Helping Families With Loved Ones Suffering from Relational Trauma

Relational trauma is a life-altering experience, with reverberations that can last for many years. Families are often shaken to their core by the aftershocks of relational trauma, which can prevent their loved ones from forming new relationships or fully trusting those that already exist. Men and women affected can overcome the worst effects of relational trauma, with treatment plus the support of loved ones whose difficulties are also acknowledged and addressed.

For those who’ve been traumatized by abusive relationships, families can provide anchors of healing, wellness, and acceptance. Consequently, recovery programs for relational trauma produce the best results when family members are involved in the recovery process.

The loved ones of men and women with relational trauma are often profoundly affected by their family member’s struggles. If someone you care about has been diagnosed with relational trauma, you shouldn’t be afraid to admit that you too may need some help to deal with the consequences.

Fortunately, high-quality treatment facilities often have outreach programs that involve families in their loved one’s recovery regimen, which can offer innumerable benefits for everyone who participates.

What Is Relational Trauma?


Relational trauma describes the long-term aftereffects of severe and/or continued mistreatment at the hands of a parent, sibling, partner, friend, or extended family member. Relationships that should have been loving were tainted by a toxic mixture of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse or neglect, leaving internal scars that are difficult to heal. Relational trauma is similar to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in many ways, but the suffering in this case is exclusively related to highly unpleasant interpersonal encounters.

Anyone who has been in an abusive relationship at any point in their lives will suffer from some degree of trauma. The depth of the trauma and the lingering nature of its effects will determine whether relational trauma can be diagnosed.

Symptoms of Relational Trauma


Men and women experiencing the effects of relational trauma will manifest psychological and behavioral symptoms that reveal the depth of their lingering pain. Their symptoms will frequently include:

  • Chronic insecurity. People affected by relational trauma will often seem overly needy and dependent on others for validation. To gain approval, they may constantly put the needs of loved ones over their own.
  • Fear of abandonment. Even when relationships appear stable or loving, the fear of being abandoned will remain, causing constant anxiety and overreactions to any perceived slight. Loved ones may feel pressured to prove their loyalty repeatedly.
  • Low self-esteem. Relational trauma sufferers are often plagued by feelings of guilt, shame, and failure, blaming themselves for their troubles and even feeling responsible somehow for being a victim of abuse in the past. These reactions are rooted in low self-esteem and feelings of worthlessness.
  • Fear of failure. Motivated by a serious aversion to criticism and anxiety about being judged, people impacted by relational trauma are often extremely self-protective. Consequently, they’re afraid to express their true feelings, pursue new relationships, or take any perceived risks no matter how much they might benefit by doing so.
  • Hypervigilance. Subconsciously sensing danger everywhere, men and women with relational trauma will remain constantly on guard and filled with suspicion. From their perspective, the world seems like a dangerous and unpredictable place, and attempts to reassure them generally fail.
  • Social isolation. Chronic anxiety and fear of failure inevitably leads to social isolation or withdrawal. Too much time spent around others becomes overstimulating and causes so much discomfort that social situations are increasingly avoided.

This behavior and the emotions behind it may seem inexplicable to those who don’t know about the trauma. When you and others in the family know the truth, however, you should assume that the past abuse is the primary source of the trouble.

What Families Need to Know About Relational Trauma


Family members may understand relational trauma in principle. But living through it, and the complications it can create, is another matter.

Someone experiencing relational trauma will go through a cascade of emotions, which may change from day to day. But they aren’t likely to talk about their feelings much, unless you stay persistent and take a gentle approach. It is important to keep asking them and to offer your help and acceptance unconditionally, with no expectations or disappointment if they won’t confide in you at a particular moment.

People with relational trauma often feel guilt and shame about what happened to them and over their inability to get past it. This is traceable to their low self-esteem, which in turn can be linked to the abuse and the impact it had on their self-image. They fear being rejected by the people closest to them, who they worry may judge them as harshly as they judge themselves, if only they knew the full truth.

From your perspective, such fears might seem irrational. But what they lived through was emotionally earth-shattering, and it occurred within the context of relationships that should have been trustworthy. People who’ve been traumatized by abusive relationships become disillusioned with the world and with themselves, leaving them with deep-seated trust issues that can take them a long time—and lots of therapy—to overcome.

What your loved one needs from you, more than anything, is patience, combined with an openness to whatever they’re feeling, thinking, or doing. A patient, loving attitude will produce the best results, carrying all of you through the most difficult times. You should never take anything your loved one says or does personally or become disappointed in their behavior. Instead, you should remain as calm and supportive as you can at all times, knowing there is a light at the end of the tunnel for those who persevere.

Over time, your loved one will respond to your sensitivity and kindness. Any initial resistance you encounter is based on their self-protective instincts, which conflict with their true deepest desires. When you’re kind, loving, and unconditionally accepting, you’re giving them what they really want and need. You’ll be helping them rebuild their capacity to trust, slowly but organically.

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Family Therapy and Additional Programs for Loved Ones


Your main agenda is to support your loved one’s quest for wellness, as they learn to cope with their past trauma and move past the debilitating effect it’s had on their life. But complex mental illness creates challenges for everyone in a family, and your need for help and support is real and meaningful.

Top mental health recovery facilities all include family therapy in their clients’ treatment regimens. Naturally, the emphasis during family therapy sessions is on the person in recovery, on their need for sympathy, encouragement, and understanding from the people they care about and rely on the most. But family therapy sessions supervised by trained and compassionate professionals will offer beneficial insights and sustainable solutions for everyone, in a safe, positive environment where loved ones are free to express their emotions without reservation.

Your participation in family therapy can be a turning point for you as well as for your loved one. Under the gentle guidance of a skilled psychotherapist, you’ll emerge from the experience closer and more unified than ever.

In addition to family therapy, the best mental health treatment centers frequently offer additional services for loved ones. This may include special courses or educational programs that teach you more about mental illness, while showing you how you can contribute constructively to your loved one’s long-term recovery.

Another possibility are multi-family support groups, which are sponsored by BrightQuest Treatment Centers and other healing institutions across the country. These uplifting sessions facilitate highly productive interactions, where family members can share inspirations and talk about their personal struggles with those who understand. Healing and personal growth are achievable for those who participate willingly and with openness in these meetings, where new perspectives can be gained and old conflicts reimagined.

One Client’s Relational Trauma Journey at BrightQuest


The Long-Term Prognosis for Relational Trauma


Relational trauma is often associated with substance abuse issues, eating disorders, and other mental health issues. Co-occurring disorders complicate the life situation of someone with relational trauma, to the point where more focus may be put on those disorders than the underlying causal factors.

The best and most effective treatment programs will address all existing conditions, but still emphasize the importance of dealing with the relational trauma. This is the ultimate source of the trouble, and it must be confronted openly if sustainable healing is to be achieved.

Treatment for relational trauma could go on for months or years and involve extensive programs of therapy, including family therapy. Life-changing results are possible, however, especially if loved ones emotionally and materially support their family member’s determined efforts to heal.

A future free from the impact of relational trauma is a realistic goal, and it is one you can help your loved one meet. Your participation in the recovery process can make a dramatic difference for them and for you: you’ve shared the consequences of the struggles, and now you can share in the rewards of the transformation.

If you’re concerned about a loved one and believe they may need residential care, we can help. BrightQuest offers long-term treatment for people struggling with complex mental illnesses. Contact us to learn more about our renowned program and how we can help you or your loved one start the journey toward recovery.