Extreme life events and other situations that threaten our physical and psychological survival can cause what we call trauma. Many people who have sustained trauma experience symptoms such as panic attacks, anxiety, feelings of anger, and reliving the event. In addition to trauma from childhood experiences, war, or rape, unresolved chronic stress from past abusive relationships can lead to trauma-like reactions. Especially for survivors of childhood trauma, a history of abuse or neglect can make trusting another person seem impossible, causing confusion and conflict in your intimate relationships. Furthermore, unresolved childhood issues that often lie dormant for years may suddenly appear, hurting your relationships today.
How does trauma affect people?
Whether the trauma was physical, emotional, or sexual, the impact can show up years after the actual event and can affect your relationships. Many people with unresolved trauma believe the world is a dangerous place, that they cannot trust anyone, or that they don’t deserve love. While these ideas may help a child cope with pain, they don’t help them form a sense of self or a proper sense of the world. These people grow up with unresolved issues and often end up forming unhealthy relationships. For example, a person who was abused as a child may now tend to form intimate relationships with abusive partners.
How does trauma affect relationships?
Trauma survivors may experience physical and psychological symptoms, depression, flashbacks or panic attacks, feelings of self-doubt, or suicidal thoughts. They may also seek or carry out the behavior they experienced as a child and develop compulsive behaviors, an eating disorder, or a substance abuse disorder to try and regulate their emotions. The following points show how trauma can affect intimate relationships:
Fight, flight, or freeze.
Triggers can cause unresolved trauma to come to the surface and create a fight, flight, or freeze state. People who used any of these responses in the past to help them survive their childhood trauma (e.g., seeing your angry parent drunk. so you ran away) will use them again in their adult life. This can result in behaviors that can damage their relationships. For example, people who survived their trauma by fighting may present physical or verbal aggression in their relationships, while people who ran away from their trauma may react the same way during intimate or emotional situations. Finally, if the person froze up during a traumatic situation (e.g., a girl being raped) they will likely freeze and feel helpless during conflicts with their partner.
Rejection or interpersonal trauma can create toxic feelings leading to dysfunctional relationships filled with toxic emotions and behaviors. Trauma survivors often develop toxic feelings like shame; combined with their low self-esteem, this causes them to hide their true feelings and personalities and act on their insecurities by attacking others or overcompensating. These feelings will also make them defensive and averse to accepting criticism, causing conflicts and tension in their relationships. Toxic feelings and unregulated emotions can also lead a person to addictions or compulsive behaviors as a way of self-medicating, making their behaviors or substance use the priority and ignoring their partner’s needs and feelings.
Experiencing childhood trauma or a traumatic intimate relationship can shape someone’s beliefs about the world in negative ways. These beliefs can then bias how trauma survivors perceive their partner’s actions or the world in general. They may believe that the world is a dangerous place and their partners are the worst, making them unable to trust or form any relationship. Often, the fear of rejection or abandonment will lead them to reject any positive relationships.
Childhood trauma can leave a person with insecurities and the feeling that they don’t deserve love. As adults, these people will often seek similar relationships and get involved with unloving and abusive partners, making them experience the same pain over again. Due to their traumatic experiences, these people seek emotional intensity from dysfunctional relationships and reject friendly, honest, and loving people.
Recognizing unresolved trauma.
According to Goff and Smith, individuals who are emotionally close with those who survived past trauma not only develop stress symptoms that mirror the symptoms of the survivor but symptoms of primary trauma can also be exacerbated by the symptoms of a secondary trauma survivor. Nonetheless, the same study demonstrated that both trauma survivors and their partners experienced lower marital satisfaction, a lack of intimacy, interpersonal difficulties, and higher individual stress than couples where neither of the partners had a history of trauma or PTSD. We can safely say that, in relationships, trauma is not one person’s problem, but something that affects both partners and the relationship as a whole.
It is important to recognize the signs of unresolved trauma in a relationship before they escalate to worse issues that can drive the relationship to the edge. Some common signs that may show unresolved trauma in a relationship include
Withdrawal. Distant behavior. Avoidance. Doubt about a partner’s love and faithfulness. Difficulty accepting love, despite reassurances. Inability to communicate about issues and inability to tolerate conflict. Inability to manage disagreements without intense emotions. Negative self-talk. Addictive behavior. Eating disorders. Intense anxiety. Depression. Self-harm. Intrusive thoughts, nightmares, or flashbacks
Unresolved trauma and relationships.
