17 Tips For Being Sensitive & Kind If You’re Relating To Someone With A Heavier Trauma Burden Than

Love Bigger book cover image.

I was lucky to grow up with a nervous system that likes close, bonded, intimate relationships. Getting close to people isn’t hard for me. I have a low tolerance for relationships that lack the capacity for intimacy and am absolutely awful at small talk. If I’m forced to attend a cocktail party (my least favorite thing to attend), I tend to find one interesting person and spend the whole night doing a deep dive and investing in getting to know that one person. Then everyone else at the cocktail party is offended because I neglected everyone else and did not “work the room.”

I was close with my parents and grew up with close friends and have had my fair share of close romantic relationships. If anything, because of my boundaryless mother, I struggle with good boundaries and can err on the side of enmeshing, something I have worked on for many years in therapy. But enmeshment risk aside, close relationships are my comfort zone.

Not everyone I’ve related to in my life is like me, though. Some people are wired just the opposite of me, avoiding intimacy at all costs. Four of the people closest to me are wired like this. The woman I’ve shared a home with for over a decade, the father of my child, one of my bestest besties, and my current romantic partner all struggle to tolerate intimacy because of very severe trauma histories and high ACE (Adverse Childhood Experience) scores. Although I have some significant developmental trauma, my ACE score is zero. So this sets up a kind of power differential, since my relative nervous system privilege allows me to tolerate intimacy more easily than some of the people I love the most.

My traumatized loved ones all share in common a struggle with boundaries. Because their parents shattered their boundaries, their boundary confusion makes it difficult to know where their boundaries lie- for them and for me. In the absence of good boundaries, they tend to push people away with harsh walls and strong protector parts, to make sure others stay safely distant, at arm’s length away. I too have struggled with boundaries, since my mother was intrusive, controlling, and unapologetic about all the ways she felt entitled to cross my boundaries. So my loved ones make great “tor-mentors” for my own growth and healing. (In IFS lingo, tor-mentors are people who mentor you by triggering you and showing you where there are trailheads you can travel down towards parts still in need of healing. A tor-mentor is vastly different than someone who simply torments you, which is abusive and should be boundaried against. Two tor-mentors who are both in therapy can heal as they grow. Two people not in therapy who torment each other are just dysfunctional.)

To try to learn how to relate safely with trauma survivors, I’ve read all kinds of books about attachment theory and trauma to try to better understand what my loved ones need and how I can become a secure attachment figure for people with insecure attachment.

I asked for help understanding how to do this from a colleague of mine who is a trauma expert, who has a significant trauma history himself. He’s been married for over a decade to someone who is wired more like me, someone with more nervous system privilege than he has. He says he tortured her for the first few years of their relationship, because she was his first actually intimate relationship after years of intimacy avoidant lovers that didn’t threaten his intimacy issues. He likened his first experience of trying to get close to the woman who became his wife as being a World War II biplane full of holes, when intimate relationship, for him, was like trying to fly that shot up plane at 30,000 feet. He said he wonders sometimes whether he should have just been in a hangar getting the holes repaired, without dragging his wife into his recovery process. But his wife doesn’t feel this way, and neither do I. Trauma survivors deserve love, care, and secure attachment just as much as anybody. And we’ve learned in the field of traumatology that injuries that happen in relationships need to be healed in relationships.

After two decades of learning to relate to people with a tormented trauma history who are in therapy but still in recovery, I’ve learned a few things I thought I’d share with any of you who are also trying to be safe support people for others who might have a more significant trauma history than you have. Some of what I’m writing requires me to make broad stroke generalizations in order to protect the privacy of my loved ones, but I hope you can read beneath the generalizations to apply what I’ve learned to your own situations personally.

With gratitude and the utmost respect for the people who have taught me what I’ve learned, let me share a few bits of hard earned wisdom about how to be the more securely attached person trying to relate to someone more insecurely attached, in case it helps any of you.

1. My loved ones get to pick the pace. As Peter Levine teaches in Somatic Experiencing, intimacy has to be titrated. With my close loved ones who resist intimacy, we try to go just to the edge of what is tolerable, but not too far past it. If the trauma survivor’s nervous system gets overstimulated or dysregulated by the closeness, we pull back and breathe and slow things down. If their pace is slower than I would prefer, it’s my responsibility to tend to my disappointment, impatience, or frustration.

2. I have to strongly advocate for my own needs, because my loved ones can’t always tolerate meeting them. And that’s okay. There’s nothing wrong with getting our needs met from a handful of people. Intimate relationships take a village, and we cannot do them alone. If one of my loved ones cannot support helping me get my needs met, I have other intimate relationships, mostly with my closest girlfriends, who can tolerate more intimacy and are happy to pick up the slack if another loved one’s edges get bristly, or they need to pull back in order to calm their nervous systems.

3. My boundaries have to be both firm and flexible. I have to be fairly vigilant with checking in with my own parts to make sure we’re communicating clearly and firmly about what’s okay and not okay. Sometimes my boundaries have to be fiercely self protective, but they can’t be rigid. I might set a boundary on Tuesday and find that I can relax it by Thursday. Staying in the now is crucial, as a moment by moment boundary renegotiation with my own “parts” in my internal family system.

