Today’s video will help you, the partner of someone who’s struggling with the impact of childhood trauma, so that you can understand what’s happening when your partner is triggered and how you can come out of that interaction without feeling worse about yourself and your relationship. Let’s talk about it.
Hey, I’m Tamara Ridge, the therapist that’s been there. I recently posted about my gratitude to my partner on social media, for what he’s consistently done to increase my sense of safety and security in our relationship. Because being in relationship with someone that’s struggling with complex PTSD, isn’t easy. So kudos to you for struggling through the confusion and frustration that childhood trauma brings. I know it’s really hard. You seem to be walking in a field of landmines where you can’t figure out what will upset your partner. It’s like 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.
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 way out of context, and that are difficult for you to understand. And 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. And that’s because childhood PTSD happens in close relationships within the context of the day-to-day mundane activities of life. And your partner was harmed in ways that connected those mundane day-to-day activities and relationships to a sense of danger. So PTSD triggers are going to happen. 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 with this. I’m going to share with you one of the things that I shared with my partner when I realized that he didn’t know it, something that really helped him.
When your partner gets triggered, they can’t tell the difference between the past and right now. They experience this kind of time warp or brain takeover, where all of the feelings of the past and sometimes the far distant past overwhelm them. They essentially get stuck in their feelings. If you can think of a time when you were really angry and upset and you couldn’t let it go, you can usually make sense of your feelings when that happens, because you know what happened that caused the problem. You know what somebody did, you know what someone said. But 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. So the overwhelm feels like a takeover that makes no sense to them. And it also feels really scary. It comes with this sense of helplessness. Like there’s nothing they can do to stop feeling terrified.
Second thing to know is that when this time warp happens, your partner can’t tell the difference between what’s happened to them in the past and what’s happening in real time. So they get confused about what they’re feeling in the moment and because they can’t make sense to re that the past is intruding in the present moment, they mistakenly believe it’s you trying to hurt them. This is when your partner start showing the signs that you’ve learned already to try to avoid. They’re the typical fight, flight, fun, or freeze behaviors that you’ve come to take as evidence that you were doing something wrong. 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 there’s some kind of mental takeover. I personally can recognize that triggered feeling in my body most of the time, and my 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. Now, I haven’t always been perfect at it, but it becomes something that I had to really look at as a strategy, because my withdraw into my head, looked to my partner as if I was ignoring him. He’d literally say things to me and I’d be non-responsive because I was in my head trying to figure out if I was safe or not.
Let me say that it takes consistent effort for someone who’s been traumatized in childhood to learn to overcome the impact of childhood trauma on adult relationships. But it’s possible. I teach that in The TraumaERASE Method Academy, and you can find a link to that in the description of this video.
There is something else that I want to tell you about the moment when your partner experiences a trigger. Sometimes they don’t even know that their response is coming from the past. So what I’m telling you is they might not even know that they’re triggered. So what can you do about it apart from supporting them to jump into The TraumaERASE Method Academy to start their healing? I also have another YouTube channel that supports greater understanding of your attachment styles and how to level up your relationship that you can find in the description of this video as well.
But what can you do when your partner is triggered. First, stay calm. The more you respond to your partner’s triggers in a way that someone from their past responded to them, the more likely that they’ll treat you the way that they do when they’re triggered on a continuous basis, instead of stopping the behavior. None of us had perfect childhoods. And the way you respond might reflect some of your difficult experiences too. So being thoughtful about your responses will help both of you to heal.
Secondly, and I know this one’s hard, but don’t take it personally.
Third, 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 he recognized this fear. Your way of doing this might be different, but you get the idea. 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.
Next, 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 just 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 I talked about already, my partner 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 was pointing out a behavior that I was doing that was hurtful to him. Yes, it was a triggered behavior and I didn’t even realize I was doing it, but my behavior that made him feel ignored wasn’t justifiable just because I did it when I was triggered. His statement held me responsible for my healing and for my actions. Then I had 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.
In situations where your partner yells at you, blames you, becomes critical or argumentative when they’re triggered, it’s best to discuss your need for boundaries when things are calm. Tell them what you’ve noticed and let them know that your plan is to take some space whenever their triggered behavior escalates. It would be especially helpful to set this up ahead of time so that the trigger doesn’t get worse if your partner experiences you leaving as abandonment. I’ll talk more about that in a later video. But 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.” Setting boundaries like this gives your partner time to evaluate what they’re doing and get back into present time. Of course, there’s more to their healing process and I highly recommend checking out The TraumaERASE Method Academy to help with that.
I have one more suggestion for you, but before I get into it, if you found this video helpful and would like to stay up to date, as I continue to discuss this topic in more depth, please consider subscribing and hit the notification’s bell so that you’ll be the first to know when the next video comes out. And let me know what’s been most helpful to you today and what questions you have in the comments.
Finally, the last thing I want you to is to 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. So 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. So thank you for watching and I’ll see you next time.