Sometimes, in cases of childhood trauma, children learn how to protect themselves by employing a defense mechanism. For example, if their parents were always absent, a child may have learned to numb their feelings to avoid relying on anyone. However, when that child becomes an adult, they may continue using this mechanism in intimate relationships in order to protect themselves. What was helpful in childhood is no longer working, as it negatively affects their relationships and keeps the person disconnected from their partner.
A study by the sociologist Bella DePaulo from the University of Virginia claims that some lying is necessary for everyday life. Experts believe that the sooner the full truth comes out, the better. Experts claim that married people lie to one another, on average, in one out of every 10 interactions. Post-divorce research studies cite dishonesty during marriage as one of the leading causes of divorce.
Each case of lying is unique. Thinking ahead about the consequences of our actions and the potential damage from lying requires self-awareness, but can prevent the unnecessary suffering of our loved ones.Statistics.
Research shows that alcohol and substance abuse co-occurs in 40-60% of cases of partner abuse. On top of that, men who have alcohol problems have a 60-70% chance of suffering from sexual problems such as erectile dysfunction, premature ejaculation, and lack of sexual desire. This is evident in a study from the University of Granada in Spain, which found that men who abused drugs and alcohol suffered from impaired sexual functioning.
Building a healthy relationship based on communication, respect, love, and understanding will help trauma survivors feel safe and validated. Their relationship should be based on unconditional love with safe boundaries that don’t disregard each partner’s needs. Also, the relationship should encourage honest and open communication and both partners should be patient and compassionate.
Unresolved trauma and relationship coaching
Many people do not realize that they have had traumatic experiences, especially if it is something that happened when they were a kid. Relationship coaching works by helping couples become aware of how the traumatic experience(s) affect them and how this impacts their current relationship. The coach will help couples separate their past issues from present ones and progress will come through a combination of individual effort and teamwork. Relationship coaching will help them understand their individual stories and how they impact their relationship, as well as how to process their thoughts and emotions in healthy ways.
Relationship coaching can help trauma survivors and their partners understand themselves and each other. They will be able to recognize better support systems and reconnect with family and friends who are positive and loving. Partners will learn about the trauma and how it works, and learn skills that will help them maintain healthy relationships and self-care techniques.
Often, relationship coaching will start by working towards emotional safety and stability in the relationship. The coach will create a safe environment for both partners to express their emotions so that they can learn to regulate them. Only then, partners will learn to hear and understand each other. When safety and stability are achieved, the partners will be able to share their thoughts and feelings, listen and understand each other, and move on to the next stage: processing. During the processing stage, each partner can begin to understand how their life experiences and trauma have played into what has happened. Finally, the partners move to the integration stage, where they understand what it takes to have a healthy relationship. This is when each partner understands that they can trust and depend on each other for support and understanding. This is where partners begin to practice their new skills so they can heal their trauma and grow together.
Research has assessed the effects of trauma on relationships for some time now and the results have shown that relationship coaching can indeed help couples work and overcome their trauma while improving their relationships. Facing traumatic memories and the emotions that come with them won’t be easy, but as you work through them, you will find more strength to handle challenges than ever before.
Healing any wound takes hard work. Finding a relationship coach who can recognize and acknowledge your pain is the first step to repairing a deep wound. When partners connect, healing begins as well. The more the couple understands about the trauma and how it affects their life, the easier it will be to heal and find the way back to a healthy and loving relationship.
Kathryn Basham PhD, LICSW (2005) Transforming the Legacies of Childhood Trauma in Couple and Family Therapy, Social Work in Health Care, 39:3-4, 263-285, DOI: 10.1300/J010v39n03_04
Monson, C. M., Fredman, S. J., Macdonald, A., Pukay-Martin, N. D., Resick, P. A., & Schnurr, P. P. (2012). Effect of cognitive-behavioral couple therapy for PTSD: a randomized controlled trial. JAMA, 308(7), 700–709. https://doi.org/10.1001/jama.2012.9307
Nelson Goff, Briana & Smith, Douglas. (2005). Systemic traumatic stress: The Couple Adaptation to Traumatic Stress Model. Journal of marital and family therapy. 31. 145-57. 10.1111/j.1752-0606.2005.tb01552.x.
Nelson Goff, Briana & Wampler, Karen. (2000). Systemic effects of trauma in clinic couples: An exploratory study of secondary trauma resulting from childhood abuse. Journal of marital and family therapy. 26. 171-84. 10.1111/j.1752-0606.2000.tb00287.x.