When Trauma Affects Your Trust in Your Relationship

Trauma comes in all shapes and sizes. It can be a huge event or a more subtle pain that you try hard to overlook, though it still haunts you. Collective traumas are suffered by many. They include war, terrorism, an accident, or a catastrophic weather episode that results in death or other forms of mass loss and upheaval. Individual traumas are those that happen uniquely and specifically to you, such as threats, assaults, abuse, family strife, and physical or mental boundary violations. Individual traumas are often experienced silently and can feel like your own personal prison.

When you’re traumatized, there’s a driving internal force to feel safe and cared for, especially by your partner. Whether you’re conscious of it or not, this can become your central focus as you try to heal. You delve into if/then scenarios in an effort to soothe yourself and look for a way out of that uncomfortable place you are in.  If your partner can just reassure you, support you and help you deal with your pain, then you will feel protected, validated and able to heal. However, it’s essential to be aware that what you’re hoping to receive from the relationship may be unrealistic or disproportionate to what your partner can give.

Trauma is so overwhelming and creates such internal chaos that it distorts your ability to gauge what your partner can realistically offer. This may be in part because they have been traumatized too, whether or not either of you realize it. Not only does your trauma affect how you perceive the comfort you receive, but your partner’s trauma affects their ability to provide what you’re looking for as you seek out safety and security.

When you’ve endured collective or individual trauma, your trust in how things are supposed to be is drastically altered. In turn, your sense of safety and connection to yourself and others is negatively impacted.  You are bracing for the next impact, whether or not one will follow. Understandably, there’s a need within you to secure your foundation, and establish or reestablish a sense of stability in the world. Whether you’re in a new relationship or one that’s established, you may be looking to your partner to do the impossible: fill the void created by trauma.

Be aware that being traumatized is akin to being betrayed, and that you might carry feelings of vulnerability, exposure and pain. The last thing you want is for your relationship to create further feelings of betrayal and disappointment because you don’t feel understood or validated. Therefore, it’s crucial to remember that your partner comes from a different background, life experience, and has different communication patterns from you. They exist in a different body and have a different brain. The onus is on you to communicate with your partner and to describe as best you can what you’re feeling and why. Try to resist slipping into a thought process of expecting them to “just know” what you are feeling and experiencing.  While your pain may be all-consuming, and those thoughts in your head may be very loud, understand that these feelings belong to you. You might have to power through your own trauma just long enough to help your partner help you to feel better.

For example, patients often describe the things they wished their partner had said or done in certain situations. The disappointment and experience of being let down by them can be a huge disappointment in its own right; it is as if they feel the relationship history and connection should leave little room for error or misunderstanding. Feeling betrayed, misunderstood, and diminished all culminate in what you view as your partner’s insensitivity because your partner did not or could not handle your needs in a way that would better meet your longings. When patients talk about their disappointment, it’s often clear that the extent to which they feel disappointed is not about the partner’s failure to soothe, but about the trauma that preceded it. You don’t want them to feel your outward anger about what they did wrong – this just perpetuates a cycle of distrust.  Your partner is working hard in their own way to forge and maintain the connection.  It’s so profoundly important to recognize that your hope for what your partner can give likely far exceeds what they’re capable of giving. This is no one’s fault.

In approaching your partner to talk about your painful experiences, rather than continue to build a case for disappointment, frustration, and distrust, start a conversation by showing gratitude for what they have done, and acknowledging that it must be so hard for them at times to figure out what you need. Communicate your needs very clearly to them.

Knowledge is power and self-knowledge is the ultimate power.  Creating healthy dialogue around expectations will help you discern whether or not there is enough of an investment by both partners to work on and progress in the relationship. Keep in mind that it is more important to acknowledge your partner’s efforts.  Even when they don’t succeed, knowing they are trying to help you through your pain is the most validating contribution they can make to your recovery.

The Gut-Wrenching Aftermath of Breakup


When an epic relationship ends, one of the most tormenting aspects of the loss is that you can think you’re ok, that you’ve weathered the storm. Then, seemingly out of the blue, you plunge right back into confusion, disgust, and fear, all over again. Chances are, the more tumultuous the relationship was while you were in it, the more tumultuous your response in the aftermath of breakup will be.

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What My German, Jewish Father Learned About Patriotism

This Memorial Day, I’d like to share a personal story. Both of my Jewish parents are European born. Both had the misfortune of being born during Hitler’s rising (my father in Germany, my mother in Belgium).

