Research Shows a Way Past Cassandra Syndrome and Other Relationship Traumas

by Staff Writer
May 3, 2024 at 10:15 AM UTC

New research explores the originas of relationship trauma, highlighting the role of mindfulness in fostering healthier dynamics.

Clinical relevance: Parenthood can strain relationships due to the lingering effects of childhood trauma.

  • New research examines how childhood trauma influences parental relationships.
  • Higher mindfulness levels in couples correlate with increased relationship satisfaction and emotional openness.
  • Cassandra syndrome highlights the challenges in relationships with undiagnosed ASD partners and the importance of empathy and support.

For all of its life-changing rewards, parenthood also comes with pitfalls that can threaten the strongest of relationships. Now, new research, appearing in the journal Mindfulness, explores the dynamics of couples where one or both partners have survived childhood trauma. Such experiences – whether it’s sexual assault or exposure to domestic violence – can leave lingering scars that can instigate relationship trauma.

“In this case, we were keen to explore how early adverse experiences may affect the dynamics of parental relationships,” Natacha Godbout, a sexology professor at the Université du Québec à Montréal, and her PhD student Francis Morissette Harvey explained in a joint statement. “We wanted to further our understanding of how childhood trauma not only affects individuals directly but also how it reverberates across generations, influencing family dynamics and shaping relational patterns. Hopefully, our work will shed light on key mechanisms that might down the line to help survivors heal from adverse interpersonal experiences they had in their childhood and prevent further impacts on their couple, parenting, and offspring.”

Tracing the Consequences of Trauma

The research, led by researchers Godbout and Harvey, sought to better understand how that childhood trauma can echo throughout one’s life, influencing parental relationships and family dynamics.

The researchers pored over data from 529 heterosexual Canadian couples, with an eye toward the link between childhood trauma, mindfulness, experiential avoidance, and relationship satisfaction.

Their findings highlight the importance of mindfulness, which the authors define as “non-judgmental awareness of one’s feelings,” in nurturing healthier relationships. Couples who exhibit higher levels of mindfulness, the researchers found, appear to be less likely to engage in experiential avoidance, evading uncomfortable emotions. As a result, these couples admit to higher relationship satisfaction, implying that facing emotions – rather than avoiding them – strengthens romantic bonds.

A Ripple Effect

Moreover, the study reveals an emotional give-and-take between partners that suggests one partner’s mindfulness and emotional approach can influence the other. This reciprocity underscores the importance of collaborative efforts in nurturing strong and fulfilling parental relationships.

Overall, despite constraints – such as a focus on heterosexual couples from a single region and a reliance on self-reporting – the research highlights the potentially transformative power of mindfulness in improving parental relationships damaged by childhood trauma. By leaning into emotions and practicing mindful awareness, couples can build resilience and nurture intimacy, crafting the foundation for a happier and healthier family life.

Mindfulness and Cassandra Syndrome

It’s an approach that could also help relationships with neurodivergent partners struggling with Cassandra Syndrome.

Many neurotypical women married to men with undiagnosed ASD share a common experience: Realizing their partner is neurodivergent, too. Often, when they try to explain to others what their life is like with an autistic partner, they find that no one believes them.

The phenomenon has become known as Cassandra syndrome, a reference to the mythological Greek priestess who could see the future, but – because of Apollo’s curse – couldn’t find anyone to believe her prophecies.

“There are many cases of neurodivergent partners who can mask their challenges and appear to people around them as articulate, thoughtful, caring, sensitive, empathic, and so on,” ASD psychologist Kenneth Roberson told Psychiatrist.com. “That creates a sort of cognitive dissonance.”

Relationship Trauma as PTSD

Cassandra syndrome is another type of relationship trauma that experts place in the category of complex PTSD. The symptoms of anxiety, anger, hypervigilance, and dissociation aren’t the result of a singular traumatic event. Rather, they stem from an ongoing lack of intimacy and social connection, emotional deprivation, and a profoundly disharmonious relationship.

“By the time you get to the therapist, they’re so distraught, and they’re so stoic,” said Margot Alexis, founder of the membership support group, Healing Cassandra.

Alexis added that expressing empathy is the first step toward moving beyond Cassandra syndrome. An ASD partner’s brain has different wiring than the brain of an NT partner, she said.

“Let’s say my husband was blind and I was an artist, and I go to him and say, ‘Look at the beautiful painting that I painted.’ Well, he can’t see it,” she offered. In the same way, she said, expecting one’s neurodivergent partner to read social cues or otherwise behave neurotypically is both unrealistic and unempathetic.

Connecting with people in similar situations can educate and empower women to ultimately improve their relationships and seek inner happiness. Alexis and her fellow “Cassandra women” continue to support one another, even after their husbands accept their diagnoses.

Further Reading

Cassandra Syndrome Causes Anger, Frustration in Autism Relationships

Adverse Childhood Events and Emotional Intelligence

Autism Spectrum Disorders in Infants and Toddlers

Commentary

The Long Road Toward Equitable MDMA Treatment in the United States

Kozak and Aaronson discuss challenges in implementation of MDMA-assisted therapy, including insurance and Medicare coverage as well as cultural barriers.

Zofia Kozak and others

Strategies for Cutting Down and Stopping Alcohol Use

Knowledge of nonpharmacologic approaches as well as medications’ mechanisms of action, side effects, and drug-drug interactions can facilitate the timely and appropriate use of psychotropics to help individuals cut down or stop their use of alcohol.

Sofia E. Matta and others