Trauma Issues in Partner Relationships

Trauma issues are a wild card in relationships. It's likely that trauma, in one or another of its many forms, affects most or all relationships at some point in time. Relationships will frequently be impacted by traumatic experiences that may have occurred well before two partners have gotten together, as well as at any point over the course of relationship.

Traumatic experiences can be big and all-consuming, or can be more subtle, out of the awareness of both the person who has experienced a traumatic event, as well as a partner. Nevertheless, the impacts of unconscious trauma on relationship can be as significant as those traumas we may be aware of.

Much is being written around the issue of trauma, addressing both the physical and emotional ramifications and also various means of healing or reestablishing well being. Our purpose here is not to focus on the issue of trauma in a comprehensive way; rather, our goal is to point out some of the ways that traumatic experience can impact a partnership, perhaps some ways of understanding how to address it, and, in a general way, to acknowledge the role of trauma as it affects our developmental course in relationships.

The Startle Reflex
John Brière, a compassionate and insightful therapist and researcher on acute abuse trauma, in his book Child-Abuse Trauma, as well as in trainings and workshops where he has presented, makes a number of useful points regarding trauma. When people are traumatized, they adapt to the trauma. Over time, those adaptations can appear to be quite idiosyncratic. If I was in a car accident when I was young, I have a deep imprint on my psyche in which my body remembers, whether or not I am consciously aware of the event. Anytime I hear an abrupt screech of brakes, or clanging of metal, or revving engines, perhaps someone shrieking, my body will react with a startle. It is not the reaction that is noteworthy—it's common to react to an abrupt noise—but it's the extreme of the reaction. The body responds with the same degree of immediate terror as at the time of the original event, and the biochemistry immediately mirrors the biochemistry of the trauma itself, so it can feel as if we are reliving and reexperiencing the original trauma.

We have learned that there are ways we can become desensitized to these extreme reactions to traumatic reminders, but we have also learned that we never lose the first response, what is called "the startle reflex." In time I may not react to such an extreme degree to reminders of the traumatic incident, but I likely will always experience a startle reflex.

The same is true, of course, for physical abuse, sexual abuse, psychological abuse, and neglect. Each of these are forms of trauma, with time and with a great deal of commitment and work, may be somewhat resolved. But reminders, in the form of the startle reflex, will always be present.

The Courage, Wisdom, and Sanity of Trauma Survivors
Brière is quick to point out that we are not flawed or defective or less-than in any way because we have experienced trauma. Unfortunately, often people who have experienced severe trauma are seen as incompetent, immature, or sometimes, as having a mental illness.

We can be quick to judge or to look for a label or a diagnosis. We want a shorthand, superficial way to make sense of the person's seeming extreme or unusual behaviors. What we fail to recognize is that, for trauma survivors, every day can be a battle; every day can require immense courage. For trauma survivors, some days can feel like being in the middle of a war zone, with bombs blasting and bullets flying overhead, and fear pervasive, with no escape for safety. However a person reacting and responding to this type of terror behaves, she or he should be seen as coping as well as possible, and even as coping brilliantly.

Brière talks about "units of self" and "units of trauma." A 5 foot wave for a 6 foot tall adult might be a playful challenge. A 5 foot wave for a 3 foot toddler might be life threatening. As we develop, our sense of self, our adaptability, our capacities, our creativity, our confidence, and our resources all grow, all become greater. We may develop the wherewithal within us to cope with many things that as a younger child we might be overwhelmed with.

Brière is saying that the experience of trauma is subjective: what may be experienced for one person as unremarkable might provide the seeds for significant trauma for another. Since we are not living in anyone else's shoes, we have no ability to judge whether another person "should" be reacting as extremely as they appear to be. Instead, we can assume by the reaction, despite whatever way it is unique or exaggerated, that the individual has a reason—that is wise for the individual—to act in that way.

Trauma Can Compromise Personal and Relationship Growth
Just as with physical development, if we experience circumstances that cause damage, throw us off course, shake up orotherwise impact our psychological sense of self, we, unfortunately, will not be able to move through the developmental stages in a straightforward and seamless way.

