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Childhood Trauma: “The Art of Loving”

Life help from Erich Fromm


“Is love an art?” asked the psychoanalyst and philosopher Erich Fromm in 1956 and developed his theory of love in response. He analysed who, why and how we love. The book also looked at the disintegration of love in contemporary Western society, and his thoughts on this have lost none of their relevance to this day.  He intended to provide a new view of reality that considers the interrelationship between the changing religious, scientific, artistic, political, economic and social influences on the overall human experience. Overall, he strives for nothing less than a renaissance of hope and pride in man’s freedom to shape his own destiny.

Erich Fromm makes it clear that love is not just about taking, but above all about giving. The ability to love depends on character development. A loving relationship overcomes dependency, childish fantasies of omnipotence, the desire to exploit others or to hoard possessions, and trusts in one’s own human powers. In addition to giving, Fromm repeatedly names care, responsibility, respect and knowledge as essential elements of the art of love. Love is therefore not just a spontaneous feeling, but a conscious decision. It is based on an act of will and dedication to devote one’s life completely to another.

This article aims to place the principles from Erich Fromm’s work “The Art of Loving” in the context of healing childhood trauma. It shows how developing relationship skills, self-care and an understanding of healthy interpersonal dynamics can help to overcome the effects of childhood trauma. He offers practical guidance and insights on how the ability to love – both oneself and others – can be an essential part of the healing process.

1 Understanding love

In “The Art of Loving”, Erich Fromm describes love not as a mere feeling, but as an art and a skill that must be learned and developed. This perspective is promising for survivors of childhood trauma. For, although they did not have the opportunity to learn or experience healthy relationship patterns in their development, Fromm’s approach shows that everyone needs to learn healthy relationships and the art of loving, and that difficulties in relationships are not due to permanent damage. Rather, overcoming them requires skills that can be learned. Relationship skills are part of the healing process. Those who actively love can process and overcome traumatic experiences. After a childhood trauma, the dream of being loved unconditionally and thus experiencing a kind of reparation is understandable. To achieve this, however, you have to be able to allow closeness and trust, learn to accept yourself and develop and strengthen your ability to love.

Fromm’s concept of mature love points the way to healing the relationship with oneself and others. Because connectedness, mindfulness and care are based on the ability to develop one’s own identity and take responsibility for one’s own life.

When it is difficult to give trust, express needs or set healthy boundaries in relationships, Fromm’s ideas help us to treat ourselves and others with compassion and respect. If mature love is an active decision, it requires a willingness to work on oneself and let go of old patterns. It is about truthfulness, responsibility for one’s own happiness and space for personal growth. Self-responsibility and self-reflection are crucial to break out of the cycle of trauma and dysfunctional relationships.

However, this does not happen overnight. “The Art of Loving” makes it clear that developing mature love is a lifelong process of working on oneself, of self-reflection, which requires a willingness to embrace one’s own vulnerability. This creates space for self-reflection, a sense of responsibility and connection with oneself and others to leave a trauma identity behind.

2 The fear of intimacy

Fromm on the fear of intimacy as an obstacle to love:

Erich Fromm identifies the fear of intimacy as one of the greatest obstacles to true love. He argues that true intimacy requires a deep understanding and acceptance of the other, which in turn requires openness and vulnerability. After childhood trauma, this vulnerability can be frightening as it may reopen past wounds. This also creates the apparent paradox that although sexuality can be enjoyed with a largely unknown sexual partner, it becomes increasingly difficult with a regular partner as familiarity grows.

How childhood trauma affects intimacy and trust:

Childhood trauma leaves deep traces in the way we deal with closeness and trust. The relationship behaviour of those affected is shaped by the 4F, the defence mechanisms of the ego and also by emotional dysregulation, mainly in the service of protection from further injury. This makes it almost impossible to open up completely in relationships. Mistrust, fear of rejection and fear of emotional attachment and, often, deep loneliness are the consequences.

Building trust and intimacy:

Fromm’s approach offers several strategies for building trust and intimacy in relationships:

– Self-reflection and self-acceptance: Firstly, it is important to understand and accept yourself. Recognizing your own injuries and their impact on your ability to relate is the first step towards overcoming the fear of intimacy.

– Active listening and empathic communication: Fromm hightlights the importance of communication and active concern for others. For trauma survivors, this means learning how to communicate effectively, express feelings and respond empathically to their partner.