4. I absolutely cannot martyr myself to support my loved ones’ journeys. If I cross my own boundaries, I am harming us both. I am not anyone else’s Mommy, therapist, or rescuer. I am an equal trying my best to share power with someone who might struggle not to either overpower me or give their power away to me. If I infantalize my loved ones, head shrink them, allow my relative nervous system privilege to put me in a “one up” role or cause me to look down on them, I am crossing their boundaries and harming us both. I have to be vigilant with my thinking and the way I view the traumatized loved one, trying to honor them in their wholeness, respecting their process, and perceiving them in the most honoring, respectful light possible. I also have to ask my therapist to help me treat any parts of me that might have a tendency to throw my own needs under the bus in order to prioritize caretaking the trauma survivors I love, to make sure I don’t neglect of caretaking myself.

5. The trauma survivor’s boundaries have to be learned, moment by moment, because they may not know where they are. While I am trying to model good boundaries and show my traumatized loved ones where my edges are, they do not always have the capacity yet to reciprocate this process- because they don’t always know what’s okay and not okay for themselves. We only discover where their boundaries lie when I inadvertently cross them and they get upset. Then we learn retroactively where the boundaries need to be respected, and we repair the damage caused to both of us because of their inability to warn me beforehand where their edges are.

6. My resentment is always my responsibility, and their resentment is theirs, not mine. When I can be generous with my nervous system privilege and feel good about extending myself to try to make my loved ones’ journeys easier, that’s great. But if I’m feeling resentful, that’s on me. It’s my sign that I’m crossing my own boundaries and need to pull my energy back towards tending to and nurturing my own parts. It’s not fair to punish someone else for the times when I cross my own boundaries and wind up with backlash. Some of my parts feel this is unfair, because my loved ones often punish me when they cross over their own boundaries and do not take responsibility for their own resentment. But as our mothers told us, two wrongs don’t make a right. Yes, sometimes it’s unfair. But I work very hard on this issue with my close loved ones- and all of us are in therapy. I wouldn’t extend myself as far as I do if any of them refused to get therapy, but since they’re all working as hard as they can on their own recovery, sometimes I extend mercy beyond what feels entirely comfortable to me, because I know they’re doing the very best they can.

7. When they need to pull away because they’re overwhelmed and overstimulated, I need to give them space. My loved ones don’t need it too often, or that would be intolerably hard on me, but when they do need to go away in order to self-regulate during triggered times, I have to grant them that space and tend to my own anxious parts. My loved ones have proven over time that they always comes back, so I can more easily comfort my parts now than I could before I realized that they always come back. In the past, I would panic when they would pull away during triggers. Now, whoever can remember to say so first reassures the other, “Nobody’s leaving.” Then we can remember how committed we both are to this journey and do what’s needed to restore our own nervous systems.

8. Affectionate, non-sexual physical co-regulation is both a trigger and a miracle worker for trauma survivors. When either of us are dysregulated, touch is our best medicine, but we had to grow the capacity to leverage this medicine. If one of us gets triggered, we can usually entrain one another back into a ventral vagal state (look up polyvagal theory if you don’t know this lingo) if we can touch each other in safe ways, hold one another, breathe together, and get out of the loop of talking in circles. But it took quite some time for these loved ones to be capable of tolerating physical co-regulation. We had to be very careful about titrating touch in the beginning, going to the edge and then pulling back. They would flinch and startle when I touched them in the beginning, but their window of tolerance expanded over time and now it’s much easier to come back to calmness with one another.

9. I have to be very careful about anything I ask for. Because of the severity of the traumas in my loved ones’ histories, requests can sometimes activate their “freeze and fawn” response. They are way too inclined to reflexively try to accommodate me if I so much as mention that I would like something. If they feel in any way threatened or fear that I might abandon them if they don’t accommodate my requests, they will have a tendency to pretzel themselves to give me what I want. They won’t always feel safe to say no to me, even when it is safe and they should say no or disappoint me. So I have to be careful not to indiscriminately express a desire, which is sometimes hard for me, to contain myself and keep myself in check.

10. I have to double and triple check consent with my traumatized loved ones, and even then, I have to understand that their yes might not be a real yes. When children get abused and wind up with complex PTSD, they typically adopt fight, flight, freeze or fawn patterns. With the more severe types of trauma, the “go to” survival mechanism is a dorsal vagal freeze and fawn, more so than the sympathetically driven fight or flight. (One of my loved ones calls this dorsal vagal state “morning cancer,” because he tends to wake up in this dorsal vagal state and has a very hard time getting out of it in the morning.) When the dorsal vagal state is dominant, even the gentlest request made by me can trigger the freeze/fawn response. This makes my loved ones reflexively say yes, without even taking a pause to check in with their own systems to make sure all their parts are in agreement to the yes. Then they gets backlash from the parts that were not a yes. Because of all the therapy, my loved ones are finally realizing how unfair it is to take it out on me when they’re the ones crossing their own boundaries by saying yes when they means no.

