Healing Relationships

The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast with Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

Healing Relationships

A healing relationship is one that helps us regain our sense of value, autonomy, safety, and respect — our birthright as human beings. After bad experiences that may have seemed to call these basic truths into question, healing relationships can affirm these truths to us, building our self-esteem, confidence, and sense of security in the process.  

Let’s try a little thought experiment — think back to a time when you made a truly regrettable mistake. When you were filled with regret and would have given anything to hop into a time machine, blast off to the past and undo what you’d done.

You probably felt pretty bad about yourself at the time. Was there someone you turned to, who listened with compassion and understanding? Maybe they helped you remember that, despite your mistake, you were still a human being worthy of love and respect, even at a moment when you didn’t feel like it. 

I hope so. And if you have had an experience like this, you’ve been touched by a healing relationship, an important topic we’ll be exploring on today’s episode of the podcast. 

My guest is Paige M., a marriage and family therapist and coach here at Growing Self. Paige is an expert on healing relationships, and she has some fascinating insight into these nurturing connections and the positive impact they can have on your life. 

Healing relationships are so important to all of us. In fact, they’re the key component of effective therapy. So learning to cultivate healing relationships in your own life is incredibly worthwhile. This conversation will help you recognize a healing relationship when you find one, and embrace the experiences that will allow you to grow into a happier, healthier version of yourself

Join me here, on Apple podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen.

With love, 

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

Healing Relationships

The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast with Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

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Healing Relationships: Episode Show Notes

What Is a “Healing Relationship?”

The safe, therapeutic relationship between counselor and client is the foundation of all effective therapy. But other important relationships in our lives — with partners, friends, family, even coworkers — can also be incredibly beneficial to our mental and emotional wellbeing. 

Maybe you’ve experienced this. You may have been cheated on by an ex, but the next person you dated showed you it was safe to trust again. Or maybe you had a teacher who humiliated you when you gave the wrong answer, but other teachers were kind to you, even when you were wrong. 

These are the kinds of corrective experiences that take place within “healing relationships,” and they are so important for anyone who has experienced relational trauma (which is to say, everyone!). 

When we have new experiences with safe people who treat us with empathy and respect, we offer our brains “counter-evidence” against old narratives about who we are and what we deserve, helping us regain our feelings of safety, security, confidence, and trust in our connections with other people. 

Can You Heal While In a Relationship? 

You may have heard that it’s best to get over any past relationships before moving into a new one. This isn’t bad advice — getting back to your feelings of wholeness and happiness as a single person can be an important part of breakup recovery. But in reality, many relational wounds stick with us, even after we’re feeling “over” the relationship in question. 

If you’ve been betrayed in the past, it’s totally normal to have trust issues in new relationships, even if your current partner has been nothing but trustworthy. If you’ve experienced a traumatic abandonment, you may be anxious about being left again, and that anxiety might show up as controlling behaviors toward new partners.

When you’re in a healing relationship with a safe, trustworthy person, you can begin to notice these feelings, and then attend to the old wounds triggering them in the present with self-compassion. By being mindful of your feelings and where they’re coming from, you can avoid acting out, and instead have conversations with your partner that help you both understand each other better

How to Heal from Relationship Trauma

As young children, we’re completely dependent on our caregivers to meet our physical and emotional needs. If we don’t get the care, love, and support we need at this vulnerable stage of our lives, it has a profound impact on how we see ourselves, and how safe and secure we feel in the world. 

Children who suffer neglect or abuse can carry the residue of relational trauma well into adulthood. They can develop issues like chronic stress, difficulty regulating their emotions, or difficulty making contact with their emotions at all. 

These are remnants of the survival mechanisms that protected your psyche as a little kid, but as an adult, they can keep you from being open and present in relationships. Learning about these survival mechanisms usually isn’t enough to shift them, but gathering new experiences that help you feel autonomous, safe, respected, and loved by others can be. 

Experiencing healing relationships can help you begin to let go of some of those defenses and become more vulnerable, open, and secure. 

Healing Relationships: When It’s Time for Therapy

Healing relationships are a beautiful thing, but we can get into trouble when we start to believe the power of our love is enough to heal another person. It’s a seductive idea that comes from a good place, but it won’t lead to the healthy relationship you want and deserve. 

If your partner has a problem, like an addiction or severe trauma, the healing relationship they really need is with a professional, who can guide them through a structured, evidence-based healing process. If you decide it’s your responsibility to help them heal, that relationship dynamic can easily veer into codependence, which isn’t healthy for either of you. 

