Trauma, in itself, is so complex. When one or both people in a relationship have experienced trauma, it can create rigidity, conflict, and misunderstandings. Here are some ways trauma can show up in your relationships.
Understanding Trauma in Relationships
Let’s say your partner forgets to call or text you when they’re distracted. Instead of shrugging it off, you start to imagine that they are messaging someone else. Or maybe they’re no longer interested in having a relationship with you. Often, people forget to answer calls or texts if they are distracted. Some partners do not attach meaning to this lack of response and shrug it off. The traumatized partner, by contrast, might start to imagine something horrible is happening. Before their partner gets home, they’re already upset at their partner and fear that a break-up is imminent.
Another trauma response might be to act impulsively. You or your partner might engage in excessive alcohol and drug use, or even a tendency to want to impulsively shop or travel—anything to help distract from the discomfort of feeling helpless. If you or your partner can relate, understand that this behavior is a natural consequence of a brain injured by emotional trauma. Understand not to be hard on yourself or your partner, as this is not you, it is not your fault, and it is not a character flaw.
And remember that you don’t have to navigate this alone. It is possible for you and your partner to recover from difficult experiences by using the skills and resources that are available. If you or your partner do not harness the inner resources to recover from their trauma, the healing cannot continue. Your relationship will be affected, too.
Do you understand your partners’ trauma?
Trauma can happen at any age. If your partner has experienced childhood trauma, it might already be showing up in your partnership. You’ll be surprised to understand how childhood experiences impacted you and your relationship partner.
If your partner has disclosed childhood trauma to you, the best thing you can do is listen without judgment. It is often underestimated, but there is power in being present for another person. Being present with your partner to discuss a difficult memory can begin or continue the healing process.
Trauma forces you to re-learn a lot of emotions, thoughts, and ways to express both. Childhood trauma typically creates fear, anxiety, anger, depression, and guilt. Trauma can even result in chronic mental health issues such as PTSD. In an intimate relationship, it is crucial to understand some of the patterns that your partner saw during childhood. What beliefs did your partner’s parents and/or caregivers instill during childhood?
Having the ability to respond to trauma stressors in a variety of healthy ways can help in many areas of life, including work, family, and relationships. You and your partner could benefit from unlearning some of the behaviors you have learned to survive through challenging times.
If you or your partner are not sure how to heal from trauma, learn how to be gentle with yourself. Share as much as you can with your partner. Be patient if your partner has not opened up and needs more encouragement for healing. Listen, be gentle and compassionate, and stay open to hearing more about their childhood trauma.
How to help a partner with trauma
Trauma-related conditions and behaviors are hard on everyone–the person dealing with the trauma and the people around them. Trying to work through traumatic healing together is challenging, but not impossible.
Some ways to improve communication with a traumatized partner are to:
- Create clear boundaries to provide more safety for your partner. Example: “I’m not going to force you to talk when you are not ready to, but I’m here if you want to”
- Identify your partner’s triggers. What seems to bring your partner from 0-60?
- Actively listen to partners’ needs. What do they need that’s different from you?
- Build coping skills to manage a response to trauma triggers. What’s calming for you both when things get escalated?
- Learn to feel when there is intensity in your feelings and other internal experiences. Are you feeling anxious and need a moment before responding? Other feelings might be anger, agitation, and/or stress
- Educate yourself and your partner on trauma through reading, conversations, and therapy
All the information above is essential for developing compassion for your partner. If you or a partner have experienced abuse as a child, you are not at fault. Remember that help is available to you.
Therapy can be a lifesaving tool to help rework the circuitry of your brain. This means you won’t get stuck in the same patterns over and over again. By delicately addressing unresolved trauma in therapy, you can heal and make improvements in your life. A therapist can help provide clarity on how to learn skills. You and your partner will work together to help each partner become open to healing trauma and its effects. There is hope for better relationships after trauma.