Helpful Information for Partners of Trauma Survivors
Survivors of trauma deserve peace and security in partnership, however trauma survivors may have a difficult time navigating relationships.
If you love a survivor of trauma, it may feel challenging to both understand and support your partner. The individual with a history of trauma can feel terrified to trust another individual. Trying to form an intimate relationship may lead to frightening missteps and confusion.
Whether the trauma was physical, sexual, or emotional, the impact can show up in a host of relationship issues. Survivors often believe deep down that no one can really be trusted, that intimacy is dangerous, and for them, a real loving attachment is an impossible dream. Many tell themselves they are flawed, not good enough and unworthy of love. Thoughts like these can wreak havoc in relationships throughout life.
Potential Behaviors or Thoughts of Trauma Survivors
Many times, trauma survivors relive experiences with an unresponsive or abusive partner. This often happens without the ability to see the reasons why they feel compelled to pursue unhealthy relationships. Beneath awareness is a drive to revisit unresolved trauma, and finally make things right. Of course, childhood wounds cannot be repaired this way unless there are two willing partners working on changing those cycles. But if these forces remain unnoticed, survivors can get caught in a cycle of abuse.
Even with a safe partner, a trauma survivor may
- Experience depression
- Develop compulsive behavior, an eating disorder, or substance dependence to try and regulate their emotions
- Have flashbacks or panic attacks
- Feel persistent self-doubt
- Have suicidal thoughts
- Seek or carry out the adverse behavior they experienced as a child
Partners of trauma survivors may want desperately to help. But partners need to be clear that it is not your problem to fix and you don’t have the power to change another human being.
It is important to recognize unhealed trauma as a dynamic force in an intimate relationship. It can super-charge emotions, escalate issues, and make it seem impossible to communicate effectively. Issues become complicated by:
- Heightened reactions to common relationship issues
- Emotionally fueled disagreements
- Withdrawal or distant, unresponsive behavior
- Aversion to conflict and inability to talk through issues
- Assumptions that the partner is against them when it is not the case
- Lingering doubt about a partner’s love and faithfulness
- Difficulty accepting love, despite repeated reassurance
- Having challenges with touch, physical contact, and physical intimacy
In a relationship, a history of trauma is not simply one person’s problem to solve. Anything that affects one partner impacts the other and the relationship. With guidance from therapy, partners begin to see how to untangle the issues.
Trauma survivors and their partners have different needs for support.
How can one respond when the other is grappling with mental health issues? How do you calm things down when overwhelming emotions get triggered?
It takes therapy for couples to find answers that are most healing for them. But some general tips for trauma survivors and their partners that can help are:
- Have a really good support system for each of you and the relationship. Make time for family and friends who are positive about your relationship and respect you and your loved one.
- Find a trauma-informed therapist to guide you as a couple or as individuals in your effort to better understand yourselves and each other.
- Find resources outside of therapy such as support groups or other similar activities
- Take time for psychoeducation. Learn about the nature of trauma, self-care and healing techniques like mindfulness.
Building a healthy bond with a trauma survivor means working a lot on communication. Grappling with relationship issues can heighten fear and may trigger flashbacks for someone with a history of trauma.
Learning how to manage communication helps couples restore calm and provide comfort as their understanding of trauma grows. For example, couples can:
- Use self-observation to recognize when to slow down or step back as feelings escalate
- Practice mindfulness to raise awareness and recognize triggers for each of you
- Develop some phrases to help you stay grounded in the present and redirect your dialog, such as:
- “I wonder if we can slow this down.
- “It seems like we’re getting triggered. Can we figure out what’s going on with us?”
- “I wonder if we are heading into old territory.”
- “I’m thinking this could be something we should talk about in therapy.”
- “I wonder if we could try and stay grounded in what is going on for us – is that possible?”
- “I know you may not feel safe right now, please tell me how I can support you.”
- “Your feelings don’t overwhelm me, I am here to support you now if you need.”
- “Let’s do something right now to help regulate ourselves and our body. Let’s play with our pet, go for a walk, etc.”
Communication can also help a partner comfort a loved one during a flashback. Techniques include:
- Reminding the person that he or she is safe.
- Calling attention to the here and now (referencing the present date, location and other immediate sights and sounds).
- Offering a glass of water, which can help stop a flashback surprisingly well. (It activates the salivary glands, which in turn stimulates the behavior-regulating prefrontal cortex.)
About the author: Janet Bayramyan is a licensed therapist, licensed in CA, FL and SC. Janet specializes in working with trauma survivors, those with challenges in their relationships and family dynamics utilizing EMDR and Brainspotting therapies. Janet believes in everyone's internal resiliency and innate ability to heal. Read more from Janet, or connect with her directly by viewing her Frame profile here.