Everything You Need To Know About Healing From Relationship Trauma
Even after nearly 10 years of marriage, my wife and I still struggle with the effects of relationship trauma from events that occurred in our first year together.
In order to heal from relationship trauma, we need to understand what it is, why it is so impactful, how it affects us, and – most importantly – how we can start to heal from it.
What exactly is relationship trauma?
Relationship trauma is the kind of emotional and psychological trauma that occurs between two partners.
This kind of trauma can also occur between siblings, parents and children, friends, etc..
But, for the purpose of this blog post, let’s keep it within the context of our romantic relationships.
Well, as an online therapist, I work a lot with couples and, being in a long-term relationship myself, I think I’ve come to have a good understanding of how relationship trauma impacts two partners.
But also, I’m writing this blog post for my wife, and myself.
Many years ago, back when my wife and I were just starting to get to know each other, I injured our relationship.
Through my own insecurities, I questioned our relationship and on a very few occasions let my own fears get the better of me.
My fears manifested in a way that allowed anger to get the better of me and almost come between me and my life partner (to my great detriment).
The result? I almost lost my wife and saw my marriage dissolve.
Thankfully, with help and a lot of self-reflection, I overcame my issues and could carry on my relationship without re-injury.
It also helped that I trained professionally as a marriage and family therapist.
But, although I painstakingly worked to heal my own wounds, I’m not so sure my wife’s wound were properly patched up.
I’m not sure she forgave me.
I do know that those old wounds get re-opened from time to time.
Usually when things are strained and our life is bordering on the chaotic, like the years since we’ve had kids.
So, if I’m writing this post for my wife just as much as for you (and me), then what is it that can be done about the relationship trauma that is impacting your (and my) relationship?
A closer look at relationship trauma
When we think of relationship trauma, it helps to consider it as an injury to the connection we share with our partner.
Now, this injury can come from something like an affair, episodes of violence, active addictions, or just plain old arguments (as in my case).
Because we’re wired to bond with others, when our connections become ruptured, we are left to languish in the pain of the initial injury.
This damage can be quite impactful to our attachment needs, as those needs are some of the most fundamental ones we have.
The result is that the connection we seek (and need) becomes traumatic.
Fight or flight
When faced with trauma, our all-too-human response is usually fight or flight (or freeze).
What exactly is fight or flight?
Well, it’s a physiological response that kicks in to help protect us from an external threat.
With evolutionary roots, it’s an instinct we all share to protect ourselves – both physically and emotionally.
Obviously, when it comes to relationships – especially those we wish to continue (like the one with your partner) – a fight or flight response may not be the most helpful.
How else does trauma impact our relationship?
When relationship trauma has impacted one partner, there is another emotional danger that can be present: the partner who experienced the trauma may become stuck.
In a sense, emotions become frozen.
Now, in a relationship, if that partner who experienced the trauma becomes stuck, there is real potential that a new relationship dynamic is borne: one that sees that partner getting stuck repeatedly in the same emotional spot.
Essentially, the trauma is re-triggered and hinders the repair process.
If I bring the impact of relationship trauma back to the context of my own marriage, the ability of my wife and I to repair and grow beyond the damage of our relationship trauma is impaired.
And, when left unspoken, both of us feel a growing disconnection.
The result is a myriad of dysfunctional dynamics that we repeat over and over again.
Not every day, but it tends to rise to the surface when we are faced with periods of stress like moving, the births of our children, or job changes.
Seeing Everything As Bad
One other important consideration for the impact of relationship trauma is that it can cause one or both partners to undergo shifts in their thinking.
These shifts can amplify distress and prompt partners to see ‘everything’ in their relationship as bad.
Or, that the relationship is out of control and cannot be repaired.
This dichotomous thinking – that the relationship is either bad or good – leads to partners asking enormous existential questions of themselves.
Should I leave?
Should I stay?
Sadly, one important question is often overlooked: ‘Should I begin the process of healing from this relationship trauma?”
As a couples therapy expert, I can tell you that this existential question of staying or leaving is one of the greatest threats to a relationship.
It skips over the entire discussion as to whether or not healing is possible and propels the philosophizing partner to make a decision that will indelibly change their life.
Avoiding the use of labels
There is one important point I want to make about relationship trauma.
You may have noticed that I’ve avoided the use of words like ‘victim’ and ‘perpetrator’.
Labels help no one and hurt everyone.
Allow me to repeat that.
Labels help NO ONE and hurt EVERYONE.
The fact is, if I were to use labels, then I’m encouraging the painting of one partner into a corner from which they can never escape.
And that is a mistake.
Because we are all innocent and all guilty.
No one belongs in a corner.
The reason why I’m writing about my mistakes in the past towards my wife is that it is cathartic and helpful to be open and honest about my past with you.
I have come to enjoy, appreciate and even embrace authenticity as I grow older.
And the truth is, as much as I’ve hurt her, she’s hurt me.
But, the hurt we cause our partners isn’t and shouldn’t be the point here.
I encourage you to avoid pointing fingers and blaming one another as you and your partner navigate the process of healing from relationship trauma.
Instead, allow each partner point the finger at themselves.
When people start taking responsibility, often our partner helps point the finger in another direction, in the hopes of easing their offending partner’s burden and creating space for the offending partner to move past their mistakes and become the kind of partner we want them to be.
As much as the victim needs to ‘heal’, so, too, does the offender.
If healing doesn’t take place, then there is no point to it all except that of wallowing in the recurring pain called the relationship.
How do we know if we are struggling with relationship trauma?
