Recovering from trauma is not easy, and unresolved past traumas can present a plethora of challenges while adjusting to everyday living. Whether your trauma involved an intimate partner or not, the long-term effects can continue to show up in many forms within your relationships. Trauma is known to transform the way we relate to people in our lives, so it is no surprise that it will change the way you relate to your significant other. For example, it can deplete your sense of safety and security. Your confidence or self-esteem could drop, and the lens through which you view the world will never be the same. Read on to better understand how trauma changes our relationships with romantic partners!
What is Trauma?
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administrations (SAMSHA), trauma is defined as, “an emotional or physical response to one or more physically harmful or life-threatening events or circumstances with lasting adverse effects on your mental and physical well-being” . These events include but are not limited to: actual or threatened death of yourself or loved one, serious injury or accident, sexual violence or assault, exposure to a distressing event, terrorism, war or combat, emotional/physical/psychological/sexual abuse, being a victim of a crime, displacement, natural disasters, bullying, childhood neglect, and more. In summary, traumas are extreme life events that threaten your physical and psychological survival. These events unfortunately leave us more susceptible to emotional triggering and reactivity in our interpersonal relationships.
How Trauma Changes Intimate Partner Relationships
Trauma, especially unresolved past trauma, will continue to be apparent in your intimate partner relationships whether intended to or not. Here are five of the many ways it may be manifesting itself in your relationship:
After experiencing trauma, it can be hard to trust others when (understandably) your trust for people in general has been broken! This may result in the belief that your security is threatened when expressing feelings in relationships, so in turn your thoughts may be repeatedly kept to yourself. Feelings of emotional safety with a partner are hard to establish after trauma, and you may not feel relatable to those who have not experienced the events you have. On the flip side, you could be trusting too easily or become open to the wrong person in order to seek perceived feelings of love and safety.
Anger is commonly expressed in relationships in order to avoid the vulnerability it takes to express the underlying emotions. This is because vulnerability in relationships means putting your guard down to potentially get hurt. Doing so can feel unsafe for many trauma survivors. Similarly, in a relationship it can be hard to communicate about serious subjects without getting emotionally flooded or overwhelmed easily. Your criticism towards your partner might become a subconscious defense in order to create distance from a perceived threat, which is a side effect of wanting to create a safe space. This subconscious pushing away of others often results in unintended isolation from loved ones.
Sense of self and self-esteem
Many trauma survivors experience feelings of shame and guilt from the event(s), which become falsely internalized as having something “wrong” with them (by the way, there is nothing wrong with you!). These thoughts frequently lead to low self-esteem and low self-worth. Due to this low self-esteem, you could have difficulty accepting fondness or admiration from your partner. Also, without a sense of self and self-worth, you could easily become a doormat for abuse by others without even realizing that you’re displaying people-pleasing tendencies.
After trauma, you may perceive emotional disengagement from your partner to be easier than engaging in difficult conversations. This emotional distance especially occurs when the partner doesn’t know about the trauma or doesn’t fully understand it. This will result in you turning away from your partner during times when your partner may be expecting you to turn towards them, and can lead to misunderstandings or hurt feelings by all.
Hypervigilance is a side-effect of trauma, and can lead to sensitivity for physical touch. You could be perceiving any form of touch as dangerous without even realizing it! Sexual intimacy can also be extremely difficult for trauma survivors, particularly if the trauma was sexual in nature. If there is a lack of sexual intimacy in the relationship due to not feeling safe or comfortable, this can lead to gridlocked conflict where your partner may not understand your lack of sexual interest. Side note: do not force engagement in any activity you do not feel comfortable with until seeking help from a licensed professional therapist!
Relationship Therapy Can Help
Does any of the above sound relatable to you and your relationships? If you have experienced trauma, individual therapy or counseling is the first step, and is essential. After working through the events and processing your feelings, individual therapists can also help with improving your self-worth. You can finally move from being a victim to a survivor of trauma, which is empowering! Along with individual care, relationship therapy with a trauma-informed couples or relationship therapist can help as a conjoint service for your relationship.
First, relationship therapy can provide a safe and supportive space to express yourself to your partner. After experiencing trauma, you may unintentionally be vague with your partner when explaining the traumatic events, which is understandable since you’re still trying to make sense of everything yourself! Unfortunately, vague explanations can leave your partner with a lack of understanding about the trauma and what your needs are in the relationship. Relationship therapy can provide a place for healthy dialogue while disclosing your traumatic events, but only when you are ready.
Secondly, identifying and expressing your needs, which have changed due to the trauma, can also be worked on in relationship therapy. You’ll need to identify your triggers in the relationship and learn how to express them to your partner. This is because your partner may not understand why certain seemingly neutral people, places, or things are triggering for you. During the therapy process a professional can also help your partner to better understand trauma through what’s called “psychoeducation”.
While working with Sara at Confluent Relationship Therapy, she can provide the necessary supplemental trauma resources tailored to you. Individual therapy with a trauma therapist can help you process and work through the events. However, Sara can also help connect you to a professional. She will recommend individual trauma therapists or sex therapists and collaborate with them on your care. Please also see the resources page for crisis organizations or additional services you may need.
Reach out today to start working with Sara for relationship therapy with you and your partner(s)!
 Read more about SAMHSA here: SAMHSA – Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration
SAMHSA Disaster Distress Helpline 1-800-985-5990.