When someone you love has lingering relational trauma, you can be a loving pillar of support, but you can’t take charge of their healing. 

Building Healing Relationships

Compassionate, emotionally-safe relationships can teach us it’s safe to trust other people, be our true selves, and be open to deep, meaningful connections. 

When you build healing relationships with others, you’re not only getting companionship. You’re laying down new connections in your brain, and helping yourself become the authentically happy and healthy person you were born to be.

Healing Relationships: Episode Highlights

[01:20] Healing Relationship

  • Paige leveraged “healing relationships” through her own work with trauma survivors.
  • In therapy, predictability and structure are essential to creating a safe space for clients who are going through trauma.
  • Reciprocity of love and support are crucial in healing relationships. 

[12:03] Adverse Childhood Experiences

  • When adults are incapable of addressing their child’s emotions, they would manifest them in an uncontrollable manner.
  • In some cases, the traumatic experiences of children lead them to pushing people away to protect themselves.

[18:03] Healing From a Traumatic Relationship

  • Individual therapy is beneficial for clients who have experienced numerous traumatic events. 
  • A healing relationship is egalitarian; both sides need to be accountable to one another.

[25:14] Attachment Styles vs. Relational Trauma

  • There's an overlap between attachment styles and relational trauma.
  • The types of attachment styles are secure attachment, anxious attachment, and avoidant attachment.
  • For people with relational trauma, their style of attachment can be disorganized.

[35:29] Addressing Trauma in a Relationship

  • Externalize the trauma.
  • Have an open and honest conversation about your traumatic experiences.
  • Reflect and validate the harm that was done.

Music in this episode is by Oliver Riz, with the song “Healing Love.”

You can support them and their work by visiting their Bandcamp page here: Oliver Riz. Under the circumstance of use of music, each portion of used music within this current episode fits under Section 107 of the Copyright Act, i.e., Fair Use. Please refer to copyright.gov if further questions are prompted.

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby: Conventional wisdom says that we need to love ourselves first and that you should be over any past relationships before starting a new one. But the reality is that healing our emotional wounds isn't something that happens all at once. A lot of times, our wounds occur through our relationships, and they are healed through relationships. 

To help us unpack all of those big ideas, I have invited my colleague, Paige McAllister, to speak with us today. Paige is a Marriage and Family Therapist on the team here at Growing Self. She's also a doctoral candidate in Marriage and Family Therapy. She has a background in so many relevant things. She has expertise in sexuality, in interpersonal violence, in trauma, and she has done so much wonderful healing work both with individuals and couples on the path to healing on every level. 

I am so excited to invite her into the conversation today to share her expertise with you. Thank you soon-to-be Dr. Paige for joining us today.

Paige: Thank you. Thanks for having me. 

[01:20] What is a Healing Relationship?

Lisa: Do you get a little thrill when people call you Dr. Paige? Hard-earned. We were just chatting a little bit before we started this interview that you are in the final stages of the dissertation process, and talking about how amazing it's going to feel to be on the other side of that. Congratulations in advance. That's a big achievement. 

You, in addition to that, have so much experience in helping people, particularly in healing from trauma. Just to kind of catch our listeners up a little bit here — one of the things that we do in our practice here at Growing Self that I love so much is that we have different kinds of community events in our group where we'll talk as a group about different topics. Some of it is personal growth in nature, but some of it is professional growth in nature. 

You hosted a group the other day that I was so privileged to be in attendance of. You were talking about healing relationships and the significance of them in our work. I just left that group wanting to know more. Maybe, we can just start there. I mean, healing relationships — what do you think of when you think about healing relationships?

Paige: Well, I came to this idea through my own work with trauma — survivors of trauma, and thinking about what kind of relationship did we need to have in the room in order for them to heal. 

Lisa: Between you and your client?

Paige: Between me and my client. I was thinking like, “Well, if trauma is violent, and it violates boundaries, and it's unpredictable, and people don't take accountability for the harm that they've done, then in therapy, we need to have some predictability and some structure. I need to acknowledge that I can do harm.” 

Then, I think it just naturally flowed out of that to think about — I talk with my clients about those kinds of relationships that they have with other people in their lives. We're doing a very specific type of healing work as a therapist and a client. But they were doing lots of that healing work on their own outside of session. 

