The seen and unseen impact of trauma in relationships
By Corinne Farago
“Trauma is not something that happened to you, trauma is what happens inside you, as a result of what happened to you.”
– Dr. Gabor Mate, Trauma Expert
Earlier this week I sent out a link to my readers about a new film on trauma, featuring Dr. Gabor Mate, a highly respected author, speaker and expert on trauma, addiction and mental health.
His work in trauma has served to open our eyes to this world-wide epidemic, and his perspectives have helped us see more clearly, that trauma plays a large role in the root cause behind most addiction, suicide and depression.
Statistically, 60% of men and 50% of women experience some form of trauma in their lives. It makes sense then that nearly half of my couples have some form of personal trauma impacting their relationship.
Dr. Mate describes trauma as being a sane reaction to an insane situation. Trauma is the survival mechanism that steps in during periods of threat, to detach us from our feelings, and protect us from the over-whelm of experience in that moment(s).
Just as we would do what’s necessary to heal a broken bone, so must we attend to emotional wounds of trauma, if we’re to live emotionally full and happy lives.
Healing trauma ultimately includes finding our way back to those lost feelings, acknowledging them, allowing ourselves to feel them, and addressing the initial wound with self-understanding, and the support of someone to guide you through those buried feelings safely.
Trauma can occur in both sudden, one-time events, or in repeated, ongoing, physical and emotional wounding. We can experience trauma through negative belief systems and shame that have been instilled in us by others, or trauma inherited through our lineage of ancestors. Early life trauma runs especially deep given the vulnerable and susceptible state of a young child.
Trauma lives in those who are obviously dysfunctional, as well as the lives of the seemingly, highly functional. Trauma lives in the lives of the privileged as well as the lives of the underprivileged. Trauma doesn’t know an income bracket. When it comes to the impact on happiness, trauma treats all people equally.
Trauma itself is invisible to others. Like any mental condition, it’s a subjective reality to the person who lives with it, and ultimately it’s in the container of a relationship where trauma will arise and be witnessed.
Trauma can show itself in our relationships in many ways:
- If we suffer from early life trauma, our capacity to emotionally attach to another will be hindered by insecurity or avoidance.
- The shame that often accompanies trauma can undermine our sexual self-confidence.
- Sexual trauma can create disassociation from our bodies and our partner.
- If our trauma is triggered, our reactions can be extreme and conflictual.
- Suppressed anger and sadness settle in the body like an armor that creates physical illness and emotional rigidity.
- Depression and disconnection make it hard to be emotionally intimate with another.
- Compulsion and addiction will push others away and be used to self-soothe our pain.
- If our trauma is based on betrayal, abandonment or abuse, trust will be a challenge.
How trauma is processed is different for everyone. By becoming aware of the prevalence of trauma in our society, we can start to recognize the signs of trauma in our loved ones. We can acknowledge that our relationships are complex, and that emotional challenges between two people are often born out of the personal, subjective battles within individuals.
An individual’s emotional capacity in relationship is based on a lifetime of experiences. Those who have experienced trauma have disconnected from their feelings as a protective strategy. To grow in healthy relationships, we’re required to express and share our feelings. A loving, trauma-aware partner within the structure of a trusted relationship can offer a place for healing to occur.
What can you do to support healing in your partner?
If your relationship suffers from emotional obstructions, disassociation, and numbness that come from trauma, talk to your partner and consider finding professional help to support healing.
What does healing look like in relationships?
Trauma keeps our bodies in perpetual stress, ready to react to threats and protect ourselves, just as we did when the threat was real.
Here are four automatic physiological reactions to an event that is perceived as stressful or frightening:
Fight: attacking, getting angry, yelling, fighting back
Flight: leaving, avoiding, with-drawing
Freeze: becoming silent, disassociating, immobility
Appease: doing or saying whatever is necessary to stop the threat
At the time of threat, we turn to these strategies to keep us safe. Understanding these behaviors, when they arise in our relationships as survival strategies in response to trauma, creates compassion and patience for the inner battles our partner’s may be fighting in the moment.
Here are ways to help our partner feel safe:
- Listening to our partner without judgment. Expressing empathy and compassion lowers their stress hormones.
- Consensual holding, touching, cuddling calms their nervous system.
- Slowing down and attuning to your partner’s needs during intimacy helps them avoid overwhelm and disassociation.
- Help them breath deeply, move, dance, play. These are somatic tools that are used to release trauma in the body.
- Trust that trauma has its own intelligence and desire to heal. Support your partner’s journey in discovering what that healing will look like for them.
- Help them find healthy ways to self-sooth in painful moments.
- Educate yourself. Study the work of trauma experts and become knowledgeable about the kind of trauma your partner suffers from. Become their teammate in seeking professional help, rather than becoming their doctor.
“Safety is not just the absence of threat. Safety is the presence of connection with another.
Human beings require connection in order to survive.”
–Stephen Porges, PhD. Trauma Expert
“For someone who’s been traumatized, that feeling of balance and wholeness is such a surprise, it can cause an “identity crisis.”
We don’t recognize ourselves because we’re no longer filled with shame and fear and collapse.”
— Dr.Peter A. Levine, Trauma Expert
“Being able to feel safe with other people is probably the single most important aspect of mental health;
safe connections are fundamental to meaningful and satisfying lives.”
“As long as you keep secrets and suppress information, you are fundamentally at war with yourself.”
Bessel van der Kolk, Trauma Expert
Healthy, intimate relationships offer a place to be seen in our suffering, heard in our experience, and healed from our past pain.
If trauma is hijacking your relationship, reach out for help.
Sex and relationship coaching starts the conversation that can lead to healing.
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Stay well and love deeply,
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