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Proceed cautiously: Trauma re-enactments in adult relationships

Adult survivors of childhood abuse often experience problems related to their early abuse in their relationships as adults. This may be because humans become hard-wired during early life to recognize future relationships that resemble the relationships they had with their parents through a process called limbic resonance.

The limbic system is the part of the brain where our emotions are processed. As adults, when the limbic system recognizes that we are in a relationship that resembles the relationships we had with our parents in early life, our brains tell us that the situation feels right. This process is called limbic resonance.

Limbic resonance makes sense from an evolutionary perspective when the parents we had are mentally and emotionally healthy. Limbic resonance, in these cases, helps people form future healthy attachments that resemble the healthy relationships they had with their parents when they were very young.

It seems reasonable to believe that limbic resonance leaves adults who were abused as children vulnerable to future experiences of abuse. Adults who were abused as children are intellectually aware that something is wrong when they are being abused, but their limbic systems may respond to current abuse, which resembles the abuse they experienced with their parents, by sending the emotional message that the current situation feels right.

This repetition of being in an abusive relationship as an adult after having been abused as a child is called a trauma reenactment. Adult abuse survivors may feel hopeless about their ability to find healthy relationships, because their limbic systems do not perceive abusive situations accurately.

Adults who were abused as children do not have to repeat their histories, however. They can learn to make better choices, especially if they are aware that their limbic systems are hard-wired to recognize situations that resemble their experiences in early life, and to send messages to their conscious minds that say that these situations feel right. When this happens, adult survivors can learn to interpret these emotional messages as indicating that they are in a trauma re-enactment. Adult survivors can then be mindful of these messages and remove themselves from their current abusive relationships.

Healthy relationships can be created when adult abuse survivors learn to accurately heed the emotional messages their limbic systems send to them as potential warnings that they are being abused.

Read more about “Betrayal Blindness” and why children allow themselves to be harmed by their parents.

Dr. Patricia Turner, Registered Psychologist, Calgary, Alberta

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