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Online Dating Magazine > Columns > Office Hours with Dr. Jim > Childhood Trauma

Office Hours With Dr. Jim
by James Houran, Ph.D

In this column, "Dr. Jim" honestly and candidly answers your questions about dating, love and sexuality. He doesn’t tell you what you want to hear – he tells you what you need to hear. Dr. Jim is committed to offering you guidance based on responsible clinical practice and hard data from the latest scientific studies. Send Dr. Jim your questions today for consideration in an upcoming issue.

From Childhood Trauma to Healthy Relationships?

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Can someone who had childhood trauma develop healthy relationships?

Can people who experienced childhood trauma ever develop healthy relationships?


  Everyone has emotional issues on some level. Once a person has gained perspective, those issues need not sabotage a romantic relationship. However, childhood trauma can have a substantial impact on people who have endured it. That impact can carry over to how they perceive situations and express themselves. In short, people who experienced childhood trauma can be very intense individuals. Thus, relationships and expectations in the relationship should be paced very carefully.

Children exposed to early adverse experiences are at increased risk for developing depression, anxiety disorders and a range of identity issues. Moreover, some experts1 hold the opinion that childhood abuse constitutes an environmental risk factor for the development of strong impulsivity and aggression as well as suicide attempts in depressed adults. In other words, these individuals seem to have increased vulnerability to stress and to the development of depression and anxiety2.

These findings are consistent with research that such people develop the capacity for extremely deep and interconnected thoughts and feelings. I have much to say on this topic given that my doctorate research involved the brain functioning and behaviors of people with intensely interconnected thoughts and feelings. That research helps us better understand why these people can have significant relationship issues. But, on the other hand, these same people have great potential for loving and enduring bonds. I’m getting a little ahead of myself here, so let’s back up.

Social scientists refer to a heightened state of interconnected thoughts and feelings as transliminality. My own research team has conducted considerable research on this personal characterstic. We proposed that transliminality derives from hyperconnectivity among temporal-limbic structures (including the hippocampus) and sensory association cortices (including frontal-cortical loops) in the brain8. This is a fancy way of saying that the different parts of the brain of highly transliminal people “talk to each other” more than the brains of everyday people. Another authority3,4 noted that childhood trauma, which involves prolonged and high levels of stress, fear and arousal, brings about abnormal neocortical and hippocampal activation and arousal in the brain, as well as corticosteroid and enkephalin secretion. These conditions can cause atrophy or seizures within the hippocampus region of the brain. Microseizures within the brain’s amygdaloid-hippocampal structures and adjacent cortices, according to one expert6 elicit transliminal-like experiences. There is also direct evidence for this in that questionnaire studies have found an association between scores on transliminality and scores on a measure of traumatic childhood events. The type and frequency of abuse is expected to contribute to the development of transliminality.

This brain talk can sound scary, but transliminality may have adaptive value for those who have survived traumatic events in childhood. The heightened thoughts and feelings might provide a means of escape ¾ a rich inner world into which victims of abuse can retreat. There are also personality and attitudinal benefits for survivors of childhood trauma person. In particular, higher scores on measures of transliminality coincide with higher scores on several personal characteristics like warmth, abstractedness, openness to change and decreased scores on tough-mindedness5. These qualities are clearly in line with the findings that psychological well-being and relationship quality are better when people are focused on intrinsic values such as intimacy, community and growth, rather than extrinsic values such as status, money and image7.

The bottom line is that survivors of childhood trauma can develop healthy relationships, but keep these points in mind:

  • Never rush or pressure. Survivors of childhood trauma are often extremely deep feeling individuals who experience a rush of thoughts and emotions at the same time. Thus, some situations can easily overwhelm them. Be considerate and pace the relationship according to their comfort level.
  • Be patient and actively supportive. The biology of survivors of childhood trauma predisposes them to risk of feeling impulsive, aggressive, depressed or anxious. Do not take everything personally that a highly transliminal person says or does.
  • Do not be dismissive. While some survivors of childhood trauma can be perceived as “intense” people, they have personal qualities that lend themselves well to establishing deep and enduring bonds with others.

1 Brodsky, B. S., Oquendo, M., Ellis, S. P., Haas, G. L., Malone, K. M., & Mann, J. J. (2001). The relationship of childhood abuse to impulsivity and suicidal behavior in adults with major depression. American Journal of Psychiatry, 158, 1871-1877.

2 Heim, C., & Nemeroff, C. B. (2001). The role of childhood trauma in the neurobiology of mood and anxiety disorders: Preclinical and clinical studies. Biological Psychiatry, 49, 1023-1039.

3 Joseph, R. (1998). Traumatic amnesia, repression, and hippocampal injury due to emotional stress, corticosteroids and enkephalins. Child Psychiatry and Human Development, 29, 169-185.

4 Joseph, R. (1999). The neurology of traumatic “dissociative” amnesia: Commentary and literature review. Child Abuse and Neglect, 23, 715-727.

5 Lange, R., Thalbourne, M. A., Houran, J., & Storm, L. (2000). The Revised Transliminality Scale:  Reliability and validity data from a Rasch top-down purification procedure. Consciousness and Cognition, 9, 591-617.

6 Persinger, M. A. (1983). Religious and mystical experiences as artifacts of temporal lobe function: A general hypothesis. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 57, 1255-1262.

7 Sheldon, K. M., & Kasser, T. (2001). Goals, congruence, and positive well-being: New empirical support for humanistic theories. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 41, 30-50.

8 Thalbourne, M. A., Houran, J., Alias, A. G., & Brugger, P. (2001). Transliminality, brain function, and synesthesia. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 189, 190-192.

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