I think, for most people, long-term romantic relationships can feel like quite a bit of work.
We long for connection but often have challenges connecting with one another.
So we manage those missed connections and re-attempts as best we can, sometimes with success. And probably many times with no success.
This is so universal a human experience that philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer illustrated it in his 1851 work, Parerga and Paralipomena, with a parable called The Hedgehog’s Dilemma.
The parable (well worth a read!) is a metaphor about human intimacy and the inherent struggle it can take to feel close to others given our inherent natures and differences.
(I’m sure anyone in a long-term relationship can appreciate the lesson of the parable!)
And while everyday relationship, even at its best, can often feel like two little hedgehogs attempting and re-attempting to come close to each other for warmth and connection and sometimes getting pricked by one another, I think the metaphor has to be widened to better illustrate the experience of someone with a complex relational trauma history in a romantic relationship.
In these cases, it might be more appropriate to imagine that the Hedgehog Dilemma is now being played out in a cold, haunted mansion.
This sounds hyperbolic, perhaps, but keep reading to learn what I mean.
Relationships can be hard work in the best of circumstances.
Again, I can’t stress this enough: long-term romantic relationships can feel like work in the best of circumstances.
You get two people together with all their inherent temperamental and preferential differences, you add work, money struggles, commutes, waxing and waning libidos, aging bodies, sleep-deprived minds, kids, mortgages, work stressors, student loan payments, seemingly endless laundry, dishes, and grocery shopping on top of it all, and your relationship, at times, will likely feel quite hard.
Again, think of the Hedgehogs in the parable: we try to move towards each other for warmth when we’re cold, but the inherent pricks of us and life can often sting and drive us apart.
And again, I stress, that’s relationship in the best of circumstances.
Relationships can feel harder if you have a relational trauma history.
When you have a relational trauma history, that long-term relationship with its inherent and natural challenges can often feel harder.
Because complex relational trauma – whether this is a result of neglect, abandonment, abuse (verbal, emotional or physical) – can disrupt our sense of safety in relationship (and often in the world) early on in life.
With a lack of stability and trust in others and in the world, we move forward with our lives as best we can, but along the way, we most likely get triggered by moments, interactions, and threats (actual and perceived) in frequency and intensity that folks with non-traumatic pasts may not experience.
This – this experience of having a hyper- or hypo-aroused nervous system, of being wounded in our attachment early in life, of developing layers of defense mechanisms to cope with our painful experiences and then being reactive from this is place – is why I liken long-term relationship with a trauma history to those two little hedgehogs living inside a cold, haunted mansion.
For someone with a non-traumatic past, The Hedgehog Dilemma may play out in a modern condo, replete with shiny new appliances, a Nest thermostat, and granite countertops.
In other words, the Hedgehog Dilemma still happens, but the environment is relatively stable and sound.
When you have a relational trauma history, though, you may not feel like you abide in a shiny, pricey new condo. Instead, you may feel as though you live in a cold, haunted mansion. `
In a cold, haunted mansion, you may be the only one who feels and thinks the place is haunted. Your partner may not.
The depth of the coldness amplifies your attempts to run to your partner for warmth and also amplifies the opportunities for you to get pricked.
In a haunted mansion, you may see or imagine proverbial glimmers out the corners of your eye, convinced ghosts and threats abound when in fact it was a ray of light off a mirror.
In a haunted mansion, when cabinets go ajar you’re convinced it is poltergeists, not just the accidental carelessness of your partner.
In a haunted mansion, you jump at small sounds, creaks in floorboards and settling pipes, and you run towards your partner for comfort, only to imagine/see that they’re a specter, too.
Again, I know this sounds fanciful but it’s important to acknowledge that relational trauma survivors often have a host of symptoms that may predispose them feeling less secure, more anxious, more combative, less trusting, or more sensitive with their partner.
What may feel like a condo to one person with a non-traumatic past can absolutely feel like a cold, haunted mansion to the other who sees and experiences triggers so frequently and intensely.
And so, what was already inherently hard at times, can now feel even harder given the state of the relational home you abide in.
But can things get better if you have a relational trauma history?
Relationships, like people, are not fixed and static. They have endless potential to change and grow and heal, provided the conditions are right.
Those proverbial Hedgehogs living in the fancy condo may need help with their relationship at some point(s).
And if you come from a relational trauma history, you and your partner will also likely need help.
But the kind of help Hedgehogs in a cold, haunted mansion may need may look different than their condo-dwelling brethren.
In other words, in plain speak, regular couples counseling alone may not suffice if you come from a trauma background.
Instead, what’s likely indicated is trauma-informed individual therapy and trauma-informed couples counseling.
So often, couples, where one or both comes from complex relational trauma backgrounds, are lumped into a category of “high conflict couples” which, I personally and professionally believe, isn’t all that helpful.
In fact, it can be quite stigmatizing in much the same way that the other diagnoses have become.
Conflict may be increased in a couple like this, true, but often what is at the root for one or both people is untreated and unseen trauma.
In these cases, when I’ve worked with individuals and couples like this, for the person with the traumatic history, I refer them to also get trauma-informed individual therapy.
I also highly recommend that the partner, too, even if they themselves don’t have a trauma history, seek out their own counseling for support and self-care.
When we can name that what we’re dealing with is a cold, haunted mansion and then begin the proverbial and psychological work of ghost-busting, of gutting and retrofitting that home, then yes, it’s possible to expect that your relationship won’t always have to feel like a cold, haunted mansion.
It’s more than possible to learn and earn more secure relational attachment and to one day be the proverbial Hedgehogs who live in the condo, still sometimes struggling, because of that inherent Hedgehog Dilemma, but no longer living with ghosts around every corner.
Things to remember if you have a relational trauma history.
There are things I want you to know:
Your future is not predetermined by your past, no matter how you started out in life.
And yes, your present may be influenced by your past, but you get to look at that and change it.
And in doing so, you can change your future.
Having a complex relational trauma history doesn’t mean you’re doomed to a lifetime of unfulfilling relationships.
You can have a wonderful, secure and fulfilling relationship regardless of what you have experienced to date.
And, again, all relationships – no matter how functional – take work and there is no such thing as the perfect partner.
Your relationship, like so many others, may need extra work and help and, if you have a trauma history, it may just need a different type and rigor of work but that’s okay!
I wrote this post not to stigmatize but to destigmatize being someone with (or loving someone with) a relational trauma history.
I wrote this post to help those who walk around feeling like they live in cold haunted mansions so that they feel more seen and less ashamed that their relationship doesn’t look and feel the same way that their proverbial condo-dwelling peers do.
(Also, side note: we never really know what the inner life of a couple looks like despite how much they may project a proverbial condo exterior.)
I wrote this post because I’m a big believer in psychoeducation.
I’m a believer that there is power in naming what is and helping people connect the dots to see themselves and their situation more clearly.
Because when we can see ourselves more clearly, when we can connect the dots between our history and our present, we can seek out the most appropriate kind of help we need to help ourselves.
If you yourself feel like a hedgehog living in a proverbial cold haunted mansion in your relationship, please don’t despair.
It doesn’t have to always feel that way.