11. I get to take breaks and be the needy one sometimes. Just like when we’re caring for a loved one on a cancer recovery journey, it can get exhausting to be the one supporting my loved ones in their recovery. Sometimes I need to step back, pull my focus back towards myself, and trust my loved ones to get their needs met elsewhere. We’re building a team of loving IFS therapists and IFS-informed friends who are all supporting each other. Sometimes I have to remind my loved ones that I am not a saint and I am not limitless in my capacity and I have as much right to melt down and need support as they do, even if I have relative nervous system privilege. That helps my loved ones be generous with me when I’ve hit my own limits. And it’s a good reminder that others can nurture my loved ones on their journeys too, which takes some of the pressure off me.

12. I get to claim what I know to be true, even when my loved ones try to convince me otherwise. All four of the loved ones I’ve supported in recovery were victims of narcissistic abuse and coercive control. Because of the indoctrination they were brainwashed into, their worldviews and belief systems are sometimes wildly distorted and very confusing to me. If they start trying to push their distorted beliefs or world views onto me (which feels like gaslighting to my system), I get to stand firm in what I know to be true and push back. If they don’t like it, too bad. My truth is my truth and I will not tolerate gaslighting, no matter what.

13. I can model behaviors I would like my loved ones to adopt but I don’t get to control their behaviors. A lot of what works well for us is if I’m just being myself and my loved ones are observing me like I’m this bizarre alien who doesn’t obey the rules of their indoctrination or buy into any distorted world views. Like, for example, my housemate was a former bodyguard, so she took on the belief that some lives matter more than others, and that her life is expendable if she’s protecting someone considered more valuable than her. But I won’t let her treat me like I’m more valuable than her- because I’m not. She tries to walk behind me when we’re out in public. And I won’t let her. I slow down, so she can walk next to me, which confuses her. So I can model certain behaviors with my actions. But if I start getting all up in the business of my loved ones to try to manipulate them or control them into behaving more like me, I’m way out of line. My loved ones have a right to figure out what’s real and true for themselves, to make their own choices, to be themselves and operate from their own free will, without undue influence from me. Even if I see that they’re engaging in self-destructive behaviors, it’s still not my business to try to interfere or control them.

14. I am always free to quit trying so hard, and so are they . Sometimes I have to remind myself that while I am fully committed and not planning to ever abandon my loved ones, I am always free to dial down the intimacy if I need to. And if they ever do something too hurtful, I am free to end the relationship altogether. There is nothing wrong with giving it my best and deciding it’s too much at some point. It’s never healthy to promise to never leave someone, no matter how badly they treat you. Such oaths are rarely healthy and are usually trauma bonds. So it’s a fine edge- the edge of honoring the “Nobody’s leaving” nervous system regulation tool that helps us both but also honoring the right to walk away if it gets too hard or one of us winds up feeling abused. It is my daily prayer that I can keep showing up for my loved ones in a way that feels like real, genuine love and not martyrdom. And it is my daily prayer that my loved ones keep doing the same with me.

15. Being someone’s first intimate partner means you both need a lot of cherishing. It can feel like we’re never getting things right when there’s this much disparity in nervous system privilege and capacity for intimacy. So my loved ones and I have to counterbalance the challenge with a ton of affectionate appreciation and cherishing. Cherishing is very different than the love bombing my loved ones have sometimes experienced from narcissistic partners. So I have to be very delicate in the ways I cherish my loved ones. Cherishing and feeling cherished by my loved ones reminds us why we are choosing each other every day. Because every day is a conscious choice, to show up, to love ourselves and love each other and do so as a spiritual practice. Every day I am grateful to walk alongside my loved ones on their journeys, and every day I am in awe of them- and of my own parts for the hard work they do to stick around when it can be challenging.

16. Laughter, play time, and fun experiences we share together make it all worthwhile. When you’re working this hard to heal past relational traumas, you need to go out of your way to have a blast together and really enjoy one another. My loved ones and I laugh a lot. We try to prioritize play so our relationship doesn’t feel like a grind. My romantic partner and I enjoy experiencing pleasure in our bodies together. And we keep shaking it up with new, fun, enjoyable experiences that soften the edges of our relationship. Sometimes we bracket the hard stuff and set boundaries with ourselves so we can remember why we’re choosing each other and how much fun and compatibility we share in other ways.

17. Being around other securely attached people allows me to rest. It’s good for my own nervous system to surround myself with little pockets of secure attachment where I’m not the most securely attached person in the relationship. My two closest girlfriends- and my family- provide this.

I’m sure there’s more, but that’s what I’ve got off the top of my head about being the more securely attached person trying to foster attachment with someone more insecurely attached. If you know anyone who might be in a similar situation, please pass this on.  And if you’ve been the one with relative nervous system privilege, please share your wisdom! I’m sure I still have a lot to learn and I so appreciate crowd sourcing our collective wisdom.

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