Transcript (edited for a better reading experience):
When You’re Impacted By Your Partner’s Childhood Trauma
it can be easy to feel defeated because your best efforts to make your partner happy seem futile. Being in a relationship with someone struggling with complex PTSD, isn’t easy. You may often find yourself confused and frustrated by the chaos that childhood trauma brings.
It can feel like you’re walking in a field of landmines; you can’t figure out what will upset your partner. At one moment, you’re going along and everything seems to be going great. Then, out of the blue, your partner’s upset with you and you’ve no idea what you did to cause that outburst of emotion or what to do to make it stop. Even if your partner is aware enough to tell you that their over-the-top responses aren’t your fault, it still feels confusing and overwhelming to navigate.
You want your partner to be happy, but you seem to always hit a wall. No matter what you try, he or she still continues to have responses that seem out of context and difficult for you to understand. What’s worse, the more you try to make things better, you might be finding yourself feeling more and more discouraged and ultimately feeling really bad about yourself because the person that you love continues to be unhappy in spite of your best efforts to be a good partner.
Let me start by telling you that this is really common and it’s not your fault that your partner’s struggling. While it’s true that something that you did might have triggered a PTSD response, you have no way to know when that’s going to happen.
That’s because childhood PTSD happens in close relationships within the context of the day-to-day mundane activities of life – those regular family household activities that most people don’t think much about. If your partner was harmed for the way they did their chores at home, for example, then doing those same activities with you will cause an inherent sense of danger – that has nothing to do with you . . .
Except that you’re there now while they’re doing those things that feel unsafe to them now (e.g. washing dishes, taking out the trash, making the bed).
Things to Remember When Your Partner Has a Trauma Response
PTSD triggers are going to happen. They’re inevitable. It’s how you address them as a couple that’ll make all the difference. So there are a few things that you need to know to help you when your partner gets triggered.
When your partner gets triggered, they can’t tell the difference between the past and right now. They experience something like a time warp or brain takeover, where all of the feelings of the past (sometimes the far-distant past) overwhelm them. They essentially get stuck in their feelings. This is because the parts of the brain responsible for memory and emotions becomes so overwhelmed that the rational part of the brain can’t recognize the difference between what happened to them before and what’s real right now. When your partner gets these feelings from his or her past, they can’t pinpoint the source. At least not in the moment that it happens. The sense of overwhelm feels like a takeover that makes no sense to them, and it feels really scary. It comes with this sense of helplessness; like there’s nothing they can do to stop feeling terrified.
When this time warp happens, your partner gets confused and may mistakenly believe it’s you trying to hurt them. This is when your partner starts showing the signs that you’ve already learned to try to avoid. They’re the typical fight, flight, fawn, or freeze behaviors that you’ve come to take as evidence that you were doing something wrong or that they’re too upset to not be hurtful toward you. Try not to interpret their behaviors as a signal that you’ve done something wrong and try not to blame them for misplacing the focus of their upset feelings on you. They aren’t doing it on purpose and they aren’t trying to hurt you. They’re just trying to stop feeling scared and somehow make sure that they’re safe.
In my own relationship, I’ve described this problem to my partner as feeling like a traumatic experience is taking over my brain. I personally can recognize the triggered feeling in my body most of the time. It’s a skill that takes practice (I promise, your partner can learn to do it, too.). My response when I find myself in a trauma response is typically to withdraw into my head; to try to determine what’s real, how to respond in a way that serves my relationship, and to really never place blame on my partner for my feelings.
This is part of taking responsibility for who I am in my relationship. Your partner can learn to do it too, but don’t expect perfection. My withdrawal was, in fact, a freeze response – and it caused my partner to feel ignored. He’d literally say things to me and I’d be non-responsive because I was in my head trying to figure out whether or not I was safe.
Remember to be patient because it takes consistent effort for an adult hurt in childhood to become an active, healthy partner that doesn’t get swept away by trauma responses. The work I do with clients living anywhere in California using video therapy teaches trauma survivors and couples with partners who’ve experienced trauma how to recognize these trauma responses and what to do with them to increase a sense of safety – both within each partner and within the relationship. It takes time and effort, but it is possible.
(If you are living outside of California and want my support to help your partner overcome childhood trauma or to help you stay well while you support your partner’s healing, please visit the links provided at the end of this post.)
Sometimes they don’t even know that their response is a trauma response. In good faith, you might notice your partner’s facial expressions or reactions and innocently suggest your guess that they are responding to their childhood trauma. This could be a mistake.
