Trauma in Relationships

"All You Need is Love"

From the moment we are born, we all share a need for love and connection. We begin to learn about trust and safety before we learn to talk. What we experience as children forms the basis for our future relationships. It determines whether we can trust and be honest about our feelings.

In our adult relationships we all strive for a deep sense of connection and personal security with our partner. We want our partner to know our strengths, share in our joys, and support us when things go wrong. When we feel this connection, we can be creative problem solvers as issues arise. If we do not have this strong sense of trust and safety, we will struggle for connection, for the feeling that we are loved and valued.

As relationship therapists we help our clients to understand that, besides a current couple’s history, what may have happened in childhood and in previous relationships can influence connection and happiness.

As children, we may have experienced things that negatively impacted our trust and safety systems and, in turn, influence our current relationship. These experiences can include things like:

  • Loss of a parent or loved one in death, especially if there was not an adult to help process the loss and grief

  • Parental divorce

  • Parents who failed to set appropriate boundaries to keep us safe such as:

  • putting a child in a parental role

  • expecting the child to meet the parent’s emotional needs

  • teaching children that emotions are inappropriate and unwelcome

  • sending messages that children’s needs are a burden

  • Parents who were unavailable or neglected us

  • Witnessing parental or sibling abuse

  • Child abuse of any kind

  • Sexual violations by trusted family members or strangers

For some, childhood may also be punctuated by the mental health issues of family members, whether parents, siblings, or even grandparents, which have disrupted family relationships.

Our relationship history may also contain past hurts and traumas which have negatively affected our safety and trust systems, and this can interfere in our present relationship. These may look like:

  • Arguments in which hurtful things have been said

  • A partner not showing up for you at critical time

  • A partner who has an active alcohol or substance dependency problem

  • Disagreement on critical issues related to children or step-children

  • Feeling unsafe emotionally, physically, or sexually in the relationship

  • Infidelity

  • Domestic violence

  • A contentious divorce

  • Death of a spouse or partner

So, as we bring ourselves and the collection of our experiences into new relationships, our past hurts may show up and have minor or major impact on our sense of love and connection in our current relationship. When our processes of learning and experiencing love, connection, safety, and trust are damaged in childhood or by our adult relationships, they will influence our ability to be intimate, to share our inner world, to ask for our needs to be met, or to meet the needs of the ones we love.

We have discussed the negative impact your childhood and/or past relationships may have on your current relationship. Now, let’s explore how that could play out.

When couples come to my office for therapy, they often report distress in the form of “communication issues.” They talk about the arguments (or the silence) and the frustration they are experiencing. While they may be showing up in anger and resentment, both really want to feel love and connection.

They are asking of themselves and their partner: “Do you really care about me? Can you see me? Do you hear me? Do my feelings matter to you? Am I invisible?” Have you ever said, “I just don’t get you; you say you love me but I just don’t feel it”?

As trauma-informed therapists, we can see the impact that our individual, family, and couple histories have in the present and how they may be influencing a couple’s ability

to connect. Past trauma causes our brains to hold the memory of the event; simultaneously our body (specifically the limbic system) stores the emotions. Because past hurts and trauma are stored in both places, we can experience a sense of alarm when we are triggered by a memory, a touch, a place, or even a smell.

Knowing this can help explain why you may think you are over a past pain and try to let it go, yet when you are reminded, you have a bodily reaction that may surprise both you and your partner. It may be the way he or she touched you or suggested some form of intimacy or sex. Perhaps your partner approached you with an intensity that felt overwhelming or didn’t recognize your need for space to feel safe. It may be the way we communicate with raised voices, sighs, or impatience with one another that sends alarm. One thing is likely true for us all: we didn’t wake up this morning and say, “I’m going to yell at my husband today,” or “I think I will ignore my wife,” but these are the negative behaviors we show our partner when something in the relationship triggers our alarm bells.

When something happens that causes us to feel hurt, fear, or shame, our alarm bells go off. These bells are our body’s way of letting us know we aren’t feeling safe. Without conscious thought we have an automatic response from our central nervous system. These responses, linked to our survival mechanisms, are called fight, flight, and freeze behaviors.

What this can mean in our relationships is that you can tell your partner about a past trauma in story form, but when something happens to activate your body memory where trauma is also stored, your reactions may not make sense to you or your partner. Even as our body may be cuing us for a survival response, our minds and hearts desire love and connection.

Next, let's explore how the fight, flight, and freeze mechanisms hardwired in our body may impact our relationships. We've discussed the impact negative experiences in childhood and/or past relationships may have on your current relationship and how these life experiences can impact trust and safety systems.

So, what exactly happens when your alarms go off and someone else is in the room? It means that, though you know you have trauma in your past, and that is where you feel you have left it, you may respond to stressful events in ways that feel out of character or with an intensity that may not match the current experience.

Some examples might include:

  • Jumping or pulling away from a loving embrace

  • Being easily startled or angered when you are surprised

  • Rejecting a dearly loved partner without an explanation that makes sense to them or even yourself

  • Feeling and expressing criticism or self-hatred

You may literally act in ways you do not fully understand or agree with; or you might exhibit behaviors that may be extreme or confusing in the relationship, and do the opposite of what you need to do to get your needs met. This can be true of your partner as well.

Fight, flight, or freeze response will play out in different ways in our relationships:

  • If past hurts/traumas have created fight mechanisms, we may rail against our partner when we become activated by something that he/she did or failed to do. We struggle to let things go and it can be difficult to resolve hurts.

  • If our past hurts/traumas have created flight mechanisms, we may withdraw from the relationship, create space, or even disappear from our partner. This can also generate an avoidance of conflict behavior by any means, which includes lying and omitting from a partner.

  • If past hurts/traumas have created freeze mechanisms, we may do just that when conflict arises, or become so avoidant of conflict that we cannot advocate for ourselves in the relationship. This can be linked to resentment with our partner. We may not feel loving anymore, but we cannot advocate for changes or leave either.

Our fight, flight, or freeze responses can generate extreme behaviors that create stress and confusion in the relationship. One person in the couple may show up as detached and unwilling to risk with their partner, be silent, moody, or not interact for hours or days at a time (flight or freeze). Trying to access that person can be painful. Or, one partner may become so distressed and need to connect with their partner that they do whatever it takes to get their partner’s attention, even if that means doing or saying hurtful things (fight).

This represents a negative interaction pattern in the relationship and can keep the couple feeling stuck, repeating destructive behaviors, and generate feelings of failure in the relationship. Expressions that you may hear in this pattern are, “Here we go again, I am so tired of this same discussion, why can’t we just change what we are doing? I knew this would happen; this always happens when we talk about this, I just want us to get along.”

Since we bring the collection of our experiences into every relationship, we are ultimately influenced by them at some point. Unresolved trauma issues may cause us to avoid closeness with our partner, resulting in a struggle to believe we are truly loved and cared for. It can also make us feel easily overwhelmed, misjudge the motives of others, or engage in conflict-avoidant behaviors, which ultimately lead to feelings of isolation and loneliness. This often results in additional conflict with our partner or leaving relationships entirely due to unresolved conflict, feeling that ‘no one understands me’ or ‘I don’t understand why I do some of the things I do’, where you are then left not trusting your own feelings.

We all need love and we are literally hard wired for connection. That is what makes us human, and when we have our needs met, we thrive. When this doesn’t happen in our relationships, we suffer and oftentimes we blame our partner or ourselves. We feel sad, lonely, and disconnected. We want relief. If trauma is getting in the way of your relationship, Stonebridge Couples Therapy can help!

- Merrie Knox, LCSW Stonebridge Couples therapist

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