When It All Falls Apart: Trauma’s Impact on Intimate Relationships

Two dying magenta roses lie in the street, leaves and petals falling off 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
  • Isolation
  • 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.

For Partners

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.

References:

  1. 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
  2. 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

© Copyright 2014 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Anastasia Pollock, LCMHC, therapist in Midvale, Utah

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.

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  • townes

    townes

    February 11th, 2014 at 11:31 AM

    I have been through this personally and a tough thing to take is that you have to not only deal with the event that happened to you but there is this feeling of being so isolated and alone, like no one else understands what you are going through. I know that they all mean well but it’s hard to put your feelings into words and if they haven’t experienced this then it almost makes you mad when they ask you to tell them what’s going on. You wonder why they don’t know, why they don’t get it when it feels like you are screaming those feelings of fear and rage. You don’t have to go through it alone, there are always support groups and counselors who can help, but there are times when you want yur partner to be involved but it feels like you are pushing them away too because there are no good words that can really explain what you are feeling and what you need.

  • JK

    JK

    February 11th, 2014 at 3:48 PM

    I just want to be able to help, you know? Even if it’s just a hug or holding her hand, I want her to know that I’m there for her, that she doesn’t have to go it alone.

  • Lindy

    Lindy

    February 12th, 2014 at 6:06 AM

    What is it about me that just wants to jump in and fix things?

    Even when I know that I can’t make it all better, that is my inclination to want to make things right for someone. And rarely do they appreciate those efforts, I am generally just rebuffed and told to back off, maybe not in those words but the intent is there.

    I wish that this would make me more hesitant to do that the next time, but I care about my friends and what is going on in their lives so wanting to jump in and help is that tendency that I have, wanted or not.

  • brad b

    brad b

    February 13th, 2014 at 8:06 AM

    If you are someone who knows that this isn’t something that you can deal with, then by all means, don’t mess this person up by getting involved with them.

    Let them find someone in life who is strong, who can help them and guide them, they don’t need more sadness in their lives.

  • jen

    jen

    September 29th, 2014 at 10:25 PM

    Seriously. You got it.

  • Ava

    Ava

    December 13th, 2016 at 12:23 AM

    I agree. It is terrifying to an already traumatized and injured person – who is isolated because of it, brain, emotionally, physically, – they experience abandonment and rejection by friends and family and quite often healthcare providers. They (we) loe their confidence and self esteem along with what their life used to be like. Sometimes their sense of good judgement. It is very difficult and takes a lot of energy to try nd trust someone and to believe that they won’t be taken advantage of (sexual or emotional) by someone else. Loving and caring for someone because of a connection and because there is an honest and willingness to be there for the right reasons. It can’t be toxic. I have been alone for 5 years. This article is good. If there is even an attempt to be made at even a casual friendship-nothing can be frivolous when you are a survivor. Authenticity and honesty and a slow pace are always required for safety on every level. I hope this helps. it felt good saying it.

  • Dee

    Dee

    October 16th, 2017 at 4:32 PM

    I hadn’t a very traumatic experience happen to me 20years ago! I knew that I wasn’t the same after it happened, but I didn’t know what it was and after one failed marriage and working on my current marriage…I’ve finally learned that I have PTSD. I wasn’t sad to hear that I had it…I was actually kinda of relief surprisingly enough! Because I knew I have something I can work at. My current husband was dealing with his own personal wounds and I never really felt like he was strong enough to help me heal! I actually feel like our marriage is emotionally draining and takes so much from me. I feel like I’m never going to heal from my PSTD being married to my hubby. We are going to couples counseling and I go to individual counseling. I have two children who I absolutely adore and the bring me joy! I want to get better for them, they are my main priority. I wish I felt that way about my hubby, who knows, maybe that will change! I’m tired of feelin stuck and going in circles! I’m ready to be happy, feel and find joy!

  • John

    John

    December 7th, 2014 at 2:22 PM

    The fact is that we cannot spend our lives avoiding hurt people. I’ve given up trying to keeping people who’ve been traumatized out of my life. The more I encounter them the more I learn how to deal with them as well as my own issues.

  • maru

    maru

    December 8th, 2014 at 5:26 AM

    It is hard, I have been through trauma myself which has left me feeling alone and isolated. My relationship broke down and I’m back where I started although counselling helps. Counselling is a great step in the right direction to dealing with feelings and having someone who is impartial to give you some advice

  • Evan

    Evan

    February 8th, 2017 at 12:23 PM

    Fixing things has always been my forte, except in the case of my girlfriend who suffers from trauma, I don’t even know where to begin with her because she won’t open up and share the root of her trauma with me (very frustrating). I’m trying to get intimate with her and just getting the slightest bit of reciprocation from her is like pulling teeth. I too suffer from mental health problems and now I know how my family must feel trying to understand what I go through. She has finally agreed to start trauma therapy so that intimacy can begin as we have ben dating for almost a year. If anyone has any suggestions of how to deal wit this and possibly speed up and or aid in the healing process please let me know.

