Although one-third of partners in couple therapy have experienced childhood abuse, our field has developed few specific interventions that address the lingering effects of child abuse on current couple dynamics. A common impact on adult survivors is the struggle to trust their intimate partner. Furthermore, asymmetrical gendered power processes often erode trust. Given the propensity for adult-survivor couples to experience a distrusting emotional culture, this dissertation studied the effect of gendered power dynamics on trust in partner interactions, as well as identified clinical processes of Socio-Emotional Relationship Therapy (SERT) that helped adult-survivor couples change power disparities to a mutually supportive and trusting emotional culture. This dissertation includes two publishable papers. The first article articulates relational trust theory, which integrates feminist, social constructionist views with relational ethics. This theoretical conceptualization describes how the intermingling of gendered power interactions and adult-survivor power responses negatively impact emotional connection. The second article presents the results of a longitudinal grounded theory study of video and transcripts of 40 SERT sessions with four heterosexual adult survivor couples. The findings from the research were applied to an additional four couples to refine the final grounded theory on how to work with the intersection of trust, gender, and power issues of adult-survivor couples. Three key themes on gendered power processes emerged: 1) gendered fear of being vulnerable, 2) unique gendered power approaches, and 3) distrustful reactions. The analysis identifies five key clinical processes to enhance trust: 1) recognize gendered power’s effects on relational safety, 2) comprehend the socio-emotional experience of partners, 3) accentuate relational needs, 4) initiate partners sharing power, and 5) identify trustworthiness of partners. The study also delineates components of relational vulnerability that augment trust. The final dissertation chapter compares the findings from the grounded theory analysis to current CFT models with adult-survivor couples and discusses clinical implications for addressing the complex interplay of gender, power, and trust in partner interactions. A significant contribution of this dissertation is a better understanding of the link of trust with gender and power dynamics in adult-survivor intimate relationships and how to sensitively address relational processes interfering with trust.

LLU Discipline

Marital and Family Therapy


Counseling and Family Sciences


School of Behavioral Health

First Advisor

Knudson-Martin, Carmen

Second Advisor

Distelberg, Brian

Third Advisor

Hargrave, Terry D.

Fourth Advisor

Huenergardt, Douglas

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Degree Level


Year Degree Awarded


Date (Title Page)




Library of Congress/MESH Subject Headings

Adult Survivors of Child Abuse; Couples Therapy; Marital Therapy; Interpersonal Relations; Social Desirability; Gender Identity; Trust

Subject - Local

Childhood Abuse; Asymmetrical Gendered Power Processes; Emotional Culture; Gendered Power Dynamics; Relational Trust Theory



Page Count


Digital Format


Digital Publisher

Loma Linda University Libraries

Usage Rights

This title appears here courtesy of the author, who has granted Loma Linda University a limited, non-exclusive right to make this publication available to the public. The author retains all other copyrights.


Loma Linda University Electronic Theses and Dissertations

Collection Website



Loma Linda University. Del E. Webb Memorial Library. University Archives

Included in

Counseling Commons