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Trauma and Relationships

When someone survives a traumatic event, he or she may experience a range of emotional, physical or behavioral reactions. Unfortunately, the impact of trauma does not stop with the individual survivor. It often extends beyond that individual, taking a toll on important personal, family, and professional relationships. Because experiencing a trauma may cause considerable distress and confusion, a traumatized person may behave differently than usual with friends, family, or coworkers. The reasons why trauma survivors behavior differently around others are varied. The individual may withdraw from others because they do not want to be a burden to others, may feel guilt or shame for having been victim to the traumatic event or may be so overwhelmed, changed in their feelings and beliefs that they have difficulty relating to other people. No two individuals will respond to a traumatic event in exactly the same manner. However, some common relationship effects have been observed.

The range of traumatic experiences affecting relationships 

No matter what the traumatic event is—whether it is the sudden death of a loved one, airplane disaster, a hate crime, a rape or other violent assault, abuse as a child, war, or living as a refugee—it is natural for there to be effects of the trauma on important people in the survivor's life. Traumatic events include those that occur only once, such as a car accident or an isolated assault and those that continue over a period of time such as war, childhood abuse or domestic violence. Traumatic events also include events that are caused naturally, such as earthquakes and floods, and those that are caused intentionally, such as crimes and acts of terrorism. Some traumatic events happen to an individual person, such as an assault, whereas large-scale traumatic events such as acts of war or terrorism affect a community of people or even society as a whole. No matter what type of trauma an individual experienced, healing usually requires getting help from those around them in order cope with the consequence s of what happened and make sense of the confusion brought on by trauma. 

How trauma affects relationships 

Surviving a traumatic event may alter an individual's sense of safety and trust in ways that spill over into new or old relationships. Survivors may feel vulnerable and confused about who or what is safe. People who were rarely irritable in the past, may display anger outbursts and hostile behaviors due to increased sense of vulnerability and fear, both of which heightened after a trauma. Survivors may also find it difficult to trust others, even people they trusted in the past. It may feel frightening to get close to people for fear of being hurt again. Trauma survivors might also feel angry at their helplessness and sense of loss of control in their lives. They may become aggressive or demanding, or try to control others as a way of regaining control.

An individual's sense of who he or she is may also be affected. Trauma survivors may feel intense shame about what has happened or believe they are unlovable or bad in some way. They might feel guilty and become preoccupied and worry about what they thought they should or should not have /done during the traumatic event. Often trauma survivors feel alienated and isolated, "outside the mainstream" of people and activities the formerly felt part of. While at once feeling that no one can truly understand what happened to them, they might also believe that sharing their experiences will place a burden on close relationship. 

For some people, a natural coping reaction to the confusion, fear and disorientation produced by a trauma is to withdraw from friends, family and coworkers, or feel distant, disconnected, or detached from people. Often concerned loved ones read these reactions as personal indictments of their behaviors when the trauma survivor's intention has been protect their loved ones from their negative experiences and emotions. Other trauma survivors who become anxious or frightened may react by becoming more dependent and may experience other people as having more power in the relationship than they previously felt and may easily feel abandoned or rejected. Still others may become overprotective, and feel the need to stay close to family and friends in a way that is not perceived as necessary to significant others. 

Many trauma survivors feel emotionally numb and have trouble feeling or expressing happy emotions in a relationship. Physical intimacy and expressions of affection may be more difficult. Some survivors may find it difficult or impossible to have a fulfilling sexual relationship, particularly if the trauma has involved physical or sexual violence. Some trauma survivors experience several of these feelings and behaviors, which can be confusing or frightening to them and their loved ones, creating upheaval in communication and sense of connection for everyone involved.

When trauma occurs within relationships

If trauma has occurred within an intimate relationship such as with a spouse or long-term partner, it may be difficult to relate comfortably in close relationships. In these circumstances, trust has been betrayed, an intimate connection has been lost, and expected support is instead the source of danger. Consequently, some people develop a fear that others are not trustworthy and a belief that sharing one's feelings, beliefs or body is not safe. Developing closeness with non-abusive friends and family may be confusing, frightening, tentative, or avoided entirely. When there is abuse in an intimate relationship, seeking safety is the first step toward healing. No healing can take place when there is a potential for violence to erupt. 

When traumatic experiences occur early in childhood, such as when a trusted family member sexually abuses a child, the most basic aspects of trust and safety are violated. These violations affect that person's ability to expect caring, responsive, comforting relationships in adult life. Early childhood sexual abuse may also impair the individual's ability to calm themselves when they feel emotional distress. Memories and feelings of betrayal, loss, shame, secrecy, violation, and threatened physical harm may surface or become part of later relationships. For some people, after childhood abuse or neglect, their relationships may be characterized by a struggle to develop basic trust and create safe relationships. 

How long are relationships affected after traumatic experiences?

The range of traumatic reactions and their impact on close relationships may last several weeks or months for some people, as they gradually return to earlier ways of relating, and find their relationships can be supportive and safe. For others, it may take a longer time before they become more comfortable and feel safe in their relationships. And some people may find their relationships are deeply affected; they may be unable to relate comfortably with others or to establish or reestablish relationships with them. Many reasons exist for this, including the experience of traumatic events, the existence of previous trauma, current life circumstances, and coping styles of dealing with significant stress and loss. 

Therapy can help

Therapy is available to help with these difficult experiences, reduce isolation, and restore a sense of hope. It can be helpful to discuss traumatic experiences, feelings of grief, and relationship difficulties with a professional who is familiar with the complex effects of trauma. A therapist can offer a safe relationship for building trust and reestablishing a sense of security. The opportunity within that relationship to establish meaning, purpose, and hope can be a first step in developing or reestablishing relationships with others and with oneself, building a social network of support, and engaging more fully with life. Also, friends, families and partners to those who have experienced trauma may wish to consult a professional or obtain books concerning how to respond effectively to a traumatized person's reactions and how to manage their own feelings about the changes they see in the person about whom they care.

How to find help 

A family doctor, clergy person, health clinic, local mental health association, state psychiatric, psychological, or social work association, or health insurer may be helpful in providing a referral to a counselor or therapist with experience treating people affected by trauma. For more information about trauma or the International Society of Traumatic Stress Studies, call 847-480-9028.

With appreciation to Laurie Pearlman and Mindy Mechanic for their contributions in the creation and revision of this Fact Sheet.

© 2005 International Society For Traumatic Stress Studies. All rights reserved.

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