Jennie Lannette MSW, LCSW

PTSD Quest


Together in Trauma and in Health

These are some of the ways that past trauma can show up in relationships.

Posted Sep 13, 2020

Photo by cottonbro from Pexels.
Emotional flashbacks are tied to our past but come up in current relationships.
Source: Photo by cottonbro from Pexels.

You get upset. He blows up. She shuts down. The next day, you can’t even remember why it bothered you so much.

We’ve all been there, even therapists (we’re no more immune than anyone else). Here’s what I tell my clients about trauma and relationships, and the ways it can impact your day-to-day interactions with each other as well as your long term relationship.

Emotional Flashbacks Get Triggered

Many people in intimate relationships experience emotional flashbacks. In his book Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving, Pete Walker describes emotional flashbacks like this:

“You feel little, fragile, and helpless. Everything feels too hard. Life is too scary. Being seen feels excruciatingly vulnerable… in the worst flashbacks an apocalypse feels imminently upon you.”

Emotional flashbacks take us back emotionally to our childhood, often to the first handful of years, before age 5. That’s one reason it can be difficult to communicate, stay present, and even make sense of what’s going on. Some of my clients describe it like a dissociative state, where they feel frozen or like they’ve left the room. Some people have trouble speaking, moving, or can’t stop crying. Others have no clear emotion at all.

Strangely (because we often feel like it’s something particularly messed up about us and we rarely talk about it) it’s not uncommon for this to come up in relationships. Sometimes this can be because the relationship itself feels unsafe overall, and is dangerous or toxic. This shouldn’t be overlooked, and if there’s a pattern of this, most people already have some idea that this is happening.

However, emotional flashbacks can also happen in good and healthy relationships, where the partners are growing closer. When we are close, stuff gets triggered. It can be that we simply can’t avoid it when we spend a lot of time together, or because we feel safe enough to go there and aren’t entirely emotionally shut off from the world anymore. In many, and maybe even most cases, the trigger has nothing to do with whatever started the event/argument/misunderstanding. It is almost entirely to do with things already inside of us (or our partners) from the past.

In therapist-speak, I would call these “stuck points” (from CPT, a type of trauma therapy) or "schemas" (from Jeff Young’s Schema Therapy). These sensitive points, often called triggers, are already within us, and simply get brought out when we’re close to people. It’s no one’s fault, it just happens in human relationships.

There’s a well-known relationship book called Getting the Love You Want: A Guide for Couples. It’s based on a type of couple’s treatment called Imago Therapy. The authors state:

“When we fall in love, [the] unconscious, trapped in the eternal now and having only a dim awareness of the outside world, is trying to recreate this environment of childhood. And the reason the unconscious is trying to resurrect the past is not a matter of habit or blind compulsion but of a compelling need to heal old childhood wounds.”

In Imago therapy, you learn to understand what needs you had that weren’t met in childhood. These needs created the conditions for you to find a partner that you could act out that need with — one that doesn’t always meet all of those needs, so you can once and for all “fix” it. According to Imago Therapy, we are attracted to partners that have the best and worst traits of our parents. We are unconsciously healing our childhoods.

Our core personalities typically develop by age 5. This is where we develop our ways of dealing with the world, reacting to upsets, and showing up in relationships. When our defenses are down, any efforts to be “mature adults” go out the window. We’re all held hostage by our 5-year-old selves, trying to work through their issues.

Understanding what your issues are, learning to express and understand your feelings, and supporting and accepting your partner in doing the same can be helpful to manage this. The most significant way to overcome this is to take the power out of the trigger by understanding each other better (see perpetual problems, below).

Sexual Trauma Gets in the Way

For those who have past sexual trauma, history may bring up complications in a new, healthy relationship. I’ve had many clients who overcame all other aspects of their trauma, but would still feel unsafe and triggered around sex much of the time, even with the safest and most respectful of partners. You would think this is an area that therapists know all about and help with all the time. But when I started to come across this when treating clients, I found that wasn’t true.

I reached out to some of the best PTSD and trauma specialists and consultants I knew in the country. The best advice I was given was to get a specific book that had no more information than what my clients and I had already figured out.

In my experience, some people gradually overcome sexual triggers as their trauma gets better and they’re with a safe partner. Some continue to have avoidance and simply don’t enjoy sex, or the thought of feeling powerless is so frightening that they shut down.

For my clients who’ve overcome this, it took a partner with unending patience, a sophisticated respect of boundaries, and a basic understanding most of the time that the trauma triggers were from the past, and not about them. With experimenting, making sex fun, playful, keeping it low-pressure, and continuing to experiment with it, I’ve had traumatized clients who now love sex with their partners. This trigger can be overcome with time and intention.

Conflicts Keep Coming Up

Ongoing relationship conflicts are another way trauma can come into play in a relationship. A well-known type of couple’s therapy, The Gottman Method, describes two types of conflict for couples: solvable and perpetual. Solvable problems just take a little bit of communication and a plan, like any other minor to moderate problem in life. Perpetual problems keep coming up, because they’re not really about a fixable issue but about conflicting values that aren’t really going to change.

All couples have perpetual problems, and the Gottman Method recommends getting a better understanding of your partner’s perspective so you can be less upset and judgmental about it. Sometimes these perpetual problems are rooted in deep childhood issues or past traumas, and that’s why they’re hard to overcome. These values aren’t wrong and don’t necessarily need to change (and probably won’t), they just need to be managed in the relationship.

Here’s an example: One partner grew up very poor and needy and believes it’s important to help others and donate to charitable causes. Partner two grew up similarly, but responded to this by always saving and being very careful with money and not wasting it. Neither partner is wrong, but these are very different values and perspectives about money. It will take a lot of communication, empathy, understanding, and patience with one another to overcome this “gridlock,” as the Gottmans call it. It may be an issue that comes up repeatedly, but understanding and accepting each other can make it less like World War III every time it comes up.

Active PTSD Can Take Over a Relationship

In some cases, we don’t just have complications from past trauma, but full-blown PTSD. This is a specific set of symptoms such as intrusive memories, avoidance of thinking about the past trauma, hypervigilance, and high anxiety in triggering situations such as crowds (that was prior to coronavirus, which is a whole other thing).

I’ve noticed a clear pattern when one partner has PTSD. The other partner then becomes a caretaker of sorts, often helping the other manage symptoms, work through panic attacks, and assists them in avoiding triggering situations.

The first partner can become an enabler of types, unwittingly preventing the one with PTSD from getting help or facing fears. However, that’s a bit tricky and could be compared to helping someone manage a disease if there’s no apparent cure — are you just going to let them suffer instead? (The good thing to know is that there are effective treatments for PTSD with the right help.)

This symbiotic relationship seems to work for people overall, until the partner with PTSD starts to get better. Then the caretaker partner suddenly doesn’t understand the role they have, and can feel not needed or left behind. Fortunately, with some time and communication, most couples get through this just fine. The stress of PTSD is definitely much worse than the stress of not having it.

These are some of the ways that trauma can take over in our relationships. I’m not sure if it’s good news or bad, but most of us deal with this at some point with ourselves and/or our significant others. It’s the human condition, and it can indeed be confusing, complicated, and exhausting.

Fortunately, there are tools that can help. Understanding yourself better, finding self-help resources, and seeking couple’s counseling if needed are a few options. If you look at working through triggers and trauma as a way to get to know yourself and your partner better, leading to more intimacy and healing, maybe it can land on the side of good news.

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