by Beth M. Broom, LPC-S, CCTP-II
We are all designed to function relationally. When I think of relational health, I think of the fruit of the Spirit described in Galatians 5:22-23: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” All the aspects of the fruit of the Spirit include a relational component. Without another person present, we cannot exhibit these qualities.
But for survivors of trauma, the intrusions of anger, fear and shame often hinder relational thriving. I have talked with so many counselees who long to function in love, patience and self-control, but their behavior continues to negatively impact others. As a counselor, I want to offer practical ideas for how to move toward relational health as my counselees are healing from their past wounds.
I talk with counselees about four areas of relational health: security, attentiveness, comfort and statutes. While these aren’t the only elements of health, they create a framework for the discussion.
God is the ultimate source of security for His children. He is a refuge for those who put their trust in Him (Psalm 16:8-9). In human relationships, security can never be guaranteed since we are finite creatures who are prone toward selfishness. But a healthy relationship will include elements of security, such as trustworthiness and commitment. In a secure relationship, we don’t have to wonder whether the other person will betray us or give up on us. We believe with hope that we can rely on him or her to be there when we need them.
God attends to His children and comes near in their time of need (Psalm 31:7-8). We are meant to reflect His love by attending to one another through listening actively and looking to each other’s need for support. In healthy relationships, we do not jump quickly to judgment or advice-giving when the other person is suffering. Instead, we seek to meet them where they are and join them in their experience.
God offers comfort to us through His nearness and provision (Isaiah 40:11). When suffering comes, isolation can drive us into hopelessness and despair. God calls us to bear one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2). We provide comfort in our relationships when we persevere with each other, seeking mutual goodness and compassionate encouragement. In this way we mirror His love.
All relationships include statutes, or rules to live by. Without guidelines for how to treat one another, relationships would be dangerous and futile. Healthy relationships include guidelines for maintaining mutual honor and accountability. We are called by God to walk in humility and kindness toward one another, and consequences come when relational statutes are not followed.
I talk with counselees about these four areas of health, and I invite them to think out loud about their relationships. Which of these elements are present? Which could improve? After spending some time thinking about this, I turn to four common relational struggles that trauma survivors may experience. The goal is not to lay a burden of shame on the counselee, but rather to highlight possible pitfalls to avoid. The four common struggles include insecurity, avoidance/dependence, emotional dysregulation and rigidity, and they mirror the four elements of relational health.
If a relationship is insecure, it may include an expectation of betrayal or abandonment. A person may sense that she has to stay alert at all times, or she may experience a sense of hopelessness about the success of a relationship. She may believe that the other person cannot be trusted, or she may think she can never feel secure in the relationship.
Some survivors of trauma avoid close relationships, and others cling very tightly to a significant relationship. Still others vacillate between avoidance and dependence. This is common for survivors, since relationships have often been a source of great pain and confusion. But when a person avoids closeness or depends very deeply on another person, she will find it difficult to notice and attend to the needs and desires of the other person. Her attention becomes focused on her own fears and needs.
Although relationships are meant to provide comfort, some can create feelings of fear, shame and anger. Even when words and actions are meant to be comforting, a trauma survivor can receive them as threatening or harmful. This is understandable, since a person may remember someone’s promises or kind words being used to coerce or control. But dysregulated emotions can lead to actions that create isolation from others, so we want to work toward regulation.
This is the most common relational struggle I have noticed. Trauma survivors can create inflexible categories in life to help them make sense of confusing and scary things. The categories we create can cause rigidity in how we think about other people and ourselves. While this has often been an effective survival mechanism, it can easily backfire when seeking to build a relationship. For example, if I believe that any person who smiles and comes toward me is planning to harm me, it will be difficult to allow my friend to come near when she is seeking to comfort or encourage me.
After talking through these common relational struggles, I ask the counselee to share what she notices. Do any of these struggles exist in her relationships? What stands out to her? In processing these things we can begin to set goals for stepping out of patterns that have negatively impacted our relationships. We can work toward growing in relational health and setting new patterns of relating.
I have created a worksheet that explains the elements of health and common struggles, and it includes questions to ask the counselee to help set goals for growth. This worksheet is available to CTHN members and can be accessed by clicking HERE. Not a member? Click HERE to learn more.