Healing Ambivalence in Relationships

By Rev. Kenneth W. Schmidt, MA, LPC, NCC

On the path toward recovery, or before recovery efforts have even begun, many survivors experience some degree of difficulty engaging or maintaining relationships. Understanding the underlying dynamics in this struggle can help survivors and loved ones in relationships and also can help survivors identify areas of in life struggles that can benefit from good counseling and growth.

A survivor’s difficulty with relationships can be a direct or indirect result of childhood trauma, because all human beings are biologically hard-wired to attach to another human being. This urge to attach is driven by the reality that children cannot survive without attachment to adults who will provide for their basic physical and emotional needs.

Alongside the biological urge to attach is the biological urge to recoil in the face of emotional or physical harm. If children are severely neglected, or physically, emotionally, or sexually abused, they experience a profound conflict between two basic survival urges – to attach or to recoil.

When dealing with trauma, children believe their survival is compromised by recoiling.  They override the urge to recoil and follow the urge to attach. This provokes deep conflict, which results in a polarized split between the need to attach and the need to recoil.

In order to remain attached in the face of abuse, children must find ways to disconnect from the extreme discomfort of ambivalent feelings.  This is a functional survival strategy in the original abuse situation.  However, trauma survivors generalize this strategy across situations that in any way remind them of the abuse.  The exact strategies survivors use not to feel their uncomfortable feelings will depend on their temperament.

Survivors’ temperaments determine how they attempt to resolve the attachment-recoil dilemma.  Some avoid interpersonal relationships. They may tell themselves they do not want or need anyone.  Or they may tell themselves closeness is too risky, and it is safer to stay disconnected.  Some accomplish the isolation by quietly avoiding any opportunities for connection.  Others keep people at a distance with overt unfriendliness.

Some survivors desperately cling to a relationship, even when it is very clear the relationship is not in their best interest. They are still driven by the reality of their childhood which they cannot survive without a significant attachment. The fear is so pervasive that it overrides objective information that now, in fact, their survival is compromised by staying in the relationship.

Other survivors vacillate between getting close and pulling away.  Their history is marked by a series of relationships that develop quickly and intensely, followed by a rapid and volatile decline.

These seemingly very different ways of operating are motivated by the same desire. The survivors are making their best efforts to keep themselves emotionally safe in relationships. Their efforts are generally unsuccessful, even counter-productive. They are also predictable and understandable given the trauma history and temperament of each survivor.

Understanding this dynamic helps both the survivor and those in relationships with them to understand their confusion, vacillation, and interpersonal behavior.

As part of their recovery, trauma survivors need to learn how to distinguish the perpetrator and other significant figures in their past as distinct from the people currently in their lives.  One rule of thumb is to try to avoid making comparisons, such as “he’s just like my perpetrator, or “she does such-and-such just like my abuser,” because the comparison tends to provoke the same emotional response as the past.  Instead, the survivor can begin to note how they are different form one another.

In order to avoid some of the behavioral extremes that accompanies attachment ambivalence, survivors may want to learn about “boundaries.” Healthy boundaries exist when we are engaged in healthy relationships, but they may not have existed for the child, or been modelled by healthy adults.  Some signs of healthy boundaries are:

  • I reveal a little of myself at a time, then watch how the other person responds to my sharing.
  • I move step by step into intimacy.
  • I put a new acquaintance on hold until I check for compatibility.
  • I decide whether a potential relationship will be good for me.
  • I stay focused on my own growth and recovery.
  • I weigh the consequences before acting on sexual impulses.
  • I am sexual when I want to be, concentrating on my own feelings rather than monitoring the responses of my partner.
  • I maintain my personal values despite what others want.
  • I notice when someone invades my boundaries.
  • I say “NO” to food, gifts, touch, and/or sex I don’t want.
  • I ask a person before touching them.
  • I show respect for others, not taking advantage of their generosity.
  • I have respect for myself, and do not give too much in the hope that someone will like me.
  • I do not allow someone to take advantage of my generosity.
  • I trust my own decisions.
  • I define my truth, as I see it.
  • I know who another person is and what he or she wants.
  • I recognize that my friends and partners are not mind readers.
  • I clearly communicate my wants and needs, and recognize that the answer may be “no.”
  • I become my own loving parent.
  • I talk to others with humor and love.

©  Trauma Recovery Associates, 2009

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