How Trauma Can Undermine a Marriage (and How to Fix It)

Woman awake in bed while male partner sleepsMarriages are often perceived by those who aren’t in them or by those who have suffered in them to be a place of restriction, resentment, and lack of understanding. Many other people, meanwhile, consider marriage to be the holy grail, the fountain of youth, and the best thing since sliced bread.

So why are so many bad marriages bad? What do so many of them have in common?

Although it may be a gross overgeneralization, trauma is often a major culprit. It’s sneaky, hides in the darkest and deepest places within a person, and boy, is it persistent!

If you’re married, I want you to reflect on your life and your marriage. What experiences have you had that could be affecting your marriage today? If you are having trouble coming up with answers, let me cite a handful I have seen come into play: growing up in a single-parent home, economic struggles, parental infidelity or divorce/separation, physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, neglect, lack of affection, trust breaches, deployment, illness, death of a loved one, miscarriage, even the birth of a child (yes, that can be traumatic, too!). I can list pages of experiences that might be considered traumautic.

For the purposes of explaining how trauma can undermine a marriage, I am going to use the example of childhood sexual abuse experienced by a female.

When Childhood Traumas Haunt Adult Relationships

Elliott and Briere (1992) confirmed their long-held belief that women who experience childhood sexual abuse were not only more likely to have symptoms of posttraumatic stress, but also to have increased negative outcomes across several areas, including their marriages. For example, women participating in the study who had been sexually abused were more likely to have reported divorces than their non-sexually abused counterparts.

The fact the extent of the abuse (whether it was an inappropriate lap-sit or a long-term incestuous relationship) did not correlate to better or worse outcomes is important to consider in the context of relationship issues. The presence of ANY sexual abuse, no matter its form or extent, may be detrimental to a person’s relationships in the long run.

So if someone wants to prevent sexual trauma from affecting their marriage, what should they do? Where should they go?

The Role of Therapy

Time and time again, couples counseling has paid off for people who worked through such trauma together. In a research study by Macintosh and Johnson (2008), dealing with the trauma of childhood sexual abuse helped more than half of participating couples achieve improved relationships.

My suggestion, however, is for couples in situations like this to go beyond couples counseling and for each partner to also pursue individual therapy. Many therapists will see both partners individually as well as together. If you choose this route, it is important to do your research on prospective therapists. Generally speaking, you want someone who specializes in or is highly experienced with trauma.

What to Expect During a Consultation

In my own practice, my routine is to meet with couples prior to beginning treatment for a consultation where I listen to general issues and history (I always assess for trauma), formulate a treatment plan, and give an estimation of therapy length. I talk about the risks, some of the difficulties, and the importance of the couple’s engagement and commitment to doing the needed work. Then I let the couple decide if they want to schedule a session.

No one gets the same treatment plan or approach. Some couples see me individually as well as in couples counseling, while in other cases I see the couple together only. For some, I may even suggest a different therapist to provide the individual or couples therapy.

Whatever you pursue and whoever you choose to pursue it with, please make sure it is a good fit.


  1. Elliott, D. M., & Briere, J. (1992). Sexual abuse trauma among professional women: Validating the Trauma Symptom Checklist-40 (TSC-40). Child Abuse & Neglect, 16(3), 391-398. doi:10.1016/0145-2134(92)90048-v
  2. Macintosh, H. B., & Johnson, S. (2008). Emotionally Focused Therapy for Couples and Childhood Sexual Abuse Survivors. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 34(3), 298-315. doi:10.1111/j.1752-0606.2008.00074.x

© Copyright 2016 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Kristin Martinez, MS, LMFT

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

  • Leave a Comment
  • Shaefer

    May 23rd, 2016 at 7:08 AM

    We don’t like to think about the things that happened to us during our childhoods having such a large impact on us, but these are the things that make us who we are for better or for worse. You are lucky if you end up with a spouse who loves you and supports you through receiving treatment for that trauma.

  • cynthia

    May 23rd, 2016 at 10:28 AM

    You sort of wish that most of this would be worked out before the wedding.

  • Latissa

    May 24th, 2016 at 7:47 AM

    So I have some things that I would like to try to work out in my own life but I feel like my husband would be very dismissive if I ever tried to talk to him or with hi about it. He can be so closed off and pretty set in his ways that he wants to work out our own stuff without involving someone else. he believes that it is none of their business.

  • Piper

    May 27th, 2016 at 9:52 AM

    I was molested when I was younger and for years I tried so hard to hide and bury the pain and the shame that I felt because of it. I knew that it wasn’t my fault, but I still felt like maybe there was something more that I could have done to stop it? Anyway, I didn’t tell anyone for a long time about what happened to me but them one day I started talking about it and I guess haven’t stopped. I feel bad because I know that this is a huge thing for any spouse to hear and understand about you, but I just want to talk about it and it feels so good to unburden myself but I haven’t given too much thought about what it has done to the other people in my life either.

  • leigh

    May 28th, 2016 at 10:13 AM

    I sure would hate to think that I am letting something that I had no control over come to control me, ruin the other wonderful things apart form that that I have created in my life.

  • Dayne

    May 29th, 2016 at 7:11 PM

    I do not let these things define me.

Leave a Comment

By commenting you acknowledge acceptance of's Terms and Conditions of Use.


* Indicates required field.

GoodTherapy uses cookies to personalize content and ads to provide better services for our users and to analyze our traffic. By continuing to use this site you consent to our cookies.