We know that all relationships take work, sometimes a lot of work. We also know that when the bad outweighs the good, then the relationship may not be worth the work it takes to keep it going.
But there’s one thing that seems to kill all relationships time and time again and it doesn’t have to - unresolved trauma.
Let me be clear, trauma itself is not necessarily the demise of relationships. It’s the unresolved trauma that doesn’t see the light of consciousness that kills relationships. It’s the stuff we don’t know or refuse to talk about that causes the tension, misunderstandings, temper tantrums, triggers, and over-reacting.
My wife and I both have unresolved trauma. Thankfully, we’re both aware of our personal triggers and where they come from. This is almost half the battle right there. Even so, if we hadn’t worked diligently and with strong commitment, these unresolved traumas could’ve taken us down.
But I’m not talking about romantic relationships only. Unresolved trauma can muck up friendships, family relationships, or business partnerships.
The worst part is when we have no idea at all why trauma makes our relationships go sour. That’s because unresolved trauma often gets blocked out by our psychological protection instincts. Some of us can go through our whole lives without even remembering a key traumatic event and why it changed the way we interact with anyone from then on.
On the other hand, what happens when we know we have triggers or traumatic memories that get activated in our relationships? This gets tricky because we know what’s happening, yet we often don’t know what to do about it.
It can feel like a giant tangled ball of yarn, and we can’t find the beginning of it to help us unravel the whole thing.
Unresolved trauma is the reason why I chose some bad partnerships in the past. It’s also why some of my relationships ended in heartbreaking ways. It continues to cause some disruption in all my current relationships.
But since working through my unresolved trauma, my relationships have all flourished. Most importantly, my health and wellbeing have become more stable and balanced.
Whether you’re conscious about trauma or not, below are some clues that it may be causing a lot of stress in your relationships:
- You have the same fights about the same dysfunctional interactions
- You hear repeated accounts of your dysfunctional communication patterns by different people
- There are similar things that people do in your relationships that make you angry, but you don’t know why
- You have repeated reactions that seem out of place or over the top
- Your relationships end or sour for similar reasons that you can’t figure out
When you read the list of trauma clues above, it seems like everyone has had experience with this, right?
That’s because we all have unresolved trauma. Some traumatic events may be more significant than others. Still, all of it can make navigating relationships feel like a constant minefield.
Unresolved trauma may never leave you, especially if it was extreme or went on for a long time. But it can absolutely be managed. Working on unresolved trauma not only saves our relationships but can bring us so much closer to each other in ways we never imagined.
Below are some simple “do’s” and “don’ts” when considering how to cope with unresolved trauma for yourself or those you’re in relationships with.
These are some guidelines to follow with any kind of trauma care. However, in relationships, each party needs to consider both their individual and collective parts.
Definitely do these things:
- Seek out trauma counseling for yourself. It may take a while to find the right fit, but it’s worth it.
- Find a way to stay present with your trauma triggers every day. If you don’t know about them, you can’t do anything. So commit to staying aware of when you’re triggered.
- Once you get to know your triggers, refrain from reacting out of them. Instead, go inward and figure out where it comes from and why. Commit to doing your own work without making others responsible.
- Communicate to the people you care about why certain things trigger you. This is only to let them know, so they can understand you. Tell them you’re working on things, so they don’t feel responsible for your triggers and reactions. If you need something from them, ask for what you need and be prepared to negotiate.
- Take ownership without berating yourself. Just own your triggers and reactions and resolve to learn how to cope and manage them over time. We sometimes hurt others with our unresolved trauma, but just owning it can make a world of difference.
Don’t do these things:
- Don’t gaslight yourself or others when trauma triggers come around. It’s tempting to use your own or other’s trauma to manipulate and control when things get heated. But this is horrible and abusive and will destroy relationships and self-respect. Don’t do it.
- Don’t sweep trauma under the carpet or refuse to look at it because it’s too hard. Our relationships matter and they deserve our time and attention. It’s tough to work on the twisted puzzle of our trauma. Still, it’s necessary if we want our relationships to succeed.
- Don’t expect quick-fixes. Unresolved trauma can take many years of hard work to manage, but it’s worth every second of your time and energy.
- Don’t expect that knowing your trauma triggers should solve everything. The next step is figuring out how not to react from that place. Don’t place this responsibility on anyone else but yourself.
- Don’t skip on the self-compassion. You won’t be able to resolve trauma without the love and concern you show yourself. Your life and relationships are essential to you, but first, you must give yourself the kind of care you wish to give others.
Unresolved trauma is the ultimate killer of many relationships, whether they’re romantic, family or friendships. It can be like cancer, which slowly eats away at trust, love, and mutual connection. One minute we’re having a good time with someone, and the next minute, we dissolve into over-reactions and anger on both sides.
However, these conflicts, as unpleasant as they may be, are excellent ways to get to know what’s really happening with us. Most of the time, each party is participating in the dysfunction of unresolved trauma because one person’s reaction triggers the other. But we can use this to help get to know ourselves better.
For example, maybe you get really triggered when your partner looks at his/her phone while you're talking. To anyone else, this would be an easy situation, either go do something else or ask the person to listen. But for you, perhaps it represents being unheard, unimportant, and not worth the time. Maybe you were neglected as a child and now anything that makes you feel ignored will trigger anger in you.
If you're not aware of this, you may get angry and start being manipulative and sharp with your partner. And maybe this will set off some trigger for him/her.
Instead of reacting and blowing up, you can start looking at why and how this trigger happened. This is why conflicts can actually be useful. They can point us in the right direction, but only if we’re committed to going there. If we refuse to do anything about it and we want to assign blame only, then the problem only lingers. However, if we understand that something isn’t right and we each need to look at ourselves, then we have a forward motion towards healing.
This is a simple example, but as we know, these situations can be a lot more heated. The good thing is that relationships are often the best thing to help us get to know our traumas better. This also makes them uncomfortable and hard at times.
So long as both people are willing to work on their unresolved trauma, then you each have a great beginning to a healthy relationship. However, if one or both are unwilling to work on unresolved trauma, then that may be why the relationship fails.
The fact remains — the more we work at this stuff, the less our traumas will be the killer of our relationships.