You get into a relationship, you’re getting to know each other, starting to trust and rely on each other, and then BAM! Something happens that throws you or your partner off. Something makes you infuriated, terribly sad and hurt, or extremely nervous and worried. But what could that “something” be? This blog is about how our past traumas can continue to affect our relationships as a couple.
How Trauma Enters Relationships
The very nature of relationships is connection. It’s getting to know, trust, rely, and commit to someone over time. Our past wounds, hurts, or traumatic experiences enter a relationship at anytime through feeling connected. Trauma can be described as anything that overwhelmed our ability to cope. Some examples include:
- a parent screaming in your face
- experiencing a scary car accident
- an injury that landed you in the hospital
- a sudden loss of a relationship or death
- or not having access to a primary support person in a time of need
Triggers: Reminders of Past Traumatic Events
When we experience anything close to one of our “original traumatic events:” a partner yelling, a partner driving erratically, not being able to get into contact with a partner, etc., we experience a trauma “trigger.” Feeling triggered make us feel like we are back in that unsafe, sometimes life-threatening situation, where we are powerless. This feeling of powerlessness and lacking safety (emotional, psychological, or physical) can cause us to react to our partner in very intense ways that don’t match the current situation or appear “dramatic” to our partners.
When someone feels like we are back in the same situation as we were in during a trauma, we are no longer operating in the “logic and reasoning” part of our brain where we can verbalize “This reminds me of a time growing up when my mom yelled and screamed in my face and I felt like she was unsafe and out of control.” Instead, we might appear to be over-reacting by screaming back, we may get very quiet and shut down, or we may even leave the room entirely (fight or flight-type responses) because of the simple reminder of a time we felt unsafe, threatened, or in danger. We are no longer responding like our loving, considerate selves but out of a place of protecting ourselves from danger.
Make a Plan
The good news is there are ways to prevent and address times when trauma enters your relationship.
- Become aware of your own traumas and how they have impacted how your view yourself and your relationships with others. (Therapy can help with this!).
- When you feel there is enough safety and trust in your relationship to do so, communicate with your partner some of your past traumas, the triggers you know about, and what you need when you feel triggered.
- When you or your partner become triggered:
- Ask “How can I help?” Or “Do you know what you need right now?
- Encourage each other to retreat for 25 minutes to allow the space and time to figure out what just happened and why those feeling came up the way they did, then plan to regroup and discuss feelings to repair the “break” in the connection.
- Encourage each other to go “let out” the anger in safe and healthy ways (like yelling or screaming in the car, punching pillows and bed, running or cycling, or kicking or bouncing a ball in the backyard) then plan to return to discuss what happened at a set time.
- Once you know what your or your partners “Trauma Triggers” are, be aware of them. Be considerate and sensitive to the fact that specific experiences causes trigger, such as raising your voice may be seen as “yelling” and try your best not to when communicating. Be aware that you or your partner experiences worry, nervousness, and anxiety when one of you cannot reach you and make efforts to respond more promptly whenever possible.
- Remember, you and your partner didn’t create this wound, but you can help each other heal it by being caring and understanding.
- Each partner is individually responsible for managing their own triggers and asking for what they want or need when they feel activated.
- Hold in mind that you or your partner does better, for example, when they can retreat and calm down before continuing the conversation, and allowing them the space and room to name, understand, and communicate their feelings and needs to you.
- Encourage each other to say something when you sense something is off or are feeling unsafe. This can help prevent us from taking our partner’s reactions personally, allow us room to offer them a wondering, curious stance around what may be going on for them in the moment, and promote the sharing of feelings and needs prior to being disregulated and “reacting.”
For more information about how trauma affects relationships, consider reading other topics on our blog, reading books like “Parenting from the Inside Out” or “Codependent No More,” or articles like the one on “PsychologyToday.com” entitled “How Traumas Create Negative Patterns in Relationships.”
At Dawn, we understand trauma and are here to help. Contact us today for more support in understanding and healing from trauma for you or a loved one.