When I think of relationships for healing, I think of egalitarian relationships — mostly just the opposite of trauma, not the absence of harm. But more than that, the presence of support, and trust, and safety, and consistency, and place where people say they're sorry and mean it when they've done something that's caused harm.

Lisa: I love what you just said. I honestly hadn't thought about it in that way that it's not just the absence of trauma. A good relationship is not the absence of things that lead to a bad relationship that you're saying that they're actually very specific, positive qualities that a healing relationship has, and you can create that kind of relationship with a good therapist. 

But that you can also have those kinds of healing qualities in a relationship with a partner or friends, families, loved ones. Can you say a little bit about why it is so important for people who have lived through hard things to have healing relationships with others?

Paige: It's important: a) because we are social creatures, and we all need people around us. We all deserve to have positive fulfilling relationships. I think it's especially important for people who have had damaging or traumatic relationships to have them for their healing, but also because they deserve them because as humans, we deserve that. 

Also, in good healing relationships, they're not just one way; they're reciprocal. It's not just that I'm supported and loved, but I get to support and love others. I think we all need those experiences as well. 

Lisa: It gives us an opportunity to see ourselves showing up in positive ways in relationships. That can be very healing as well.

Paige: The number one thing I work on with survivors of trauma is helping to reestablish autonomy because trauma takes so much away from us. When we're living with traumatic responses, our behaviors, our emotional reactions often feel so out of our control. We're not really choosing how we're responding to the situation, we're just going into survival mode and doing what we feel like we have to do. 

Healing relationships can be a place for people who have been any kind of trauma, but especially trauma that happens within relationships — to be able to show up the way they want to, and to determine how that relationship is going to go, and have some autonomy there which I think supports overall healing when trauma feels like it takes so much away from us that in healing relationships, I do have control, I do get a say — which I think is really critical to healing overall to feel autonomous.

Lisa: You're bringing up so many important points here. I think maybe for the benefit of our listeners, I think when therapists use the word “trauma”, we're often thinking of different things — just a bad experience. Also, there are different kinds of trauma. There are traumas where your physical safety is threatened, or you are hurt, or you're witnessing something horrible happening to other people. 

There is also such a thing as relational trauma which is a very real trauma, but I feel like we don't talk about that kind of trauma as much. Can you take us just into that? I know we've tried to talk about on past podcasts around trust issues, healthy relationships — but I don't know that we've really unpacked relational trauma on the show before. Can you say more about that? No pressure.

Paige: It is. In general, I use a really expanded definition of relational trauma because I think it's most helpful. But relational traumas are things that happen in the context of relationships that threaten our relational safety — just like violence or natural disasters can threaten our physical safety. I find with my clients often, those are the traumas that are harder to identify for them. But they're like, “Well, my parents are my caregivers. They didn't hit me. They fed me, and they provided a roof over my head. I shouldn't be upset about the other things that happened.” 

But then, they told me these stories about emotional neglect — that people didn't take care of their emotions, didn't help them navigate their own emotions, that when they, as children, had really big emotions, parents and caregivers tried to shut that down either because they were uncomfortable, or they didn't know what to do, but they were overwhelmed. 

Or they were told that they were being dramatic or childish — but they were a child. Of course, there was — they're just expressing normal emotions. The way people responded were really critical or negative, but they just ignored them. I think that's harder — I think those are the kinds of traumas that are harder to recognize but fit within like a relationship.

Lisa: And hard to validate. Because just as you're talking, I'm sitting here thinking that we really, I think, don't do enough in our culture to talk about the very real attachment needs that we have, particularly as children. They're very much tied into survival drives. I mean, there are fundamental needs to feel safe, and respected, and understood by the people around you on an emotional level like security. When that is threatened or damaged, it is quite damaging to people. But we don't talk about that reality. I think that people struggle to legitimize their own feelings when that's coming up for them. Is that — ?

Paige: Also because when we're children — when I'm eight, nine, ten, I can't just go off.

Lisa: This isn't a fundamental attachment need right now, mom! Exactly. 

Paige: Because I need my parents both to take care of me emotionally and to provide for me, physically. I don't have choice in those relationships. I don't just get to go find new parents if the ones I have aren't doing what I needed to do for whatever reason. I think it's hard for people to validate, but also just like the trapped-ness of, “I can't choose another relationship here.” 

When we talk about childhood trauma, and this also came up in my dissertation work with survivors of intimate partner violence, the narratives that we have are really overt, extreme demonstrations of physical violence, sexual violence, and neglect — extreme neglect like people aren't being fed and basic needs aren't being met. 

