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Wounded Again: How Past Trauma Can Upend a Relationship

What to do if you feel an episode of past trauma recurring.

RANDI GUNTHER Clinical Psychologist & Marriage Counselor

Many people have suffered emotional or physical trauma in their lives. Even when they have worked hard to heal those past heartaches, they will always be vulnerable to being triggered by an event that unearths those painful moments.

Those episodes of emerging trauma are often unpredictable, but more likely to happen if traumatized people continue to pick partners who are similar in some ways to those who have caused those painful episodes in the past. Yet, familiarity is a strong seducer, and the positives of the relationships can easily mask what may eventually emerge.

But memories of previous traumas can surface in all relationships. Those reliving them feel as if they are happening in the present. They may mentally regress to the age they were when the trauma occurred. From that more powerless perspective, they are more likely to feel the original fear, immobilization, and hopelessness that happened during the original trauma.

Many traumas feel too humiliating and vulnerable for people to share with their partners, especially if they were made to feel they deserved what happened to them. As a result, they cannot ask for the help they need from their partners. If they have never shared their past pain or what caused it, their partners may feel defensive and not be able to understand that it may have nothing to do with them.

Unexplored and untreated, recurring traumas can destroy even the best of relationships. Fortunately, there are ways to heal these interactions, if both partners are willing to participate.

Here are eight steps to help identify emerging trauma and how partners can work together to transform it:

  1. If your trauma is not being triggered, you will have typical interactions with your partner. If, all of a sudden, you have an emotional reaction that is intense, unpredictable, and fear-based, you may consciously or unconsciously be experiencing emerging trauma. Pay attention to any emotional, physical, sexual, or intellectual thoughts or feelings that are surfacing at an intense rate and focused at your partner. These feelings are signaling to you that something is going on that feels out of your control. You suddenly don’t trust your partner and feel the need to protect yourself. You may begin crying, yelling, or wanting to run away.

  2. Ask your partner to give you a minute to reflect. How old do you feel? Try to remember anything that was happening at that age. Who or what could have hurt you, and how? Was there anyone who tried to help you? Was the experience a one-time event or repeated? Were you blamed, made to feel guilty, told to never tell anyone, or felt shamed by your participation? Have these thoughts and feelings emerged in other relationships?

  3. What did your partner say or do that might have triggered your trauma? It can be a facial expression, a certain verbal sound, a threatening posture. Did it feel intentional or accidental? Did those behaviors feel threatening in any way? Do you feel you are responding to someone who is also in the room or who your partner reminds you of? Have you experienced these painful, unpredictable, and intense eruptions in other relationships?

  4. Try hard to think about the ways your current partner is different from the demon in the room that you think is him or her. Have you trusted your partner in the past? In other situations but can’t right now?

  5. Once you are aware that your reactions are out of proportion to the crisis at hand, admit to your partner that you are aware that something deeper is happening to you and you need to be still to try to understand what is driving you to atypically intense and painful behavior. If he or she has begun reacting defensively or getting angry at what feels like unfair treatment, ask for understanding and patience until you can separate your traumatic memories from what is happening in the moment.

  6. If you are able to remember what happened, can you trust your partner enough to share what happened to you or, at least, tell him or her that something terrible did happen and you are reacting as if it is happening again? This is a critical question and a crucial moment. Unless you trust your partner to be supportive and consoling, it might not be the right time to reveal your trauma.

  7. Try to ask for what you need from your partner, if you can. Sometimes, just being held and safe in those moments will calm you down and help you begin to heal, as you ask your partner to be the person whom you needed to care for you at the time of the original trauma. If he or she cannot do that for you, just tell him or her you need to be by yourself for a while and then reach out to someone in your life who can. Don’t allow yourself to bury the trauma again.

  8. Recognize that your resurfacing trauma is a signal that you have not adequately healed from it, nor understood how it has interfered with your ability to trust or heal in your intimate relationships. That pattern is likely to repeat itself in subsequent relationships, especially if you pick similar partners. If your partner is available, going to see a therapist trained in trauma together can bring you closer and strengthen your bond.

To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory


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