Trauma can change how we act in the world. It can affect our relationships by changing how we relate to ourselves and others.
Trauma can affect people in many ways and its effects may look different from person to person. If you have been through a traumatic experience, you may find that it has changed you in many ways, including affecting your partner and your relationship. In fact, the American Psychological Association notes that one of the long-term effects of trauma is strained relationships.
How Trauma Can Affect Your Relationship
Below are some of the ways trauma can affect you and how that might affect your relationship with your partner:
- Change your thought processes: A traumatic event can change the way you think about yourself, others, and the world around you.4 For example, you may have spent your life thinking that others are generally trustworthy. However, if you have been harmed by someone in a traumatic experience, you may think “I can’t trust anyone or let them get close to me.” This, in turn, will affect the way you relate to others, including your partner.
- Make you hyperalert: Trauma activates our brain’s fear center, which sends us into a fight/flight/freeze state to help us survive. However, your brain may stay in this hyperalert state even after the incident is over. You may find yourself responding to anything your brain perceives to be potentially threatening, regardless of whether it’s an actual threat or not. For example, if you were assaulted while walking down the street, you may experience a jolt of fear anytime someone accidentally bumps into you.
- Cause you to feel numb: The flipside to this heightened state of arousal is dissociation, where you may feel numb or “dead inside.” This is especially common in cases of chronic and inescapable trauma, such as long-term childhood abuse.5 Our brain helps us survive by entering a detached, dissociative state to protect us from harm. Someone who has experienced trauma may swing from one extreme to the other, from a state of hyperarousal to hyporarousal.
- Lead to avoidance: Experiencing trauma can cause you to avoid any situations or circumstances that remind you of the traumatic event. This can significantly impact your ability to function on a daily basis because it tends to make you believe that the only way to feel safe is by making your world smaller. As a result, you may close yourself off to many fulfilling experiences.
- Leave you isolated: Traumatic events can have an incredibly isolating effect as you may have a difficult time telling others how you feel, or you may believe that no one will understand what you are going through. These patterns can lead to distance in relationships and social/emotional isolation.
- Create anger and frustration: After a traumatic event, you may also feel less in control of your emotional/behavioral responses and act in ways that others perceive to be out of proportion to the situation at hand. This can cause others to get frustrated or angry at you and reinforce your belief that you will never be understood.
Coping With the Effects of Trauma on Your Relationship
Here are some strategies that can help you cope with the effects of trauma on your relationship:
- Validate your experiences: Self-validate by recognizing what you went through was terrible and it makes sense that you are still being affected by it.
- Build self-awareness: Become more aware of your body and mind’s responses to situations/stimuli by taking the time to describe specific thoughts, identify and label your emotions, and notice your impulses and responses.
- Use grounding techniques to stay present: Grounding techniques such as breathing exercises, tapping your finger, or paying attention to your five senses can help you stay present in the moment. These techniques can be especially helpful if you’re struggling with flashbacks or dissociation.
- Practice co-regulation with your partner: Co-regulation means using your partner and their calming presence to help you feel more regulated and grounded. Your partner can help by using a warm, calming tone of voice, validating your distress, and modeling breathing or self-soothing techniques that are helpful to you.
- Create opportunities for self-efficacy: Build in predictability and moments of self-agency throughout the day, where you feel empowered to act from a place of self-efficacy. Your partner can help with this by being reliable and consistent, as well as giving you several options and allowing you to choose what is right for you at that moment.
- Seek professional help and support: Attend therapy with a clinician trained in a trauma-informed treatment approach. There are trained therapists out there who know what you are experiencing and how to help. Please reach out if you or someone you love is struggling with the effects of trauma.
- Join a support group: It can be helpful to join a support group for people who have had similar traumatic experiences.
Supporting a Partner Who Has Experienced Trauma
Here are some of the emotional reactions you may experience if your partner has been through something traumatic:
- Anger at being unable to prevent it: You may feel angry and upset that you could not prevent the event from happening and frustrated that you, too, are now having to live with the impact.
- Unsure of how to offer support: You may find yourself feeling unsure about the “right” way to support your partner and be there for them.
- Confusion at your partner’s behavior: Furthermore, it can feel confusing and upsetting when your partner no longer acts the way they used to or responds to you in a different way following a traumatic event.
- Grief at losing certain aspects of your relationship: There is a grieving process that can occur when someone realizes that the life they used to have with their partner no longer exists. It can be helpful to lean on others when dealing with uncertainty about how to move forward and begin healing.
Below are suggestions of some ways to support your partner if they have had a traumatic experience:
- Avoid using platitudes: Avoid using phrases such as “everything happens for a reason” or “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Sometimes, horrible things happen for no reason, and they leave a person feeling like a shattered version of themselves. The expectation that they need to be “stronger” or “find meaning” in trauma can be incredibly invalidating and leave them feeling like a failure, rather than comforted.
- Pause before reacting: Take the time to calm down and regulate your emotions before reacting to your partner in anger, frustration, or distress.
- Have compassion: Your partner may not be in full control of how they are responding to a trauma trigger and may need time to let the automatic response out before learning a new way of responding. Be understanding and compassionate with them during this process.
- Be patient: Keep in mind that healing is not a linear process—it will likely be full of ups and downs. Try not to get discouraged.
- Seek help: Go to your own therapy to help process your emotional responses to the event and the changes in your partner or your relationship.
I always recommend that partners of those who have experienced trauma also seek help and support because their lives have been impacted as well. Traumatic events often cause long-term mental and emotional damage. Trauma can affect every aspect of your life, including your relationship with your partner. It’s important to give yourself time to heal and seek help if you need it. Communicate with your partner and let them be there for you through this process. Together, you can work on rebuilding your relationship.