Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


12 Signs a Past Trauma May Be Affecting Your Relationship

Extremely upsetting events from earlier in life often have long-lasting effects.

Key points

  • Major trauma from the past can affect your thoughts, feelings, and actions in your current romantic relationship.
  • Negative beliefs and painful emotions stemming from trauma can get in the way of close connection with your partner.
  • Effective trauma treatment can help to resolve these lingering difficulties.
Fizkes/Adobe Stock
Source: Fizkes/Adobe Stock

The people who come to me for therapy often describe how the traumas they've survived continue to affect them. Some of the most painful effects are on their relationships.

Below are 12 of the most common ways that wounds from the past can impact your relationship with your partner, especially if you’re experiencing unresolved posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

1. You avoid certain topics when talking with your partner.

When you're haunted by the memory of a trauma, it’s common to steer clear of topics that remind you of it. For example, you may avoid talking about hospitals if you experienced a medical trauma. These restrictions can lead you to cut off conversations in ways your partner doesn't understand.

2. It’s hard to do certain activities.

In a similar way, you might feel compelled to avoid activities that trigger painful memories or make you feel unsafe. For example, you might not drive if your trauma was a motor vehicle accident. It might be hard to explain to your partner why you don’t want to do these things.

3. You believe negative things about your partner.

Trauma affects the way we see the world and other people, including our partner. Any major trauma can make it easier to assume the worst about others; traumatic events that were directly caused by another person, such as abuse or an assault, can have especially potent effects on your relationship.

4. You often feel defensive.

Trauma can leave you with an unfairly low opinion of yourself, too. This negative self-image may leave you with a lower threshold for thinking your partner is criticizing you. In response, you get angry at your partner’s perceived putdowns.

5. Your partner startles you.

If your partner makes a sudden noise or appears when you’re not expecting them, you nearly jump out of your skin. They might be bewildered by your reactions, which may puzzle you, too. It’s not that you’re afraid of your significant other; it’s a sign of a nervous system on high alert.

6. You’re less excited about doing activities with your partner, including sex.

A lack of interest in activities—even ones you used to enjoy—is a common symptom of posttraumatic stress and might lead to conflict with your partner. Low interest is especially pronounced if you’re also depressed, which is common after trauma.

7. You feel disconnected from your partner.

Many people feel detached from their world and the people around them after trauma. It can feel as if you’re fundamentally different from others, which can make it hard to experience intimacy with your partner.

8. You often feel negative emotions.

You may find that feelings like anger, fear, or sadness color a lot of the time you share with your partner.

9. You are irritable toward your partner.

On a related note, you find that little things your partner does can really annoy you. Your nerves probably feel raw, and you have little patience for any unwelcome behavior. Sometimes you may even explode at them in a way that shocks both of you.

10. You don’t sleep well.

It’s hard to sleep well when the brain and body feel threatened. Even if you know you’re safe with your partner, your nervous system might not be ready to let down its guard.

11. It’s hard to focus on your partner.

You often find that you’re not really following what they’re saying as your mind keeps drifting to other things. It’s especially hard to stay focused when scenes from your trauma are flashing into your mind.

12. It’s hard to feel love for your partner.

You may know you love them, but it’s hard to really connect with those feelings. It might also be hard to feel and receive the love they express for you.

The good news is that these struggles tend to resolve with effective treatment for trauma. If you recognize yourself in these 12 signs, consider seeking treatment; you can search for a therapist in the Psychology Today directory.

In the meantime, try this simple exercise to calm the nervous system (adapted from the online course “Relief From Depression”); you can follow along to a guided audio version of it here.

  1. Sit comfortably in a quiet place and close your eyes (unless you prefer to keep them open).
  2. Take three easy breaths, in through the nose and out through the mouth. Let the exhale be longer than the inhale.
  3. Now, as you breathe in, roll your shoulders forward and up toward your ears, and then let them drop as you breathe out. Let your shoulders relax. Repeat twice more.
  4. Finally, take three normal breaths, in and out of the nose, gently noticing how you’re doing. Well done.
More from Seth J. Gillihan PhD
More from Psychology Today