The Effects of Trauma on Intimate Relationships

The Effects of Trauma on Intimate Relationships July 6, 2020

My guest post today comes from an artist who tells tales with both her keyboard and her camera. In addition to crafting gorgeous photographs, Dorothy Greco has written two marriage books, the second of which releases later this year. From her wealth of experience and research, she offers wise thoughts and helps for sustaining healthy relationships despite difficult events.

“Franklin Arch” © Dorothy Greco Photography, used with permission.

We’re only halfway through 2020 but already, this has been the most traumatic year in the 21st century. The disruption and deaths from COVID-19, the economic downturn and spiking unemployment, and the surge in racialized violence have shaken and destabilized the entire country. These incidents have the potential to impact every facet of life, particularly our intimate relationships. By tuning in to how the current events might be affecting our spouse and learning how to meaningfully support each other, we can work toward creating a stronger and healthier marriage despite this season’s obvious hardships

Defining Trauma

Trauma can be defined as “the response to a deeply distressing or disturbing event that overwhelms an individual’s ability to cope, causes feelings of helplessness, diminishes a sense of self and an ability to feel the full range of emotions.”

We often think of trauma as a specific event or series of events but trauma is really more about how specific experiences affect us. Our response to a disturbing event depends on many factors, including how old we are when the event happens, how many times we have been exposed to trauma, how those closest to us responded (e.g., did they minimize or appropriately intervene?), and our unique personalities (those who are more sensitive tend to be more deeply impacted).

Because traumatic events are so disturbing and don’t make sense, the memory is stored in a way that’s difficult to access. As a result, it fails to become integrated in normal life but continues to adversely affect us. This is part of why events of a similar nature can trigger our memories and cause unusual or out-of-character responses.

The Effects of Trauma

Trauma can result from combat, ongoing emotional or physical abuse, witnessing a loved one die, race-related hostility, or being in an accident. (Check out the ACE website for more information and examples.) What triggers trauma is unique and it affects all of us differently.

One of the more commonly known effects of trauma is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Trauma can also cause emotional numbness and it’s not unusual for survivors to battle depression, rage, and loneliness. Because trusting others is so difficult, they often struggle to have healthy, close relationships. In The Body Keeps Score, Dr. Bessel van der Kolk writes, “Trauma… almost always makes it difficult to engage in intimate relationships. After you have experienced something so unspeakable, how do you learn to trust yourself or anyone else again?”

My father-in-law was given to explosive angry outbursts that sometimes culminated in hitting one of his three children with a belt. My husband and his siblings could never predict when this might happen but were terrified of their father’s anger. Additionally, my husband was sexually molested twice as a young teen. Early on in our marriage, if I ever put my arms around him from behind or touched him before he could see me, he would have a classic PTSD response, including surprise, physical withdraw, and anger. This was hurtful to me and confusing to both of us. About five years ago we realized that unwanted touch and being approached from behind were trauma triggers.

Because of the way trauma is stored in our bodies and because it’s connected to the experience of powerlessness, regular emotional vulnerability and sexual intimacy can be incredibly difficult to achieve. This is particularly true if the traumatic event was sexual in nature. If we’re not aware of how this factors into our marriage, we may find ourselves routinely frustrated by our spouse’s unavailability or seeming aloofness.

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