Yes Means No, No Can Mean Anything and Everything Is Terrifying: Traumatic Dissociation Leads to Volatile Relationships
Trauma is much more than just emotional pain, it’s also a developmental and interpersonal issue. Dissociation and insecure attachment stemming from childhood trauma are ubiquitous and can lead to major difficulties in friendships and relationships, sometimes even abuse.
I’ve always felt a connection to underdogs and weirdos, and since I was a child, misfits have gravitated towards me. For years, I struggled to understand why some of these people felt so difficult to deal with, or sometimes bordering on impossible. At some point, it dawned on me that many of them were likely autistic, while I was not, so perhaps that was it. I tried to learn as much about autism as I could to smooth things out. It did help, but not as much as I thought it would.
And a lot of the strange behavior just didn’t seem like autism. These loved ones would act very unpredictably, sometimes treating me in bizarre, deeply hurtful ways, or vanishing for years and coming back as if nothing happened. New friends I made would often repeat similar patterns, which puzzled me. Only much later I discovered that while neurodivergence was indeed involved, the main problem appeared to be their severe childhood trauma.
Most people have at least some idea of what mental health conditions like depression, mania and psychosis are like. The common image of trauma, however, is heavily colored by Hollywood portrayals, featuring flashbacks, nightmares and turning to alcohol to cope. Yet traumatic dissociation is hardly discussed at all. Early-life trauma is not just hurt and pain: it structures the whole psyche around avoiding that pain, making survival possible but many other things infinitely harder.
CW: Even though this article also discusses abuse, I have not included graphical depictions of it — the v-word is mentioned in passing but s-related words aren’t. Addictions are discussed briefly. Of course, if you’ve experienced abuse, it’s possible to be triggered simply by the discussion of its causes.
Parts of the Mind
According to the Internal Family Systems (IFS) model, which has similarities to some neuroscience-based models of the mind, rather than being a singular unit, the mind consists of many parts with different beliefs and goals. Parts are why you want to go to the gym, but somehow don’t, because another part of your mind comes up with excuses. Parts are why you may do things you really don’t want to do, like throw a tantrum, make mean remarks or gorge on fast food, or conversely feel like you can’t bring yourself to do something you would like to, like expressing disagreement with someone.
This multiplicity tends to lead to internal and external conflict. Parts are why it can be hard to make decisions and you may feel torn between different options. Parts are why people can turn unwashed dishes into a massive argument that is not about the dishes. We feel like a singular person, yet most of us can’t even be in agreement with ourselves. This can lead to feelings of inadequacy, shame, confusion, anger and blaming others for our irrational behavior (and let’s face it, rational people behave irrationally all the time). The following example depicts a possible dynamic of parts. I think most people can picture this situation, even if they haven’t experienced it.
Imagine you’re in a relationship that you would rather call off, but you keep finding excuses. A part of you is reluctant to let go of the physical intimacy. A part really likes his playfulness. A part is sad about the idea of living alone. A part fears he’ll become depressed. A part is scared you won’t find a new partner. A part worries he will find a better partner and make you feel inadequate. A part berates you for your inability to end things. You’d likely be aware of some of these views, while others take place more in the subconscious layers of your mind. You may tell yourself that now it’s not a good time as he might get emotional, when really a part is terrified he’ll fly into a rage.
So why do we have parts that want different things from what “we” do? The clichéd but mostly true answer is: because of our childhood. Some parts are molded later in life, but most adopt their beliefs early on, often also getting stuck in that time and age. This is why they may harbor such convictions as “If I don’t do well in the exam, no one will love me”. To most adults, it’s obvious this is not going to happen. However, a part stuck at age six may actually believe that (usually without you being aware of it), and that’s what makes the prospect so scary. Pop psychology often talks about “the inner child”, but it’s not one child, our minds are full of inner children.
Another part might start believing you’re lazy, because mom called you that, and goad you to work obsessively. This is typical of the origin of most beliefs of parts: an interaction that was hurtful but not an actual trauma. Such a part is likely to spark up another that only wants to relax and have fun. These two parts then fight to grab control, which is known as polarization. All parts have good intentions, even if it may feel like they’re sabotaging your life. They just do their best with their child logic and often extreme beliefs.
