Jessica* can’t sleep. She lies awake at night staring at the walls, a thousand thoughts rushing through her head. Work is good, but stressful. She does remarkably well for someone living on four hours sleep. But it’s not her job that keeps her awake.
“Why did I do that?” The thoughts tumble around and around in her head. She has been in a relationship with Michael for six months and it is going really well. He is patient, kind and good at his job. He’s a world apart from her ex. He doesn’t hit her, put her down or make fun of her. He’s just the opposite.
The problem is…she keeps loosing her tempter with him. It’s the dumb things that get to her. Sometimes he’s late coming home work. He doesn’t reply to her texts while he is working. He doesn’t fire back when she gets angry and that just makes her feel worse. She hates it when he goes out on his own, but she also wants him to have his own life and spend time with his friends. Tonight she’s pissed off about eggs. She just can’t get it out of her head.
¬ Karl Menninger
She knows it’s dumb, but they’ve been dating for six months surely by now he would know how she likes her eggs. He’s even made her breakfast before. Unless, perhaps, he doesn’t really care? Maybe he’s not that into her? Maybe he’s thinking of leaving her? She has a million endless thoughts, again and again. What does this mean?
“Should I break up with him? I couldn’t take it if he leaves me” she hears her own words falling from her mind like plates dropping on the kitchen floor. Each one makes her jump. “It would be easier to break up with him, at least then I could protect myself. Should I even be in a relationship?”
Jessica’s predicament is common. Many traumatised people, both men and women, feel that way that she does and don’ understand why. But even if you have been struggling with this for years or decades, it doesn’t have to stay this way.
Trauma is a big event in a person’s life. It effects both you and your relationships. Having good support or finding good support is the key component in coping well. Building positive relationships is an excellent way to improve your well-being and it’s worth putting the work into it.
Going through a trauma forces you to take a good look at your relationships. It gives you the motivation to improve them and help you to connect on an even deeper level than you thought possible.
The strengthening of your relationships is part of Posttraumtic Growth. That is, ways in which overcoming your trauma experience actually improves the quality of your life. Even when relationships are under pressure many people still find positive aspects about their relationship (Goff et al., 2006).
The proof is in the pudding and the success of your relationship depends on the quality of these vital ingredients:
Does you relationship have all of these ingredients? What’s the quality of the ingredients like? It’s there anything stopping you from doing a ‘relationship health check’ with your partner?
The trauma can be acting an invisible ‘third wheel’ in your relationship, even if neither of you are aware of it (Henry, 2010). This makes sense when you consider how trauma effects you and how you interact with others.
Most traumatized people have difficulty regulating their emotions (Johnson, 1998). When you’ve had traumatic thing happen your mind and your body keep you on high alert to help you prevent the same thing happening again. You might have noticed that you’re sensitive to stress and insecurity and sometimes react in dramatic ways.
It’s also likely that your sleep deprived and running on ‘nervous energy’. Feeling exhausted reduces ability to cope with emotionally charged situations. You may get angry or sad about things that you don’t really care about. If you find yourself wondering ‘why do I react this way?’ it is likely due to the effects of the trauma.
After being traumatised we come to value safety above all else but we sometimes use unhelpful methods to do this. If you were trauatised by another person you might believe that ‘other people are dangerous’ (Janoff-Bulman, 2010). You may even believe that ‘the world is dangerous place’. At the same time, you also know that relationships can be a source of comfort and safety. So you both desire intimacy and connection and fear it at the same time.
You might find yourself doing the following:
—feeling distant, defensive, and untrusting towards your partner (Jonson & Williams-Keeler, 1998)
—testing the relationship to see if your partner can be trusted
—Being unclear about your roles in the relationship (e.g. comforter, carer, provider, supporter, role reversals)
—Being unclear about what it is reasonable to expect from your partner
—pursuit and withdrawal patterns when arguing
—attempts to alleviate anxiety by using power, control and anger
—avoidance of difficult conversations due to fear of being overwhelmed or fear of the relationship breaking down
—difficulty with emotional and sexual intimacy
Partners of traumatised people often have the same levels of stress and insecurity about the relationship as their partner (Nelson & Wampler, 2000). This is known secondary traumtization. Your partner may also experience many of the same symptoms that you do and feel stressed, isolated, and uneasy about sexual intimacy. This is partly because your partner empathises with what has happened to you and feels as though it also happened to them (Henry et al., 2010).
The good news is that this ‘third wheel’-the effects of the trauma-are a common enemy for both of you. It is not your fault! It’s not your partner’s fault either! Being able recognise that both your emotional reactions and the relationship dynamics are due to the trauma is very powerful. It gives you both clear goals of what you need to work on without the need for blaming each other. It is a reason for you to both work together to reduce the impact of trauma on your relationship.
