Complex PTSD: How Early Relational Trauma Impacts Relationships - Scattered Jigsaw Puzzle - Sandra Harewood Counselling

Complex PTSD: How Early Relational Trauma Impacts Relationships

Complex PTSD leaves you with a lack of certainty about what a loving relationship is, meaning they often feel hard.

I have been working as a therapist for over ten years, and in that time, I have noticed one thing repeatedly. Adult intimate partner relationships are complicated, and sometimes they feel downright impossible. 

Bloggers and influencers give the impression that putting things right is as easy as getting rid of the narcissist in your life, having a date night or learning how to show appreciation.  

But it’s not as simple as that.  

A Broken Relationship Code

Surprisingly, long before you’ve met your current partner, you’ve internalised a love and relationship template. In fact, that template goes back to the womb and before you were even born.  In the womb, we have an experience of what it means to be attached, cared for, feel safe and loved. And believe it or not, we carry that in-utero experience and the feelings that go with it throughout life.  

Like learning to drive a car or ride a bike, the experience is imprinted on our memory. Once we know how to do it and what it feels like, we don’t forget. And the more we practice, the more skilled become. 

And that’s what life is all about; repetition and practice.  

But if your template was unhealthy or toxic as a child, expect more of the same as an adult. It doesn’t matter if your parents, or you now as an adult, are educated, have a husband or partner with a good job, you have plenty of money, status, or you’re climbing the corporate ladder.  

Unhealthy Parenting

None of that matters.  

The truth is the damaged love templates caused by childhood trauma is prevalent, even in middle-class, university-educated, working households.

So what do I mean by unhealthy and toxic?  

Firstly we are all human. By and large, most parents do the best that they can. Sometimes, they don’t know how to, which leaves a gap between what they offer and what the child needs.  On the negative side, some parents don’t do their best.  

Whatever the reason, a child growing up in an environment that feels unsafe, e.g. with caregivers who were disrespectful, untrustworthy, heavy-handed, or more subtly, unhealthy by their remoteness and indifference is growing up in a toxic and unhealthy environment.  

Children and teenagers have a level of dependency on their caregivers. This dependency inevitable creates a power imbalance in which young people are vulnerable to neglect and abuse. 

PTSD & Complex PTSD

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PSTD), as defined in DSM5, is caused by an event that feels as if your life or the life of someone else is threatened or by actual or threatened sexual violence.  

That might be being in a car accident, witnessing a violent crime, being a victim of sexual assault or at this time of COVID19 the exposure of medical staff in ICU wards dealing with the horrors of the virus. We can all think of PTSD triggering incidents from the news.  

Complex PTSD is interpersonal trauma, i.e. it’s relational. It happens in close attachment relationships where there is likely an imbalance of power.

What that means is, this form of trauma is prone to happen in our primary relationships with parents, caregivers, guardians, or those with authority and control over children, e.g. boarding school staff.  

Ongoing Trauma

And unlike PTSD, Complex PTSD is not isolated but happens more than once and usually over time, making it also, usually, cumulative. And over time, your dignity, safety, and well-being are undermined. 

This kind of childhood trauma has a profound and ongoing impact. 

As the ACE [Adverse Child Experience] study has shown, child abuse and neglect is the single most preventable cause of mental illness, the single most common cause of drug and alcohol abuse, and a significant contributor to leading causes of death such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer, stroke, and suicide.” ― Bessel A. van der Kolk (1)

The Lancet also reports that multiple ACE’s is a significant risk factor in many health conditions.

In the U.S., the ACE studies not surprisingly identified physical and sexual abuse and neglect as adverse unhealthy experiences for children and adolescents. But what the studies also name is household dysfunction.  