Internal Family Systems divides parts into three types: exiles, managers and firefighters. Exiles feel pain that the two kinds of protector parts consider unacceptable and try to shut out; managers by having you focus on somewhat rational (but often still misjudged) actions and firefighters by distracting you with extreme and sometimes dangerous behavior. While we notice that pushing through things like procrastination and bad habits rarely is a successful strategy, we tend to keep attempting it anyway. But trying to do or not do things with willpower alone tends to just aggravate the protector parts that we are trying to override.
Dissociation and DID
Especially developmental trauma, encountered in the early childhood, often leads to dissociation: trauma is “split off” from the consciousness so as not to feel unbearable (this is a stronger form of compartmentalization than just exiling a part). This provides an important survival mechanism particularly in cases of continuing maltreatment, e.g. living with abusive or neglectful caregivers while attempting to behave in a way that minimizes their harmful actions.
In cases of extreme chronic trauma, the whole personality may become fragmented. Parts are left separate from each other, which also tends to make them more extreme and polarized. It’s kind of like a family that stops talking to each other while resenting the other family members and being convinced they are dangerous.
The theory of structural dissociation categorizes trauma-related parts into five types: fight, flight, freeze, fawn/submit and attach. As the names suggest, these types of parts also affect the autonomic nervous system, as in the fight/flight response. Fight parts can be aggressive, judgey, paranoid or controlling, but may also direct their vitriol inwards. Flight parts fear commitment and flee into addictions and other escapism. Freeze parts feel numb, detached, scared and anxious. Submit parts may be ashamed, people-pleasing, conflict-avoidant and lack boundaries to the point of co-dependency. Attach parts feel needy and seek comfort in others, but fight and flight parts do their best to get away.
You may have heard of dissociative identity disorder (DID), which used to be known as multiple personality disorder. It can develop when there is serious abuse or neglect in the early childhood. Many people assume they have never known someone with DID, but this could well be an incorrect assumption. DID is not rare, its prevalence has been estimated to be over 1%, and it often presents much less dramatically than in film depictions.
People often picture DID as a group of fully-formed personalities taking turns, so that sometimes it’s “Paula” and other times, “Roger”. A more common presentation is a collection of “personalities” or alters, often without their own names, each consisting of their own parts, combined with more fragmentary parts. Some of these alters and parts are aware of each other while others aren’t, and more than one of them can be present simultaneously. DID can manifest in many different ways, and there is a spectrum from the normal multiplicity of mind to severe compartmentalization.
As I came to find out, it can be tricky to tell neurodivergence, like autism and ADHD, apart from dissociation, and they often coexist. I’ve even seen claims that there is no such thing as autism without trauma, because society is so traumatizing for neurodivergent people. There is also evidence that ADHD may in some cases originate as a trauma response, though this is controversial — in any case, there is a strong link between them.
How Can I Tell If Someone Dissociates?
While severe dissociation may not be immediately obvious, it often shows up in many telltale signs. Such people may appear wildly different at different times, and not just in high-stakes situations like during arguments. Their moods, reactions and views can change in a disorienting fashion, while they may insist on not having changed. This fluctuation may sometimes result in a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, but they may feel it’s not quite right. Even if their alters all dress the same and go by the same name, in some people different alters just feel outwardly different, as if they really were different people. With others, you may be able to immediately tell when they switch even in a text chat, because the differences are so drastic.
Alternatively, the person may act relatively consistent, but after you lose contact for a while, even just months, suddenly they might feel like an entirely different person in a way that seems unexplained by changes in their life or their maturity level.
They may drift around in life, changing majors, schools, jobs, hobbies, cities, partners, friend circles, online personas, sometimes even real names and world-views. They burn bridges and may leave past “lives” behind. (Similar things can happen in ADHD, as well.) Some spend all their time at work to avoid dealing with their trauma, others spend their days inside four walls, seemingly doing nothing.
They may seem like a peculiar combination of dysfunctional and functional at the same time. (The part keeping them functional is aptly known as “going on with normal life part” or ANP, “apparently normal part”.) Similarly, it may feel like their personality combines maturity far beyond their years and shocking immaturity. They may describe feeling much older than their age or like a child.