It is unfortunate that some people experience multiple traumas. Sometimes this is just bad luck and the traumas aren’t really connected. For other people the environment they live in increases their risks of taumtisation.
For example, some people have ongoing contact with perpetrators of violence, other’s just live in neighbourhoods with high rates of crime. If this is true for you, the best thing you can do is remove yourself from this environment.
This can be difficult and can take months to do. Establishing physical and emotional safety for yourself and your loved ones is always the number priority. You will need to stop the source of the traumatisation before you can heal from it.
What works is establishing physical safety; gathering supports; working on your own mental and physical health. You can do this by connecting with family and friends, living a healthy lifestyle, exercising, and making a collaborative goal with your partner to dismantle the effect of trauma on your relationship. The right therapist can help you to make all of these changes but the change comes from you. You can think of your therapist as being a coach, healer and mentor. That will help you to heal from painful memories of the past, support you to make changes in your life, and bring out the best in you. It’s a little like the relationship between athlete and their support team. The support team helps to create the best optimal circumstance but it’s athlete who makes the changes.
If we fast-forward Jessica’s story six months, things have improved a great deal. Jessica has already established a safe environment for herself and this has laid the ground work to improve her relationship. She after doing therapy sessions for two months she has a better understanding of why she reacts the way she does and has learnt emotion regulation strategies that help self-sooth when she is feeling distress. She understands her anger and can tell the difference between being angry about memories from the past and angry about what’s happening now.
She picked a good time to have a really honest conversation with Michael about what she is coping with and they agreed to keep having these talks each Sunday afternoon. It is a time that they are both relaxed and have the time to work through any stressful topic that come up. They no longer argue during the week and find that they actually look forward to spending time together.
How is Jessica able to accomplish this? To start with, she has found someone that treated her with kindness and respect. Although she gets anxious about the relationship, Michael has never mistreated her. She is also back in touch in with friends that she hadn’t seen for a long time and has found that many of them have had similar experiences to her.
She is seeing a therapist that she feels comfortable with and spokes openly and honestly during the therapy sessions. She practices the emotion regulation skills she learnt each and every day. Over time they are becoming more natural and simply a normal part of her routine. She goes to the gym three times a week, one yoga class, one pilates class, and one boxing class. If she misses a class she doesn’t get discouraged but does some exercise at home instead.
She is able to sleep through most nights and uses her weekends to catch up on some rest and visit one or two friends. This hasn’t made her trauma symptoms go away, but they are much, much easier to deal with and don’t last as long.
This gentler way of interacting with Michael has made easier for him to be less defensive and together they problem solve how they can both have their needs met. This hasn’t solved all of their problems but it has built up trust between them. They work on their problems together rather than trying to find ways to change each other.
Jessica spent some time with her therapist looking at how many of her extreme reactions to Michael were attempts to keep herself safe or have her needs meet. She is now able to recognise what her needs are picks the right way to ask Micheal to help her meet these needs.
There is a very high standard of psychological therapy in Australia and all psychologist must adhere to professional standards of competence and conduct. What you are looking for is simply a good fit. Finding a therapist with experience in what you are working on is a good start but it is more important that you find someone who you are comfortable with. Having a male or female therapist comes down to personal preference but does not have an effect of therapy outcomes (Zlotnic, 1998).
If you don’t feel comfortable with the first therapist you see, that’s ok, try someone else. Chances are the next therapist will be a better fit. Most therapists understand how important having a fit is and won’t be offended if you make a change. I don’t offer couples therapy but work intensely with trauma survivors to help you improve all of your relationships.
At my own practice I provide brief introductory videos so that you can get a bit of feel for what I am like. I am also happy to have a brief chat on the phone before you book an appointment. I love doing therapy and would like to have the opportunity to be able to help you. Give me a call and get started today.
The future looks bright for Jessica and Michael. Engaging in therapy has given them clear goals that they can work on both individually, and as a couple. They can see the effects of the trauma for what they are and working on this together has reminded them how much they really do care for each other.
Jessica is aiming for the long-term, with no single solution but a collection of many changes that all help. She will continue to make changes to health and well-being, thought’s, memories, communication, and relationships. But it’s not all hard work. Improving your relationships can also be a lot of fun and reaps many rewards but now and for years to come.
Darius is a published author and registered psychologist in private practice. He holds a Masters Degree in Clinical Psychology and has worked as a trainer and adjunct lecturer in psychology and counselling. When he isn’t conducting or researching therapy he enjoys going on outdoor adventures with friends and abseiling off cliffs.