You experienced trauma, but it affects more than just you. Trauma also changes your relationship. Thankfully, couples therapy for trauma can help unlock the most important source of healing—for you individually and for you and your partner as a couple.
Life is hard. Unpredictable. And modern psychology is beginning to recognize that life is also full of traumatic experiences.
According to Dr. Sue Johnson, “trauma is any terrifying event that instantly changes the world as we know it, leaving us helpless and emotionally overwhelmed” (2008). In her book Hold Me Tight, she explains not only the effects trauma has on romantic relationships, but also how those relationships help survivors overcome these terrifying ordeals. This article discusses a few of her key points on how couples therapy can be an effective way of healing trauma.
Trauma can be physical or emotional, inflicted by accident or by a person—the loss of a loved one, infertility or pregnancy loss, a natural disaster, abuse, a severe illness—there are many forms traumas can take.
And when life feels scary, uncertain, or even dangerous, you need the help of others. Not only to get through the challenge, but also to help you dust yourself off and nurse your wounds afterward.
If your relationships are strong and supportive, you are able to withstand and heal from trauma better than if your relationships are struggling. Sometimes, it takes couples therapy for trauma to help you regain the strong, supportive relationship with your partner you need at this time. Ultimately, the takeaway should be you are not emotionally alone.
After the Trauma
A traumatic event makes you freeze, your body on high alert. Your whole perspective on the world has changed, and you can no longer take for granted that it’s safe. You’re scared all the time, so much so that you might not even be aware of this constant state of fear.
When you’re constantly on edge, looking out for threats, your natural first response is fight, and you become angry and irritable—you’re ready to defend yourself at the drop of a hat. Or your natural first response might be flight, which in our day and age looks like withdrawal. You can’t face this scary world anymore, so you hide away and close off from your family and friends.
But you’re drowning in fear, grief, anger, and sadness.
Often, you’re told to “suck it up” or “brush it off,” but keeping your feelings locked away only hurts you from the inside. And, eventually, those feelings explode out of their box.
Trauma is a Couples Issue
After such a traumatic event, it makes sense that the lives of the person you live with will be changed as well.
The effects of trauma bleed into the relationship whether you want them to or not. It may leave you feeling irritable and angry or unable to connect. In response, your partner may become defensive or angry in response. Or they may feel disconnected and unable to reach you.
Now is the crucial time for your relationship.
If you don’t let your partner see what’s affecting you, your partner doesn’t understand why you’re acting the way you are. They may be at a loss for what triggered you into a fight or withdrawal and how they should respond.
Although you may feel you need to handle trauma alone, research has shown that relying on your close relationships for support is actually more beneficial to your recovery.
In fact, in a study of survivors of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, researchers found that those survivors who reached out to friends and family had lower levels of PTSD and depression than survivors who withdrew and turned away support (Fraley et al., 2006).
With your partner’s help, you can take steps to ease negative emotions caused by the trauma.
Isolation and Numbing After Trauma
The tendency for many people is to numb or shut down as a way to cope with trauma, but this has a negative effect on your relationships.
The more overwhelmed you feel, the more shut down you become, and the more shut out your partner is.
One of the biggest obstacles Dr. Johnson points out is the feeling of shame that prevents you from reaching out to your partner. There’s part of you that feels like the trauma was your fault in some way. And this is a very common feeling for survivors.
Maybe you feel guilty that the trauma has affected your relationship, or you feel that you don’t deserve love and support. You might wonder if your partner can love you now that you’re so different.
After trauma it’s even common to push your partner away.
But, in reality, your partner can provide you the sense of safety you’re so desperately craving.
Couples Therapy for Trauma Helps You Face Trauma Together
It takes courage for the wounded partner to be vulnerable and share their deep hurt. It also takes courage to listen and witness your partner’s pain. If you can face trauma together, your relationship will get stronger.
For the survivor, strengthening your relationship through couples therapy for trauma can help you find comfort. Your partner, who might be at a loss for what’s going on with you in the small moments that escalate out of control, will be able to see your hurt and respond to you in a different way. They will respond with empathy to your pain instead of frustration, criticism, or withdrawal. Therapy can help you find each other again.
It can also help you regain hope. If life just looked too scary or too hard after your traumatic event, coming close to your partner for support can remind you of the good things that are still there with the bad.
Additionally, sharing your fears and vulnerabilities allows your partner to reassure you that you are loved, no matter how you’ve changed after the event.
Together, you will make sense of what happened, even if what happened doesn’t make sense. Finding the time and safe space to talk through the trauma can put words to experience so it doesn’t feel so big and overwhelming. Creating a story together helps you organize the trauma in your mind and find a new understanding of the world and the way you live in it.
Finally, together you can heal the trauma.
Healing in Couples Therapy for Trauma
The key to resolving trauma is to feel that what was intolerable at the time of traumatic event, becomes manageable because you are not alone.
In couples therapy for trauma, we use the resources of the partner, helping you carry the metaphorical load of the event.
You can handle the trauma better, and your partner will understand your reactions and handle the changes in the relationship better. Neither of you will need to disappear or scold when you’ve expressed your fears and needs, and regained a deep connection with the other person.
About Dr. Irena
Dr. Irena is a licensed psychologist and certified Emotionally Focused therapist with over 20 years of experience. She uses EFT to help couples heal and reconnect after traumatic events. She offers online therapy for women and couples in Houston, the Woodlands, and New York City.
If you would like to schedule a session, email Dr. Irena for a free 10-minute video consultation: [email protected] or call (281)-267-1742.
Fraley, R. C., Fazzari, D. A., Bonanno, G. A., & Dekel, S. (2006). Attachment and psychological adaptation in high exposure survivors of the September 11th attack on the World Trade Center. Personality & social psychology bulletin, 32(4), 538-551. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167205282741
Johnson, S. (2008). Hold Me Tight. Little, Brown Spark.