They may seem distant and withdrawn, perhaps in a way you can’t quite pinpoint. It may feel like they’re hiding things from you, or like they just aren’t “here”. Some people who dissociate heavily don’t appear to “switch” much, but you may feel like you’ve known this person for ten years and yet don’t know them at all.
They may feel difficult to comprehend even on a semantic level: their speech or writing may appear cryptic, idiosyncratic, excessively formal or they may speak in metaphors, even if they are otherwise eloquent. They may seem to lie all the time, yet often take pride in their honesty.
They may appear paranoid, not necessarily in a way that suggests psychosis, but they believe their good friends want to hurt them, that accidental slights are always intended to harm and even suspect they’re being followed or stalked. They blame others for things they clearly caused themselves, or project their own issues on you (e.g. shouting at you for being angry, when you are calm). In general, you may feel they have a very distorted view of you, possibly switching between idolizing and demonizing.
They may seem very averse to commitment and responsibility. If they do accept duties or commitments, they may ditch these randomly and react hostilely to any assumption that agreements be kept.
They may keep disappearing from your life, for months or years, and the reasons seem unclear or insignificant — they may later admit that it really was because of that insignificant thing. People drift apart and friendships fade away, but these rifts may happen mid-conversation, perhaps right after discussing your shared plans. You may find your messages unread or having been blocked on social media.
They may suffer from memory loss or false memories. (Again, this happens to all of us at times, but not to this extent.) Perhaps their entire childhood is a blank, but the previous day may similarly be a blur. Switching parts and blocking out things can lead to confusing memories. E.g. you discussed A, B and then C, which led to an argument, but they don’t recall B or C, and later presume you argued about A.
Time may pass strangely for them. A few weeks felt like a year while another week just vanished somewhere. Similar things can happen in ADHD, but in dissociation the problem isn’t so much procrastination or lack of motivation, it’s about getting lost in their head. This severe distractibility can also lead to accident-proneness.
They may spend hours and hours daydreaming. This may involve imaginary friends, tulpas, or their own fictional characters that they treat almost like real people, but would be best described as alters. (You probably won’t be aware of these things unless you two are close.)
They may struggle with addictions or binging, particularly with alcohol, food or social media. Or they may skip meals, not know when they are hungry or describe blacking out when eating. Interestingly, while many traumatized people find alcohol pleasantly numbing, I’ve also heard the opposite: booze mellowing out the dissociation without it being painful.
They may mention lacking a sense of self or continuity of self or that their sense of self is somehow very strange.
They may have a diagnosis of a personality disorder, often borderline personality disorder. BPD and most other “personality disorders” are just labels for constellations of parts that act in a certain way because of trauma and they respond well to parts-based approaches.
They may talk about getting help for their mental health, but back out at the last minute, or they do a few therapy sessions for something other than their trauma and claim it was all they needed.
I find that one telltale sign is them regularly claiming they “said something incorrectly” days or weeks ago and instead meant the opposite. This may even involve blaming you for not realizing what they obviously meant! Everyone sometimes words things poorly, but outside of arguments, you don’t “accidentally” blurt out the opposite of what you meant, only to notice much later. I’ve dubbed this the dissociative vortex and I find it one of the most troublesome aspects of interacting with some people. It feels like they are surrounded by fuzziness in which nothing makes sense and everything can be reinterpreted infinitely. You have to be careful not to get sucked into it, but it can still feel very gaslight-y.
Many people with dissociation will not even mention trauma. I’ve known some friends for 20 years without them ever uttering the word. It’s not about shame, they honestly feel like they have no trauma — yeah, their parents abandoned them and bullying landed them in the hospital, but it wasn’t traumatizing. That’s not surprising considering the whole point of dissociation is evading trauma. Inner fragmentation can block traumatic memories altogether, or it can dissociate the emotional tone from the memory. Some people are constantly plagued by past horrors, while others structure their whole lives around avoiding them. Acceptance may alternate with denial.
I compiled this list with the help of some friends and it may sound oddly specific, but I’ve known several people who tick almost all the boxes, while others obviously fit a smaller number.
