Trauma’s Impact on Relationships: Part II

Man and woman standing in fieldCommunication and trust are key ingredients in any relationship, yet are often negatively impacted by the effects of a traumatic experience.

Trust
The very nature of trauma can shatter an individual’s trust in the world and fellow human beings. A survivor’s reduced level of trust can also make communicating difficult and even damage the foundational fabric of a relationship. Many a survivor believes, “I once trusted and I got hurt, therefore I will protect myself by never trusting again.” After trauma, the world and people in general can seem to be completely unpredictable. Danger seems to be everywhere and so a survivor of trauma may feel that they can never put their guard down in order to relax, feel safe, or trust.

These false beliefs about the world—that no one, including oneself, is worthy of trust and that one can never be safe—can be clung to and reinforce each other. Unfortunately, these beliefs are often expressed via impulsive, mean, or aggressive behaviors towards the people closest to the survivor. While the individual may often feel self-hatred or shame for acting in harsh and distrusting manners, to discuss the reality of these behaviors and the impulsiveness and fear behind them would require open communication that may be difficult or impossible at the time.

Listening and Communication
Survivors of traumatic events often struggle with both expressing themselves and listening actively. Active listening requires a certain amount of concentration and can be made more difficult by the presence of  hypervigilance. After experiencing trauma, most people’s concentration levels are lower and their levels of hypervigilance higher than their pre-trauma baseline. It can be difficult, if not impossible, for survivors of trauma to process significant chunks of information, making complex or lengthy conversations a significant challenge.

In addition to a potential decline in listening abilities, people who have experienced a traumatic event often shy away from openly communicating. Open and forthcoming communication may be avoided for two types of reasons:

  • The individual may want to avoid certain internal experiences. It is common for an individual to not want to experience the emotions, thoughts, or memories that go along with talking about the trauma or to share their internal distress with others because of shame about this this distress.
  • The individual may want to avoid certain reactions from their listener. The survivor may choose not to share the horror of the traumatic event out of fear that the listener will become traumatized or not believe them. This fear of being toxic often silences a survivor. A survivor may worry about burdening loved ones with information about the trauma or how the survivor has been impacted. Many individuals also do not communicate about the traumatic life event for fear of judgment and rejection: the worry that by sharing information others will think that the survivor is “going crazy,” overreacting, weak, or should be “over it by now.”

Emotional Bonding
These deficits in trust also negatively impact the opportunities for appropriate emotional and physical closeness, which, like open communication, are an imperative component of any relationship. A survivor of trauma often feels emotionally dead inside. This internal deadness can prevent the individual from experiencing emotions for friends and loved ones and can make it incredibly difficult to receive care, support, and nurturing from these loved ones. Feeling and being emotionally bonded or close is not really feasible.

The absence of a strong emotional bond and the survivor’s heightened state of physiological alertness can negatively impact the physical closeness in a relationship. In a state of hypervigilance and presumption of danger, being touched can set off the person’s safety—fight, flight, or freeze—reactions. The friend or lover who inadvertently triggers the safety response by physically touching the survivor quickly learns to avoid physical contact at all cost. Unfortunately, loved ones often stop trying to connect with the traumatized individual, emotionally or physically, since it can feel like the survivor is actively rejecting the loved one.

Authors Herbert & Wetmore phrase it well when they state that, “It is usually not the case that trauma survivors cease to love the people who were close to them before the trauma, but rather that, for the present, they can’t respond to those people normally, because they have lost access to their capacity to love.” Yet an important distinction to make is that even though a survivor may not be able to feel love, they can still act in a loving manner.

The good news is that these difficulties do not need to be permanent. It is possible, through the slow work of healing,  for the survivor to relearn how to trust and feel safe, and for these disturbances or difficulties in emotional and physical closeness to recede. This slow but entirely do-able process is best engaged in with a trained professional. May those of you who are the friends and family of a trauma survivor find an extra ounce of patience and fortitude, and may those of you who are healing from a traumatic life event find validation and the courage to keep growing.

© 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.

  • 3 comments
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  • Emma Harmison

    Emma Harmison

    September 8th, 2010 at 10:17 AM

    My ex-boyfriend lost his dad when we were still together and he was deeply hurt. I know he was very close and attached to his dad and that his death had a big impact on him. But rather than trying to find comfort in me, he started behaving differently and would be like someone lost and not in this world. This lead to a major degradation in our relationship,as a result of which we finally broke up.

    I don’t understand why some people behave this way-start being weird instead of trying to find comfort in a difficult time!

  • Farrah

    Farrah

    September 8th, 2010 at 12:36 PM

    What I do not understand are the people who turn away from their friends when they experience a traumatic event in their lives. This is when the one who is hurt needs people the most yet in my own experience I can say that this is when people I knoew and loved left me high and dry. I wa sraped and when I finally came forward about it I needed people around me to love me and support me and that ones I cared about the most left me high and dry. What is up with that? It was like they could not deal with the crap that I was going through when I really needed them there for me. made me take a good long look and determine who my real friends really were. Don’t run away just because you don’tknow what to do. At least let the person who has been hurt know that you care and that you will get through it together. Running away makes the pain even worse because not only are you dealing with the veent but you are dealing with losing people in your life too.

  • larry

    larry

    September 8th, 2010 at 9:08 PM

    The thing that many ppl do not understand is that when someone goes through a difficult time they may not be in a position to share it with others and would want to be rest alone because even encouraging words said by you would sound like you are pitying them.

    i lost all of my friends after i lost my job last year.it was not because they shunned me but because each of their words sounded like they are pitying me and i felt demoralized even to have a conversation with them.so i distanced myself from them.

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