Like it or not when you’ve found a loving, safe relationship after surviving childhood trauma or an abusive adult relationship, it doesn’t matter how safe and loving your relationship is, your trauma brain isn’t going to rest without some active intervention from you. Your trauma brain isn’t going to easily let go of hyper-alert status. Unfortunately, this means that when you’re in a trauma response, you can say and do things that hurt your partner even though your partner wasn’t the person who harmed you in the first place.
The truth is, this isn’t so different from what happens in all relationships.
Every relationship comes to a place where the very things you need most from your partner are the hardest for them to give. And the things they need from you are the hardest for you to give.
Overcoming this stalemate gives relationship partners the opportunity to grow together and overcome old hurts in a way that creates the safest, most healthy relationship that either partner has ever enjoyed.
But, the trauma brain can put you in self-protection mode on overdrive – which will encourage you to accuse, avoid, close down or yield in ways that keep you stuck in the past rather than growing toward a beautiful future with your beloved.
How are you supposed to navigate this so you can heal from trauma and prevent it from getting in the way of your happily ever after instead of ruining everything? This post will give you 10 tips for preventing your past from sabotaging your future.
Before A Trauma Response:
1. Give Your Partner Permission to Give You Feedback
It’s really important to remember that your trauma responses are tightly tied to the relationship skills you developed while growing up in or surviving a traumatic situation. Because of this, it’s likely that you don’t often recognize when you’re in a trauma response. Your trauma responses become messy relationship habits that show up so automatically that you don’t notice them – or you think they’re normal or permissible. However, it is highly likely that your partner will be able to see when you’re in a trauma response.
With this in mind, it’s a good idea to give your partner permission to notice when you don’t seem to be yourself and gently ask if you are okay or if something is bothering you. Let them know that sometimes you will blame them for things that aren’t their fault and that you’d like to know when it seems to them that this is happening.
Try to have this conversation when you and your partner are both calm. This would be a good time to ask your partner to share what they’ve noticed about you when you’re in a trauma response and for you to share what words or actions would be most helpful from your partner when you’re triggered. The goal is to help you notice and shift out of the trauma response as quickly as possible.
2. Take Responsibility for Your Healing
When someone couples with another person that’s had a trauma history, the natural instinct for most people (although it’s not the healthiest choice), is to try to make things better for the person that’s been hurt. Your partner is likely to believe that if they can treat you better than how you were treated in the past, you’ll heal.
But unless you are able to take responsibility for healing your trauma responses instead of allowing them to run a muck, your partner will end up feeling more and more discouraged and ultimately feeling really bad about themselves because you seem to be unhappy, in spite of their best effort to be a good partner. Even though your trauma responses aren’t about them, they’ll take them personally unless you make it clear that you know it’s trauma history interfering in your interactions.
You also want to avoid making a common mistake that many survivors of childhood trauma make when it comes to trying to feel safe. It’s easy to sometimes make the mistake of believing that the person that you are with should be responsible for making you always feel safe when that’s actually impossible. Your partner won’t be able to make up for a childhood of feeling unsafe caused by your parents. Let me explain . . .
Your parent was supposed to ensure your safety all of the time and it’s a natural instinct to seek that out if you never got it. The primary work of creating safety now that you’re through childhood rests on your work of healing from the trauma. Although you may feel like a lost child, the job of soothing that feeling is yours. It’s also important to recognize that your childhood interferes with your ability to interpret the internal signals that tell you that you’re safe or unsafe in a relationship.
So, when you have an automatic knee-jerk reaction, telling you your partner is against you, it’s safe to assume those signals aren’t trustworthy. (I’ll cover more about what to do about this in the next step.) It’s unfair to expect your partner to ensure your safety as if they were a nurturing parent when there is a big part of this that is an inside job. Children who had nurturing parents learn to nurture themselves. Nurturing and soothing yourself is a developmental step that healing from your childhood trauma will allow you to take that will, in turn, relieve the pressure on your partner and on your relationship.
During A Trauma Response:
3. When You Find Yourself In a Trauma Response:
When your partner says or does something that upsets you, take a moment to pause and breathe. While it might feel like you are actually responding to something in real-time, the truth is you might be responding to something similar from your past and you don’t want to place blame for everything that happened to you in the past onto them.
Try to remember that it’s better to talk through things that are happening when you’re calm. Then it’s less likely that you’ll be allowing your trauma brain to remain in charge while you’re interacting with your partner. Take the time that you need to calm down and think this through.
4. Look for Alternative Explanations:
Next, think about what you believe is happening and try to come up with alternative explanations. What you’re trying to do here is check your perceptions against reality in the present moment. Try to imagine explanations that give your partner the benefit of the doubt; that help you feel safe instead of what you’re thinking about that makes you feel threatened.
5. Check Your Perceptions:
Then when you’ve calmed yourself and you have an idea of what else might be happening other than what your trauma brain suggests, check your perceptions. Ask something like: “When you made that comment, I assumed that you were saying something negative about me. But thinking further, I realized that maybe I don’t know what you were thinking about. Can you please explain what you meant?”
During And After A Trauma Response:
6. Learn to Recognize When You’re In A Trauma Response:
You were hurt in a relationship and the only similarity your trauma brain needs to convince you that you’re not safe now is that you’re in a relationship. Because of this, you can say and do things – often outside of your awareness – that are hurtful to your partner because you’re in self-protection mode.