I’m going to go out on a limb and say that if you are struggling with relationship trauma, you probably know it. But, if you want a second opinion, check out some of these signs or symptoms:
Emotional & psychological symptoms:
- Shock, denial, or disbelief
- Confusion, difficulty concentrating
- Anger, irritability, mood swings
- Anxiety and fear
- Guilt, shame, self-blame
- Withdrawing from others
- Feeling sad, hopeless, disconnected or numb
- Insomnia or nightmares
- Being startled easily
- Difficulty concentrating
- Racing heartbeat
- Edginess and agitation
- Aches, pains and muscle tension
One caveat in reviewing this list of symptoms: just because you only experience one or two, if they are coupled with a known relationship injury from the past, it could be that you are experiencing a re-triggering of that trauma.
What Can We Do About Relationship Trauma?
So, now that we know what relationship trauma is and what to look out for, what do we do about it?
Well, first, we want to free ourselves from the emotional traction and power relationship trauma has on our lives and relationship.
We also want to get rid of the recurrences of pain or re-triggering we experience because of the trauma.
When we are stuck in trauma, our limbic system (an important part of the brain that I won’t bore you with the details of) can become impaired in its ability to regulate our emotions.
The result is that our mood, sleep and thought patterns can be impacted and lead to manifestations such as depressive symptoms, anxiety, sleeping problems as well as dysregulated appetite, intimacy and libido.
So, if you’re not keen to suffer any of the above issues, then it might be worthwhile tackling the relationship trauma that is impacting you or your partner.
Healing relationship trauma using a solution-focused approach
One of the first tasks when it comes to healing from trauma is creating an environment that encourages compassion, empathy, acknowledgement and validation.
In short, talk about it.
But, in a way that isn’t threatening.
We need emotional safety and space in which all feelings are normalized and allowed to be expressed.
Once we’ve created a safe space in our relationship to talk about the past relationship trauma, then we want to move on to building strength and confidence in our ability to overcome our relationship trauma.
That starts with strength-based questions.
How to use strength-based questions to overcome relationship trauma
Our main goal is to foster a sense of self-efficacy. And, let’s not forget confidence.
Start doing that by asking:
- How did you cope with the relationship trauma at the time?
- How did you know what to do when you experienced the relationship trauma?
- What got you through the relationship trauma?
- How did the relationship trauma make your relationship stronger? (Note: I didn’t ask weaker. Yes, of course the trauma injured your relationship. But, when we ask how it made it stronger – because your relationship did survive it – we change the language of the trauma from all bad to bad, but some good.)
- Despite the relationship trauma, what part of the trauma made you and your partner stronger?
- What made you and your partner persevere and keep your relationship together?
Some ground rules for discussing relationship trauma
You may be bursting at the seams to start healing from your trauma. This is good, and should give you important motivation. However, it is helpful to start the process:
- In a respectful, supportive manner
- By validating and affirming one another in a safe, caring way
- By keeping focus on achieving your goal = growing beyond the relationship trauma
What is needed to get out of the clutches of relationship trauma?
The single most important ingredient to all change is hope.
Yes, there are times to give up hope, depending on the situation.
But, if staying in your relationship and moving beyond relationship trauma is important and a goal you want to achieve, then hope becomes the key ingredient in helping you imagine a positive outcome.
And, without the ability to foresee a positive outcome, where will the motivation come from to bring change to your situation?
Next to hope, we need courage – the courage to take action.
One of my favourite quotes comes from Edward Abbey, the famous American author, who said:
“As a confirmed melancholic, I can testify that the best and maybe only antidote for melancholia is action. However, like most melancholics, I suffer also from sloth.”
Basically, what Abbey is saying is that action is the antidote to despair.
The need to take action
If we are to overcome the difficult times, we need courage in order to take action.
It’s up to us to decide if we are going to make a shift towards a new relationship with our partner – one that is no longer held hostage by relationship trauma.
And, to make that transformational shift happen, it takes both partners to do the necessary work and not get distracted by the trauma, but rather focus on the new relationship that will unfold.
Rather than become distracted by the trauma, we must become hyper-focused on our best hopes – our new goals for the relationship.
In short, the partners of the relationship are important, not the traumatic stories of their past.
Answer ‘The Best Hopes’ Question
The Best Hopes questions to ask and answer (in the greatest detail possible) for you and your partner are:
- What will be taking place in your relationship that lets you know things have progressed beyond the trauma?
- What will your relationship look like when it has healed from the trauma?
- What will be different about your relationship that will tell you that you and your partner have reached your goal of overcoming the trauma?
At first glance, the questions may seem to have no connection to the ‘how’ in the phrase ‘how to get rid of relationship trauma’.
But, I want you to use your imagination for a minute.
Think about it: if you don’t know (and in great detail) what your new relationship will look like, then it will become impossible to take the actions that are necessary to overcome your relationship trauma.
That’s because the details you will be most well-acquainted with will be those from the trauma, and not the healing and progress you’ve made to resolve it.
Ignoring the Best Hopes questions risks allowing the traumatic event that occurred in your relationship to define or become the sole defining moment in your relationship.
And, that would be a problem!
Thus, it is far more important to consider all the other actions, experiences and events that are relevant to your relationship and make those the defining characteristics of your relationship.
By asking the Best Hopes questions, you are orchestrating a dress rehearsal of the new and wonderful defining moments of your relationship.
The last task is to go out and rehearse those moments.
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About the Author
Jonathan Van Viegen is a full-time online therapist and relationship coach helping adults and couples improve one of the most important relationships in their life – the one with their partner. Jonathan’s approach has helped 100’s of clients struggling to maintain a lasting, loving relationship while navigating the challenges of parenting. Jonathan’s goal with this blog is to offer you a behind the scenes look at his life to show that it is possible to create the kind of relationship you desire – using simple skills that anyone can learn.