CDC research shows more than 60 percent of American adults have as children experienced at least one ACE (adverse childhood experience), and almost a quarter of adults have experienced 3 or more ACEs — and this is likely an underestimate. [Source: CDC]
Because emotional trauma is so prevalent, you are likely a trauma survivor; you are in a relationship with a trauma survivor — or both.
Every person deserves a relationship that is absolutely loving, successful and harmonious — no matter what scars have come from trauma. Yet for people with a history of childhood trauma, forming secure partnerships can be especially difficult. A trauma survivor may require in themselves and their partner, unique knowledge, understanding, and therapy to be able to hold space and allow trust and repair to occur in a present day, safe relationship. It takes time to heal the old wounds from any type of emotional injury – what therapists may call complex, developmental relational trauma.
“We are born in relationship,
we are wounded in relationship,
and we can be healed in relationship.”
– Harville Hendrix, Ph.D.
What is it like being in a relationship with a trauma survivor?
What might it look to be in a relationship with a trauma survivor? Loving a trauma survivor can pose unique challenges. Here’s an example:
John comes up behind Kathy while she’s working at the sink and gives her a surprise bear hug. Kathy jumps out of her skin, in a full-fledged panic attack. Sexually abused as a child, Kathy doesn’t seem able to hold or process that she’s currently with a safe loved one, and she scrambles to get away. John can’t understand why she’s so jumpy and is hurt that his style of affection terrifies her.
What some couples might be able to brush off or address simply and easily, trauma survivors may be unable to navigate. This can cover any number of issues, from reacting to a raised voice to forgetting to come home at the regular time to feeling like your partner is a different person sometimes.
Partners of trauma survivors, meanwhile, may frequently find themselves thinking, “I triggered something. Now what?”
How having a trauma history can affect a relationship
All intimate relationships have challenges. But for couples where a trauma history is a factor, sorting through issues can seem overwhelming at times. These couples may struggle with:
- Heightened reactions to otherwise small missteps
- Highly charged and more emotionally fueled disagreements (sometimes safe in the present moment, sometimes not)
- Withdrawal or distant, unresponsive behavior
- Aversion to conflict and inability to talk through issues
- Insecurity and suspicions without cause
- Lingering doubt about a partner’s love and faithfulness
- Struggles developing a healthy, meaningful sex life
- Difficulty trusting and accepting love, despite repeat reassurances
- Fear of abandonment
For a trauma survivor, a relationship can feel scary, confusing, and even lonely. Even when deep down, a trauma survivor longs to grow closer to their partner, and even wants to be vulnerable with them, the impact of trauma can drive a wedge into a relationship.
As a trauma survivor’s partner you may find it very hard to reassure a loved one with a trauma history that you value and care about them when the message does not seem to stick — even if you keep trying. This can lead to confusion, frustration, and isolation.
Why being in a healthy relationship can take time for trauma survivors
For those who survive childhood traumas (and accordingly have CPTSD), it takes more than time to heal wounds to a person’s ability to trust and feel safe with a loved one. No matter how many years go by, the survival instincts learned in childhood do not disappear on their own. Closely held beliefs and strategies used for self-preservation in childhood can later wreak havoc in many aspects of life, especially the efforts to form healthy, safe life partnerships.
A history of trauma can leave a person believing deep down that no one can really be trusted, that being close is dangerous, and that a reliable, supportive bond with another is a myth or at best, wishful thinking.
For a person with a trauma history, the original rules for survival can divert a couple from embracing and experiencing all that love has to offer, even when both people in the relationship are trying, trustworthy and want the best for themselves and each other.
Fortunately, human beings by nature are wired for connection with each other to provide mutual care, protection, and support! And more importantly, healthy relationships heal trauma!
Trauma-informed therapy can help partners form secure, healthy relationships
Therapy can help make this bright future possible.
By becoming more informed about the nature of trauma and how to heal, a trauma survivor can learn to:
- Notice the present moment for safety and stop reacting to old fears and situations that are not currently happening
- Learn to soothe the old signals of danger and calm down the nervous system to notice the present
- Learn new ways of communicating and trusting bit by bit
- Let new skills, experiences, and feelings emerge and watch them be safely held by their partner
- Become able to know they are safe with their partner today
And also by becoming more informed, a trauma survivor’s partner can understand more about their partner’s needs and learn to speak the language of safety.
“Over time as most people fail the survivor’s exacting test of trustworthiness,
she tends to withdraw from relationships.
The isolation of the survivor thus persists even after she is free.”
Getting there — together
Every relationship has issues. For couples where one or both is a trauma survivor, their relationship will have similar rough spots, plus the challenge of processing emotions triggered and amplified by unresolved wounds. Healing these wounds within a healthy relationship can make these partners even stronger together.
A trauma survivor and their partner can learn how to navigate this road together, as a couple, and enjoy a fulfilling, safe, healthy relationship.
Remember, you aren’t alone. Most people have experienced trauma and/or are in a relationship with a person who has a history of trauma, and sometimes, neither one is aware of its presence. (You might be a trauma survivor if…)
Ultimately, trauma survivors are just as worthy of love as anyone else and can become especially strong, supportive, perceptive, and giving partners!
“When we enter into a relationship,
we want to matter to our partner, to be visible and important….
We want to know our efforts are noticed and appreciated.
We want to know our relationship is regarded as important by our partner
and will not be relegated to second or third place
because of a competing person, task, or thing.”
-Stan Tatkin, Psy.D., MFT
Trauma-informed therapy can help provide the tools and resources to change your relationship for the better. If you’re a potential new client, please contact/email me for care.