How Trauma Affects Relationships: Childhood Pain Revisited

How childhood trauma affects relationships

Trauma can have profound and hidden effects on relationships, beyond impacting the person who experienced it. They impact relationship dynamics, communication, and emotional stability of both spouses.

Here are some hidden effects of trauma in relationships:

Trust issues:

Developmental trauma shapes the way your spouse sees themselves, their intimate relationships, and their world. When you've been traumatized as a child, there is no assumption of goodwill. There is a terror to expose, open up, and make yourself vulnerable, fear, and vivid memories of every past betrayal. These betrayals can be present or historic, real, or imagined.

The responses to these perceived betrayals can be shared but often are kept hidden as resentments. Therefore, "retaliation" for these perceived slights or disloyalties can leave a partner mistrustful. Even a partner with secure attachment can be left confused and reactive to their intimate other.

Depression, anxiety, and panic attacks is a trauma response in intimate relationships. Also present are a host of other mental health issues are common. They may also believe they are 'crazy' and try to conceal their symptoms. To cope, they may distance themselves emotionally, leading to a lack of intimacy, emotionally and physically.

Communication difficulties

It is easier to communicate when you know what you think and feel. This is challenging if you feel a conflicting sense of love, need, fear, shame, and a sense that you aren't understood.

Your emotions can also be difficult to regulate, leading the traumatized person to have emotional outbursts or profound withdrawal. They can often turn to drugs or alcohol to try to calm themselves down. This alone can create trust and communication difficulties.

Saying what you mean and meaning what you say can be a barrier to effective partner communication and create misunderstandings. Childhood trauma and relationship misunderstandings often go hand-in-hand.

Emotional distance or numbness

One common coping strategy for traumatic experiences is to go emotionally numb and distance as a coping mechanism. Several factors operate simultaneously: problems with emotional regulation, upsetting and intrusive thoughts, and emotions, problems of feeling loved, and feeling safe.

The choice of whether to emotionally connect or shut down in adult relationships is everpresent. Given their attachment style and history of emotional and physical abuse, the choice is often the safest one. This intensifies the sense of disconnection and isolation in the marriage and blocks the healing process.

Triggers and reactivity

Trauma manifests itself most obviously in dramatic responses to seemingly innocuous events. Trauma is often associated with the brain based on a long history of insecure attachments.

Reminders of traumatic events and heightened sensitivities to these reminders ("triggers") are frequent. These reactions are often intensely emotional, physical, or both. They include flashbacks, panic attacks, or hypervigilance.

It is easy to point these reactions out. However, it is disorienting to the non-traumatized partner, who may feel like they are "walking on eggshells." Many times the traumatized person themselves, aren't aware that they were triggered, and can blame the partner's behavior for the reaction. This puts tremendous strain on the relationship.

Intimacy challenges

Sexual problems in complex trauma

If your husband or wife's trauma included childhood sexual abuse, you might experience strong repeated rejection. At other times, your partner might passively accept your sexual advances but become "absent" during sexual arousal.

Internally, they may be struggling with feelings that interfere with calm, relaxed, connected times. Feelings of vulnerability, anxiety about being triggered, or difficulty staying present physically or emotionally may bother them.

Feeling comfortable feeling sexually desired and accepted is challenging for anyone today. However, those relationships managing trauma often need professional help. Patience, understanding, and warmth can be a real challenge over time.

It is widely accepted that our experiences in childhood shape our lives as adults. The effects of Developmental Trauma (or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder PTSD), are formed from a pattern of long-term abuse and neglect experienced in childhood. Childhood abuse has a particularly strong and enduring impact on individuals.

Emotional intimacy is challenging. Those with developmental trauma might shift from rejecting attention and wanting to be alone to feeling deep loneliness. They may struggle with deep feelings of emptiness and suicidality.

The Adverse Childhood Experiences questionnaire can help you to identify if you have had trauma. Here are the 10 ACE questions listing types of trauma in childhood. You can answer the questions below to evaluate your own ACE score

The hidden effects of trauma in relationships

People with Developmental Trauma often suffer greatly. These issues range from cognitive, emotional, and physical issues that can put a great strain on marriages. It is quite common for those with childhood traumatic events to want to avoid talking about it.

They may view trauma recovery as threatening or a waste of energy. They may prefer to simply ignore the problems. While they are suffering today, they fear help will be more painful tomorrow. Dodging therapy is the result.

In response, their refusal to get help. They can combine destructive and self-destructed patterns, affecting those who live with them and love them.

By collaborating with your traumatized spouse and allowing things to ride, you are doing neither of you any good. Buying into their refusal to seek treatment is ultimately an unloving act disguised as respecting their decision.

No one can make anyone attend therapy. However, all of us have a responsibility to establish firm boundaries. Unresolved emotional trauma in marriage doesn't just impact those who are traumatized. It affects the entire family.

Unresolved trauma in relationships

Working with a therapist

Recognizes that the process of working with a therapist may require temporary adjustments in marital relationships. This may mean placing certain sexual behaviors or discussions on the back burner.

However, too often, a trauma therapist disregards the reasonable needs of the partner in service of helping their patient. This is understandable. But an open-ended "it will take as long as it takes" is deeply discouraging. A loving spouse's inquiries are suffering and need some structure and guidance.

A marriage-friendly therapist understands the tension that trauma work brings to a family. They should encourage you to discuss how imbalanced your relationship becomes when trauma recovery is prioritized.

Discuss what behaviors and actions are and aren't acceptable. Accept that each of you feels pressured: one of you when change is expected, the other when change is not. Talk openly and change this dilemma from a private struggle to an open challenge.

