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  • Sara

Helping a Partner Heal from Trauma

Updated: Sep 12, 2022

Most romantic relationships come with their own mixture of trials and tribulations. Some couples have frequent disagreements, others experience difficulties in understanding each other’s love languages, and still others are unsure how they can work together to overcome life’s stressors. These stressors can cause a couple to internalize hardships, inevitably affecting their relationship in a negative way.

If one or both partners struggle with a history of trauma, this can further complicate things. Being in a relationship with someone who has experienced trauma is uniquely challenging. Often, people who have experienced trauma are quick to anger, express distrust more often, become disengaged, have triggers that remind them of a traumatic event, and suffer from anxiety or panic attacks. All of this can lead to conflict and miscommunication.

If this sounds familiar, fear not! There are ways to become more trauma-informed and lead with compassion when navigating these challenges in your relationship while maintaining your own boundaries and an overall sense of safety and support.

Here are five ways that you can help your partner with trauma:

1. Educate yourself– Trauma is a complex issue that heavily impacts our nervous system. Work with your partner to learn together about how the brain and body both respond to trauma and the impact this has on the partnership. Knowledge is power! A professional therapist can also help you do this. There are many therapists who are trained to help couples unpack trauma and better understand how it is impacting each individual as well as the couple as a unit.

2. Learn your partner’s triggers – You and your loved one may not ever be able to identify every one of their triggers but make a note of them when you do learn one. When you notice that a trigger may be present, act appropriately to care for and be there for your partner. Encourage your partner to self-identify when they are triggered and tangibly make note of what caused this reaction. They may keep a notebook or journal that documents each instance so both you and your partnership can try to avoid triggering situations moving forward.

3. Respect your own boundaries – While it is important to care for your partner, it is never okay to withstand mistreatment. Harsh words, physical reactions, and more can happen when a person is under high amounts of stress and cycling through the effects of trauma, but you shouldn’t put yourself in a situation where this burden is placed on you. Know when to draw the line and ensure that you are not internalize their challenges. Also, make sure to communicate openly with your partner with he/she has said or done something hurtful. Express not only what hurt you but how it hurt you. Using "I" statements can be helpful, i.e., "I feel offended when you call me names." Again, a therapist can help open up the lines of communication if they are shut down and help you both to incorporate meaningful communication strategies into these difficult discussions at home.

4. Learn to scale distress – We all reach a point where we have become so distraught that talking through a problem is no longer helpful and we may feel such strong emotions that we have difficulty controlling our own actions. Practice asking your partner what level of distress they’re in (consider using a scale of 1 – 10) to determine if you need to take a break or if discussion is likely to help. At the time same, it's important to note what distress level you are at and to know when it's best to walk away and take a few minutes to process how you're feeling. It's important to note that we can only change ourselves and the ways in which we react to distressing situations. We cannot change our partner's reactions. Each side has to do the internal work to understand their own distress level at any given moment.

5. Know when it’s time to ask for help – When looking to resolve trauma in a relationship, it can sometimes feel hopeless. Trauma leaves us feeling disoriented at times and there is no shame in asking for help, especially from a professional therapist well-versed in couple’s therapy. You may want to come prepared with talking points to discuss in session, but know that this isn't a requirement. Your therapist is trained in facilitating communication and digging deeper to uncover core conflicts within the relationship. In couple's therapy, the couple is the client (rather than one individual or the other). Your counselor will work with the both of you to resolve any points of conflict.

As it is with any other mental health journey, keep in mind that this is a process. If you love your partner, you may feel it is worth the work to learn to be more trauma-informed and a solid support in their healing process. The more you can work together to get through this, the better.

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