That's what we tend to talk about. When we talk about intimate partner violence, the image people have in their minds is really extreme physical or sexual violence. But there's all sorts of emotional violence, verbal violence, and neglect in those areas as well. We just don't talk about them as much. We don't have those narratives. It's also in my experience — people are really uncomfortable if identifying as a survivor of trauma now means a bunch of things for me. I think there's some self-protection there as well. 

[12:03] Adverse Childhood Experiences

Lisa: Well, let's talk a little bit about that part because — and I like the way that we're sort of breaking this down a little bit: like there's relational trauma that happens in childhood. The time in our lives when we're vulnerable, we're really dependent on people in a very real way — and that impacts us. Then, certainly, there can be relational trauma in romantic relationships, or friendships. But can you talk a little bit about the impact of relational trauma when you experience it as a child?

Paige: Fundamentally, it changes our view of ourselves and how we relate to other people. When we're children, we don't know much else. If we look at the researchers doing really great work on childhood trauma, and chronic stress is often what they call it — adverse childhood experiences. They talk about the buffering aspects that can happen with a strong, stable adult to show what that relationship can look like.

Lisa: A healing relationship. 

Paige: A healing relationship. But if we don't have that, or if most of our relationships with our primary caregivers or parents are traumatic, or aren't fully meeting our needs instead of meeting our needs, often the way it changes how we view ourselves and others is… 

I mean, it's not a one-to-one; it's not just like this week. It is somewhat true that in those initial relationships, we learn about what we deserve, we learn about — that's our main example of what human relationships look like. So we can internalize some beliefs about ourselves about what we deserve, about what we're worth. 

In addition to when we talk about other types of trauma, we talk about an increased vigilance for danger in the world, and having trauma responses where we're triggered by something, and we go into “fight, flight or freeze” because our central nervous system is activated. That all holds true with relational trauma as well, depending on the severity of it. But we will develop ways to survive in those relationships. 

If I'm a child, and when I am showing big emotions or any emotions at all, I'm told I'm dramatic and people get mad at me. I might just start shoving those emotions down, and down, and down, “The message I'm getting from everyone is my emotions are too much, so I'll just put those in a box, and put that box in a bigger box.” It's not really how emotions work. They're going to pop out in other places, and sometimes in bigger ways because we're not working through emotions as they come. 

Other people might rebel against that. Maybe, I'm going to do more dramatic things because I'm trying to get attention, I'm trying to get care of — I'm trying to take care of my own emotions but I don't know what to do because I'm a child. We develop ways to survive. Everyone's got their own thing that they do. It looks different for everyone, but we often take those survival strategies into adulthood, even into relationships that are healthy or could be healthy. 

Then, we're still acting on those survival strategies of trying to manage ourselves and relationships by editing our behaviors, or — I don't like the phrase “acting out”, but we're trying to do something. It's not that we're being malicious, but we're trying to protect ourselves, so we might engage in behaviors and relationships that are not helping us accomplish those goals. 

Lisa: I think this is maybe tying back to what you were saying at the beginning of our conversation, like the idea of autonomy. Meaning, that you have sort of control, and independence, and volition. I think what I'm hearing you say is that, understandably, people who have been experienced relational trauma, especially earlier in life, maybe having feelings that are coming out in ways that are sort of uncontrollable in some ways. Their big feelings — they’re manifesting in weird behaviors that they themselves don't fully understand. Or they are being — you use the word “editing”, sort of containing themselves to the degree that it's impacting intimacy, vulnerability in a relationship. It can look like a lot of different things. Just that it carries over, it's like ghosts from the past that don't sometimes have anything to do with the relationship that you're actually in — in the present. 

Paige: Which is really frustrating when you're in kid. 

Lisa: It is.

Paige: Because I think most people with trauma, it's not one or the other — it's kind of all of it. There are moments where they're doing these behaviors to protect themselves — like pushing people away, or coping with intense emotions maybe in ways that they don't want, or aren't as healthy, as well as trying to contain it and edit it. I think that's part of the struggle of traumas. 

Its extremes in multiple ways that sometimes it's our emotions are too big. Other times, it's that we're trying to keep them very small, and neither of them are going to… I mean, both of those are very frustrating, exhausting processes. Also, it can be really difficult to manage within the context of a relationship that somebody wants, and with people that they trust and love.

