When I work with an individual who is healing from the effects of past trauma, she often struggles in her current relationships as well. She is grappling with the ways in which suffering diminishes her capacity to enter into trusting connection with others, and her most difficult interactions may be occurring with her intimate partner.
There are many factors that can negatively impact a relationship when one or both partners have experienced trauma in their past. We all bring our experiences and beliefs into our relationships, but traumatic history can create significant burdens on couples, especially if the traumatic experiences have not been addressed. Here are some specific factors that can affect intimate relationships:
- The Expectation of Trust: It stands to reason that a person should be able to trust her partner with the most vulnerable parts of herself. Even though we know our partners will let us down, we hold on to hope that we can repair any damage we cause to one another through compassion and forgiveness (Colossians 3:12-14). Trauma survivors often struggle to trust other people, even when betrayal hasn’t occurred, because their memories may tell them that trust is impossible. As a result, they may experience fear and shame, which could lead them into further isolation.
- Trauma Triggers: When a person is triggered by intrusive thoughts, emotions and sensations, her partner may have no concept of what is happening or how to be supportive. A partner could easily conclude that he has done something harmful or that his partner is angry with him. These assumptions could then lead to further actions or perspectives that hinder connection and growth.
- Low Self-Awareness and/or Self-Care: Trauma survivors often struggle to validate their own experiences with compassion. They may self-blame or assume the worst of their responses without considering the impact that trauma has caused. They may also resist taking care of themselves and asking for the support they need, further isolating themselves from the care a partner can provide. Conversely, the partner of a trauma survivor could interpret the survivor’s responses as purposeful withdrawal or reactivity, which could also create a rift in the relationship.
- Rigid and Absolute Thinking: Many trauma survivors have created rigid categories for why people behave the way they do. This can bring about difficulty in intimate relationships because the partner of the survivor may behave in a typical or innocuous way, but the survivor may interpret the behavior as harmful due to her history of trauma. Even though the survivor may not want to categorize her partner, this coping mechanism has sometimes been a means of survival and can be difficult to lay down.
These are only a few of the possible factors that may negatively affect intimate relationships between partners who have experienced trauma in their past. We know that God designed our relationships to be loving and compassionate, and we are called to bear one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2). Part of bearing someone’s burdens includes seeking to understand the experience of the other person in order to come alongside in a spirit of gentleness (Galatians 6:1; 1 Thessalonians 5:14). The survivor of trauma is called to move forward in her journey of faith, but we must recognize that the obstacles placed in her path by trauma can be difficult to overcome. Having a partner with her can strengthen her resolve and encourage her to continue.
What are some ways we can help survivors and their partners grow together toward health and connection? Helpers who engage compassionately with couples can provide godly wisdom and support. Here are some ideas:
- Support the Partner: Sometimes the healing work with a survivor can eclipse the experiences and needs of the survivor’s partner. Give opportunity for the partner to share his struggles and questions. He may need additional education about trauma’s effects on his partner, and he may benefit from talking with other spouses of trauma survivors. And, of course, he may also want to enlist the ongoing support of an individual counselor. In order for him to stay connected to his partner, his faith needs to be strengthened through the Body of Christ and loving helpers.
- Suggest Couples’ Counseling: As the healing work happens individually, counseling the couple together may be a very helpful step. The trauma survivor may not know how to express her experiences to her partner, and a counselor may help facilitate these conversations. The counselor can offer to help couples with co-regulation and emotional connection, communication skills, further education, and tools for uncovering and reframing false and/or negative beliefs. A counselor can also share important truth from God’s Word that will strengthen and exhort the couple.
- Discuss Expectations: Particularly when a person has experienced abuse, she may be helped by a ‘map’ of sorts while she is working through the healing process. For example, a person who is processing past sexual abuse may struggle to engage sexually with her husband. Or perhaps someone who is processing deep emotion may need some space to himself for a period of time. Open communication about needs and expectations is essential during the healing process, and a counselor can help the couple decide on helpful strategies to stay connected in a difficult time. Of course, as healing progresses, each partner will hopefully begin to see him/herself and each other more clearly, leading to more healthy and loving interactions.
One final note about expectations and needs: as with everyone, trauma survivors are accountable to others and to the Lord. No one receives a free pass to have their expectations met at all times, nor can a person treat others rudely without consequences, regardless of the negative experiences they have encountered in the past.
While we as helpers speak compassionately and patiently, we hold fast to the call to “restore in a spirit of gentleness” (Galatians 6:1). We long to see healing, and we long to see obedience to God and faithfulness to our counselees’ relational commitments. The goal is always to look more like Christ and to abide in Him. “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful” (1 Corinthians 13:4-5). As we come alongside trauma survivors and their partners, we are seeking to point them toward the love of Christ for them, as well as the ways in which His love compels them toward love of others. This process takes time and patience, and we must use our words and methods wisely. Our greatest desire is that our counselees receive God’s love and walk fully and faithfully in it.