How might intimate relationships be impacted by Boarding School Trauma?




To cope with the huge attachment loss that a child is subjected to at an early age when they are sent to boarding school, many children learn to cut off their feelings from their previous attachment figures. This may be their mother, father, siblings, and even their pets. The pain of grief and loss is too unbearable to be with, and alone in the dormitory, there is nobody there to soothe away their tears. They learn to suppress their grief and push it deep down inside. They develop an independent way of being that they can pride themselves on having little need for another.

So, how does this impact ex-boarders in relationships?

As an adult, they may find themselves struggling to let themselves get close to an other. Beneath the surface that abandonment wound is lurking and therefore it is far safer to protect their vulnerability and their wound rather than risk letting somebody get close and possibly leave them again. This would reignite all the grief from being left as a child, which felt too unbearable at the time and unsafe to feel. When entering a relationship, it may ignite the child's response to their abandonment trauma.


Trauma is the response to a deeply distressing event that overwhelms an individual's ability to cope, causing feelings of helplessness, diminishing their sense of self and their ability to feel a full range of emotions and experiences. Often our bodies hold unresolved trauma and become stuck in an adrenalized state.


When we have experienced trauma, we often develop our own go-to trauma response to manage the overwhelming feelings of fear that are triggered in our bodies. Fight / Flight / Freeze or Fawn.


A fight response is triggered when someone responds aggressively to something threatening.


A flight response is triggered when a person responds to a perceived threat by fleeing or by launching into hyperactivity.


A freeze response is triggered when a person gives up, numbs out into dissociation, and /or collapses as if accepting the inevitability of being hurt.


A fawn response is triggered when a person responds to a threat by trying to be pleasing or helpful to appease and forestall an attack.

Traumatised children often over-gravitate to one of these response patterns to survive and as time passes these four modes become elaborated into entrenched defensive structures that are similar to narcissistic (fight), obsessive/compulsive (flight), dissociative (freeze), or co-dependent (fawn) defences.


Adults can often remain locked into these patterns when they no longer need them and can be triggered into these responses in relationships.


What might this look like in relationships?


Ex-boarders may find themselves in relationships but keep one foot out in order to prevent feeling this fear of abandonment. This may manifest in many ways such as a lack of commitment, being emotionally withdrawn from their partner, infidelity, porn addiction, and workaholism.

Alternatively, adults may find themselves in relationships in which they become co-dependent. This is a fear-based way of being in relationships in which you feel unable to express rights, needs, and boundaries in relationships. The fear is that if you do so, you may be abandoned.

To cope with their attachment loss at school, many children reform their attachment bonds with their school friends. These friendships can become incredibly important as adults, and I have heard from many partners who have felt mystified and jealous of their wives' friendships, as they see an intimacy that their wives hold back from them.

Is it possible to change?


The first step is to acknowledge that you carry this pain from being sent away. To allow yourself to grieve for this little child who had to manage on their own without love and found their own ways to protect themselves from being hurt again by an other. To develop compassion for yourself and understand that your ways of being in a relationship are a result of a survival strategy that you created when you needed to as a child. However, it is outdated now.


With the help of therapy, you may be able to build up trust with an adult again and be able to reintegrate these vulnerable parts of yourself which you had to cut off as a child. The body holds onto trauma and some somatic work may be helpful to enable you to release some blocked emotions and feel some relief. Understand that it may take time for you to feel safe and trust another. If you can share this with a partner rather than withdraw, it may enable you to remain connected and build up intimacy.

I have a 6-session course starting for those who wish to start looking at some of the ways their Boarding School experience may have impacted them. This is an online group course and together you will be able to make sense of the ways your own school experience may have impacted you and can perhaps cause difficulties in intimacy and relationships.

For more information, click below.


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