[18:03] Healing From a Traumatic Relationship

Lisa: I want to talk more about the healing relationship idea because that is really a crucial component of healing for people who have had that life experience. But we have to talk about something else too, which is that… I mean, I can't tell you how many clients I've worked with who have been in love with someone. They're in a relationship with someone who has experienced relational trauma in their past, and who is still dealing with the impacts of it.

They are working so hard to be a kind partner, to have a healing relationship for that other person. At least in my experience, that is not actually enough to change it. Working with clients would be like, “I thought I could help him. I thought that through the power of our love, it could be different.” And they get hurt in the process. So healing relationships is certainly crucial — we'll talk more about that. 

But what is — there’s sort of a bigger problem because it seems like the person who has had that early trauma needs to be aware of it, and actively participating in that healing in different ways in order for a healing relationship to be beneficial. Would you agree with that? Or do you see it? I mean, you have a lot more experience in this than I do. I'm coming at it from a very couples counseling kind of orientation. You're the trauma expert in this conversation. What have you seen with that?

Paige: I strongly believe that — like individual therapy to really process trauma, like structured processing of trauma is really helpful when it's happened. I think that relational trauma or — relational healing is helpful and critical. But when there have been intense traumas, when people are experiencing lots of trauma responses in their everyday life or in the context of their relationship, then individual therapy would be really beneficial, and sometimes critical before we can move forward. 

I also talked to my clients about — this is a therapist’s trick. I don't know if you talked about it on the podcast before — but externalizing the trauma. We take the trauma out of the person, “You are not your trauma.” But in relationships, trauma very much becomes a third entity, like a third person in the conversation we're having, a third actor in the dynamics of our relationship. We both need to be able to look at it and see it for what it is. 

I often find as well that when one partner is trying to heal someone else with their love, they aren't always asking — sometimes they feel like they have to be kind of delicate with that person. They can't ask for accountability; they just got to give, and give, and give love — and that's what's going to fix it. 

But in a healing relationship, it's egalitarian. We're both being accountable to each other. It's not that one person is always accommodating for the other, or trying to make it better, or holding their own feelings back because you've been through so much, so I can't bring it up.

Lisa: Well, it's not a healing relationship for the other person at that point. That it is not a healthy relationship for both people. It's imbalanced. Well, then just for the purposes of this conversation, because that self-awareness of, “Ooh, I do have trauma that is maybe coming out in my relationships. It is my responsibility to do something about this so that I can be a good partner to my partner.” 

What would your guidance be for some just like — how do you know if the things that… Because every single one of us can scroll back through our mind’s eye, think about the time that our mom yelled at us, or whatever it was — how do you develop that gauge of, “This is actually — it impacted me, it's still impacting me. I need to do something about this.” What would your tips be for someone?

Paige: If there are other mental health struggles going on, there's depression and anxiety — anything in that range. If you're already meeting with a therapist, I would just ask your therapist like, “I think this thing might be impacting me.” and have a clinical conversation about it. My clients don't always know how to bring it up. I try to ask good questions, but sometimes we just don't know it's something.

Lisa: But again, if we're not aware that it was a trauma, we're not legitimizing it — how do you even know that it's something to talk about in therapy like, “I had a critical parent”, or whatever?

Paige: Kind of a sign that I look for in my clients to help them talk through is — are there situations where your emotional reaction is out of proportion to what happened? It is either too big, or it's too small. This thing happened, and all of a sudden, I jumped to 100% anxiety. I got so, so overwhelmed. Anything in that range — like my emotional reaction. 

It's a frustrating thing that happened, but I go to rage, or just immediate panic, or it's something that happened. I think that “out of proportion” is key because we're allowed to have feelings. We're going to have things happen in our lives. But if we notice that we're just shut down emotionally, that our, “God! It’s just…”

Lisa: Like, “We had a fight, and I would not talk for three days.” “ Like that kind of thing. There's something there.

Paige: If the way you're responding to things feels confusing to you, if it's mysterious like, “I don't know why I reacted that way. It wasn't how I wanted to react. But you said something, or this thing happened, and I just  — my gut reaction was this, and I had to run away. I had to shut down.”

Lisa: Like losing control of yourself a little bit.

Paige: Those are some of the big things — kind of the classic PTSD or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The symptoms are having flashbacks or nightmares, have an increased startle response. That could be happening and that would be a good indication. But for some of those relational traumas, I think it's more like our individual responses to things — just paying attention to them. 