Unsafe Childhood Homes

Neglect and household dysfunction include: 

  1. Emotional neglect. For example, a child raised by a narcissistic parent was emotionally unavailable and unpredictable. This neglect would also include the child who had to parent the parent.
  2. Physical neglect, e.g. not providing food or appropriate clothing.
  3. Households in which children were exposed to and witnessed domestic abuse. Remember, domestic abuse isn’t just physical; it’s verbal abuse and controlling behaviour. 
  4. Children being raised by a caregiver with active substance abuse such as alcohol or drugs. Perhaps a parent was frequently drunk or high and couldn’t take care of the children, e.g. providing appropriate and timely medical attention. 
  5. Undiagnosed or untreated mental illness such as depression or Cluster B disorders including Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) and Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD)
  6. Situations which cause severe stress such as an acrimonious divorce or separation

Adverse childhood experiences are sadly everyday occurrences with 27% children and adolescents living in an environment with substance abuse, 23% experiencing parental separation and 23% some form of physical abuse.  

The impact of multiple adverse experiences layer upon layer is trauma.

The Impact of Complex PTSD

If you were neglected or abandoned, you might well have felt unwanted, disliked or rejected for significant periods of your childhood.  This trauma has lingering effects.

Typical symptoms of Complex PTSD include:

  • Hypervigilance
  • Feelings of shame, hopelessness, anxiety, and overwhelm.
  • .Avoidance
  • Cognitive distortions
  • Disturbing somatic sensations
  • Self-harm
  • Poor concentration
  • Eating disorders
  • Health problems
  • Relationship problems

Why Does Complex PTSD Matter? 

Complex relational trauma impacts your relationships with yourself and others because your experience leaves you with a lack of clarity about loving relationships look like and how to be in one.  What is unhealthy can feel comfortable and healthy. 

Pete Walker says

Those with Complex PTSD-spawned attachment disorders……who come through my door have never had a safe enough relationship. Repetition compulsion has compelled them to unconsciously seek out relationships in adulthood that traumatically reenact the abusive and/or abandoning dynamics of their childhood caretaker (2)

Or, put simply as Freud once said we repeat. 

Romantic Love delivers us into the passionate arms of someone who will ultimately trigger the same frustrations we had with our parents….. Harville Hendrix (3)

New Relationship Old Hurts

So we end up in relationships where the pain of older hurts are bought to the surface, but you feel less resourced to navigate the challenges because of the historical impact of the Complex PTSD. Anxiety and fear leave you hypervigilant, and related issues such as self-judgment and low self-esteem mean that you might struggle with setting boundaries, for example. 

Consequently, this form of trauma affects every aspect of your life.  

Above all, relationships feel hard.

Your existing adult relationship may trigger Complex PTSD.  For example, this might happen when partnered with a controlling, narcissistically vulnerable or abusive partner.  But in many cases, you may be already living with the trauma; the same trauma that left you vulnerable to such relationships.

Complex PTSD is the result of learned ineffective beliefs and behaviours.  The good news is these beliefs and behaviours can be unlearnt.  A human brain is a fantastic tool which can rewire itself.

Moreover, the wounding caused initially by a toxic relationship can be healed in a healthy relationship, such as with a supportive partner or therapist.   In other words, you can reclaim your life from the impact of childhood trauma and deepen your relationship with yourself and others.

Your childhood experiences may hold the missing piece of the jigsaw for your relationship problems.

Over To You

Are you struggling with letting go? If you want a safe space to discuss and explore your childhood experiences, get in touch, and book your first counselling appointment. I offer video sessions online via a secure platform. Coronavirus (COVID-19) doesn’t need to put your therapy sessions on pause.  

Or call me today on 07535 864836.

Leave a comment below; I’d love to hear from you.


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© Sandra Harewood 2021

About Sandra

Soul Centred couples counsellor Sandra Harewood specialises in working with couples and women with childhood wounding that impacts their adult relationships. Sandra provides a soulful space for her clients to explore creative solutions to their difficulties and create a great relationship.

(1) Bessel van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score: Mind, Brain and Body in the Transformation of Trauma,  2015, Penguin

(2) Pete Walker, Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving: A Guide And Map For Recovering From Childhood Trauma, 2013, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform

(3) Harville Hendrix,  Getting The Love You Want Revised Edition: A Guide for Couples,  2020, Simon & Schuster UK; Reissue edition