Trauma therapy gets worse before it improves

Not the client, the therapist, or the client's spouse wants to hear this. However, not creating a calm environment to explore this fact leaves everyone confused.

Expect an increase in the fight-flight-or freeze response. Individual therapy can help the conscious part of your brain process information but this response is out of your control.

Your stress levels and anxiety rise not only because you are talking about deeply disturbing memories; that alone is grueling. You may have become aware of all of the missed opportunities. You might acknowledge self-sabotage, and damage you are inflicting on yourself and others historically and even today.

You are actively re-examining your most important relationships in a new light. The rage, deep sadness, and exhaustion are only some of the emotions you will go through.

Respect the process

Many spouses are unaware that their partner has just spent 50 minutes in a horror movie, where they were the target. The trauma survivor may meet you afterward, feeling exhausted and raw. They may have physical effects like body tension, migraines, or a flare-up of autoimmune diseases.

It is not appropriate to ask your partner what they talked about in therapy. They may have no interest in reliving by retelling that horror twice in one day.

Plan preemptively on therapy days. This may not be the day to schedule heavy talks, important social events, or "have it out" about some upsetting incident. It may be better to plan a night in sweats and TV. You might realize that they just may want to be alone on the day they have therapy.

The trauma survivor's partner may be perceived as a potential threat rather than as a source of comfort. Try not to take it personally. His or her love for you makes you a stand-in for everyone who has hurt them.

This side effect of therapy sorts itself out but might take a while. This might be a great time for you to do your own therapy and make sure that your behaviors are not toxic. You might also discuss how to create clear boundaries. It is unlikely that clear boundaries were present in your traumatized spouse's early life.

Feeling bad to feel better

When therapy works, it is an educational process that helps you to prepare for what is up ahead. A skilled therapist is someone you trust to help you to conceptualize what has happened to you. Talking about it in a structured way really does help.

You might let your partner know that sometimes you love them. Sometimes, you hate them, and sometimes you have no feelings about them whatsoever. you have experienced these shifting emotions from your own family members.

Experiencing emotional pain has often meant that this is something we should avoid. Yet this is useful pain that helps us move the toxic memories through and out of us.

Sometimes that toxin comes to the surface and lingers before moving out. That's the time for both of you to keep up your communication. All should recognize the distinct difference that can be made between ghosts in your past and your current spouse.

Get help to heal from childhood trauma

Science-based couples therapy can help marriages make stronger connections. They can help a couple to clarify relationship goals and boundaries. The lack of a safe and secure environment in early life can be the source of their ongoing difficulties, but only if left unchecked. Couples therapy can remove the blame on either the survivor or their partner and help them through this difficult period of healing.

Ready for a change in your relationship?

It starts with a no-obligation 15 minute phone call with our client services team.

Dr. K

Dr. Kathy McMahon (Dr. K) is a clinical psychologist and sex therapist. She is also the founder and president of Couples Therapy Inc. Dr. K feels passionate about couples therapy and sex therapy and holds a deep respect towards those who invest in making their relationship better. She is currently conducting online and in person private couples retreats.

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  1. Insightful and empathetic. The article shed light on the challenges faced by those married to individuals with childhood trauma, offering valuable guidance and support. Highly recommended read."

  2. I'm looking for counseling or a support Group. I asked my girlfriend at the time if she had experienced, incest, rape or abuse. She said no. 8 years later, after we got married and having a surgery, she later confessed to having recalled a time she was in fact sexually assaulted and raped. I need support if I'm going to stayed married to her, because of the signs or signals of sexual anorexia, sexual aversion, and narcissism.

  3. This provides me with a deeper understanding of mental health. My work is not related to the psychological field however since my task is more to this expertise I'm beginning to understand more about mental state. And I'm also thankful that I was introduced to this job role wherein I not only benefited from my work but as well I'm learning in most cases the articles I read are having a big impact on my personality as well as my understanding of people around me suffering abuse and trauma.

  4. I understand and have lived all if this as the spouse of someone who has never addressed their complex childhood trauma. I’ve been living in this relationship for 24 years, but now we are 3 months separated. Why? Because I finally failed her test. Why, because she broke me down over 24 years and actually made me into an emotional abuser in response to the prolonged abuse she dealt to me. The moment we separated, all my issues evaporated and I now feel no longer possessed under her spell. I’m kind and compassionate and free of resentment again, and who knows, maybe this was her act of compassion in setting me free. I’m not sure.

    But here’s the thing: I feel great compassion and love for her and want to help to heal her. But I could never raise the topic as I would assume the abuser role again, meaning any mention of her trauma would make me a threat.

    Please help. I’m stuck. And children are involved, so I want to ensure they successfully navigate this.

  5. Hello Mr Dasnaw

    Thank you for your work and this blog.

    As I’ve struggled through an empty and lonely marriage recently co-raising two children, I often wonder will I ever be happy, succeed and or be able to love and be loved, unequivocally, to name a few emotional ailments.

    I too suffer from a traumatic childhood. So does my therapist spouse. We are not in a good place at all and she no longer wants to do therapy together. We are in a quasi separated state.

    My ACE/PCE score is 6/2, hers a little more I’d say.

    While we both have been in individual therapy respectively for a long time, we never have tried intense couples therapy even though in her practice I believe she sees success with her clients.

    I don’t know what to do

  6. This article is the best information I have ever read about the effects of childhood trauma . It made me realize I’m not crazy… why I like to be alone.. and explains to me why I let my self be emotionally abused in my marriage for all these years. This article has information about a supportive spouse and the issues, do you have information about a spouse that is not supportive and emotionally abusive?

  7. What score do you have to get on the ACE to have developmental trauma? Does checking any of them mean that you are, indeed, dealing with developmental trauma?

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