Trauma’s Impact on Relationships: Part I

Woman comforting another woman in a wheelchairJust as the experience of a traumatic event impacts and alters the relationship you have with yourself, such an experience also impacts your relationships with others. The manner in which family and friends respond to the crisis you endured is often influenced by the type of traumatic event experienced. Tragically, these reactions can often feel as—if not more—traumatic than the initial event. These types of reaction often occur when you, the survivor, begin speaking out about the trauma: a time when you truly need and deserve endless love and support.

Traumatic incidents that do not involve family members or close friends tend not to shatter the relational network as dramatically. But they by no means place less stress upon relationships. Some of this is linked to the common patterns of support that arise after a traumatic incident.

How Loved Ones Respond
Initially family and friends are intensely relieved that their loved one is still alive and “okay.” Loved ones often express this relief by stating how “things could have been worse.” Though intended as an expression of relief and love, such an expression often feels minimizing to the survivor.

Over time the family members’ and friends’ relief fades. This happens naturally as the traumatic event becomes a part of their past and as each of these individuals re-focuses on the present and future. This act of focusing away from the trauma as the defining moment is healthy and necessary.

However, the rate of this re-focusing tends to occur more quickly for family members and friends. Family members and friends often become confused and frustrated because they have moved on faster than the survivor. They wonder why their loved one has not healed when they have.

This emotional reaction can also grow into a sense of helplessness and possibly even anger as family and friends begin to notice the psychological impact the trauma has had on you, their loved one. Reactions from family and friends may separate them from the survivor as they notice that their loved one has “not moved on.” It is difficult for family/ friends to understand that although physical wounds have healed, the survivor’s mind/soul is still wounded and needs time to recover.

They may have trouble realizing the survivor’s healing process will take much longer that their own healing did. It is also difficult for the support system to understand that, until deep healing has occurred, the survivor will experience the trauma continually. The event is part of their present and not yet a part of the past.

When Trauma is Not Just Emotional
Even though physical injuries tend to heal more quickly than emotional injuries, for individuals who sustain physical injuries due to the traumatic event these injuries, ensuing scars, limitations, or altered body can be a source of relationship difficulties. A physical injury once healed—say after the amputation of a leg—will still require modifications in a survivor’s social, familial, and academic/work worlds not to mention changes in the individual’s hobbies, sources of relaxation, and sense of identity.

Through these physical changes, someone’s social support network may become significantly reduced or altered. For example, one may no longer be able to pursue a beloved pastime, such as rock-climbing, or one may no longer feel comfortable wearing one’s preferred style of dress, such as shorts. Layer on top of this the fact that able-bodied individuals can be judgmental as well as rejecting of individuals with physical limitations and one has a recipe for further alienation and isolation.

Physical changes can also impact the fun and relaxation that the relationship shares. Since every healthy relationship needs to have an element of fun and relaxation, this can transform the essence of the relationship. In addition, the survivor may have lost her or his sense of pleasure, enjoyment, or interest and may no longer feel safe venturing out of her or his—now smaller—comfort zone.

How to Maintain Relationships in the Face of Trauma
Each of these dynamics places strain upon relationships and can, unfortunately, erode the love and support as well as enjoyment and relaxation a survivor experiences and has access to. I encourage you to talk about these relationship dynamics. Initiate conversations with your family members and friends who are safe, and desiring to be supportive.

Knowing the reality of these dynamics may help you and your loved ones manage the strains that trauma places upon relationships. This knowledge can also prevent your relationships from becoming damaged due to the traumatic experience. Finally, take heart because as you heal, your ability to develop and maintain healthy relationships will grow along with you.

© Copyright 2010 by Susanne M. Dillmann, PsyD, therapist in Escondido, California. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • mathew

    August 5th, 2010 at 7:17 PM

    it hurts the survivor most when his family blames him for what happened.

    a friend of mine was injured in an accident a couple of years ago and although nothing serious happened,he was advised complete bed rest for a couple of weeks.during this crucial time and soon after that,all his family did other than the usual taking care was blame him as to why he was on his bike in the night.this did not help my friend at all and he was dejected and felt let down.all his friends did cheer him up and all that but I am sure he could have been far better off without all that blame from his family.

  • a svenson

    August 6th, 2010 at 3:58 AM

    I lost my job a year ago and soon after that I was under depression. I was in therapy too. But what helped me equally was the support of my family. They stood by me in such a tough time and showered love upon me like no one would. I am truly lucky and happy to have such a great family.

  • laura d

    August 6th, 2010 at 4:33 AM

    I was in a pretty bad wreck when I was young and when I was ready to talk it seems like everyone was willing to listen at first but then it felt like they were all just telling me to get over it even though no one ever specifically told me that to my face. It felt like they stopped listening but I was not ready to stop talking. There were some lives lost in that wreck and even though I lived, there was still a part of me that still feels not quite so whole from that whole experience.

  • Iris

    August 6th, 2010 at 9:43 PM

    People who have never experienced this type of traumatic event in their lives naturally think that once the event is over so is the trauma. So wrong.

  • IAmEchad Twitter

    August 8th, 2010 at 1:18 AM

    I experienced many of the things you discussed. I still don’t understand the rationale for saying “It could have been worse.” My mother said that to me while I was in college & told her of a gang rape during Spring Break. I was also sexually abused from a very young age. My family still tells me it’s been long enough and to move on. My therapist did give me a reality check and said I was not malingering. Sometimes I don’t know who to believe.

  • Chuck

    November 8th, 2012 at 10:00 PM

    It has taken me a long time to accept that I struggle harder and longer than my brother with the abuse that happened in our family.
    I would like to add my voice to those who say it will take you as long as it takes for you to feel whole. You need feel no shame or embarrassment that you haven’t sorted out the many indignities done to you and the changes that happened to you as a result. I wish you wellness, in your own good time.

  • Susanne M. Dillmann, Psy.D.

    Susanne M. Dillmann, Psy.D.

    December 4th, 2010 at 12:52 PM

    I feel honored by the comments each of you has shared and hope that each of you will continue to be supported by family or will be able to forge new ties, which support you in your healing and life in general.

  • Holly

    November 8th, 2012 at 7:42 PM

    IAmEchad Twitter, would it help you feel any better if you could defend yourself against an attack? Maybe it would make you feel (and be) less helpless.

    I have a self-defense teacher with over 40 years of martial arts experience who only teaches women and girls. His techniques are designed for women and girls to defend against larger attackers and can even address several situations where an attacker might have a weapon like a knife or gun. There are actually a lot more things you can do in a situation like that than you would think without any training for it. There aren’t many self-defense teachers like mine, but you could look into krav maga. It’s a martial art that looks fairly similar to a lot of the things he teaches in class. I haven’t done krav maga, but I’ve taken a few classes in several other martial arts. From what I’ve seen of it, krav maga looks like it would be relatively more practical for self-defense than most others.

  • Michelle

    April 9th, 2013 at 8:22 PM

    Dealing with a traumatic event is very stressful. We all want to forget, but we get intrusive thoughts and we have physical pains. The trauma gets lodged in the body and we have a hard time physiologically getting over it. Its not your fault.

    I was carjacked at gunpoint four years ago – and it still affects me. Just recently I decided to turn my weakness into a strength and am now helping other people overcome their traumatic issues as a healing coach.

    Just remember, there are many people out there who don’t have anyone to talk to who will have compassion for what they have gone through. You have gone through it – so you now know how it feels and can listen without judgment.

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