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How Trauma Impacts Your Relationship

Among the difficulties of making a relationship work, is the ability for partners to repair the ruptures that disconnect them, regulate their emotions to communicate with empathy and understanding, and turn towards one another for comfort and soothing. This is no small order for even the healthiest couples; but for those with past trauma, these skills are even harder.

Trauma disrupts the very fabric of relationships because it eats away at the trust underlying a sense of safety. The traumatized partner(s) are constantly scanning their environment for signs of betrayal, rejection, or abandonment. They can misread their partner’s words, actions, or tone of voice as attempts to inflict further emotional wounds. As such, trauma sends signals of danger to the traumatized person(s), and they move quickly to defend themselves from being retraumatized. When one or both partners have suffered past trauma, it can create a relationship that is marked by frequent conflict, emotional mood swings, fear, shame, and distress, leaving both partners exhausted trying to make it work.

Forms of Trauma

Trauma comes in two different forms, which are called Big “T” and Little “t” trauma.

Big “T” trauma is acute trauma, usually a car accident, gun violence, rape, or some other event that occurs once. This type of trauma overwhelms the brain’s ability to respond, usually creating a sense of helplessness and terror in its victims. These types of trauma, if not dealt with, can stay locked in the body with no way out. When triggered, the person can respond with flashbacks, overwhelming fear, nightmares, and intrusive thoughts of being harmed again. These emotional responses can lead to alcohol and drug abuse, or can cause the traumatized individual to shut off their emotional system altogether and go numb, not feeling any joy in living.

Big “T” trauma can have damaging effects on a relationship, in part because the non-traumatized partner does not understand and does not know how to help. They see their partner suffering, sometimes with non-visible symptoms, and feel helpless to comfort or soothe their partner. Often victims of Big “T” trauma feel ashamed by their response and blame themselves for being victimized. They pull away from others, including their partner, because they do not feel worthy of being loved or accepted. Big “T” trauma can lock a couple in a cycle of approach-withdraw, where the traumatized person seeks closeness and comfort, but pulls away from fear and shame.

Many couples come to therapy where one or both partners have suffered through trauma (abortion, miscarriage, car accident, death of a child, etc.). There are proven therapies to help couples work through their traumatic reactions, but most often couples come to therapy with the second type of trauma.

The other type of trauma, called Little “t” trauma, is trauma that was sustained through repeated abuse, neglect, or emotional mistreatment either in a previous relationship or in a person's family-of-origin. This type of trauma develops slowly, occurring multiple times, and leaving the person feeling confused, disoriented, and unable to process what was happening. Eventually, because of the repeated nature of the trauma, they learn to adapt. They shut down their emotional system so they don’t feel, and they learn not to trust others who they feel will never be there for them. They get hyper-anxious when they sense abandonment and become needy and aggressive in their pursuit of emotional connection. These types of responses also have an impact on their adult relationships because they interfere with creating a sense of safety and getting the connection they truly desire.

How Trauma Affects Relationships

Trauma is encoded in the amygdala (the emotional center of the brain) as emotional truth. People who have past emotional wounds, or trauma, get stuck with the body’s response to triggers that does not register as conscious words in the brain, but rather as an automatic response in the moment. This is why trauma can be so frustrating for many couples who seem to fall into the same patterns during conflict, regardless of the circumstance or topic. One or both partners may be responding to the emotional wound that was activated, and their immediate response is one of anxiety, which is the body’s internal alarm bell telling them they are in danger – this then leads to defenses (how they adapted to the previous trauma) to protect them from being re-traumatized.

Many couples do not recognize how past trauma plays a role in their current relationship. Because trauma is internalized over time (Little “t” trauma), they often don’t realize that the emotional reaction they are having is perpetuating their current problems in their relationship. Furthermore, they may struggle to see that the way they have adapted to their trauma is creating a negative feedback loop, where what they are trying to avoid is the very thing that keeps reoccurring. Consider the following example of a couple where one partner has experienced past trauma.

Maryann and Hank sit quietly in the two chairs next to each other. Maryann is clearly upset, her lips pursed together and her arms folded in front of her chest. She does not understand why Hank is unable to see that when he gets angry it shuts her down. She feels he dismisses her feelings, and that he doesn’t care for her. She has tried multiple times to get him to understand how she is fighting for the relationship but to no avail. She feels it is hopeless, and in those moments she pushes even harder to explain so that Hank will “get it.” Hank on the other hand, is emotionless. He looked like a deer caught in the headlights. He is confused and is desperately trying to figure out how to solve the problem and how something so innocent as him taking a different route to therapy has caused such a reaction in Maryann.

Therapist: Maryann, what were you feeling inside when Hank began taking a different route to therapy today?

Maryann: I was confused. He never goes that route and I wanted to know why.

Therapist: I can understand why that may have caused confusion, especially since it was a new way that Hank hadn’t driven in the past. Help me understand what that is like for you when you are confused?

Maryann: Well, I don’t like it. It makes me feel vulnerable. It feel like I am out of control.

Therapist: Hmmm. Out of control. That sounds scary. When have you felt out of control before?

Maryann: Oh, all the time growing up. My father was an alcoholic and we never knew what kind of mood he would be in. Sometimes he was sweet when he was drunk, but a lot of times he was angry and would stomp around yelling and punching the walls.

Therapist: Oh, that must have been terrifying, not knowing what would happen in those moments.

(Maryann begins to cry – she is moving away from her anger and embracing more of her underlying emotion of fear.)

Maryann: Yes, it was very scary. I hate feeling helpless in those moments. I never want to feel like that again.

Therapist: Is it possible Maryann, that some of what you were feeling in the car ride today made you feel scared and helpless, like when you were growing up, and that your need to control Hank stems in part from your fear of being out of control in those situations?

This is just a little snippet of a therapy session with a fictionalized couple who present with a history of trauma. Maryann’s fear of being out of control as a child with a parent who was supposed to be her protector, create a lens through which she views current circumstances with Hank. Her need to feel safe at all times, pushes her to be aggressive and controlling with Hank, so as to almost demand that he protect her, and leaving him feeling little autonomy for his own freedom of choice. Of course, Hank plays a role in this scenario as well, and the therapist would have focused on Hank’s inability to emotionally attune to his partner and not intellectualize the circumstances as a form of protection against his own doubts and fears.


Trauma gets generalized. The brain’s way of protecting us is to create a wider and wider circle of fear so we never repeat our trauma, and the brain does a great job of protecting us. What the brain does not do well is teach us that what occurred in the past is not always what is happening in the present. Trauma impacts our relationship precisely because it disorients and skews how we see our partner in those moments when we have been triggered. Remembering our partner loves us, wants what is good for us, and has our back, seems too hard to imagine in the grip of trauma. But the first step in solving any problem is to recognize its impact. I hope this short assessment creates some insight into how any past trauma or emotional wounds currently play out in your relationship.

How much does past trauma impact your current relationship? Complete the following assessment to find out. We'll show you a score and give you tips on how to improve. Note: We comply with all HIPAA standards. Your answers and information are confidential.

Click the link to start the assessment.

- Tom Philp, LPC & CEO

Stonebridge Couples Therapy

(918) 248-9891

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