Trauma & Relationships

Mental Health Foundation – Mental Health Awareness Week 2016.

Trauma and its effect on relationships

Life is what happens when you spend time planning and then all your carefully laid expectations suddenly fall apart. We all carry with us a plan, a map of the world and our expectations of it. This map includes the fact that things can and do go wrong but usually for someone else.

Trauma occurs when the map fails to represent the world: totally. It’s about experiencing not just the unexpected but the unanticipated, not just the unforeseen but the unimagined the unimaginable! There are criteria for ‘trauma’ but in truth it’s defined by you. It’s subjective. Sometimes a trauma is obvious; accident, natural disaster, terrorist event and sometimes not; death of a loved one, a stay in hospital, memories of abuse, a diagnosis of cancer.

These events change our map and our beliefs and understanding of the world. That's why after a trauma people may not even feel that they are the same person at all. This means that relationships change. The trust that people had in themselves, in you and the world around them which was so solid before the trauma changes radically afterwards.

People who have been through trauma can often act in very different ways compared to how they were before the trauma. They may prefer to be on their own for long periods of time and they be depressed for the first time. You may notice that they show compulsive behaviours or become obsessed with specific objects or places or they may avoid certain places or ways of travel. They may also respond to otherwise small arguments with a ferocious intensity or to your love with withdrawal and indifference. This is largely because of the fear of massive panic attacks that are very often brought about through flash backs – that uncontrollable experience of being back in the very experience they seek to avoid. This can also lead to a large helping of self-blame as they tell themselves that they ‘should be able to deal with this’, that they ‘should be much stronger’ and if only they ‘didn’t have to burden anyone else with their problems’.

All these new responses mean that maintaining a meaningful relationship is placed under great stress for all those involved and the chances of making new ones almost impossible.

However, the healthy way to overcome these changes and to heal the trauma is to recognise them without blame or fear. Easier said than done perhaps and yet knowledge and acceptance are the keys here. All these responses to trauma are natural and they are real. Real in that there is a physiological process going on, the body is affecting what we think and what we think disturbs our body. It is simply that we are stuck in way of being that is no longer helpful. All we need to do is to be more creative in our responses to this way of being.

If some you know someone who has begun to act differently with you it may be time to ask them what’s really happening for them. Be prepared for perhaps a long wait as they unravel all that’s happened for them or to receive a rush of emotion as they begin to find the words that describe events that have only just come into focus. All you need to do is listen, explore and bring the person back into the now, today, with you in a safe place so that a new relationship can be created. This new way of being between you will not be like it was before and yet it just might be stronger, have new flexibility.

For both of you this new relationship could well be far more resilient.

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