Relationship traumais real, and it can have lasting adverse effects. Despite the realities of traumatic relationships, it is possible to heal, move forward, and experience healthy relationships again.
What is relationship trauma?
Experts have described relationship trauma as occurring when an intimate relationship has involved significant physical, sexual, or psychological abuse. Someone who has suffered from such a trauma tends to experience intense emotions and relive trauma experiences.
Post-traumatic relationship disorder can, therefore, be incredibly distressing.
5 relationship trauma symptoms are as follows:
Feeling extremely fearful of or enraged toward the relationship partner
Feeling unsafe, which can lead to hypervigilance and insomnia
Socially isolating oneself from others
Restlessness and concentration problems
Being fearful of intimate relationships and lacking trust in such relationships
Emotional and psychological trauma
When people think of trauma in a relationship, they may think of physical violence, but it can also involve emotional and psychological trauma. For instance, catching your partner in an affair, having a severe blow-up fight, or being humiliated by your partner can all create emotional and psychological symptoms.
This trauma can come from psychological abuse within a relationship. Emotional and psychological trauma is the result of some of the following behaviors in an abusive relationship:
One partner purposely humiliating or embarrassing the other partner
One partner making degrading comments about the victim, whether in public or private
Abusive partner destroying the other’s self-esteem
One partner attempting to convince the other that he/she is “crazy”
One partner telling the other what he or she is or is not allowed to do
One partner controlling household finances
Constant criticism from a partner
Threats of harm from the abuser
One partner blaming the other for things that go wrong or making that partner feel guilty for things that are not his/her fault
Any of the above behaviors can cause traumatic relationships. Ultimately, the victim loses his or her sense of confidence and independence and even begins to question his or her sanity. The victim may be fearful of making a mistake and feel that it is impossible to make the abuser happy.
Signs you are experiencing trauma after a toxic relationship
A few of the top symptoms are listed above, but it helps to have a complete understanding of the signs of trauma after a toxic relationship may look like.
One of the main signs of trauma after a relationship, according to experts, is that you are fearful of a new relationship. You may desire to start a new relationship, but your anxiety prevents you from jumping into another relationship, even after taking time to heal.
Trust issues are another key sign of trauma from a toxic relationship.
If past relationship abuse has resulted in trauma, you may not trust yourself to choose a new partner. Besides, you may be hesitant to trust someone new out of the fear that this person may also become abusive. This can lead you to lash out in new relationships or your friendships.
For example, minor disagreements or mistakes can lead you to question the person’s honesty because they remind you of past mistakes your abusive partner made.
Four other signs you have experienced relationship trauma are as follows:
Your self-esteem has completely deteriorated
A toxic relationship partner may use abusive tactics, such as degrading you, embarrassing you, and accusing you of doing everything wrong. This can lead you to feel worthless, incompetent, and undeserving of love. Exposure to this level of trauma can leave you with little to no self-esteem.
Choosing another unhealthy partner
With weak self-esteem, you may come to believe that you are not worthy of a healthy relationship in which your partner considers your needs and treats you with respect. This can lead you to accept another partner who causes the trauma.
Sometimes, you may rush into a new relationship with an abusive partner because you are lonely and seeking to fill the void or to heal from the wounds of your last relationship. This can lead to a repeated cycle of trauma.
In the video below, Dr Treisman talks about the importance of forging good relationships and how adults also need relational healing:
Another key symptom is obsessive thoughts. This may involve replaying old arguments from the relationship and obsessing over what you could have said or done differently, or obsessing about flaws your former partner led you to believe you have. You could also be obsessing about whether people in your life are trustworthy.
Regardless of the source of these thoughts, they can be rather intrusive and create extreme distress.
You may apologize excessively
If you have been subject to the trauma, you may have come to believe that everything you do is wrong or that anything that goes wrong is your fault. If this is the case, you might find yourself apologizing for simple mistakes or even offering apologies when they are not necessary.
How trauma affects relationships
Unfortunately, relationship trauma can lead to negative patterns or cycles in relationships.
This is because of the way the brain is wired. As psychology experts have explained, with repeated trauma, we become increasingly sensitive to the effects of trauma. This is because if we never heal from trauma, the wiring in the brain changes, causing us to initiate a “survival response” if we feel threatened.
A survival response triggers a reaction from the brain called the amygdala, causing us to fight or become emotional. The brain’s survival response is so strong that we may view relationship conflict as a threat to our survival.
When we do not process and heal from trauma in relationships, a lot of changes happen inside us which thereby, affects relationships:
We become so sensitive that any conflict or situation that reminds us of the trauma can lash out, such as by yelling or fighting.
Some people may not fight but instead shut down and withdraw when the brain’s survival response is activated.
It ultimately leads to a negative behavioral pattern.
Ongoing conflict in the relationship
Suppose, if you feel so threatened or rejected in one relationship that you begin to withdraw or fight back at the first sign of trouble, in your next relationship, you may view honest mistakes or minor conflict as being threatening, and in turn, lash out at your new partner. This creates a negative pattern.
A trauma response can also create a negative pattern in the abusive relationship, thus perpetuating the relationship trauma cycle.
For example, if you are used to feeling threatened by your partner’s rejection or humiliating comments, your brain may become overly sensitive to trauma.
