How Early Attachment Trauma Can Impact Your Partnership

Jordan Dann, Psychoanalyst
Couples FightingCanva

Most people have a basic understanding of shock trauma and the resulting symptoms and consequences that PTSD can have on an individual. However, many people are unfamiliar with early attachment trauma and the devastating impact that CPTSD, complex post-traumatic stress disorder, can have on a person.

Early attachment trauma refers to distressing, abusive, or painful experiences in childhood that impact an individual's ability to create and maintain healthy interpersonal relationships. Attachment trauma is a disruption in the fundamental process of bonding between a child and their primary caregiver. This early trauma may be overt abuse or neglect, or may be more subtle, such as a lack of attunement, physical contact, or responsiveness from the caregiver. Attachment trauma may also occur if there is a traumatic experience within the home while the baby is forming attachment, such as absence of primary caregivers, related to illness, death, or divorce. These repetitive early developmental experiences can have subtle yet enduring effects on a person's physical, psychological, and social-emotional well-being.

A person’s early attachment experience is the driver of what British psychoanalyst John Bowlby defined as the “internal working model.” An internal working model is how a person relates to themselves (intrapsychic) and others (interpersonal) which consists of:

  • How I see myself (Am I worthy? Am I loved?)
  • How I see Others (Are people available to me? Are people responsive to me?)
  • How I see the world (Am I safe? Is the world fair to me?)

As you reflect on the questions above you might begin to see the ways in which your early attachment experiences play a part in shaping this view of yourself and the world. You might also begin to notice how your view of yourself and the world shapes the way you relate to your partner. Continue to reflect on your internal working model by answering the following questions about how you react to conflict or ruptures in your current partnership:

  • When you are emotionally wounded is your reactive behavior to fight (i.e.criticize, or blame)?
  • Is your habitual response to flee (i.e. withdraw, or find escapes or exits in the form of work/tv/sports/alcohol)?
  • Do you freeze (i.e. feel cold in your body, or lose access to cognition or expression)?
  • Do you placate or fawn (i.e. ignore boundaries or needs, and/or act agreeable to avoid conflict)?

Take some time to think about the current triggers in your relationship and identify what behaviors your partner demonstrates that inspire feelings of frustration in you. Identify what your reactive behavior is when you experience these triggers. Then reflect on your childhood or other relationship history and notice any connections you might be able to make from the past.

In a moment of calm connection with your partner, share the connections that you've made. Sharing your awareness and taking personal responsibility for the history you bring to your relationship can deepen trust with your partner and help you both to navigate conflict with more peace and understanding.

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Jordan Dann is a dynamic psychoanalyst and educator. She writes extensively about her work with couples so that people can empower themselves with the knowledge to move towards increasing fulfillment, growth, and healing in their relationships.

New York, NY

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