But clients that I've worked with that have experienced relational trauma, they don't feel in control of it. It feels really confusing and exhausting both in terms of in the context of relationships and in other situations in their lives.

[25:14] Attachment Styles vs. Relational Trauma

Lisa: Here's another question. I hope that this is okay to ask. But on the show, we've talked before about attachment styles — secure attachment, avoidant attachment, anxious attachment. 

What is the difference between an attachment style and a relational trauma — particularly that happens earlier in life? Or do you see a lot of overlap in that? Are there differences? I've never even thought about this before our conversation today. I don't know if this is a fair question or not.

Paige: I haven't thought about it a ton, and I'm not like an attachment expert. But all the trauma people reference attachment. Attachment theory is really foundational. I think there's an overlap between attachment styles and relational trauma, and our responses to relational trauma. The way I talk about it with clients is that we're all managing needs for connection and needs for autonomy in relationships. 

Like a secure attachment is, “I can hold both of those. I can be close to you. I can be connected to you. I also can be on my own and have my own goals, and hobbies, and interests”, where avoidant attachment is, “I can't stand being close to people, so I'm going to go on here and have my own little island.” Anxious attachment, “I can't stand being away from you, so I'm going to pull even close.” 

I think often with people with relational trauma, there's more disorganized attachment where, “Sometimes I'm feeling really anxious, and I need you to close.” Other times, “I'm feeling anxious about you being too close, and I'm going to push you away.” That fits within our understanding of attachment styles. 

That's how I explained it to my clients, though, because I think sometimes people can identify with a label. I'm sure you've talked about this with attachment styles — like they really cling to that label like, “This label is me.”

Lisa: It’s not that helpful. Totally. I think it can be helpful in certain ways like to just understand yourself more compassionately, and I heard somebody say… I think it might’ve even been somebody in our group — that there's no such thing as a perfectly, securely attached person. We all sort of fall to one side or the other. We all have, in certain situations, different reactions that could be avoided, could be anxious, sort of depending on what's going on and stuff. I hear you. I'm 100% there.

Paige: I think trauma can help maybe understand, “Why is this kind of more of my go-to?” Or help explain if it is both — if I'm feeling kind of a push-pull like, “I want you close, but not too close.” I think trauma does a lot to explain that. Then, honestly, the work in therapy is looking at the exceptions as well like, “When are you able to balance that? And how are you doing that?” 

Lisa: That's good to remember. So turning our attention back to this idea of a healing relationship. One of my takeaways honestly, from what we've just been talking about, is this idea that even if you're trying to have a healing relationship with somebody who is unwell, who has unresolved trauma, it is not going to be a healthy relationship for you. 

I guess, because part of this, I think that many people, many of our listeners have had adult relationships — maybe in addition to early stuff, but certainly adult relationships that felt toxic, that felt damaging, that felt really traumatic. 

Do you think that there's a correlation between somebody having a traumatic relationship experience as an adult? Is that an indication that maybe the partner that they were with was so traumatizing to them? Probably a good indication that their partner had had some stuff that maybe neither of them were aware of at the time they were in that relationship with each other. Is that fair to say, or am I extrapolating too far? I want answers, Paige.

Paige: I'm a therapist. I'm going to say, “Well, it really depends. Sometimes.” There's just so much that plays into how we treat each other. My own trauma — it’s definitely going to impact how I’m treating others, especially in close relationships. 

I think sometimes people, like you mentioned, are aware where they're like, “Oh, I know my partner has been through all these things. I'm just going to try to heal them, fix them with my love.” I also think just our general narratives about what relationships are in our developmental phase play into that as well. 

Having worked with teens and young adults that are out in their first relationships, trying to decide what relationships are — don't always have good skills, or good models of “this is what a healthy relationship looks like”. But definitely, trauma impacts how we treat each other and how we're able to show up in our relationships.

Lisa: Although healing relationship is not enough, it is really a crucial ingredient. If you have lived through toxic or damaging traumatic relationships in the past, a lot of important growth and healing does happen in the context of relationships. Can you talk a little bit more about what that can look like for people? 

In particular, I’m thinking of somebody who was maybe mistreated in previous relationships — it damaged their self-esteem, it damaged their trust, it was traumatic. How can a new relationship — a healing relationship help start to resolve some of that?

Paige: I think, firstly, it's got to be the right person. I always help my clients think through traumas, especially relational trauma is going to tell me that all humans are unsafe. All the people could be dangerous. When we work through our trauma, and we're working towards autonomy, then I get to decide who I trust, and who I don't, who I let in. 