The very fact that damage has been caused requires that we give whatever attention is necessary to deal with and to heal—as best we can—at the (hopefully only temporary) expense of moving forward in our growth. If we miss a year of elementary school due to meningitis, we cannot go into the next year of school without first healing from the meningitis, and second, making up for the lost year in terms of academic learning.

It is the nature of most psychological trauma that occurs at the hands of other humans that the trauma will likely not be dealt with in a timely way or may not even be recognized as trauma.

Or there may not be sufficient safety to even begin to examine and understand, or to begin to address what might have occurred. Most forms of physical, sexual, emotional, and psychological trauma or neglect (itself a significant form of trauma), go undetected, unacknowledged, untreated, or inadequately treated until long after the traumatic events have occurred.

This means that trauma survivors are often left to their own immature and arbitrary coping skills, skills which require immensely creative adaptations in order to continue to even remain alive, let alone deal with the traumatic experience, and with little remaining room for focusing on appropriate developmental tasks.

Ken Wilber* talks about "fulcrums of development," a point at which, if all goes well, we begin the shift from one developmental stage to another. He says that if we are unable to move through these fulcrums, our future development will be compromised in one way or another. So the cumulative impact of trauma over several stages in the developmental journey of trauma survivors can deviate quite a bit from the norm, and the healing work becomes not only about the trauma itself, but about reformulating and reshaping, and to whatever extent possible, reexperiencing developmental tasks.

*FOOTNOTE Transformations of Consciousness, Ken Wilber.

Trauma and Relationship
People who have experienced trauma have the same needs and desires as others to have supportive relationships, intimate connections, and quality of life. And it is true that many people who have experienced immense trauma have found ways to cope so that they move into adulthood being fairly intact in a variety of areas of their being. But it is also true that people who have experienced trauma at the hands of another human will have a great deal of challenge creating and maintaining trust, safety, and continuity in intimate relationships, because betrayal and injury ruptures the very fabric of our attachments to other humans. Again, Eric Lindemann reminds us, that trauma is itself a rupture of human attachment. Abuse trauma puts us in a position of not knowing if we can ever be safe with another person again.

And so partner relationships will be, for adult trauma survivors, the most difficult terrain to navigate. But equally, partner relationships are the most appropriate and most helpful arena where the rupture of human attachment might be healed.

As we can see and feel, this is an immensely deep, sensitive, powerful, and personal human issue and relationship issue. The path to healing and the path to well being requires an awareness, an acceptance, and a recognition of the importance of dealing with what has occurred, as an individual, and as partners in relationship. As this occurs, partners can work together to begin to find the peace, joy, and connection we all seek.

Trauma occurs across the full spectrum of injury and impact. Very common among partners in relationship will be the eventual awareness that either I or my partner, or both of us, have some subtle injuries as a result of our childhood experience.

Abuse trauma will become obvious because of its significant impact on relationship. Attachment trauma, that is, the not so visible damage that results from ambivalent, avoidant, or disorganized parent/infant relationships, will also show up in our relationships; although, even as we live it, rarely do we specifically recognize or label it as such. Attachment trauma is complex because, typically, we will tend to be attracted to potential partners who share an attachment experience similar to our own. Folks who have experienced any of the forms of insecure attachment are more likely to be attracted to partners who have also experienced insecure attachment than to potential partners who would have had more secure experiences.

There are many, many forms of traumatic experience that have remained hidden from us, because we usually see the things that happen often or in an ongoing way in our lives as normal, especially while we are growing up. Families with alcohol or other substance abuse, families with an individual who has special needs of one kind or another: effects of divorce, affairs, single parent families, adoptive families, blended families, schoolyard bullying issues, undiagnosed learning disabilities, illness, death—you name it—are all sources of trauma that may not be named as such. And yet the effects can be deep, lingering, and highly impacting in our partner relationships and in our personal lives.

Anything we can do to enrich our awareness of the things that have occurred in our lives, and understand the ways they may have affected us, and the ways we have adapted to them, can be rich sources for transformation for us personally and in our relationships. Partners can be invaluable allies and resources in that process. The danger is, of course, when these earlier experiences are not recognized or identified, and when they are not connected to the ways we are living and interacting in the present, then the likelihood that they will have a toxic or dysfunctional effect on ourselves our partners, our families, and our lives greatly increases.