Abuse and Dissociation
Lundy Bancroft’s popular book Why Does He Do That? features brilliant depictions of domestic abuse, many of which also apply to other kinds of abuse. I found it a helpful reality check in my own healing. However, he insists that abuse is almost never caused by trauma or mental illness, but that it is just an excuse abusers use. In his view, the real cause is values, basically misogyny, whether the perpetrator is a temperamental macho guy or a feminist man who nurtures orphaned kittens (and he believes abusers are nearly universally men, because of the power dynamic required).
I consider Bancroft’s idea deeply mistaken. While most people with trauma don’t harm others, it seems obvious to me that dissociation is a major cause of abuse. There are studies that agree, but overall it has remained an obscure idea. Donald Dutton’s books on the causes of intimate violence do mention dissociation, but it disappears in the sea of clinical, pathologizing language and charts of pathology scores. Bancroft also posits that abuse is unrelated to anger issues, since perpetrators can tone down their rage when needed (e.g. if the police is called). I suggest this can also be explained with dissociation. Fight parts can be furious, but it switches off if another part takes over.
Abuse is often conflated with narcissism. None of the people who have abused me have come off as narcissists (even if they have had some narcissistic parts). However, many trauma experts believe that narcissism is also caused by dissociation. (See e.g. these articles: 1, 2, 3.)
People with DID often develop introject parts resembling their abusers. A friend of mine who experienced sadistic abuse has a part that comes off as sadistic, despite him being a kind and warm person. He is horrified and ashamed by it, which is a common reaction to having abusive parts. Yet hating your parts only serves to worsen the rifts between them.
At the heart of how we think about abuse is that it’s intentional. Some of it may be done impulsively, but things like manipulation, gaslighting and coercive control are considered deliberate and premeditated. Lundy Bancroft claims that abusers use their tactics because they benefit from it (by gaining control). But what does “intentional” even mean, if one part of a person did something the rest didn’t agree to and may not even be aware of? This is not a theoretical question. Unfortunately, due to the inherent complexity of the human mind and human interactions, many questions have no clear-cut answers.
Many common features of abuse can be explained by dissociated trauma parts. Parts try to protect the person’s deepest wounds, but there can be a fine line between protecting and controlling. Fight parts may be fuming, or manipulative and chillingly cruel. And as mentioned before, erratic views or forgetting major things because of dissociation easily comes off as deliberate manipulation — Bancroft claims confusing behavior is just another trick intended to confuse you. Confabulation is a common feature of dissociation: when something can’t be recalled or comprehended, an explanation is made up. It is not meant as a coercive strategy, but as a survival strategy, to retain one’s mental integrity.
A common behavioral pattern of abusers is the so-called DARVO, “deny, attack and reverse victim and offender”. Many perpetrators try to convince both their victims and others that they are in fact the victim, and the victim is the bad guy. This is seen as a calculated tactic of control, but I suspect it is often just a result of inner fragmentation. Someone may honestly be unaware of their damaging behavior or have confabulated explanations that shift blame to the other person.
Psychotherapist Jay Earley discusses an important part polarization of people-pleaser (fawn/submit) and passive-aggressive (fight) parts in his book Self-Therapy vol. 3. The people-pleaser dishes out promises, while the passive-aggressive part resents these offers and believes it was forced into them. The resentment makes it view the other party as controlling or manipulative. I’ve witnessed the consequences of this polarization many times, often related to my chronic illness, which tends to activate others’ caretaker/rescuer parts and that sets off their fighters.
I do agree with Bancroft that misogyny can contribute to abuse of women, but even then, it is often misogyny that is exiled away and dissociated. Though misogynistic attitudes remain pervasive, they are less and less acceptable, and such ideas become exiled. Also, while most women carry heavy amounts of internalized misogyny, in my experience so do some men, especially men who dissociate and have major female parts/alters. I was abused by a soft-spoken feminist man with DID who struggled with large amounts of (internalized) misogyny.
Of course, if abuse is not necessarily intentional, what does it mean for responsibility? I don’t really have answers other than “it’s complicated”. We can’t conclude that just because people dissociate or were abused themselves, “they can’t help it” if they mistreat others, but abuse is about much more than just sexist values. Understanding the complexity of the human mind makes it obvious that people are capable of “evil” deeds without being evil — and in my view, what is called “evil” is generally just another name for the consequences of trauma. That also makes it clear that the best way to reduce harmful behavior is to address the responsible parts.