We will save my mother’s story for another day. But if you’re curious, you can view it here: https://vimeo.com/90691222

Back to my father: when his parents were able to escape Breslau in 1938 (a town close to Berlin, now occupied by Poland) it was via a ship that docked in NYC where his small family, who spoke not a word of English, made their home. In his new school in 1938 NYC, teachers, other parents and kids did not understand that HE was not the enemy, just BECAUSE he was German born.

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Why Trauma Resurfaces Just as You’re Feeling Better

After a period of devastation, loss, despair–a traumatic experience–as time passes, you may begin to feel better, safer in your own skin. You may even sense that you have grown stronger as the distance between where you are now and the painful experiences you have lived through continues to widen. During times when you feel okay, you may actually be able to allow yourself to relax into certain situations. You might even start to feel that your self-confidence is growing.

Suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, your brain carries you back to a time in your history that evokes great shame and feels painfully unresolved. The images that flash through your mind cause a visceral reaction. Inside, you now feel destabilized, which pollutes the positive experience you were just having.

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Are You Ready to Reconnect With Someone From Your Past?

Some painful stuff went down between you and someone who once held great meaning in your life. It reached a point where the only option left was to sever the connection. But as time has passed, you’ve become increasingly aware that the amazing moments you shared with this person are part of who you are, part of your identity, forever in your heart.

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Resilience Will Help Free You From Your Past

When you reflect on your history and how it has impacted you, you may appreciate the building blocks that contribute to your resilience. You may see the opportunities to engage in the fortunate and challenging experiences that helped to shape you in a way that helps you to feel solid in who you are, now. Then again, you may look back with such dismay and despair that your past feels like a boulder you’re forced to drag up a never-ending hill. You long to free yourself from your past because it doesn’t represent who you are now or who you want to be in the future.

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After Breakup, Who Says Your Feelings Have to Make Sense?

When your relationship first ended, you may have been far clearer about why the relationship didn’t work, and why your ex was wrong for you. However, you now find yourself having uncomfortable thoughts about the ex—longing, melancholy, and memories of the good times are seeping back into your psyche. Your once-clear perspective becomes more cloudy: what you are feeling right now doesn’t line up with what actually happened between you and your ex. Yet you miss the relationship; you miss that partner who was so wrong for you. It just doesn’t make sense:

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Everyone Has a ‘Look Closer’

In the movie “American Beauty” we are compelled to look closer. As the movie progresses, we learn that what appears on the outside to be a normal, happy, well functioning family is crumbling on the inside. What is so remarkable about this movie is how exquisitely it communicates the complexities that lie beneath the surface of one’s inner world. Shame, pain, confusion, hope, fear are just some of the hidden, visceral feelings we experience and react to. The movie reflects an extreme contrast between outside and inside.

In real life, the distinction between yours and others’ inner and outer worlds can be far more subtle and less extreme. However, reminding yourself that everyone has their own “look closer”, just like you do, can help you feel less alone with what you perceive as your painfully flawed self.

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Doors Opened, Doors Closed: No Regrets!

Your life has been a string of events that leads you to where you are now – in part determined by doors opened, doors closed, and the history, decisions and happenings that contribute to who and where you are today. When you look back on your life so far, how do you feel? Optimally, there are no regrets. But in reality for many, when you’re having difficulty feeling okay with where you are now, you may look back with regret and grieve lost opportunities, lost relationships, no-win situations, and unfortunate decisions that you perceive as having affected the trajectory of your life – if only you hadn’t married your ex; if only you hadn’t put your career on hold to have children, if only… The list in your head of imagined and impossible negotiations to bring your loved one back or to gain access to that better life you should have had can painfully distort your thinking.

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Does Your Identity Feel Threatened in Your Relationship?

Deepening relationships require compromise and even sacrifice. But there can be a downside. As real-life challenges arise, it can seem as if your identity and individuality are being threatened — like you’re losing a part of yourself. As a result, you become entrenched in opinions and versions of yourself that are so extreme that any compromise, even on small issues, seems unacceptable. . But, if you are able identify this dynamic in your interactions, it can help you put your feelings in perspective and calm yourself down. You might even recognize that whatever you are fighting for, against your partner, is inconsequential in the larger scale of things. In reality, your identity is not threatened. Rather, you are being confronted with having to adjust values and beliefs that have either always felt intrinsic to who you are, or you didn’t even know these feelings existed until they were challenged.

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