  • Monica

    Monica

    June 14th, 2017 at 2:43 PM

    Hello,
    I’m looking for some guidance. My boyfriend of 4 years ended things with me last week. Saying things like “I deserve better and he just couldnt feel things for me anymore.” All of this was after a very traumatic life event happened to him. Post that event we had both been in couples therapy, and I was seeking individual therapy aswell. I know my partner is hurting, and I know our relationship is over but at this point I’m having trouble healing on my own. I know I can do the whole “Focus on myself thing” which I’m doing, but my real struggle is the weight of that truma and how it deeply effected and in the end killed our realtionship.
    Answers for healing?
    Thanks

  • Lisa

    Lisa

    December 16th, 2017 at 8:11 PM

    I am in the same boat. My husband left, saying that I knew how to live and he didn’t. This was a month after Hurricane Irma. He had to stay for the hurricane, and worked 16-hr nights, then days for over a month before he got a day off. They’re still working very hard, long hours. It almost seemed he resented that I took on everything else so he could focus on work – clean-up, repairs, etc. I don’t know what to do. He’s not himself and has been paranoid and had delusions. My therapist said she is treating a lot of people in the area for PTSD and she thinks he may have had an acute psychotic break. I don’t know if he can come back from this. It’s incredibly heartbreaking and excruciatingly painful for me but I’m still more concerned about his wellbeing.

  • Em

    Em

    July 21st, 2017 at 4:31 PM

    My ex boyfriend and I went through a traumatic experience together over a year ago. I am not new to dealing with trauma and healing, but he very much was and still is. I began healing quickly and soon passed him in the process and that’s when our relationship took a turn for the worst. When you have PTSD, your brain creates new chemicals that help you cope, and it literally creates new DNA in your body. So in a sense you form this new identity outside of who you actually are. For me, I knew this, and I am constantly pushing PTSD version of me aside so I can feel like myself. My ex doesn’t quite understand this, and the PTSD version of himself…is a nightmare to deal with. He never physically abused me or cheated or did anything worth gasping about, but he most definitely changed into someone unrecognizable. He refuses therapy and all together just stopped trusting me. I don’t take any of the misplaced anger or resentment personally (at least I try not to) and I tried so damn hard to help. But if they aren’t willing to help themselves, there’s nothing you can do and that’s just the truth. I’m still healing, and there are times I feel quite miserable at the fact that he pushed out the best thing in his life and will only ever pretend to be okay. I just wish there was an article or a “How To” on what to do next regarding couples who break up over unresolved trauma.

  • Sunshine

    Sunshine

    September 6th, 2017 at 11:34 PM

    I am dealing with this right now with my boyfriend. He is living in a trailer at work now for a few weeks to get away from me. We have been together 4 1/2 years and it is dawning on me how all of this is because of his War related PTSD. I feel so stupid. It has been so difficult. I really did not understand. We became so isolated and now he is saying I isolated him and I am controlling and mean and manipulative. I’m not, I’m really not. I just crawled into his shell with him and became too afraid to drive with him after a suicide truck trip (numerous suicide truck trips) with me in the passenger seat.I am so sad. We barely go anywhere together anymore. I have had a lot of trauma and I always put health first. I hike and dance and do my best to keep substances in check, so I simply could not understand how he wouldn’t. I see him overworking and am so confused when he stops taking care of himself and there is no talking to him about it. Basically he thinks if I am talking, it is a fight. I must not have experienced the depth of his trauma. I just failed to understand why he couldn’t just get it together and fly right. And now it may be too late.

  • hithere

    hithere

    September 27th, 2017 at 12:01 AM

    Hi sunshine,
    Your entire situation seems like a lot to take. You’ve been together for almost five years (!) so thats amazing, but please don’t give that up so easily. You two must love each other a lot to be together for so long, and I think you both need each other, and he sounds like he needs time and space to get things sorted out. Don’t say things will end, have hope and remember he just needs to heal. Maybe you can ask him how you can help? What he would like you to do for you to help him. And stick to that and love him and love yourself, truly, and see how far you go. Good luck :)

  • Lisa

    Lisa

    December 16th, 2017 at 8:19 PM

    Sunshine, I could’ve written what you wrote; that is what I’m dealing with as well, minus the suicide truck trips but now, looking back, the last few times we went to the city, he was very careless driving and I got scared and angry. I told him if he continued to drive like that, I wouldn’t be going with him. I wonder now if he was thinking that way.

  • Lisa

    Lisa

    December 16th, 2017 at 8:15 PM

    If you come across an article addressing that, please share it. That’s where I’m at; I don’t know what to do or where to go from here.

  • Tony

    Tony

    August 10th, 2017 at 7:46 AM

    Great information but to late. If only was able to process and deal with the trauma I went through properly, my wife and I would still have a relationship. I am currently seeing a therapist to deal with the emotions I have suppressed for so long. I just hope my wife can heal and recover from what I have brought on her.

  • Lisa

    Lisa

    December 16th, 2017 at 8:21 PM

    I hope my husband comes to the same realization some day as well.

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