Dissociation and Attachment
Most people with severe dissociation also deal with attachment issues, usually disorganized attachment. Based on attachment theory, we are all thought to have one of four different attachment styles (though it’s really just a certain combination of parts). If your early childhood is emotionally secure — a parent/caregiver is present, attuned to your needs and soothes you when needed — you will likely grow up securely attached. You are able to commit to a partner (without smothering them) and can handle things such as conflict or your spouse needing more or less space than you do.
Lacking that emotional security in childhood tends to lead to a type of insecure attachment. This can show up as e.g. being “clingy” (anxious attachment) or aloof (avoidant attachment) in relationships — and clingy people often find themselves attracted to aloofness and vice versa, complicating things further. In other words, if you felt your parents were constantly abandoning you, even as an adult you may fear your partner is about to leave you any moment and become preoccupied with that (anxious attachment is also called preoccupied attachment).
While anxious and avoidant attachment styles can result from parents simply being “out of tune” with their child, abuse eliciting fear in the child may lead to disorganized attachment, also called fearful-avoidant. It combines neediness with aloofness, which tends to provoke a turbulent pattern of relations. These people crave affection, but can’t take it, or may leave their partner pre-emptively to avoid being left. I’ve watched this unfold many times and while it has hurt me, I can only imagine how painful it must have been for them.
Attachment styles are often viewed as labels: you either are securely attached or not. But attachment involves many parts — even the most securely attached person likely has some needy or avoidant parts. Attachment also isn’t exclusive to parental or romantic relations, but affects other close bonds, as well. Many of my friendships with traumatized people mostly consist of their absence, or they sever contact altogether because our closeness produces too much anxiety. It’s heartbreaking when the more someone likes me, the less they can bear to be with me.
Romantic relationships, however, are particularly good for showcasing the effects of dissociation and complicated parts for one reason: it’s culturally sanctioned. Everyone knows, from their own experience or from movies, pop music and fiction, that romantic love can be very messy and makes some of us behave in uncharacteristic or even destructive ways. One of the most popular fictional tropes is two people who can’t decide if they want to be together. This is painted as a property of romantic love. It’s not, it’s a property of people. We all have a myriad of different parts, and even without dissociation, many if not most interpersonal interactions are really interactions between wounded child parts.
Friendships can also be highly complicated, even though that’s not a trope. It’s considered normal for friends to grow distant or even fully lose contact and then to reconnect. People may regard someone as a good friend despite not talking with them in years, while this is not considered a feature of romantic partnerships (while on-off relationships exist, you can’t be together with someone you haven’t talked to in a year).
It can be arduous to navigate relationships while struggling with dissociation and disorganized attachment. The person’s various parts and alters would need to agree to the idea, all the terrified children, the fight, flight and freeze parts. They’d need to be able to put aside their paranoia, fear of closeness, fear of abandonment, excessive anger and many other troubling feelings. Some of my friends with DID have been able to sustain long-term partnerships, but often at a price: they’ve had to suppress those difficult emotions to only be superficially present. Others showcase a curious pattern where they keep pining for a past relationship for years or even decades, even when it is obvious it was not a good relationship among compatible people.
How Do We Fix It?
The good news is that dissociation and attachment problems are highly treatable. While there are different ways to go about this, IFS therapy tends to be particularly effective with its parts-based approach. It can sometimes be used even if there is no access to a therapist — many people practice IFS on their own or with a peer, though this is not always safe with major trauma. Improvement can be rapid, even if full healing obviously takes time. Somatic experiencing is another excellent form of trauma therapy, which combines well with IFS and can be used in self-work. IFS is also used in couples and family therapy, but I have a feeling that most other marriage counselors are not very conversant with dissociation.
The bad news is that parts tend to be terrified of healing. While I’ve seen (and been able to help with) some incredible healing journeys involving IFS, most people I know who dissociate are too terrified to go anywhere near therapy. Some dabble with IFS “cosmetically” to fix a few minor issues but stay far from their core problems. Many parts are so strongly opposed to having anything to do with the trauma that they interfere even with reading books on the subject.
