Relationships and trauma

One member of a relationship with a trauma background is a challenge. For the non-trauma partner, there is the hurdle of trying to understand and connect with experiences and reactions that are difficult to relate to. Applying the kind of personal wisdom that helps you get through less extreme situations, such as ‘just get on with it’ can cause a lot of stress for people who are struggling with severe after affects of major trauma. There’s two languages being spoken and a lot of work has to be done to get the translation working well and calm the anxieties of both parties. The person with the trauma background often feels ashamed, worried they are too much hard work, scared to trust, scared of being left, worried they’re making a big fuss about nothing, scared of turning their partner off, or of being pressured, that being vulnerable will engender disgust, or that being cared for will make them weak… The non-trauma partner often has anxieties such as wondering if their partner will ever come back from this world of trauma reactions, scared of saying or doing the wrong thing and triggering them, scared of not being strong enough to handle what they’re going through, scared of getting stuck having to care for them, anxious about their moodiness, unpredictability, mania, depression, or temper, anxious about leaning on them too much for day to day issues, and so on. Both partners can easily feel very alone, misunderstood, unsupported, under pressure, and afraid. It takes love, commitment, and skill to navigate complex trauma. I talk about this more in Supporting someone after Trauma.

Two of the biggest issues I observe about this kind of relationship is the difficulty communicating – eg. If I say to a friend who is a fellow trauma survivor or has a mental illness that I’ve had a rough week – they usually get what that means. We’re speaking the same language. Outside of that world, I find I have to spell things out much more strongly. To other friends I may have to directly explain that I’ve been in a self-harm crisis all week and haven’t left the house, or indeed, my bed. The other major issue I see a lot is the risk of the carer dynamic. Having a relationship polarise into the well one and the sick one, the strong/weak, the giver/receiver, the provider/needy can be very destructive for both people. That’s not to say that caring for a partner in distress is not a deeply beautiful and loving act. But rather that those dynamics come with risks that need to be navigated. I talk about this more in Caring for someone who’s suicidal.

Having said that, these relationships can be powerfully strong. The person with the trauma background learns to communicate about their needs and experiences, and has the experience of developing trust, being comforted, and having someone walk with them through their pain. The person without the trauma background learns the nuances of trauma language, how to be with someone in a very painful and vulnerable place, learns to connect more deeply in that very privileged space. These bonds can be strong, having worked hard to build language and connection and safety and fairness, powerful healing and hope can be created.

There’s another kind of relationship with different challenges, and that is where both members have a trauma background (or to a certain extent, a mental illness). Survivor/survivor pairings are not uncommon, and while some issues remain the same – such as feeling alone, others are quite different. I’ve been with my girlfriend for over three months now and it’s been an intensive time of sharing, learning, and finding ways through obstacles. We both have trauma histories. At times, those histories are in the far distant past. At other times, they are painfully present through flashbacks, nightmares, body memories, sensitivity to triggers, and so on. There are advantages in that there is a more common shared language. There’s less work to try and explain what these things are or what they feel like. There’s also more role swapping between who cares and who receives care depending on whose need is greatest at the time. But with this compatibility comes other risks – both are wounded people with needs and limitations. Sometimes the particular vulnerabilities create a painful feedback loop where nightmares in one trigger nightmares in the other, where dissociation in one feeds dissociation in the other and so on. Sometimes both parties are more comfortable giving than receiving care, or vice versa, and struggle to develop skills across both roles. Sometimes competitive comparisons of trauma lead to one person being invalidated and silenced because their experiences are not seen as significant. Sometimes the trauma bond is so intense two hurt people merge into one enmeshed person and neither keep growing back into whole separate people. Sometimes the needs brought into the relationship exceed the capabilities of the relationship. There’s risks.

A big part of the key of what seems to be working for us is being aware that there are a lot of ways our relationship could founder, and talking about them. We know that love is essential but also insufficient. There needs to be enough skills, mental health, and support also. We know that we cannot be ‘enough’ for each other, we need outside supports – friends, professional support. The brutal reality is that with trauma comes limitations. There are times we cannot be there for each other. We are going to let each other down. But there are also skills. People survive different kinds of trauma by developing different skills. Those of us who are more fortunate have a good match between our innate talents and the kinds of trauma we were subjected to. In my case, I’m sensitive in relationships. I read people well. I’m good at helping stressed people to feel safer. (this isn’t some kind of superpower and certainly doesn’t work with everyone) I’m a good communicator. The very history that leaves me with the limitations and vulnerabilities that make it more likely my close relationships will fail, also leaves with me the kinds of skills and capabilities that strengthen and support relationships. Survivor/survivor relationships can also work very well, with deep connections and strength and humility and respect.

We can’t know that our relationship will work out, we can only gently and lovingly build good foundations and try to create safe exits if things become dangerous or destructive. We talk of the future, about hopes and dreams together. We also talk about how to break up the least traumatically if we need to, how to ask for time apart, how to help during a bad night, what our biggest triggers are, who else we have permission to talk about each others past with, how to get through if we’re both in a bad space. It’s not a guarantee, but here and now it’s creating something beautiful and meaningful. There’s safety, awareness, freedom, and love. Trauma takes a lot away from all of us, but there’s still hope for our dreams and things we can do to make that hope stronger.

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