How may unresolved trauma affect my responses to my partner?

We all know what it's like to have our buttons pushed by our partner - s/he says something designed to get a reaction, I let it rip... If we're honest, we know just how to push our partner's buttons too when we feel so inclined. After all, we know them so well! 

Most of the time this is fairly harmless - part of what is normally an harmonious relationship. We may feel a little hurt or upset, but are able to let our partner know in a reasonably calm way and to accept their apology.

Unresolved hurts or traumas from the past can change this dynamic somehow. My partner is behaving badly, my buttons are pushed and suddenly I am so distressed I have no capacity to deal with the intensity of my reaction. It's like I'm thrust back in time, to another place where a parent's raised voice meant I was about to be hit, for example, or to some place where I feel terrified, frightened or abandoned.

I may understand when I'm calm that my past is affecting how I react to present situations. That's all well and good, but doesn't help me much next time my buttons are pushed. 

If you are someone who reacts in a way that you know is unreasonable and out of proportion to the situations you are responding to, you may need more help.

First it is always helpful to learn to stop, walk away and calm yourself down - make sure you don't respond from that distressed place to your partner. Distract yourself with calming activities during this time - otherwise your thoughts about what has happened will keep you in an agitated state. Only then is it possible to come back and talk calmly to your partner, to be assertive if necessary and tell them it wasn't OK to be disrespectful, or behave in a way that caused you distress.

If you have learned these techniques with a skilled therapist, but are still unable to utilize them when they are most needed, it's possible you may need more.

Therapists and counsellors who specialize in working with the aftermath of trauma, and have an understanding of how the brain processes these experiences, are equipped to take you through different techniques that work to uncouple your traumatic memories from things that are happening in the 'here and now'. Of course, if you are in a relationship with someone who is abusive or violent, no techniques are going to help manage to stay in that situation - neither should they!

If you think you may be in this situation, seek out a therapist who is trained in the use of these specific trauma therapies. One technique that has a strong evidence-base is called 'radical exposure tapping' - this is a form of assisted memory processing and reworking of traumatic events. This technique, when successful, will leave you perhaps still feeling fairly annoyed at your partner's choice to push your buttons, but able to deal with it in a relaxed and effective way.

To find out more about Radical Exposure Tapping, follow this link -


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