There are no medications for dissociation as such. Nowadays, psychedelics are often touted as a “miracle cure” for just about any mental illness, including trauma. It’s crucial to understand that simple trauma (resulting from a single traumatic event) is entirely different from complex developmental trauma and structural dissociation. I’ve known people with DID who have taken psychedelics with no ill effects, but it has rarely been beneficial, either, and sometimes has even resulted in new trauma.
Similar to psychedelics, meditation can be helpful for many people, but there is potential for major harm in those with major dissociation — among people I know personally, there have been four cases where the combination of trauma and meditation even triggered psychotic symptoms. I recommend David Treleaven’s book Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness for everyone with trauma and an interest in practicing meditation.
Of course, while there are effective tools for healing trauma, including the most severe developmental trauma, we can’t “fix” other people. We can inform them of possible options and sometimes lend a hand, but we can’t force them to heal if they aren’t ready, and usually they aren’t. It’s hard not to still try to push it, even though it doesn’t help. It can feel frustrating and heartbreaking.
Curiously, nowadays I feel like being preoccupied with one’s trauma is a promising “prognostic factor”. This may seem counterintuitive, I also thought it meant having a victim complex that would be difficult to let go. But now I believe a certain fixation with one’s trauma is actually a close precursor to healing, and the exact opposite of the most problematic state to be in: complete denial of the trauma.
If It’s So Hard, Why Even Bother?
I feel like the biggest struggles in my life have involved people with severe trauma, but they have endured atrocities I can’t even imagine, and I don’t want to minimize it or make it about me. Some of these friendships have felt like true blessings, even if they haven’t worked out in the end. (Of course, hopefully we are not actually in “the end”.)
These people wouldn’t have become who they are, if it wasn’t for trauma, yet they are also so much more than their pasts. The reason I’ve been closely involved with dozens of them is not codependency or “seeking drama”. (In almost all cases, they have been the one initially seeking me out, anyway.) These have included some of the most amazing people I’ve known. This is why I’ve persisted and wanted to figure it out, I just had to learn some tough lessons about setting boundaries — and that a problem can’t always be solved even if a solution exists.
Some of my loved ones have become highly destructive, and I’ve wished it was possible to have those people without those aspects. I hope with time, they will find paths to healing. Other friends have enriched my life and taught me a lot, hopefully also vice versa. Relationships provide the best environment for healing trauma, if they can be maintained without compromising the well-being and boundaries of either party — which sadly is a big if.
Thanks to supportive friendships, I was able to heal my own severe trauma with IFS, somatic experiencing and loving-kindness meditation, but I never had developmental trauma or structural dissociation. I had to learn all this from the outside, like an anthropologist, trying to make sense of my loved ones.
I’m not a fan of ideas like “suffering is a gift”, and such concepts are often utilized in toxic ways, but I do agree with some visionaries in the fields of psychology and spirituality that trauma can also provide great wisdom and growth. It feels like deeply traumatized people possess a unique depth, spirit and vibrancy that healing really brings out. This is a complex issue, as obviously there is also tremendous suffering involved. It is not a silver lining, but a door that can open to incredible beauty.
The treatment of such concepts as parts, dissociation, attachment and Internal Family Systems in this article is necessarily cursory and leaves out a lot, as the piece grew very lengthy just by focusing on the interpersonal aspects. (Honestly, if my physical health wasn’t so poor, this would have been a book.) I recommend Janina Fisher’s book Healing the Fragmented Selves of Trauma Survivors, which presents a form of IFS for stabilizing severe dissociation. It also explains structural dissociation in a much warmer tone than The Haunted Self: Structural Dissociation and the Treatment of Chronic Traumatization, which felt so pathologizing that I couldn’t finish it.
To understand parts and parts work as a whole, Richard Schwartz’s Internal Family Systems Therapy and Jay Earley’s Self-Therapy are indispensable. Internal Family Systems Therapy: New Dimensions has an excellent chapter on treating serious trauma and dissociation, and the chapter on couples therapy illustrates healthy parts-based methods of communication. The book Unlocking the Emotional Brain describes from a practical neuroscientific perspective how our minds get stuck in the past, why we believe things we don’t really believe, and how it can be helped.