Just 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.
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