When something traumatic happens, the result can be the development of a variety of symptoms that impair a person’s ability to function. These symptoms reverberate beyond the person who was traumatized. They can easily impact close friends and partners, as well. According to Cook et al. (2004), trauma survivors often report a decrease in relationship satisfaction, along with impaired expression of emotion, sexual activity, intimacy, communication, and adjustment. Cook et al. also state that “those with PTSD have higher separation and divorce rates than their non-PTSD counterparts” (2004).
Trauma can impact intimate relationships in a number of ways. Some of the most common I have observed in my own practice include (but are not limited to) the following:
- Avoidance of and decrease in emotional and physical intimacy
- Feelings of helplessness and hopelessness (in both partners)
- Feelings of frustration, anger, confusion, and sadness
- Increase in anxiety
- More frequent arguments and difficulty finding resolution to problems
These problems can cause a relationship to end if left unaddressed. I have often had partners of people with trauma in my office. They feel completely frustrated and alone, not knowing how to make their partner feel better or what to do to save the relationship. People in therapy are also affected by the above issues, which can further aggravate their trauma symptoms by adding stress. The result is two people in a relationship who both want the same things: to heal and make the relationship healthy. But they have no idea how to accomplish either.
Below are some of the behaviors and practices I suggest to people in therapy and their partners as they work through trauma.
Don’t try to fix or heal the trauma and the accompanying symptoms your partner is experiencing. Sometimes well-meaning partners will try to “make it all better” by doing things they think will help the person heal. The fact is healing from trauma takes time. The brain needs time to process traumatic information. The best thing a partner can do is be available to listen when the person who is experiencing the trauma symptoms needs to talk. Be supportive emotionally by offering statements such as, “That sounds like it is really difficult to deal with,” and, “I hear you saying this is really hard for you right now.” The power of just being present for another person is often underestimated.
Don’t take it personally. Your partner is working through something very difficult. Sometimes people who have been traumatized feel more distant emotionally. Sometimes they also don’t want to be close physically. This is not necessarily reflective of how the traumatized person feels about the relationship or about you. This is a common occurrence and part of the process.
Don’t make assumptions. Sometimes well-meaning partners assume a person who has recently been through something traumatic will not want to connect physically. There is often a fear that connecting physically will make the traumatic symptoms worse. In some cases this may be true, as sometimes trauma is sexual in nature, which means some healing will have to take place before physical intimacy can resume. However, it is important to communicate with your partner about what they want and how they would like to connect with you. This subject can feel like the “elephant in the room,” but it is so very important that it is acknowledged. If either partner feels rejected, damage to the relationship can occur. By discussing where each of you are and what your desires are, even if physical intimacy cannot occur, the damage to the relationship has been controlled, as each partner knows where the other stands so those assumptions can be tossed out with the trash.
Consider getting your own counseling. I wrote an article on secondary trauma that discusses the difficulties loved ones often experience after someone they love has been traumatized. Vicarious traumatization is very real and possible. You are offering support to someone working through trauma, so it is vital that your self-care is excellent and that you are getting the emotional support and guidance you will need through this challenging time. You will be much more effective at helping your loved one if you are in good mental shape.
Mills and Turnbull (2004) give good advice for partners of people who have experienced trauma. They use the acronym LOVER to make some important behaviors easier to remember. They suggest partners Listen, Observe, Verify, Empathize, Reassure, and offer practical help. Practical help might include helping to rebuild, fight back, console, prevent, or repair.
For the Traumatized Individual
Involve your partner and communicate regularly. I have found many traumatized people are hesitant to share what they are going through with their loved ones for fear of becoming a burden. The fact is, when you don’t communicate with your partner, they may feel confused and left out. Your partner may tend to become anxious and can sometimes do things to try to make you feel better. But these things may just end up distancing the two of you further. Let your partner know what you are going through. You don’t have to give gory details,. Just let them know, as much as possible, how you are feeling right now and communicate how they can help. If you need someone to just listen, tell them so. If you need guidance and support, your partner needs to know.
Attend your counseling sessions and communicate with your therapist about stressors such as relationship strain. It is important for your therapist to know all your stressors so they can provide the best, most comprehensive care. Additional stressors can stunt healing and lengthen the longevity of symptoms.
For Partners and Survivors
Remember there is hope! People initially get into a relationship because there are things that draw them to one another. When you are having relationship difficulty related to trauma, the problems that arise can sometimes distract you from what you love about your partner and why you want to work in the relationship. A relationship can survive trauma if both people are willing to put in the effort it takes to heal.
- Cook, J. M., Riggs, D. S., Thompson, R., Coyne, J. C., and Sheikh, J. I. (2004). Posttraumatic stress disorder and current relationship functioning among World War II ex-prisoners of war. Journal of Family Psychology, 18(1), pp. 36-45. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14992608
- Mills, B., and Turnbull, G. (2004). Broken hearts and mending bodies: The impact of trauma on intimacy. Sexual and Relationship Therapy, 19(3), pp. 265-289. Retrieved from http://www.recoveryonpurpose.com/upload/Broken%20Hearts%20and%20Mending%20Bodies%20The%20Impact%20of%20Trauma%20on%20Intimacy.pdf
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