What is trauma and How is it Treated? Part 4: How trauma impacts relationships
Now that we've gone over symptoms, it's important to discuss the impacts of trauma on relationships. Humans are meant to interact, and so anything that gets in the way or makes it harder for us to do so hurts us at a very deep level. Below are some of the most common ways I see trauma impact adult individuals and couples in my practice, and some ways to address it.
Trust. Whether you are a survivor of childhood abuse (verbal, sexual, emotional, physical), neglect (physical, emotional, medical), chronic emotional misattunement, or a survivor of abuse or assault as an adult, trauma can impact your ability to trust.
Survivors of childhood abuse often believe on a deep level that you can't trust anybody. When caregivers are not safe physically or emotionally, children get mixed signals internally to both connect (we are hard-wired to do this) and to run away. This is really confusing for kids, so we learn to "shut down." Over time, we stop being able to recognize danger effectively and don't feel safe connecting with anybody. People who experience this have a constant internal push-pull of wanting connection and love while at the same time not ever feeling close or happy in relationships. This can lead to picking the wrong people, always feeling guarded, not feeling fully happy, or thinking we're better off alone. Even if the survivor finds a safe and loving partner later in life, they can still hold on to these limiting beliefs deep down, and don't know how to let them go.
Intimacy. Survivors of abuse and neglect not only often struggle with trust, but struggle with intimacy as well. This is especially true when the person is a survivor of sexual assault. Violations of our bodies often lead us to have conflicting relationships with our bodies, and people in our physical space. Because touch is basic human need, we all want some degree of loving touch. So when we have had conflicting or negative experiences with touch in the past, in can taint touch that we do want in the present. It is often difficult for loving partners to understand at a deep level.
Emotional Regulation. Often, survivors of childhood abuse, attachment injuries, or emotional misattunement, struggle with managing stress later in life. When we are infants, we don't know how to manage sensations and feelings, so we rely on caregivers to meet those needs. If we didn't have emotionally safe or predictable caregivers, we don't develop a template for self-care/self-soothing, and can't self-regulate well as we get older. This can lead to feeling like you are "going through the motions or on auto-pilot," numbing through behavioral or chemical addictions, a disconnect between your mind and body, or relying on others to feel good about yourself.
How to support your partner and improve your relationship if you or your partner is a trauma survivor. Being a survivor or loving a survivor does not mean that fantastic relationships aren't possible. It just means that you might have to be more intentional about creating trust, safety, understanding, and support. Here are some of the ways to support a survivor in a loving relationship.
Learn more about emotional regulation and self-soothing skills by seeing a trauma therapist or reading about the window of tolerance
Learn more about trauma and relationships through websites like International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation, EMDRIA, and The Gottman Institute
See a trauma-informed couples therapist to help you and your partner better identify triggers, ways to help each other regulate, healthy communication, and safe boundaries
Developing a good external support system
Kaley Sinclair Jiawon is the owner of Sinclair Counseling Services, a counseling practice in Downtown Orlando specializing in trauma recovery and helping her clients find healing, peace, empowerment, and connection. Click here to learn more.