A special case of abuse trauma that bears mentioning is when one or both partners have been molested, raped, or otherwise sexually abused. We are talking about both blatant, physically violent forms, as well as the more than sometimes subtle emotional forms, such as emotional incest, (for example, when one parent treats a child as an intimate partner rather than as a child). In these situations, partners perceiving themselves and treating each other as co-equals is rare, and boundaries are often not set, or are ignored, or put in place inappropriately. In addition, it is very difficult for the non-abused partner to not feel mistreated and misunderstood and misrepresented in situations particularly reminiscent of the original abuse trauma, (such as when partners are wanting sexual intimacy with each other). It is critical for the partner of a sexual abuse survivor, as well as for the survivor her or himself, to recognize that the nonabused partner is a secondary victim of the abuse—that there will be many issues, emotions, and interactions that she or he must reckon with in an ongoing way because of the abuse that occurred to her or his partner.

Is it inappropriate, of course, for a partner who has not been abused to blame a partner who has been abused, regardless of the difficult experiences the nonabused partner has had with the partner who has been abused. The blame for the difficulties that both partners experience around the abuse falls to the perpetrator.

Getting Help with Trauma Issues
These days, there are a number of sophisticated tools for reckoning with the impacts of all forms of trauma. Talk therapy and insight oriented therapy should remain mainstays, because trauma is almost always a relational issue, and healthy, conscious relationships are essential for empowered healing and well being. Yet there are other useful and powerful techniques that can be used, and should be used, so partners can find ways to be less impacted by historical trauma and abuse trauma. These include hypnotherapy, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), Emotional Freedom techniques (EFT), and Brainspotting, to name a few.

In cases where individuals are not in touch with the nature, extent, and experience of whatever trauma they may have had—in other words, where the traumatic impact is largely unconscious, unrecognized, suppressed, denied, or avoided—it is necessary to "become intimate" with the trauma. This means choosing to look at, examine, understand, and to some degree, reexperience previous trauma, in order to acknowledge what happened as well as the impacts it has had, in order to prepare to address it in a deliberate way.

For trauma survivors, particularly at young ages, the defense mechanism, (that is, the protective strategy), that is typically used is what is called “dissociation” wherein the mind “goes away” from the emotional, mental, and physical aspects of a traumatic event, and focuses on some neutral sensory material such as the corner of the ceiling, the smell of the flowers, or the tune in one’s head, as a way of coping with, titrating or managing the overwhelming pain of the moment.  When one protects oneself through dissociation, other, more sophisticated or appropriate protections (such as fantasy, denial, humor, reaction formation, rationalization, or projection) are not developed, and one broadly employs dissociation into adulthood.  Partners can appear zoned out, far away, or in a trance, and may not be in touch with what is going on in a present tense moment. These folks are typically not connected to an awareness within themselves of the traumatic experiences they have endured, or of its impacts on their adult experience.

For other trauma survivors, whose sense of self has grown and in many developmental lines despite traumatic experiences, and who have been living and reexperiencing and suffering through vivid traumatic images, intrusive thoughts, memories, and body sensations for years, a deeply intimate awareness of the traumas they have endured, already exists. It is appropriate, or it may become appropriate at a certain time for these survivors to consciously and deliberately turn the page on their trauma. Similarly to  idea we have discussed—about tabling the past, and agreeing to consciously focus on the present and the future with a view to creating and co-creating what we can do that is positive, contributory, and joyful—we are suggesting that the same strategy might be utilized for some trauma survivors at a particular point in their lives.

At some point in time, for well being to occur, we will need to disidentify with our experience of trauma, and disidentify with the term “victim,” or even "survivor," not because we have not brilliantly survived, but because we have, and we no longer need to see ourselves in terms of some past representation of ourselves, but instead as the whole, aware, empowered, compassionate, and intact person we are and can be.

Even for trauma survivors, happiness is about empowerment and about what I bring to this now, and create in this now, and in the rest of my days. This is how it will look for partners who move to stage 3 and beyond, partners who are determined to consciously and deliberately co-create a brilliant relationship.