The Hidden Effects of Trauma in Relationships

May 23, 2024

Written by Colter Bloxom, LPC
Colter is a licensed psychotherapist and the owner and founder of Thrive Therapy. He specializes in the treatment of anxiety, OCD, pornography addiction, identity issues, and more.

Here’s a fact that may surprise you: according to the National Council for Behavioral Health, up to 70% of American adults have gone through at least one traumatic event in their lives. That’s hundreds of millions of people in the U.S. alone.

If you are one of the majority of people who are trauma survivors, then you may have noticed that its effects can continue long after the traumatic experience has passed. Relationships are one area where trauma symptoms can keep showing up. 

In today’s blog, I’m talking about how unresolved trauma can show up in relationships. I’ll describe 5 hidden effects of trauma in relationships, and go over some tips on how you can manage triggers.

If past unresolved trauma is getting in the way of living the life you want, then our trauma-informed intensive outpatient program (IOP) in Phoenix, AZ can help.

5 hidden effects of trauma in relationships 

Some people bounce back from trauma quickly, but it tends to stick around when it’s not addressed. Ignoring trauma doesn’t usually make it go away. And unresolved trauma can have a way of showing up in every area of our lives — especially in our relationships. 

Especially if your past trauma happened within the context of a relationship — for example, if you experienced childhood abuse or the traumatic loss of a romantic partner — this unresolved trauma could keep coming back to haunt you in future relationships.

So how does unresolved trauma show up in relationships? Here are 5 of the most common hidden effects of trauma in relationships, and what they could look like.

Difficulty trusting others

Trauma, especially interpersonal trauma, can leave us with the implicit message that the world is not safe — that people are not safe. You have been hurt before, so who’s to say it won’t happen again? You might feel like you’re always on guard, even when life is “good”; you just can’t seem to relax and trust that things will stay good.

This is partly due to hypervigilance, which is a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD, or a mental health condition that can develop as a result of trauma). Hypervigilance is like when you’ve just gone through a haunted house, where people dressed as monsters and ghosts have been jumping out to scare you. 

After you leave the haunted house, you spend some time in a quiet area — but you’re constantly looking over your shoulder. Was that a monster hiding in the bushes? Have the actors decided to play a prank on you by following you out of the haunted house? You’re safe, but you don’t feel safe. You don’t trust your surroundings.

It’s the same way with unresolved trauma in relationships. If you’ve been through trauma, you may have a harder time trusting other people, including family members or your partner. Even when they haven’t done anything to break your trust, your past trauma has you on high alert for things that may go wrong. For example, maybe you see innocent behaviors as a sign of cheating or constantly doubt your partner’s love for you. It may feel easier to keep your guard up than to fully lean into trust.

Emotional reactivity

Unresolved trauma can also cause emotional reactivity in relationships, which means you have a harder time managing emotions. For example, you may have been told you have a short temper. Little things may set you off. When you’re upset, it could be hard to calm yourself down. 

Research shows that trauma survivors, especially those who have experienced complex trauma like childhood sexual abuse, are more likely to face emotional dysregulation (having a difficult time managing emotions). If you went through childhood trauma, your caregivers may not have had the ability to manage their own emotions, which limited you in terms of this important life skill.

Let’s revisit the haunted house analogy. Imagine that, after leaving the haunted house, your friend taps you on the shoulder — understandably, as frightened as you already you are, you scream and jump. You may even get angry at your friend for scaring you. The seemingly innocent behavior from your friend has set you off in a way that may have been disproportionate to everyone else.

In relationships, this can show up as emotional meltdowns or behaviors that may seem like overreactions to your partner (but aren’t to you). You might become extremely upset or angry at your partner for small mistakes.

Emotional numbness

Some people have the opposite response after experiencing trauma — they shut down completely. You might feel like you have no idea how to express how you feel. Abuse and other traumatic events are so overwhelming because they’re beyond your brain’s capacity to cope. Sometimes, your brain may protect itself by shutting down. Instead of feeling terrified and torn down, you stop feeling anything at all.

