6 Ways to Handle a Relationship After Trauma Changes a Partner

A traumatic event can change any relationship in a split second. It could be a sickness, death of a loved one, or memories of abusive sex. The damage can take its toll over the course of years, tearing apart trust and intimacy, unless the couple knows how to handle the situation.

The dynamics of any traumatic, life changing experience are outlined by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross as following a course of steps, beginning with denial, then anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance and healing. There is no time-line to these stages, so each can last anywhere from days to years depending on the events and the person dealing with them.

1. Open Up

While it may feel most comfortable to avoid the topic completely, after a traumatic event has occurred, at some point many counselors recommend opening up to your partner, even if it’s just sharing how uncomfortable you are. This helps break the silence, giving permission for either partner to share their thoughts and feelings. They may want to talk, they may not, but the important thing is that you have taken the first step towards showing them you are there when they’re ready.

2. Encourage Them to Talk

While it is understandable that a changed partner may resist talking about certain events, there is evidence that sharing these with a loved one in a safe environment can help promote closure. Trauma expert Judith Herman has concluded that when a trauma victim tells their story as if they were a character, rather than reliving the events as they happened in their mind, the memories slowly disassociate themselves with the actual occurrence. The safety of their partner becomes a buffer to minimize the traumatic processing of details.

3. Wear a Thick Skin

One of the more difficult parts of helping a partner through trauma is dealing with the mental and verbal carnage. Traumatic stress makes people say and do things they normally wouldn’t, especially during the angry stage, and a partner might need a pretty thick skin to get through it. Therapists recommend encouraging your partner to have an imaginary conversation with the person responsible for the event (assailant, deceased, cheating partner, etc.), giving them the opportunity to work through bottled up frustration, anger, and regret.

4. Share Your Own Story

While the victim may be having the most difficult time handling their emotions, it is important for them to realize their loved ones are suffering too. Ask for permission to share your own haunting images, which may include a call about the accident, making a call to 911, riding in an ambulance, hearing the sirens, or driving to the hospital. The loved ones of victims are victims themselves, and need the opportunity to tell their own story. In the end both partners will understand each other better.

5. Coax Them Towards New Experiences

Bessel Van Der Kolk, a clinician for post-traumatic stress, recommends keeping the victim busy with new experiences and sensations. After a traumatic event, one of the reasons people change is they are constantly reminded of the event every time they feel a similar sensation. The body remembers, or “keeps score,” as Van Der Kolk would say. Anxious moments that cause the heartbeat to flutter or temperature to rise, can serve as painful reminders. Allowing your partner to experience these sensations through joyous events can change the body’s memory of these sensations, allowing them to feel more normal again.

6. Resilience and Patience

While the initial moments of inviting your partner to partake in activities may seem anti-productive, it is important to note that the body is designed to defend itself from emotional injury. This means that any moments you create of connection, good health, and laughter may be countered by their body’s need to stay alert towards danger, illness, and/or loss. Don’t hurry their healing process, or put their grievance on a timetable (“You should be over this by now”). Hang in there, as each new happy memory will have a way of countering the bad ones from the past.

While you may not be your partner’s therapist, and should not take the place of one, your partners greatest chance of settling back into a normal life (normal relationships), is through your own strength, stamina, encouragement, resilience, and courage.

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2 thoughts on “6 Ways to Handle a Relationship After Trauma Changes a Partner

  1. cazmayo

    This article found its way into my email inbox!! How very insightful and useful.
    My hubby has had a few traumas and has shut down, refusing to make any sort of decision, even small stuff.
    Its the head in the sand. This article I found very useful in ways to help, and acknowledge that his actions are also affecting me too. His family have just tried to bully him (tough love) which has made him retreat more so now they blame me.

    I will keep this article, something proactive and positive to focus on.

    Love & Light Caz xx

  2. Gina Rose ext.9500Gina Rose ext.9500

    Excellent article……#6 is so important…..patience and resilience.

    You will find yourself doing a delicate ” tap dance ” around the traumatized person…..knowing when to step in, knowing when to give a bit of space . But time itself is a healer……everybody has their own timeline for healing, but time IS on your side IF your are patient.

    Such an important article…….

    Blessed Be )O(
    Gina Rose ext.9500


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