Most survivors of childhood trauma promised themselves they would never be like the person who hurt them. Further, many survivors take pride in being “a good person” in spite of what happened to them. Pointing out a trauma response that your partner hasn’t recognized yet will probably signal to their trauma brain that you are saying they’re “wrong” or “bad” in some way.
To avoid falling into the trap of the activated trauma response and further traveling down the rabbit hole of overly-emotional-unable-to-reason conflict, there are some things you can do:
- Stay calm. The more you respond to your partner’s triggers in a way that someone from their past may have responded to them, the more likely the trauma response will continue. People hurt during childhood often don’t realize how much their trauma responses hurt you. Adding to your partner’s heightened emotional response with your own will only make things worse. None of us had perfect childhoods. Your automatic response might reflect some of your difficult experiences, too. So being thoughtful about your responses will help both of you to heal. If staying calm is difficult for you, you might want to begin by working on your own unresolved traumas.
- Don’t take your partner’s trauma response personally. Instead, stay curious about what in your partner’s past could be causing their current response. Assume that their response makes sense in a different context – one that existed long before your relationship began. Remain open to the possibility that your partner isn’t trying to hurt you or to be difficult. They are struggling. They need you to remember that and give them credit for the healing work they can do.
- Remember that the trauma brain plays time and reality tricks on your partner. When a trigger happens, you didn’t do it. Someone else caused the pain that you see in your partner’s eyes. Remind them of that.
One of the ways my partner did that early on when he saw fear in my face in an interaction with me, is that he would say, “Those bastards.” And in an instant, he communicated his care for me, his concern, and reminded me that I was safe with him and that he wasn’t them.
Another strategy that he used was hugging me and saying, “You’re safe,” while standing nose to nose with me anytime he saw that look in my eyes that came around any time he could see my trauma response.
Your way of doing this might be different. It can be a good idea to talk with your partner during a time when they are not in a trauma response to find out what they think would be most helpful. Your goal is to remind your partner in a loving way that they’re safe; that this moment is different. Do that with your words and with your actions.
- Keep healthy boundaries by pointing out behaviors that don’t work for you without being critical or judgemental. Just because your partner was hurt before doesn’t mean that you should suffer the consequences of their hurtful behaviors when they’re triggered. Continuing to accept behavior that doesn’t feel good to you because your partner was victimized will leave you feeling resentful and more likely to behave in ways that don’t support mutual healing.
You keep healthy boundaries by pointing out when a behavior doesn’t work for you.
In the example where I withdrew and my partner felt ignored, he said, “I’ve been noticing this for quite a while, but every time I say ‘thank you’ to you, it seems like you’re ignoring me. You never say ‘you’re welcome’.” In this way, he pointed out one of my behaviors that was hurtful to him. Yes, it was because I was in a trauma response and I didn’t even realize I was doing it; but, my behavior wasn’t justifiable just because I did it when I was triggered.
His statement held me responsible for my healing and for my actions.
It provided me with an opportunity to focus on hearing him say, “Thank you,” so that I could respond with, “You’re welcome,” every time. This forced me to recognize that I was checked out with him every time I withdrew to my overthinking trauma brain response. It also forced me to recognize that I’m safe with him and thus shift my focus to changing my trauma-based relationship habit.
This is a small example, but you can use it to help you point out the behaviors that you find hurtful, asking your partner to change the way they interact with you. Not only is it okay to do this, but it encourages them to take responsibility for their healing.
- Discuss your partner’s triggered responses that involve yelling at you, blaming you, becoming critical, or being argumentative only after things calm down. Tell them what you’ve noticed and let them know that your plan is to take some space whenever their triggered behavior escalates to these harmful actions. It would be especially helpful to set this up ahead of time so that the trigger doesn’t get worse if your partner experiences your leaving as abandonment.
When the escalation happens, it’s okay to say, “I don’t feel good when you yell at me. If you continue to yell at me, I’m going to have to take a drive.” (You can decide how you’ll take space.)
Setting boundaries like this gives your partner time to evaluate what they’re doing and get back into present time.
- Take really good care of yourself. Healing a relationship that’s been affected by childhood trauma can be very stressful. You need to be your best self for the parts of your life outside your relationship, too. Make sure to take time to do things that feel to you. Remember that if you don’t take good care of yourself, you’re much more likely to get pulled into triggered behaviors, responding in a way that doesn’t work for you or for your relationship. And that doesn’t make you feel good about who you are.
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.