When I was 22, my boyfriend dumped me one day after telling me that he was falling in love me. When we got back together, he explained that he was momentarily scared of his own feelings. But from that point onward, I was always wary. (Spoiler: It did not last.)
A year and a half later, I dated another guy who claimed to be both enthralled by me and reluctant to pursue a relationship at the same time. He came and went often, disappearing for days at a time — even after he called me his girlfriend. He liked to twist the truth and rewrite history. He didn’t tell me he was in love with me until after we broke up. He later told me he was over me, and then asked to get back together for dinner six weeks later.
Next, I entered the dating pool, where I was sometimes ghosted, often strung along, and rarely talking to someone for more than a few weeks before the bubble of new-relationship bliss popped. All the while, I was starting to internalize the idea that no one stays.
As we date and build relationships, we all we all accumulate these sorts of traumas. A trauma is an emotional response to a distressing event. But every trauma is not obvious, like a natural disaster, terrorist attack, plane accident, or instance of physical abuse, which psychologists refer to as “Big 'T' traumas.” Some traumas, called “little 't' traumas,” are smaller and more subtle. And you might not even know they’ve happened to you.
Traumas, both big and small, usually have a common thread: Helplessness. Small-t traumas may not be inherently life-threatening, “but perhaps better described as ego-threatening,” says Elyssa H. Barbash, PhD, a licensed psychologist in Tampa, Florida.
It seems that we may not be very good at identifying traumas in our past. Lisa Firestone, PhD, a psychologist and Director of Research at the Glendon Association, says she’s done an exercise in the past where she has people write down 10 traumas from their childhood that really affected them. “Most people can’t think of 10 right off the bat,” she says. “Most people need to reach.”
But it’s not that the traumas don’t exist; Firestone recalls one person’s trauma as the death of a dog, another as a bike accident involving a father and son, and yet another as a horse-riding accident. “Most people haven’t ever viewed these incidents as ‘traumas’ before,” she explains. “However, these events changed how they saw the world or saw themselves.”
Of course, traumas big and small are not limited to childhood; they can occur at any time. And as I learned firsthand, little "t" traumas are especially common within adult romantic relationships. In my personal case, I’d certainly experienced some defining events, developing an abandonment complex of sorts. My first two partners left me, and then returned. After that, I entered the challenging dating pool, only to be ghosted over and over again by promising prospects. Inevitably, this changed both how I saw the world, and how I saw myself.
Do you have little "t" traumas from past romantic relationships?
Lying, cheating, gaslighting, emotional abuse, bullying and more can often fall under the umbrella of little-t trauma. “A person who has experienced these in previous relationships is likely to be more guarded, less trusting, more reactive, more careful, and overall more hesitant to be vulnerable in future romantic relationships,” says Barbash.