Living “happily ever after” is every bride and groom’s dream. That dream can be dashed if there is unaddressed trauma from the past that may be affecting the relationship.
But if you’re having issues in your relationship, how do you know if unaddressed trauma is the root cause? (Learn more about the trauma treatment at FHE Health that have helped many people recover.) Many victims of trauma have learned to survive by masking or avoiding their emotional pain, rather than being direct and open about it so that it can be healed. This tendency can make it harder to know whether unaddressed trauma exists in a relationship.
First Understand What Trauma Is
In order to identify whether unaddressed trauma is hurting a relationship, it is first important to understand what trauma really is. Trauma can be understood as a deeply disturbing event (or events) in the past that has made a negative, long-term psychological impact on the person who experienced it. The psychological impact of trauma can manifest as:
- a distrust of others
- feelings of low self-worth
- difficulty with commitment
- negativity about the future
- and fears of abandonment
The psychological impact of trauma can be so significant because it activates a person’s biologically ingrained survival mechanisms. When a person is in danger, the natural physiological response is to fight, flee or freeze.
This “fight-flight-freeze” response can carry over to relationships if trauma is not addressed.
When trauma survivors since they may be in danger of getting hurt in relationships, rather than deal with problems in healthy ways, they may become more aggressive or defensive, run from the problem or do nothing about it. Trauma left untreated is like a cancer cell that grows over time that may eventually overtake and damage parts of an otherwise wonderful marriage.
Signs That Could Mean Unaddressed Trauma in a Relationship
If you and your fiancé are having relationship issues, here are some signs to look for that could suggest unaddressed trauma may be a factor:
1. Vacillating Decisions on Marriage
It’s normal to have cold feet before the wedding date. The idea of committing to one person for the rest of your life can be daunting for sure. Less normal is having “frozen” feet when the progression of a relationship is stagnated with multiple attempts to break off or threats to break off engagements. Similarly, “freezing” a relationship can be finding excuses to keep extending a wedding date beyond what is reasonable.
This “freeze” response happens for a variety of reasons. When people experience a traumatic event, their sense of trust—in their loved ones, the world, God or even in themselves—may break. The trauma victim may desperately want to feel safe in the arms of another person and want that person to never leave them, but conversely, the thought of depending upon another person also scares them to death. Unresolved trauma may give rise to long-term stagnation in a relationship, where one or both partners may become exhausted from the back-and-forth indecision and give up entirely on the relationship.
2. Excessive, Angry Arguments
Though not necessarily fun when it’s happening, arguing can be a sign of a healthy relationship. Arguments and fights can mean that one or both partners are invested enough in each other and the relationship to bring up their own needs/feelings and challenge each other’s perspectives, in order to create a more cohesive partnership. However, excessive arguing characterized by explosive anger that is out of proportion to the problem at hand can be a sign of unresolved trauma.
Worse than intense anger is when physical aggression or verbal abuse enters the fighting arena. Anger and/or aggression is the “fight” part of the “fight or flight” syndrome that gets triggered when there is a perceived feeling of their very life being at stake. Not only do they feel threatened, but they may mistake their partner as the abuser or the enemy in the heat of the moment. Without resolving this trauma, over time, arguments may increase over minor issues and problems linger without solutions or resolutions.
3. Substance Abuse and Addictions
If one or both partners are abusing substances or have become addicted to substances, gambling, shopping or other behaviors, there’s a good chance that unresolved trauma exists. Trauma can develop into a mental health disorder called PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). According to the National Center for PTSD, PTSD and substance abuse often occur together.
A study indicated 46 percent of people with PTSD also have a substance use disorder. Addiction is damaging to a relationship because it allows the addict to escape from being emotionally present in the relationship. Substance use can create mood swings and erratic behaviors that hurt healthy communication and trust-building. Substances can numb feelings and emotions, which are vital to a sense of marital connection.
4. Problems with Intimacy
Unaddressed trauma negatively affects the ability to be physically and emotionally intimate with another person. This is especially true if one partner has experienced the trauma of sexual abuse. The body stores up memories and associations of that traumatic experience so that touch can trigger this history of victimization, causing withdrawal, aversion and/or sensitivity. When these barriers to physical intimacy exist, they can affect important emotional feelings of validation, security and love.
5. Secrets and Lies
Untreated trauma can cause people to put their guard up, waiting for and expecting the next person to hurt or betray them just like before. The traumatized person will do whatever they can to keep themselves protected, even if that means lying and keeping secrets.
One red flag that can signal trauma is when a person does not go into depth or avoids questions about their family history or past relationships. They may keep their significant other away from their family or friends. They may become vague, lie or get defensive when their partner asks them where they are going or what they have been doing. Openness and transparency in a relationship build trust where secrets and lies breed distrust.
Don’t let unresolved trauma put the dream of “happily ever after” at risk. There are many ways to help resolve trauma. Healing can begin in a safe space where a couple can share their concerns about any signs that unaddressed trauma may be hurting their relationship. Since these signs are typically cries for help, love and support, addressing them is one of the best ways to ensure that an upcoming wedding and marriage are the happiest they can be.
Dr. Sachi Ananda, PhD, LMHC, MCAP directs a trauma-based treatment program for first responders, at the national behavioral health provider FHE Health.