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When Trauma Disrupts Love

Learn the difference between normal feelings of anxiety and a current crisis.

Most people will likely experience anxiety or depression at some time in their lives, especially when they are faced with a traumatic situation. If those crises occur between the partners in an intimate relationship, they often stress the partner’s capacity to continue their devotion and support. If they have created a strong skill set of trust and resiliency, they can better help one another through these potentially difficult times.

When their caring for each other is strong, most couples can weather even unexpected challenges. Once the crisis has passed, the partners rally and reconstruct the imbalance that the trauma has caused.

Sadly, however, some crises trigger a past, deeper, traumatic experience, rendering normally effective emotional support inadequate. The partner who is re-experiencing those deeper and more profound feelings may not be able to explain the depth of his or her intense reactions nor easily take in nurturing or help that would have been more than sufficient in other situations. The other partner may take that unavailability personally or feel overwhelmed by what is happening.

Even when long-term partners have been very close, they may have either forgotten or been unwilling to share some of their past traumatic experiences. Perhaps they were too painful or embarrassing to talk about with anyone. Or, either partner may choose to minimize them for fear that the new partner would be turned away. Those hidden thoughts and reflections may have never seemed a problem until the present crisis emerged. The partner reliving unexpressed trauma from the past may not even be aware that is happening.

It is crucially important for intimate partners to understand the difference between heartbreak from the past from one that is occurring in the present. If partners can differentiate between normal responses to a current crisis and one that brings back a painful situation from the past, they are more likely to stay objective. It is also important to know that one partner’s past trauma, re-experienced in the present, can trigger one in the other partner. Those difficult interactions can throw a relationship into overdrive, often exhausting the couple’s emotional resources.

The two most prominent over-arching emotions during any crisis are different forms of anxiety and depression. Here is how they may play out in the present when triggered by resurfacing trauma from the past. Though they often occur simultaneously, the following examples will separate anxious reactions from depressive ones.

Normal Feelings of Anxiety From a Current Crisis

When people are faced with a challenging situation that has an uncertain outcome, it is natural for them to feel worried, vigilant, and even panicky. If the situation cannot be resolved in a reasonable amount of time, they may even begin to have trouble sleeping, have headaches, feel tense and nervous, and become subject to intestinal problems. If they have partners who care for and support them, they can usually work their way through the process and come out the other side intact. Of course, some personal losses are emotionally or physically impactful, such as facing a difficult illness, losing a loved one, or experiencing a financial crisis.

Here is one example:


“My 4-year-old came home with a swollen eye and a headache. He told me that he fell during recess and hit his face. I’m not the kind of mom who panics easily but his eye just didn’t look right and he was acting differently from usual. My antennas were up and I couldn’t sleep that night. Of course, it was a Friday and our usual great pediatrician wasn’t on call. The nice doctor I spoke to said to just put cold compresses on it, and give him some Tylenol, and see our regular doctor on Monday.

"I couldn’t sleep all night and my stomach was in knots. I just knew something wasn’t right. My whole body hurt and I kept worrying that I was missing something. About four o’clock, I woke up his dad and told him my concerns. He tried to calm me down and tell me to let it go, but I just couldn’t. I woke my son up and took him into emergency. The doctors called an ambulance and took him directly to Children’s Hospital. We spent the next two days in Intensive Care, while they tried to keep the infection from going to his brain, then two more weeks in the hospital.

"It took me a couple of months to settle down, but now I’m just feeling totally blessed that he’s okay and that I followed my instincts.”

How Those Feelings Can Change When the Current Experience Triggers a Past Trauma

When a partner experiencing a current challenge is reminded of a past trauma, his or her anxieties are greatly exaggerated. That partner may have trouble controlling their emotions, display more intense reactivity, less resiliency, and more severe physical symptoms. They are often hypervigilant, as though something more terrible is going to happen at any moment. They may be unable to sleep well or to let go of tension for even a few moments. They may be unable to stop ruminating over their current crisis, as if more attentiveness will keep things under control. Their fears may seem irrational and cannot be quelled by logic or perspective. They are often so hyped that they startle easily and cannot calm down. Most painfully, they begin reliving their past trauma, as if it is likely to recur. They have difficulty trusting any help, and may be unable to differentiate friends from enemies, especially when they are frightened.

Please put the following paragraphs in place of the last one in Julianne’s story:

“During the summer of my eighth year, I had full responsibility to take care of my 3-year-old brother. My mom was working and my dad was passed out from drinking. My brother fell out of the swing in our backyard and cut his head open. I couldn’t reach my mom and I couldn’t stop the bleeding. I went to my neighbors and no one was home. I wrapped him in a blanket and put him in my wagon and pulled him as fast as I could to the drugstore down the street. The owner called an ambulance and I rode with him to the hospital. He was trying to be so brave but I knew he was terrified. I just stayed as close to him as the ambulance driver would let me and told him how proud I was of his courage.

"The doctors told me that he’d lost so much blood that they didn’t know if they could save him. I waited and waited for my mom, but she didn’t come. I was cold and hungry but no one seemed to care. After a very long time, the doctor came out and told me he was going to be okay. I started crying and I couldn’t stop. My mom finally came but she was so worried about my brother that she didn’t even talk to me. I thought she felt it was my fault for not taking care of him right.

"I stayed with my son in the hospital until he was able to come home. We were there for a month, wondering if he would be alright. While I was there, I knew something was wrong with me. It was natural that I would be scared, but my feelings were out of control.

"Then I realized that I was overlapping what was happening in the present with what happened with my little brother so many years ago. I couldn’t separate my son’s injury from what happened to my brother. Even though I knew that everything was going to be okay with my child, I couldn’t stop crying or letting go of what might have happened to him. I kept checking him several times every night to make sure he was okay.