Close your eyes and imagine what it feels like in your body when you’re triggered. Take note of that feeling and watch for it. Try to do the opposite of what that feeling compels you to do when it comes up. Does that feeling make you want to withdraw or hide? Then, talk. Share what you’re feeling. Even if you say, “I’m not feeling good. I need to take a few minutes to myself.” Saying something instead of going silent will keep your partner in the loop instead of having them wonder what they’ve done wrong.
When you don’t communicate about your trauma responses, you begin to feel unsafe to your partner – because they probably have childhood or old relationship hurts that get triggered by your self-protective behaviors. The best thing you can do for this is increase your ability to recognize when you’re in a trauma response and heal your trauma responses so they stop repeating themselves based on the reality that you have a safe relationship now.
You know how it feels to be gobsmacked with a trauma response right out of the blue, but imagine what it’s like for your partner who doesn’t experience your triggers from the inside to suddenly be the target of your fear, your frustration, or your anger based on something that they don’t even have a clue about.
Most likely, you’re running on an old belief that you’ve cast onto your partner. For example, many couples who struggle with the impact of childhood trauma in their relationship come to believe that their partner wants to hurt them. Most of the time, this simply isn’t true. But when you’re in a trauma response, there is an underlying belief that goes with that response that inadvertently gets cast onto your partner.
Common examples of this for trauma survivors in relationships include:
- “You don’t care how I feel.”
- “You never listen.”
- “You don’t really love me.”
- Or “You’re too good for me.”
Think of this: your abuser or abusers hurt you because they didn’t take responsibility for healing their trauma sufficiently to avoid taking it out on you. It’s time to break that cycle and nurture your relationships, even while you struggle with your trauma triggers.
After A Trauma Response:
7. Be Willing to Forgive Your Mistakes
As trauma survivors, we often learn to be really hard on ourselves when we don’t get everything perfect. When this happens, feelings of excessive guilt and shame can disrupt our connection because we aren’t willing to let go of the pain of making a mistake in favor of continuing to focus on growth and improvement.
Remember that when you are really hard on yourself, you’re unable to focus on repairing and nurturing your relationship. Everyone makes mistakes and the better you are at forgiving yourself when you slip up the more likely you are to believe that your partner can forgive you and love you unconditionally. This is an essential part of the healing process.
8. Say “I’m Sorry”
Although it may be uncomfortable to apologize for things you do today because of something someone did to hurt you in the past, doing so communicates to your partner that you are aware that it’s your job to heal, even though what happened to you wasn’t your fault.
Another reason it’s important to apologize is that your triggers can trigger your partner. Keep that in mind. Does the feeling that you have when you’re feeling triggered, make you want to lash out? Then wait, promise yourself that you won’t speak or act out while that feeling is active in your body. After you calm down and have an understanding of where the trigger’s coming from in your body history, that’s a good time to talk about it as long as you can do it without placing blame on your partner.
One of the ways to do that is by using statements like this: “I’m sorry I reacted angrily. When you said that I would probably need some help, I thought you were calling me stupid. I felt discouraged and embarrassed. It reminded me of when I was growing up and my parent yelled at me instead of helping me understand my homework. I know it’s not your job to keep me from feeling stupid. I know that’s my job.”
This gives your partner an idea of what’s going on and the opportunity to provide emotional support. It also gives them a deeper insight into you, which builds closeness if they’re a safe and caring partner.
9. Heal the Trauma Response:
Trauma responses that aren’t healed play on repeat over and over again. Each time they repeat, they are reinforced. This means that unless you are actively healing trauma responses, they are getting stronger.
The good news is: I’ve developed a system for healing trauma responses that reliably eliminates them. It has consistently worked for me, my clients and my students to build freedom instead of fear after trauma.
It’s called The Trauma Erase Method and you can learn it by working with me privately or by joining me in my online community: Trauma Free Nation.
10. Nurture Yourself
Finally, the last thing I want you to remember is to take really good care of yourself. Healing in a relationship after you’ve had childhood trauma can be really stressful. The better you take care of yourself, the more capable you will be of preventing your triggers from disrupting your relationship. If you need help learning how to do that in really nurturing ways, I recommend this post because it lists things you can do to help you learn to tolerate distress in a way that can help you heal within your relationship.
When you’re ready to work through the traumas that keep you back from a healthy, loving relationship reach out to me. I specialize in helping individuals and couples navigate through and heal the impact of childhood trauma on their relationships.
When you’re ready to work through the traumas that keep you back from a healthy, loving relationship, reach out to me.
I provide online therapy to California residents, and I work with Alma to cover your sessions when you are insured by Optum or Aetna. You can click this link to set up a free consultation with me through Alma.
If you have a PPO insurance policy, I work with a company called Advekit that will bill insurance for you, so you never have to worry about sending out-of-network invoices for reimbursement – all you pay is your co-insurance once your deductible is met!
Interested in a supportive group education/discussion about successfully participating in a relationship with a survivor of childhood trauma?
Or . . .
Wondering how I can help you heal from childhood trauma even if you don’t live in California or cannot afford individual therapy?
Take a look at my calendar and book a 15-minute chat and we’ll talk about options for healing.