How Relational Trauma Can Affect the Trust-Building Process

Couple working together talking and laughing while painting a roomTherapists used to reserve the term “trauma” to describe events like war, rape, and life-threatening experiences. We now recognize that people can have similar responses to relational traumas. When one partner engages in behaviors such as infidelity or addictive behaviors, leaving their partner feeling betrayed and abandoned, the hurt partner can experience trauma-related symptoms. They may experience shame, worthlessness, withdrawal, paranoia, obsessive thoughts about the betrayal, and thoughts of self-harm.

I find that often, couples minimize, dismiss, or misinterpret these symptoms, making healing and reconnection difficult. The hurt partner may wonder, “Are you doing this to me again?” This fear can turn into an array of behaviors: accusations, interrogations, questions, and looking into their partner’s emails, phones, and computers for evidence of deceitful or hurtful behavior. They may even conclude “I can never trust you again” or “You are incapable of changing” when they feel overwhelmed.

For the offending partner, this can be a defeating experience. Maybe they truly have ended the hurtful behavior. Maybe they are working on an effective recovery and have achieved a significant period of sobriety. Maybe they have ended an affair and fessed up to their deceit.

Even with all of this, their partner may be vigilant and untrusting. The offending partner may get frustrated when the other continues to bring up old hurts or dig for evidence of expected poor behavior. Frustration can turn to anger and resentment: “My partner will never trust me again.” “Why can’t they just move on?”

When I find couples in this distressing cycle, I start to inquire about the presence of unresolved trauma—a force that, when unacknowledged, can pit partners against each other and make healing difficult.

Reliving the Pain

Let me illustrate with a hypothetical example. Jenny and Stan came to couples therapy to heal from the hurts of his addictive behaviors. Stan had been in recovery for almost a year, diligently working his recovery program and making significant progress. They felt hopeful about their healing as a couple and at times have felt closer than they ever did before his addictive behaviors escalated.

When I find couples in this distressing cycle, I start to inquire about the presence of unresolved trauma—a force that, when unacknowledged, can pit partners against each other and make healing difficult.

Therefore, they were both surprised when what seemed like a small event turned into a standoff that reminded them of the chaotic days when Stan was active in his addiction. They explained how Stan got stuck in a meeting, forgot to call Jenny, and came home two hours later than expected. Jenny described how, when Stan apologized and gave his excuses for why he was so late, that moment felt like the moments in the past when he would lie to her to cover up his addictive behaviors. She felt the same feelings of betrayal, abandonment, and uncertainty.

Stan was upset, too. He described how overwhelmed and angry he felt seeing Jenny’s reaction. Even though he was truthful in his reasons for being late, he was facing those same harsh responses from Jenny. She was accusatory and untrusting, despite all his progress. In our session, they both reported feeling they were “back to square one” and “could not be together if it was going to be like this.”

Recognizing the Trauma Response

When couples recognize the trauma response that was triggered, they can start to respond to those moments in transformative ways. They can appropriately tune in to each other. They can see that “the problem” is not necessarily their partner’s inability to be trustworthy. “The problem” is not the hurt partner’s inability to move on. “The problem” is the disconnect that happens when the pain of the past is triggered in both partners.

Stan and Jenny faced a normal, yet pivotal moment when he was late. How they learned to respond in those moments determined the pace of their healing. If Stan responded to Jenny with “You need to get over this,” she would have been left to manage her trauma response alone, further dividing the relationship. However, if Stan became a safe place for her to experience her trauma response, they could learn to connect in ways that are imperative for the healing process. In these moments, couples can strengthen their bond and attachment.

When the pain of old hurts gets triggered, it is no longer “Here we go again,” but rather, “Of course you feel this way sometimes. I’m in it with you. You are not alone in this.” The offending partner can respond to the hurt partner’s moment of panic with understanding and comfort. This shift allows them to move out of a defensive stance of “This isn’t going to work if you are never going to trust me” and into a comforting stance of “I’m so sorry this is scary for you right now. What can I do to help?”

The hurt partner can recognize their emotions as a traumatic response. They can start to notice the difference between “You are untrustworthy” and “I’m feeling that anxiety and panic again, like I’m scared you are going to hurt me again. In these moments, I really need you to be with me, reassure me, understand my pain, hear me,” etc.

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Building Trust and Connection

These triggering moments turn into opportunities for true healing and transformative connection. This is when couples take the pain of incredible hurts and use it to connect in ways that create security and safety. These triggering moments, when handled with care, become the foundation of rebuilding trust. They are not moments to be feared and avoided, but rather moments to be valued for the closeness they can bring. The relationship not only becomes a safe place to find relief but also a protection against the stress that trauma can bring.

If relational traumas are coming between you and your partner, contact a licensed therapist.

References:

  1. Carnes, S., Lee, M. A., & Rodriguez, A. D. (2012). Facing heartbreak: Steps to recovery for partners of sex addicts. Carefree, AZ: Gentle Path Press.
  2. Johnson, S. M. (2002). Emotionally focused couple therapy with trauma survivors: Strengthening attachment bonds. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

© Copyright 2018 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Lori Epting, LPC, therapist in Charlotte, North Carolina

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.

  • 2 comments
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  • Bonnie

    Bonnie

    May 9th, 2018 at 2:59 PM

    Okay, but I think there are some transgressions that a partner cannot be forgiven for or trusted again after it happens.

  • Cindy

    Cindy

    May 17th, 2018 at 6:41 AM

    This issue & its results extend to the parent of an addict!

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