– Small steps: Instead of rushing into intimacy quickly, a gradual, conscious build-up of closeness is helpful. Small, steady steps of trust and openness can lead to a stronger, healthier connection. However, this not only challenges your own needs for closeness and sexuality, but also those of your partner.

– Therapeutic support: In some cases, professional help may be necessary to develop the capacity for intimacy. A therapist can offer individualized strategies to deal with the specific challenges of coping with trauma. An exclusively sexual therapy approach often proves to be not only ineffective, but even re-injures those affected. It fails to recognize that it is not the partner’s attractiveness or fear of failure that is the obstacle to intimacy, but rather shame about one’s own body, one’s own nature and toxic feelings of guilt for not feeling the way one would like to. It starts with attitudes towards oneself before trauma survivors can begin to confront and overcome their fears of intimacy and build fulfilling, loving relationships.

3 Self-love

Self-love as the basis for loving others:

Erich Fromm distinguishes self-love from self-absorption, a form of narcissism. Self-love is a basis for the ability to love others at all. Fromm argues that only someone who loves and accepts themselves can truly love others without possessiveness or dependency. Self-love means showing appreciation and respect for oneself, recognizing one’s own needs and taking care of one’s own well-being.

The challenges of self-love:

After a childhood trauma, the development of self-love is particularly challenging. There is a lack of basic trust that you are lovable, that the world is a safe place and that life is beautiful. Instead, a childhood trauma damages the self-image with self-criticism and a feeling of worthlessness. Therefore, it is essential for trauma survivors to learn to treat themselves with kindness and understanding. Developing self-love is an important step in healing, healthier, more balanced relationships.

Practical steps for cultivating self-love:

– Practice self-acceptance: Start by accepting yourself as you are, including your past and your traumas. This can be supported by daily affirmations, diary writing or meditative practices.

Self-care: Self-care is an essential aspect of self-love. This means taking time for things that bring you joy, looking after your health, or allowing yourself moments of rest and relaxation.

– Set boundaries: Learn to set healthy boundaries and say no when necessary. This strengthens self-confidence and promotes respect for your own needs.

– Positive self-talk: Pay attention to the way you talk to yourself. Silence your inner critic and replace toxic shame and guilt with positive self-affirmations. This does not mean glossing over your own mistakes, but treating yourself with goodwill.

4 Toxic relationships

Immature and mature love:

Immature love, according to Fromm, is based on dependency and the desire to be possessed or to possess, which naturally leads to toxic relationships. Mature love, on the other hand, is characterized by independence, mutual respect and the desire to nurture oneself and the other.

Toxic relationships through repetition compulsion:

Trauma survivors tend to repeat unhealthy relationship patterns unconsciously that have their origins in the unresolved experiences of their childhood and 4F behaviours. Such patterns manifest themselves in excessive dependency, fear of rejection, difficulty in setting boundaries or a tendency to engage in unequal power relationships. To break these patterns, the following things are important:

– Self-awareness: Understand the roots of your unhealthy relationship patterns. Use self-reflection, diary writing and conversations.

– Communication skills: Learn to communicate your needs and feelings openly and honestly, without fear of rejection or conflict.

– Healthy boundaries: Recognize the importance of boundaries in relationships and practice communicating and enforcing them clearly and consistently.

– Equality in relationships: Make sure to cultivate relationships based on equality, mutual respect and support.

5 Dependence vs. relatedness

Understanding healthy relationships:

In his work, Erich Fromm makes a clear distinction between dependency and relatedness in relationships. While dependency is often based on a lack of autonomy and a need for constant validation from others, relatedness is a state in which both partners maintain their individual strength and independence while sharing a deep, supportive connection. Fromm emphasizes that a healthy relationship is based on this kind of mutual support and respect for each other’s autonomy.

Dependence problems:

The toxic relationship patterns of trauma survivors mentioned above are often characterized by dependency and an excessive need for approval and validation, fear of being alone or an imbalance in the relationship dynamic. It is important to recognize and address these patterns to develop a healthier relationship dynamic.

Establishing related and supportive relationships:

Building relationships requires conscious efforts and strategies:

– Promote independence: Actively work on strengthening your independence. Pursue your own interests, cultivate friendships, and work on your personal growth.

– Mutual support: Build your relationships on mutual support and shared responsibilities. This is the only way for equality to flourish.

