Surviving trauma is a monumental journey. It has peaks and long hard valleys. Simply getting through a traumatic event or period of one’s life can take all you have and more, imagining life after survival can be something we take for granted. If every ounce of energy goes towards being free from abuse and fear then how can we know what will come after, except relief?
Finding Healthy Attachment After Trauma
This is a situation I often support survivors through and it is a journey I am still growing in myself. After surviving an abusive marriage, and many years of making it on my own as a single mom, getting re-married and settling into a safe and healthy relationship has not been something I could do effortlessly.
Having a history of trauma, particularly interpersonal trauma, means that we can find ourselves prime targets for unhealthy patterns and predatory individuals.
Learning how to not be afraid in a relationship, understanding what healthy communication really feels like, and not assuming the worst have all been paths I have had to walk down with the help of amazing books and therapists.
Survivor and speaker, Liz Osowiecki, shares insight from her experience and what she sees when working with survivors, “Negative and harmful experiences when we are young, and even before we are born, literally shape our brains and inevitably our lives. Sometimes, survivors will even seek these unhealthy or abusive situations out because they feel familiar and ‘comfortable,’ or they may feel that they do not even deserve healthy love.“
This is in no way our fault, but it is something we have to have heightened awareness of. Add to that the fact that many of us don’t have real-life references for what a strong and stable relationship even looks like and we have a recipe for falling into the labyrinth of toxic patterns even when we are desiring something radically different.
To understand what a safe and affirming love is we must take the first step in unlearning what we had previously thought of as love or relationships. Much of what we accept is based on what we expect.
If we think that all relationships eventually include things like name-calling, threats, or manipulation and we will find ourselves constantly brushing off these behaviors. We may tell ourselves that, “Everyone experiences these things” and “It could be worse, this isn’t the worst after all.”
To break these patterns, I suggest exploring the following tools for moving into new patterns and shedding the beliefs that are holding us back from transformative connections:
1. Explore Your Relationship DNA
DNA is the blueprint of the body; it gives us a map of where things go and how they work. Our minds also have a map with the scripts we follow, telling us what is acceptable, where our boundaries lie, and when a line has been crossed. Some of this actually affects DNA expression, through epigenetics- the emotions and memories that are passed down through generations. Epigenetics can make us more prone to certain experiences and lead us to permit things that our forbearers did, even if we now know it is unhealthy.
By doing the work to understand how your family’s history, personal experiences, and environment have woven together with the patterns of personal experience the better we can unravel the threads we no longer want and replace them with what we truly deserve.
2. Understand What is Possible and Use That as Your Guideline
One of my favorite quotes of all time is from Marian Wright Edelman who said, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” This is so true in multiple regards.
In seeking to design what kind of relationship you desire you must first figure out what is possible and list what you absolutely won’t settle on and what you can make a compromise. I like to ask students of mine what they desire in a partner and if they have made a list of these qualities. If they have, they read it to me and we then highlight the non-negotiables, the ideals, and the nice extras.
For example a non-negotiable for me is someone who shows up when things are hard, an ideal is someone who enjoys travel, and an extra is someone who enjoys similar music. Figuring out each will allow you to check-in and see how each person you are connecting with aligns with what you need and evaluating as things develop.
"You can’t be what you can’t see.”
3. Use Resources to Check-in with Where You Are
As I mentioned earlier, the healing and discovery process is a journey. Journeys are often hard- they have setbacks, unforeseen circumstances, and moments of despair. They are also exciting, energizing, and lead you to destinations yet to be revealed.
In order to stay on your journey’s path, you need trial guides. These trail guides can take a number of forms: teachers, therapists, books, podcasts, you name it. Finding the right ones can be a journey in itself but once you find them, the way forward becomes so much more clear.
Start by asking a trusted resource for recommendations and seeing what fits. One good book could lead to a great therapist who recommends a retreat - the journey continues as you follow each of these signs along your way.
"Mapping out expectations and boundaries before entering a relationship makes it so much easier to stand firm in them, especially if they are spoken."
Osowiecki agrees that finding out what works for you, and not someone else, is key, “Remember, it’s about what fits for you. This may be totally different than what works for someone else. There are many different forms of trauma therapy, and movement or meditation to reconnect with our bodies after trauma. Mapping out expectations and boundaries before entering a relationship makes it so much easier to stand firm in them, especially if they are spoken. Communication is key for positive relationships. “
4. Honor Your Gut
Just like we talked about with our DNA holding stories, our bodies hold profound wisdom. Your brain is multifaceted and can hold both primal knowledge and the more logical processing aspects all within your one mind. Listening to what your primal mind and body are telling you is so important. As survivors, we may get used to ignoring when we feel uncomfortable or unsure, or on the flip side feel so constantly scared that we have a hard time distinguishing what we really are picking up.
Tools like mindfulness and yoga can help us to tune in with the true messages our body is communicating with us and decide what we need to do to listen to them effectively.
The Bottom Line
Finding fulfilling loving connections with other people, and ourselves, after trauma is not a quick or easy experience for most. But then again, most worthwhile things aren’t. Trust the process, your body, and the journey. It is so worth it in the end.
Dr. Laura McGuire (they/them or she/her) is an internationally recognized consultant, survivor, researcher, seminarian, and author of the book Creating Cultures of Consent (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021).
Dr. McGuire is a certified full-spectrum doula, professional teacher, a certified sexual health educator, and a vinyasa yoga instructor. Their experience includes both public and private sectors, middle schools, high schools, and university settings.
They currently are earning their Masters of Divinity at Earlham Seminary where they are studying the intersections of Judaism, trauma-informed care, and restorative-justice in faith settings. Dr. McGuire lives in the United States, where they work as an adjunct professor at Widener University and consultant at The National Center for Equity and Agency.