There are a lot of factors that contribute to how well we’re doing in our relationships. Whether it’s managing the often stressful and elusive “work-life balance” or something that may have happened in the past, like trauma. The impact is often subtle, often happening without conscious thought of the traumatic event. Small trauma reminders can send us back to old patterns of thinking or feeling without warning. For example, imagine that you were bullied as a child. You may have a tendency to worry if others like you or if people are thinking something negative about you. Although this likely happens without conscious thought of your childhood bullying, your reactions may very well be related to those earlier experiences of feeling excluded and victimized.
Trauma, whether stemming from childhood experiences, accidents, abuse, or other distressing events, can create a ripple effect that extends beyond the individual. When a partner carries unresolved trauma, it often finds its way into the relationship dynamic. Common manifestations of this impact include difficulty expressing emotions, communicating openly, and sexual difficulties.
One of the most significant ways trauma affects relationships is through trauma reminders (i.e. “triggers”) and reactions. Trauma can cause certain situations, words, noises and even smells to remind a person of their past traumatic experience. These triggers can cause intense emotional and physical reactions, often leading to misunderstandings or conflicts with their partner. It may be difficult for the traumatized partner to explain the reason for their reactions, which often leads their partners to blame themselves or wonder if there is something wrong within the relationship. It's important for both individuals to recognize these triggers and communicate about them openly, allowing space for better understanding, empathy and support.
Open and empathetic communication is at the foundation of any healthy relationship, and this is particularly true when dealing with the impact of trauma. Trauma survivors might struggle to express their feelings, leading to a breakdown in communication. Partners need to foster an environment where both can share their thoughts and emotions without judgment. Active listening, validating experiences, and practicing patience can go a long way in building trust and emotional intimacy. Resisting the urge to “fix” situations and instead focusing on understanding without giving advice can help your partner feel heard and more comfortable sharing.
Trust and Safety
Trauma can erode the foundation of trust and safety in a relationship. Partners may feel disconnected or even unsafe due to unresolved trauma. Rebuilding trust requires patience, consistency, and a commitment to emotional healing. Couples can work together to create a sense of safety by setting boundaries, respecting each other's triggers, and prioritizing mutual support.
Seeking Help from a Trauma Therapist
While support from loved ones is invaluable, seeking professional help is often essential when dealing with the aftermath of trauma in a relationship. Therapists with experience in trauma can offer guidance, coping strategies, and tools for effective communication. Both partners can explore individual therapy to address personal healing and couples therapy to work through shared challenges in a safe, guided environment.
Change Takes Time
Healing from trauma is a journey that requires patience and resilience. Progress typically includes periods of growth as well as setbacks. Both partners should acknowledge that healing takes time and that they are on this path together. Celebrating even small victories and demonstrating consistent support during challenging times can foster a sense of togetherness and strength.
Taking Care of Yourself
Individual self-care is pivotal in the process of healing from trauma and its impact on relationships. Encourage each other to engage in self-care practices that promote mental and emotional well-being. This can include mindfulness, meditation, engaging in hobbies, exercise, or spending time in nature. Prioritizing self-care not only aids personal healing but also enhances the ability to support one another.
Creating New Memories
While trauma can leave emotional scars, couples have the opportunity to create new experiences together. By acknowledging the past, understanding its influence, and actively working toward a healthier relationship dynamic, partners can forge a path to healing and growth. Viewing the relationship as a partnership in healing can foster a sense of unity and shared purpose.
Navigating the impact of trauma on relationships demands understanding, patience, and a commitment to growth. By fostering open communication, seeking professional guidance, and prioritizing each other's well-being, couples can transform the challenges into opportunities for healing and deeper connection. The journey may be difficult, but with mutual support, empathy, and a willingness to learn and adapt, love can indeed triumph over trauma.
Heather Fosnaugh, LMHC, NCC is a EMDRIA Certified EMDR therapist and EMDR Consultant-in-Training in Indiana. Her group practice, Indiana Counseling and Resilience Center, specializes in therapy for trauma, anxiety and relationships.