Trauma has a way of adding complexity to marriage that many couples find incredibly challenging to navigate, especially since marriage even absent of traumatic impact is challenging enough on its own. Trauma, whether from past experiences, recent events, outside the relationship or within it, can significantly impact the quality of marriage for both partners. Let’s explore a few of the most common areas that trauma impacts marriages and how couple therapy can help!
Trauma can interrupt healthy communication in relationship. Because of where trauma lives in the brain and body, it can have the effect of “stealing” your words, which might lead to emotional outbursts, as opposed to emotional communication. This can produce misunderstandings and emotional distance.
Trauma outside of the relationship can make it harder to establish trust, while trauma within the relationship can erode it. Trust issues often manifest as jealousy, suspicion, or a constant need for reassurance. It’s pretty challenging to feel close to someone you don’t trust, so this might even have an indirect impact on feeling disconnected with your partner.
Couples may become emotionally distant as one or both partners struggle to process their traumatic experiences. Trauma often makes it feel as though you cannot rely on anyone, including your partner, or that you are a burden or should be able to figure things out on your own. This emotional disconnect can lead to feelings of loneliness and isolation, often for both partners simultaneously.
Trauma often affects one's ability to be intimate, both emotionally and physically. Intimacy requires vulnerability, and for folks who have experienced trauma, vulnerability can feel incredibly unsafe, out of control, and activating. The nature of trauma is that vulnerability was forced where it was not supposed to be. When it comes to emotional and physical intimacy, much of these interactions rely on reciprocity, which by nature can feel out of control. Feeling this vulnerable without any agreements on how to go about it may negatively impact sexual intimacy and emotional closeness.
Relationships have a unique way of surfacing unresolved wounding. For partners impacted by trauma, this might mean experiencing visual, emotional, or physical remnants of their trauma simply because of behaviors, needs, fears, or interactions within the marriage. These things may or may not be directly related to the trauma, yet they still have an ongoing impact on the relationship. This can feel incredibly distressing, confusing, concerning, frustrating, and isolating within the marriage, especially because flashbacks and triggers are so internal and one or both partners may not have the context of the flashback while still feeling the impact of them.
Trauma can manifest as anger and irritability because of how it impacts the emotion regulation centers of the brain. When we have unresolved trauma, our brains and nervous systems tend to kick us into survival, which often include powerful displays of “fight mode,” including bursts of outrage and anger. Survivors may lash out at their partners, accidentally creating a hostile environment within the marriage.
Some folks coping with trauma may have adapted to withdraw from everything – themselves, their partners, traumatic memories, their bodies. . . This adaptation is the “flight” trauma response, and it often manifests as avoiding conversations or situations that trigger trauma as well. This can lead to disconnection in the marital relationship and feelings of abandonment in the other spouse.
Trauma can negatively impact one's self-esteem and self-worth. This can affect how individuals perceive themselves in the context of the marriage and how they believe their partner sees them. This can be accompanied by negative beliefs about yourself or the world around you. For example, someone who experienced childhood trauma might believe that they don’t belong in this world, or that they are unlovable. Is that true? Not at all; however, while trauma may not be very rational, its emotional and physical impact is undeniable.
Trauma can disrupt either partner’s roles within the marriage. No, not stereotypical gender roles. I am more so referencing the power dynamic within the marriage, whereby one partner might overfunction while the other underfunctions. It’s not always that the partner with trauma under functions in the marriage, though this may also happen. Often times, the partner with trauma might be the one who takes more on, struggles to trust their partner with sharing the load, and who manages the responsibilities of the relationship more readily based on hypervigilance and fawning. This could result in relationship burnout, resentment towards one’s partner, and loss of attraction towards your partner due to feeling like a parent instead of a spouse.
Trauma can spill over into parenting, affecting how couples raise their children. Unresolved trauma can lead to inconsistent parenting and differing approaches to discipline, as well as parenting out of the trauma that you may have experienced instead of parenting the child that you have. Sometimes, couples say things like, “I’m going to do the exact opposite of what my parents did,” effectively projecting the traumatic impact of their upbringing onto their children. Trauma can also cause parents to swing the other way and say that “there was absolutely nothing wrong” with how they were parented, so they replicate exactly what their parents did onto their children. This often has a negative impact on connection, attunement, and sensitivity towards children, as well as one’s spouse.
Couple therapy provides a safe and neutral environment for both partners to discuss the impact of trauma on their marriage. A trained therapist can guide the conversation and ensure that it remains constructive, helping each partner feel heard and validated.
Therapists can teach couples effective communication strategies that facilitate understanding and empathy. Learning to express feelings and needs can bridge the gap created by trauma-related communication breakdowns.
Through therapy, couples can work on rebuilding trust and intimacy. Therapists can help partners understand the source of trust issues and provide tools to foster emotional and physical closeness.
Trauma can have a profound impact on marital relationships, affecting all sorts of relational areas that contribute to a marriage. However, with the right support, couples can navigate these challenges and emerge from trauma stronger and more connected than ever before. Couple therapy offers a structured and effective way to address these issues, providing a path towards healing, improved communication, and the rebuilding of trust and intimacy. If you and your partner are grappling with the impact of trauma on your marriage, consider seeking the guidance of a couple therapist who is also trained in trauma approaches to find support on your journey to recovery towards a healthier, happier relationship.