"I can’t seem to calm down or sleep through the night. I don’t trust anyone to watch over him, even his dad. It’s as if something terrible is going to happen and it will be my fault. I worry constantly that he’s okay at school. I’ve even parked outside the schoolyard without his knowing, just to see him on the playground. I keep seeing my little brother’s face with blood spurting out. I can still hear him wailing in fear. My husband is exhausted trying to make me feel better and I don’t know why I can’t take in his support. I don’t know if I’ll ever get over this. ”

Normal Feelings of Depression From a Current Crisis

When people experience deep loss, or the fear of one, they naturally feel down and sad. They may feel guilt or low in self-value, lose sleep, are unable to feel pleasure, feel pessimistic, irritable, or even that their life is just too hard to bear. They are both exhausted and restless. Some can’t eat or sleep, while others eat too much and sleep long hours. Life just seems too hard to face. Until the current crisis is resolved they may need much more nurturing or freedom to just be quiet and unavailable.

Here is one example:


“I lost my job after 12 years. The boss told me they were downsizing and it wasn’t my performance. It didn’t matter. I was devastated and scared. My wife had just come through a terrible bout with cancer and we were deeply in debt. I knew she might need more treatment in the future and I just didn’t want her to worry, so I didn’t tell her. While I was frantically applying everywhere I could, I pretended to go to work every day so she wouldn’t find out.

"I know she wondered what happened to my sense of humor or why I wasn’t interested in sex, but I just told her I was dealing with some stuff and I’d be okay. In reality, I felt like a failure. I could feel my irritability just under the surface, and couldn’t sleep or eat. I didn’t want to ask her for anything; she’d been through enough.

"One morning, I felt I was going to break. I didn’t know where to borrow more money and the mortgage was due in a week. I don’t know why I got a lucky break, but I didn’t care. My old boss called me and said that he’d left the company and was starting his own business and wanted me by his side. Good money and a great opportunity. I felt like the sun came out. I got on my knees in gratitude. I felt like a worthwhile man again, able to provide for my family.

"Then I told my wife everything. She cried for me and what I’d been through. She made me promise that I’d never live through that kind of pain again without including her. I’m okay now, but that was a rough go. Now I know that I have the best friend I could ever want by my side. We never held back talking about her blessings and her sorrows with me, and couldn’t understand why I didn’t feel the same about my own fears. I realized that she was right and we made a pact to never shut each other out again. I feel like a new man. If you love each other enough, you really can turn lemons into lemonade.”

How Those Feelings Can Change When a Current Crisis Triggers a Past Trauma

When a loss occurs in the present that activates memories of unresolved or traumatic losses in the past, people will experience all of the usual depressive symptoms, but much more intensely and with lessened faith that things will ever get better. They often feel empty, as though they have no resources left to deal with what is happening. They are as if in a deep, dark hole without the means to find their way out ever again.

Overwhelmed with grief and sorrow, they often feel that the past heartbreaks are what were always in store for them, and they have finally come to take their toll. It is hard for them to formulate any plan because they have completely lost trust that their lives can ever be okay again. Apathy and surrender are pervasive, because anything else is too hard or not possible.

Please put the following paragraphs in place of the last one in Kurt’s story:

“I grew up with a single mom. We never had enough money. I’d hear her crying in her room at night and I know she fed me when she was hungry. She worked two jobs and I spent most of my time as a kid waiting for her to come home. I know she tried her best to keep her worries from me, but I saw her getting more and more tired. Maybe she could have gotten help from the church or neighbors but she was too proud to ask, and I was too afraid.

"One day, the day before my ninth birthday, she didn’t come home. I was terrified. I waited until early morning before I called 911. The lady dispatcher told me to stay at home and she would send someone. The policeman came to my door and told me to come with him. I didn’t find out until the next day that my mom had a heart attack in her car in front of our house. I felt like I should have done something to protect her and that it was somehow my fault. The policeman was trying to keep me from knowing what happened until he could find someone to come for me, but I didn’t know that. I was just terrified.

"When I lost my job, I felt like the roof caved in. I thought I would let my wife down the same way I had my mom. I started ruminating about my mom and how she died alone in the car. I thought my wife was going to die from her cancer, and I remember sleeping in her room in the hospital every night, even though the nurses told me she was doing fine. Now, even with my new job, I keep thinking that I could lose it again. I couldn’t stop the grief and wracking pain in my heart. I felt doomed, like what happened to me as a child was bound to happen again. I didn’t think I had enough hope to do it again. I was sure that I would just fold and my wife would never get the treatment she would need to stay alive, like I was destined to be alone and in pain my whole life, not worth anything.

"Instead, she held me while I cried. She told me how wonderful I’d been as her husband and that she was alive because of my love and devotion. I realized that I had never told her because I couldn’t face remembering losing my mom. I think I’d erased it from my memory. I know now that love in the present is the only thing that can make me whole again.”

What a Couple Can Do to Help Each Other Heal From Past Traumas

The people who can remember early trauma and how it may have been triggered by current events can begin the healing process of letting go of the past. Many others have buried the traumas, no longer in touch with their suffering. When those traumas are triggered, they know that they are over-reacting to a present stressor, but do not know why. They have succeeded in erasing memory from their minds but not their body’s recollection of the trauma. When a symbolic crisis occurs, they physically and emotionally react, whether they remember what happened or not.

When intimate partners understand the difference between normal reactions to crises and exaggerated, anguishing and lingering responses, they can help each other when a present trauma is not responding to help. They can be more patient, supportive, and non-reactive, making certain that they do not personalize what is not their contribution. In the light of a new experience, many committed couples can redefine and minimize the sorrows from those early traumas, helping one another to reintegrate their past into their more devoted and comforting present.

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