But healing relationships with others — the scientist in me struggles with this part because there's something about it that's not magical, but it's like that feeling of being in a relationship that's strong and supportive. 

It feels like a hug even when you aren't getting a hug when we can show up as ourselves, we can share parts of ourselves, and we're validated, and we're accepted — all the words that are coming to mind are just the word again, like it's so healing to be in those relationships.

Lisa: But it's compassionate, it's emotionally safe. I think I'm also hearing between the lines — like you were talking about that feeling understood, feeling accepted. That makes me wonder if part of that key ingredient of having a healing relationship is that your partner knows and understands your trauma and your trauma response, so that when you do have those moments — maybe when you feel scared or angry, they're able to see that for what it is, as opposed to doing that typical relationship dance. 

I think many times when people don't understand what or why their partner's sort of reacting the way they do, it becomes very easy to be mad at your partner for being mad, or be defensive in response. You're saying that healing relationship is almost the opposite of that. I see that you're getting triggered right now and sort of meeting that with compassion, as opposed to more criticism or rejection. Is that part of it that like understanding?

Paige: Then as the partner, maybe without trauma, or maybe the partner with my own trauma, I can view your trauma as separate from you. You are still a whole human being to me who is making choices and doing things that impact me. But you are a human being that you are not your trauma. I can hold space for your trauma impacting, the choices that you're making, the things you're saying or the way that you're saying them.

I think really critical to healing relationships is that there is a lot of repair. When trauma responses come up when we don't show up the way we want to, there is space to make it right. We can apologize, that we can come together and discuss, “What actually was going on? How can we take care of this together?” 

But if there are big relational triggers in our healing relationship, we're going to do everything we can to avoid those triggers. If it's something yelling comes up for my clients a lot, “I grew up in a chaotic household. I can't handle yelling. I just go into survival mode right away.” Those two partners do work really hard to not have yelling be a part of their relationships — find other ways to work through it.

I think healing relationships also, and that’s something I work with couples that they're navigating this a lot, we need to take lots of breaks. We need to slow down and be able to soothe our trauma response so that we can have productive conversations. In healing relationships, there's lots of space. We can slow it down, we can take a break and come back. 

[35:29] Addressing Trauma in a Relationship

Lisa: But the bit like giving ourselves and each other permission to stay in a good place and be self-aware enough to know like, “I can't keep having this conversation right now.” 

One of the things — I'm thinking about two different situations right now. I’m thinking about a couple — and I'm sure that you have seen this couple. It's a relationship where no betrayal has occurred, and one of the partners has experienced betrayal in a previous relationship, either sexual infidelity, financial infidelity. They were really traumatized by a previous relationship. 

Now, they are in a new relationship and they're having those like anxious flare-ups, and that vigilance. Over time, that does, I think, start to take a toll on a lot of partners because they're like, “I didn't do that to you. I haven't done anything wrong.” I know that this is a big thing. And this is not the kind of thing that can be resolved through a couple of pieces of advice. There is an experiential healing process that people go through. It takes months, sometimes years. 

But generally speaking, what would your advice be for a couple who is grappling with that kind of dynamic, and it is eroding kind of the safety and health of their relationship? How do they identify it? Where will they even start to move back to a healing relationship space?

Paige: My biggest advice is to start to do what you can — have your partner that has experienced that betrayal, that trauma to externalize that trauma. The way I talk about it with my clients is, “What is your trauma telling you? What is trauma saying in these moments where you're having this anxiety?” Potentially your trauma is saying, “My current partner is going to hurt me just like my past partner did. I'm watching this movie play out again. I don't want to be hurt again — I need to protect myself.” 

When we're just caught up in those anxious thoughts, they feel like us, they feel like our own thoughts. Even just saying like, “This is what my trauma is telling me. This is what my anxiety is telling me”, and being able to communicate that to the partner instead of making accusations, or “I need to check your phone. I need…” 

There's other things that we can do when anxiety gets really high and say, “My anxiety is telling me that I am unsafe right now.” Then, we can have a conversation around it rather than always dealing with kind of the patrol fallout.

Lisa: “You're cheating on me.” The accusations and — right.

Paige: If we can have a conversation from a space of, “This is what my trauma is telling me”, and start to have that conversation, I think that's really, really critical. In those moments where, and I think this is helpful with all anxieties, just check our thoughts a little bit, “Is this actually true? Is this just feeling true? And this feeling is coming from this place that I can identify that I know where this is coming from?”

