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What Do I Do if My Trauma is Impacting My Current Relationship?

Updated: Jun 25

man distressed in therapy
processing trauma in couple's counseling

I see trauma impacting relationships every day. It can't be avoided. There are a lot of explanations of what trauma is. I feel personally that trauma is anything that put you in a position to feel like you didn't have control over your safety. Our brains expect every story to have this arc of beginning, middle, and end. We expect a conflict to rise and resolve. We can deal with hard things if we know they are going to end in a way that makes sense. But what if things don't end in a way that makes sense? What if safety is unpredictable? How do we deal with that feeling in relationships?

Have you ever been wronged in your job, a relationship, as a child, in a friendship, by a teacher, etc? Of course you have! These are very human experiences. There is a wildly vast scale of what being wronged can look like. You don't have to have been assaulted to feel stuck in the feeling that something happened to you that shouldn't have happened. If you have been assaulted it's understandable that your faith in humanity has experienced damage, and needs repair in order to trust in it again. Essentially what trauma does is it takes that feeling of being wronged, it ignites all of the survival responses in your body (fight, flight, freeze, fawn, etc) every time your brain suspects that this experience could happen again. When you are in a relationship, you will encounter the feeling that you might get hurt over and over again.

In couple's therapy, I find it really difficult to dive deep into trauma. There are a lot of great therapies out there like EMDR and IFS that essentially help you close that arc of the story that something happened to you. Your body doesn't know that you are no longer in danger, because the way the story ended didn't have resolution. You don't get to come down from those survival instincts back to a normal and regulated state. You stay at that peak, on guard at all times that something bad is going to happen. With good individual focus on your trauma, you can close the arc of those moments in life that left you feeling like you had no control over your safety. You can essentially go to the place in your mind where the version of you that didn't have control still exists and help them leave that space by visualizing control or implementing justice. You become the adult or advocate you needed in the situation where you had no control. These types of treatment can't be rushed. They need dedicated space and time to be effective.

Where couple's therapy comes in to play, is knowing how to talk about what is going on with you with your partner. Imagine every relationship is like a tall, snow-capped mountain. On the south side of the mountain, the sunny side, is all of the flaws your partner brings to the relationship. It is easy for you to see the things your partner is doing that cause you to be frustrated with them. On the north side of the mountain is all of your stuff. Your stuff is on the shady side, its less obvious to you. You maybe even conceal it, thinking what is best for the relationship is for you to not bring your stuff to light. However, being fully yourself, wounds and all, is also the path to being fully loved. Part of your criticism of your partner just not being enough for you might actually be that you are waiting for parts of you to be loved that you conceal from them. Learning to talk about what is going on with you, allows your partner to understand that sometimes you are not doing well, and that has nothing to do with them; however, your communication opens up the door for them to learn how to be supportive to you in those moments.

Often I see individuals who have done the work of understanding their trauma and employing great coping skills, but they continue to be blamed for the state of the relationship. Their partner does not have the capacity for empathy or the emotional range themselves to tolerate big feelings. Your trauma is not your fault. Going through the waves of trauma, allowing yourself to heal and hurt, is a good thing! As long as you don't directly take your trauma out on your partner, it is absolutely ok that sometimes you're not ok. I'll often hear fights end in mic-drop moments, where the other party uses the trauma as a means to back out of conflict. I guess you're just triggered again, I don't know what I'm supposed to do. When this starts to happen, your trauma can take to blame for a lot of valid complaints about the condition of your relationships that actually have nothing to do with your trauma. Your partner may need a little training to understand better how they can be supportive. However, if they are continuously branding you as the problem without taking a look at their own work, it may not be the partnership you need. Living with trauma requires a lot of self-awareness and space to accept yourself. Just remember that relationships require balance.

If your trauma-needs consume all of the space in the relationship, consider balancing things out by actively working on meeting your partner's needs the way you wish for them to meet yours. Your partner may need to step away from your feelings to regulate themselves. When you matter to someone, it is difficult for them to see you in pain. I am so grateful that society is really beginning to celebrate the importance of feelings, and a feeling is often just a feeling. Sometimes we confuse a feeling or a thought for our physical reality. It might feel like the world is ending, but is it? Our feelings are important, but sometimes we whip them up to be more important than logic. Both are important. One should not ignore the other. When we make decisions based solely on emotions (especially in a dysregulated state) we become impulsive and embody the immaturity of a toddler. In which case, my mom brain says, "Hey, I get that you're upset. That makes sense. I would love to hear all about your feelings. When you scream at me, I feel unsafe. You can choose to keep screaming, and I'll go somewhere else so I can feel safe. But if you would like to speak softly to me about how you're feeling, I'd love to stay and listen."

There are many ways different modes of therapy talk about the impact trauma or early childhood has on you and your relationships. I like to think about it like a jigsaw puzzle piece. When you are young you are trained how to give and receive love from a small number of people (primarily your parents). It is in these early years that your puzzle piece is cut out. You take on this shape that was effective for you to get your needs met. So, you take your shape out into the world and naturally end up aligning with people who have similar ideas about connection and love as your early caregivers did. But this isn't necessarily a pattern that is serving you in adulthood. The challenge becomes to be aware of the shape of your puzzle piece, where it indents, where it juts out - and then make decisions about how you want to give and receive love. Reform the puzzle piece so that healthier relationships will work for you.

If you find yourself in a relationship where you and your partner are falling back into the same patterns over and over again no matter how much therapy you do, or books you read - your traumas may be the issue. How you were conditioned to give and receive love are getting in the way of you getting and giving the love you want to give. If this is the case, you may find more success in individual therapy, than couples therapy at first. Do the work of knowing yourself first before you head into an experience where you are expecting your relationship or your partner to change.

If you are interested in understanding the impact your trauma may be having on your relationship, or are ready to work through relational issues related to trauma, schedule an appointment today. 

DD Love, MFTC - (970) 852-0687 -

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