This may cause you to feel completely disconnected or numb in your relationship. No matter what happens, you feel nothing. Sometimes, this numbness can also cause people to stay in unhealthy or even abusive relationships. 

In some situations, this disconnectedness may drive partners away. People expect to feel close and have emotional intimacy in relationships, and this numbness may make this impossible.

Attachment issues 

Trauma, especially childhood trauma perpetrated by primary caregivers (like being the victim of parental abuse), can severely affect your attachment style. Attachment is the type of bond that you form with your primary caregiver as an infant, and can affect every relationship you have thereafter. 

When your physical and emotional needs are met by your caregivers, you form a secure attachment style — you trust others and yourself, can allow yourself to be vulnerable, and are comfortable sharing your emotions.

If you didn’t get your needs met as a baby, then you may have developed an insecure attachment style. People who went through trauma (like abuse or neglect) as young children are at especially high risk for developing what’s called a disorganized attachment style.

In adult relationships, a disorganized attachment style can cause you to be hot-and-cold with your partner. You may crave intimacy deep down, but be terrified of it at the same time, causing you to push potential partners away when they get too close and get stuck in a push-pull dynamic. 

Self-blame and isolation 

Lastly, unresolved trauma often causes us to blame ourselves, even when it’s not our fault — and what happened to you is not your fault. But because of the nature of the trauma, you may feel at-fault.  Often, people are plagued with questions after a traumatic event occurs like, “What did I do wrong?” “If I’d acted differently, then maybe this wouldn’t have happened?”.

Even though these types of thoughts are irrational and a result of the way trauma affects you, they feel so real in the moment. Thinking this way can cause you to isolate yourself in relationships. Trauma makes you feel damaged or broken, and you may end up feeling unworthy of a loving relationship. Sometimes, this can cause people to unknowingly choose unhealthy partners for themselves.

How to deal with trauma triggers in relationships 

If you’re dealing with unresolved trauma in a relationship, you may find yourself constantly feeling triggered. You might feel betrayed by your partner’s actions, even when they’re seemingly innocent. When your partner does do something to hurt you, it may bring up overwhelmingly painful emotions that are difficult to manage.

There are some ways to deal with trauma triggers in relationships. Here are my tips.

  1. Understand trauma and the way it affects you. Knowledge is power. When you’re aware of what unresolved trauma can look like in relationships and how it manifests for you, you can more easily recognize its effects in the moment.
  2. Prioritize communication. It will probably be a longer journey to heal from the trauma that you’ve been through and minimize its effects in your life. What you can do in the meantime is communicate with your partner. Let them know what you need. It may be a good idea to expand your emotional vocabulary — learn new words to describe your feelings. 
  3. Validate, don’t minimize, your emotions — and ask your partner to do the same. Explain to your partner that your triggered response is a natural reaction to past trauma, not a personal attack on them. Validate your own emotions and avoid bottling them up, but communicate them constructively. 
  4. At the same time, remember that past trauma does not excuse bad behavior, like mistreating or abusing someone else. You can practice radical self-compassion while still taking accountability when you hurt others. Try repeating this: “The trauma I went through was not my fault, and I need to work on it and treat my partner better. Both things can be true at the same time.”

When to seek mental health support, and how our intensive outpatient program can help

These tips can help significantly, but the truth is that the effects of unresolved trauma can get bigger and bigger over time, eventually leaking into every area of our lives. You may need professional support to learn how to manage the effects of trauma, and this is nothing to feel ashamed about.

In therapy, you can dig deep into the reverberating effects of unresolved trauma in your life, including in your relationships. Thrive’s expansive team of therapists use evidence-based methods to treat unresolved trauma and help you heal from past traumatic experience. We offer intensive outpatient programs (IOP) as part of our comprehensive mental health services.

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