with our client services team.

Dr. K

Dr. Kathy McMahon (Dr. K) is a clinical psychologist and sex therapist. She is also the founder and president of Couples Therapy Inc. Dr. K feels passionate about couples therapy and sex therapy and holds a deep respect towards those who invest in making their relationship better. She is currently conducting online and in person private couples retreats.

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  1. This provides me with a deeper understanding of mental health. My work is not related to the psychological field however since my task is more to this expertise I'm beginning to understand more about mental state. And I'm also thankful that I was introduced to this job role wherein I not only benefited from my work but as well I'm learning in most cases the articles I read are having a big impact on my personality as well as my understanding of people around me suffering abuse and trauma.

  2. I understand and have lived all if this as the spouse of someone who has never addressed their complex childhood trauma. I’ve been living in this relationship for 24 years, but now we are 3 months separated. Why? Because I finally failed her test. Why, because she broke me down over 24 years and actually made me into an emotional abuser in response to the prolonged abuse she dealt to me. The moment we separated, all my issues evaporated and I now feel no longer possessed under her spell. I’m kind and compassionate and free of resentment again, and who knows, maybe this was her act of compassion in setting me free. I’m not sure.

    But here’s the thing: I feel great compassion and love for her and want to help to heal her. But I could never raise the topic as I would assume the abuser role again, meaning any mention of her trauma would make me a threat.

    Please help. I’m stuck. And children are involved, so I want to ensure they successfully navigate this.

  3. Hello Mr Dasnaw

    Thank you for your work and this blog.

    As I’ve struggled through an empty and lonely marriage recently co-raising two children, I often wonder will I ever be happy, succeed and or be able to love and be loved, unequivocally, to name a few emotional ailments.

    I too suffer from a traumatic childhood. So does my therapist spouse. We are not in a good place at all and she no longer wants to do therapy together. We are in a quasi separated state.

    My ACE/PCE score is 6/2, hers a little more I’d say.

    While we both have been in individual therapy respectively for a long time, we never have tried intense couples therapy even though in her practice I believe she sees success with her clients.

    I don’t know what to do

  4. This article is the best information I have ever read about the effects of childhood trauma . It made me realize I’m not crazy… why I like to be alone.. and explains to me why I let my self be emotionally abused in my marriage for all these years. This article has information about a supportive spouse and the issues, do you have information about a spouse that is not supportive and emotionally abusive?

  5. What score do you have to get on the ACE to have developmental trauma? Does checking any of them mean that you are, indeed, dealing with developmental trauma?

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