– Open communication: Open and honest communication about needs, fears and expectations is essential for building rapport.

6 Healing through love for others

As previously discussed, “The Art of Loving” stresses that love is much more than receiving affection and attention. Rather, it is active giving and sharing as well as active caring. Love in this sense is understood as a productive attitude that is not only focussed on the well-being of the loved one, but also on one’s own growth and development. For Fromm, the “productive attitude” refers to an inner attitude characterized by activity, creativity and the pursuit of growth and development. It requires the ability to think independently, take responsibility and make decisions. It also includes solidarity and compassion towards other people, as well as the ability to love and constructiveness. Furthermore, it requires active involvement in the world and helping to bring about positive change. This understanding of love therefore requires selflessness, empathy and commitment to the well-being of others.

How loving giving helps with healing:

For trauma survivors, the practice of loving giving is a powerful tool.

– Empathy and connection: Loving action creates empathy and connects with others in a deep and meaningful way. It overcomes feelings of isolation that are often associated with trauma.

– Self-esteem: By doing good to others, trauma survivors strengthen their sense of self-efficacy and self-worth. Negative self-perceptions resulting from traumatic experiences and the merciless inner critic are overcome.

– Corrective experiences: Loving giving enables new, positive relationship experiences that help to break through previous negative patterns.

– Meaningfulness: Loving giving strengthens the feeling of control over one’s own life and of meaningfulness.

An important note: The difference between loving giving and fawning behaviour or self-denial in trauma survivors is critical. It is based on the motivation of the giver – with serious consequences.

1. loving giving:

– Motivation: Loving giving comes from a feeling of abundance, self-respect and the desire to share positivity. It is an act of joy and free choice.

– Self-reference: This type of giving strengthens self-esteem and personal integrity. It is an expression of healthy self-love and respect for one’s own boundaries.

– Relationship dynamics: It promotes a balance and relationship when giving and receiving are equally important.

2. submission behaviour and self-denial:

– Motivation: This behaviour is driven by fear, especially the fear of abandonment, rejection or conflict. It is a survival mechanism that was developed in traumatic relationships to avoid threats and gain recognition.

– Self-reference: submissiveness and self-denial erode self-esteem and undermine personal boundaries. One’s own well-being and needs are neglected or damaged in favour of others.

– Relationship dynamics: These patterns lead to unhealthy, one-sided and dependent relationship patterns in which the well-being of the other person is prioritized over one’s own, sometimes even at the expense of one’s own health and happiness.

7 Personal growth

Love in personal development:

Erich Fromm sees love not only as an interpersonal relationship, but also as a driving force for personal growth and development. Love in this sense has a profound effect on our relationships with others and our self-image. Loving interactions with others and love for oneself promote personal maturation and give strength in dealing with life challenges.

How to use the “art of loving”:

After a childhood trauma, the “art of loving” is invaluable:

– Emotional resilience: Loving relationships create a safety net of emotional support. They help in dealing with stress and negative emotions.

– Positive self-perception: From love for oneself and acceptance of love from others come the corrective experiences that change self-perception and allow one to feel worthy and lovable.

– Empathy and connection: Empathic and loving interactions create deeper connections with the world.

– Active giving: By actively giving love – be it through caring, support or simply listening – you strengthen a sense of control and purpose in your own life.


This article was about Erich Fromm’s “The Art of Loving”. We have seen how important it is to understand love as a skill that can be developed. We looked at the importance of self-love, overcoming the fear of intimacy, recognizing and breaking toxic relationship patterns, and the distinction between dependency and relatedness.

Fromm’s insights offer a valuable perspective not only for overcoming injuries, but also for growing and becoming stronger as an individual. However, engaging with his ideas is not intended to replace professional support from a therapist or psychologist in the healing process, but rather to complement this professional support and show new ways of understanding and practising love.

Further reading

– Fromm’s other works, which offer more in-depth insights into his thoughts on human nature and society

– Books and articles on trauma therapy and healing

– Psychological literature on love, attachment and relationship dynamics.


Fromm, Erich. 2006 The Art of Loving. New York: Harper Perennial.

Walker, Pete. 2013. Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving: A Guide and Map for Recovering From Childhood Trauma. Createspace Independent Publishing Platform.

Walker, Pete. 2015. The Tao of Fully Feeling: Harvesting Forgiveness Out of Fromm, Erich. 2006. The Art of Loving. New York: Harper Perennial.

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