Lisa: I'm so glad we're talking about this right now, Paige, because I think that this reality, this truth often surprises people. I tell my clients all the time like, “Don't get tricked into believing everything you think or everything that you feel”, because I think there's so much pop psychology that, “Everything you think and everything you feel like is true.” Exactly. 

Actually, that's not always helpful. To be able to have that sort of psychological distance — that meta-awareness of how you're thinking, how you're feeling in the moment that is maybe not actually — it's like an artifact of trauma, as opposed to some fundamental truth that you need to take action on right this second. Thank you for bringing that up. I think that that is just so crucial to be known. 

One last thing. We talked about a relationship where one of the partners had — in a previous relationship — experienced relational trauma. Here is a trick question, hopefully not a trick question — pop quiz. 

I know you too have also worked with so many couples where there has been trauma, betrayal in the context of the relationship. It's not that some horrible other person five years ago hurt me — it's that actually you hurt me. There was an affair, there's financial infidelity — something of that nature. Do you feel that the path of healing and recreating an emotionally safe healing relationship is similar in those circumstances? Or does it look a little bit different in your experience?

Paige: I think it looks a little different because we have that person who's caused the harm is still there, and they can take accountability. There’s something I've been thinking a lot about in this context. It comes from Dr. Harriet Lerner's work on apologizing. She recently came out with a book on it, and she talks about how an apology… 

Lisa: Is it like apology languages? Or is it different?

Paige: It's different. I think the book is called Why Why Won't You Apologize? She talks about how an apology validates the experience of the person harmed. I've been thinking about that a lot in terms of relationships where one person has caused harm. We have to validate the experience of the harm that was done — which is really uncomfortable. 

It is very uncomfortable to look inside yourself and to actually own up to that rather than when we were trying to just make it better. We're saying whatever we can think of or do to just make it better like, “Please stop being mad at me”, rather than like, “I recognize that this is what was going into it for me, and this is what I did, and this is caused you harm in this way, this way, and this way.” 

When there's been betrayal in relationships, I use the language of trauma with my clients. We talk about trauma responses and triggers, and we talk about self-soothing and working toward safety so that that couple can soothe together. But until we're there, we're going to build up to that emotional safety and normalizing that, first of all, “Of course, you're not feeling totally safe to do that, and that's okay. We're going to work toward it. Everyone's going to get space here.”

Lisa: What a useful model to be bringing in the idea of trauma to those situations because I think one of the — it's almost a cliche. The person who did the betrayal is like, “That was such a long time ago. Why are you still upset? Nothing is happening. I've like totally reformed.” I think there's this lack of awareness that there is still a very active trauma response that gets triggered by certain things that's very real, and it’s the legacy of that relational trauma.

That does not go away easily. But I think that people imagine that it's — you've heard that phrase, “It's time to get over it.” Just like that, isn’t that how humans work? Bringing that idea of the impact of relational trauma to those situations I think is a very compassionate way of looking at it that helps people wrap their heads around what's happening and why the feelings persist.

Paige: And give us some language to talk about why it's still there, and kind of give us a path, a path forward. If we know this is a relational wound, well then we've got some steps — how are we going to address this wound? I think at least a part of its hardest because in our culture, we're fairly punitive. We think about like when people have done things wrong, they deserve to be punished. 

But that doesn't heal in the relationship. We've got to think of different ways to interact around harm that's been done that we can find healing. Often, that includes some of those other things about a healing relationship that we've got to not just trust, but maybe, in addition to a loss of trust, there was — I'm losing the train a little bit here. 

Lisa: No, it’s okay. Well, and I won't keep you but I'm glad that we're talking about this. I think that my biggest takeaway from this conversation is just the impact of relational trauma, and that it's something we should all really be aware of —both in ourselves and our partners. In addition to — we're working on ourselves in productive ways of really working to create healing relationships with our partners. 

Also, I think having expectations that we deserve to be in healing relationships too because you know none of us come through this life unscathed and unscarred. Every single one of us is carrying wounds of one kind or another. To be real, compassionate, and intentionally cultivating that healing space in between you and the people that you love. So, thank you. 

Thank you so much for joining me today, Paige. This was a wonderful conversation. I appreciate your time and just all the wisdom that you share with our listeners today.
Paige: Thank you.

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