Dating Someone With Childhood Trauma: How to Help

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Getting the Love You Want" by Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Are you dating someone with childhood trauma? How can you help them?

Being in a relationship with someone who has childhood trauma isn’t easy. Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt suggest practicing “Parent-Child Dialogue” to help them overcome their trauma.

Keep reading to learn how to use Parent-Child Dialogue to help your partner.

The Parent-Child Dialogue

In Getting the Love You Want, the authors say the first step in helping you or your partner deal with childhood trauma is to feel safe in a relationship. Once a setting of safety has been established, it frees you to become open about your unmet needs. Part of this step requires individual work that begins when you visualize your primary caregivers. They can be parents, grandparents, or anyone else who was responsible for your upbringing. Have your partner do this if you’re dating someone with childhood trauma:

  • Create a list of their positive and negative characteristics without differentiating between which caregivers the traits belonged to.
  • Imagine your greatest childhood frustrations—what you wanted most that your caregivers never gave you.

Once you and your partner have established the general traits of your caregivers and the unmet needs left over from childhood, you’re ready to engage in the “Parent-Child Dialogue.” This scripted exercise is much like the Imago Dialogue. The difference is that one person speaks from their point of view as a child, while their partner takes the role of a parent. The “child” speaks about a negative childhood experience, while the “parent” responds with validation and empathy.

For Hendrix and Hunt, what’s more important than any specific childhood issue is how you and your partner interact. You must listen to each other with curiosity and compassion. This is important so you can recognize each other as separate individuals and not merely placeholders for your unconscious parental images.

After exploring how your childhoods shaped you, you will then make a list of your partner’s traits as you perceive them. Many of these will match the characteristics that you ascribed to your primary caregivers. Hendrix and Hunt state that with this information, it’s possible to consciously spell out the unconscious needs that you brought into your relationship.

(Shortform note: This dialogue technique is essentially a form of therapeutic role-play. Role-playing has long been used as an educational tool for students and by therapists to address anxiety and phobias. A form of role-playing known as drama therapy incorporates aspects of stage theater to help people process past experiences and address current problems in their lives. The Parent-Child Dialogue uses some of drama therapy’s tools to play out a positive parental interaction that you and your partner may never have experienced.)

Childhood Leaves a Mark on the Brain

Therapists and other mental health professionals place so much importance on uncovering childhood wounds because of how the brain and body process memory and emotion, whether from dramatic, life-defining events or from occurrences that took place over and over, wearing an emotional groove into your mind.

In particular, Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) concentrates on identifying the links between childhood and present-day emotions. There’s the assumption that becoming consciously aware of your own emotional experience can help to resolve depression, anxiety, and problems within a relationship.

Dating Someone With Childhood Trauma: How to Help

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Here's what you'll find in our full Getting the Love You Want summary :

  • Why rifts often open between your romantic partner and yourself
  • How your childhood defines your future relationships
  • How a struggling couple can learn to talk to each other, heal, and grow

Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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