This means that even if your partner isn’t behaving in a particularly threatening manner, you may perceive rejection or conflict and begin to act out toward your partner. This creates ongoing conflict and becomes a negative pattern within the relationship.
Over time, it can cause you to view all relationships negatively. You may then feel as if you can trust no one, so you withdraw or lash out to protect yourself. This can harm any relationship and lead to a pattern of unhealthy, unhappy intimate relationships.
How to heal from relationship trauma
While relationship trauma can create distressing symptoms and negative patterns, it is possible to rewire the brain and heal from trauma. According to trauma experts, the adult brain can repair itself after a trauma. This requires you to practice new habits or think about things differently.
Instead of immediately reacting, you may have to train yourself to take a moment to analyze whether you are really in danger or if this is simply a usual argument. Over time, this process should become more automatic as the brain heals.
Patience is the key
If you have decided to stay in a relationship despite experiencing the trauma’s adverse effects, you will have to be prepared to be patient with your partner.
In the beginning, you may not feel positive about the process of healing, but as you see your partner make changes, you will begin to feel better over time.
Live in the present
If you are engaging in the repair, it is important that you focus on the present and moving forward, rather than ruminating on past hurt. As you build new positive patterns with your partner, positivity will become the norm.
If you are still fixated on the past, you can easily fall back into negative cycles, which is why it is so important to focus on the positive changes occurring in the present.
Ultimately, if you find you cannot heal from the trauma on your own, you may need to seek counseling.
Suppose you are finding yourself stuck in a cycle of viewing relationships negatively and reacting with your survival instincts even when faced with minor conflict. In that case, it may be time to participate in individual counseling to help you heal from it.
If you are struggling with trauma within the context of a relationship, couples counseling may help you and your partner develop healthier ways of interacting.
3 concepts for trauma survivors for healthier relationships
Throughout the trauma repair process, it is helpful for survivors to keep some key concepts in mind. Here are the top three:
1. The trauma was not your fault
Survivors of a traumatic relationship have often been made to believe that they are crazy or unworthy of love. This can cause them to feel that they were somehow deserving of abuse and that the trauma was their fault.
This is never the case. No one has a right to abuse you, and the abuser is accountable for his or her actions.
2. Relationships are not inherently unsafe
When you have been subjected to traumatic relationships, especially on an ongoing basis, you may begin to believe that all relationships are negative, abusive, or full of conflict. This is not the case. It is possible to have a healthy relationship that is free from negativity.
3. Not all conflict is a sign of a problem
Much like you may begin to view all relationships as unfavorable, repeat trauma can cause you to believe that all conflict is a threat or a sign of trouble. This is also untrue.
Some conflict is expected in healthy relationships, and it does not mean that you need to fight back, retreat, or feel unsafe. It is hard not to feel threatened when conflict has been toxic in the past, but you can learn new ways of thinking about conflict, so you are able to respond more rationally.
Keeping the above concepts in mind as you move forward from the trauma can help you to develop new ways of thinking about relationships. In turn, you will view yourself and relationships in a more positive light, leading you to find a healthier relationship in the future.
PTSD, relationship trauma, and the effect on relationships
It is important to recognize the difference between post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and relationship trauma. PTSD is a diagnosable mental health condition in which a person may numb themselves to avoid reliving a traumatic event.
Post-traumatic relationship syndrome (PTRS), on the other hand, generally involves people reliving relationship trauma too much, making it present quite differently from PTSD.
Someone with PTSD tends to avoid the trauma, whereas someone with the trauma will have a tendency to relive the trauma to the point that it becomes harmful.
Sometimes people may view PTSD and PTRS as being the same, but they are not entirely the same.
PTRS may have some features of PTSD, but it is a separate condition, especially since it is not an officially recognized mental health disorder and tends not to meet all of the diagnostic criteria for PTSD. Some people may think of PTRS as being PTSD from a relationship.
PTSD and relationship trauma can both create harmful effects on relationships.
For example, someone who is suffering from PTSD may have nightmares or flashbacks of a traumatic event, experience constant negative emotions like anger or fear, and begin to withdraw from usual activities or detach themselves from others. These side effects can understandably hurt relationships.
A person with PTSD may withdraw from their partner or act out in anger simply because of a persistently negative mood.
Such a trauma also leads to relationship problems, but this sort of trauma tends to cause more of a direct impact on the relationship, such as through the following effects:
Feeling enraged toward your partner
Getting stuck in a negative cycle of interactions in relationships
Lacking trust in relationships
Withdrawing during conflict
Feeling threatened by minor mistakes or disagreements with your partner
Blowing up on your partner over seemingly minor things
If you are living with the effects of relationship trauma, take comfort in knowing you can heal. Healthy relationships after trauma are possible if you are committed to learning new ways of thinking and approaching your relationships.
If you have difficulty with healing on your own, a therapist or psychologist who is skilled in healing can help you to move forward.
If you feel disconnected or frustrated about the state of your marriage but want to avoid separation and/or divorce, the marriage.com course meant for married couples is an excellent resource to help you overcome the most challenging aspects of being married.
Rachael Pace is a noted relationship writer associated with Marriage.com. She provides inspiration, support, and empowerment in the form of motivational articles and essays. Rachael enjoys studying the evolution of loving partnerships and is passionate about writing on them. She believes that everyone should make room for love in their lives and encourages couples to work on overcoming their challenges together.